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An Artist’s Tale

by Jean McGuire in Thoughts on Painting
Eternal Sunflowers, oil on canvas, 16 x 20 inches, ©2016, Jean McGuire

During the first year of my return to painting, I produced a piece that was absolutely amazing in my head, but the reality of what I painted was distinctly lacking in my opinion. The colors were interesting, but the image just didn’t look the way I wanted it to. My theory of how to deal with a painting I’m not happy with is to put it in a corner and let it, and me, think about it for a while. That is what I did with that piece.

Well, we both thought about it for over a year. Then, last summer when I had a booth at Volkerfest Art Fair, a young woman who admired my work asked me if I ever painted sunflowers. I told her no, not so far, but I would be willing to try. The woman was very flattering and said she knew she would purchase a painting if I would do a sunflower painting. I told her to message me on my website, and I would be happy to try painting sunflowers for her.

Not very surprisingly, I never heard from her again. In my experience, people at art fairs and exhibits become very excited in the moment, but if a sale isn’t made right then and there, they rarely reach back out, regardless of what they said in the moment. But her request stayed in my mind.

Not long after that, I was in my home studio and I noticed the old painting that had displeased me. It was still sitting in the corner and I didn’t like it any better than I had when it was first completed. I had pretty huge reservations about painting sunflowers since they really didn’t sing to me, but as I was looking at the painting I hadn’t liked, I decided I could re-use that same canvas and make an attempt at sunflowers. All I would be out was some time and paint.

I white-washed the old painting until I had a blank canvas in front of me. I went online and after quite a bit of looking, I found a photograph of sunflowers that I thought I could make interesting. The photograph only had two sunflowers in the foreground, but the background was pretty amazing. I decided that would be the photo that I would work from.

On the first day of working on this piece, I sketched out the flowers and painting the background. The sky was a blur of purples and yellows and I love the contrast of the complementary colors working together. That part went fast and I loved it. Okay, maybe I could do this. My confidence about this piece was rising.

Then I started on the foreground. No matter what colors I used and no matter how I tried shaping them, everything about the flowers looked awkward to me. In an effort to fill in the space, I started adding flowers, until finally I ended up with seven flowers in the painting.

Those extra flowers helped, but my overall opinion of this painting? I really, really don’t like it. I finally decided this canvas and I didn’t get along and it was time to let go and let it be.

Then, a couple of weeks ago my friend Julia asked me if I would be willing to contribute a piece to a raffle she was having for The Leukemia Society’s Team in Training. Of course I was willing. I love being able to use my work to support charities I believe in.

I picked out three paintings that I would be willing to donate and laid them out to take a picture of for her to choose from. Before I snapped the picture, I decided to grab the sunflower painting and throw it in with the others. Much to my surprise, Julia picked those damn sunflowers.

I threw the painting into a frame I had around and we met for lunch so I could hand off the piece. Julia is a very gifted artist who works with fused glass. As we ate, we discussed our work and our processes. During this conversation I told her how much I disliked the painting and that I was surprised she had picked it. Julia told me she liked it and thought it was something that would do well in the raffle. I had my doubts, but I was honestly glad to get that piece out of my world.

A few days after the raffle, I received the text below from Julia:

“I forgot to tell you. The woman who won your painting was thrilled. She kept putting in raffle tickets to make sure she was a winner. She said she had to have it because she has the perfect place in her living room.”

Go figure. I have frequently counseled other artists that a piece they don’t like may have merit to someone else. This conversation usually occurs when someone doesn’t like a piece they’ve completed but it looks absolutely beautiful to me. It’s good advice, but I tend to forget it when it comes to my own work.

You see, as an artist, you usually go into a project with a vision of what you want your finished piece to look like. As you work, you do everything in your power to try and make the piece in front of you match the vision you have in your head. When the piece is successful in your eyes, it’s a wonderful thing. When the piece doesn’t turn out the way you saw it in your head it becomes an irritant and it’s a challenge to find any beauty in it.

When other people look at these disappointing pieces, they are able to see it from a totally fresh perspective They are not burdened with your vision and they are able to see it as what it is, not what it was meant to be.

This phenomenon is not limited to works of art. A cook who is learning how to cook without following a recipe may produce a meal that didn’t turn out the way they intended, but it can still be a delicious meal. A new haircut can end up not looking anything like the picture you brought in to the stylist, but it can still be the most flattering cut of your life.

So, the next time you leave your comfort zone to try something creative, why not cut yourself a break? Why not let things happen without being quite so invested in the outcome? The end result may not be what you wanted, but it may be exactly the thing someone else was looking for.



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