UART Tip #51: “What I Do When a Painting Isn’t Working” with Lee McVey

At times paintings progress effortlessly from start to finish. However, that painting ease does not always happen, so what do I do? The easiest thing to do is put the painting aside and never return to it. But sometimes, that feels like giving up. With the painting shown in this article, I wasn’t ready to give up.

This is the reference photo for the pastel painting I started over a year ago. The scene is north of Abiquiu, New Mexico on what I call Monastery Road because Christ in the Desert Monastery is at the end of the road. The views along this road are among my favorites to paint either plein air or from photos in my studio.

Initially, I thought the painting was finished and it hung on my studio wall to assess it. However, life circumstances soon interrupted and kept me from painting for several months. When I was able to return to painting, I could see this painting was not satisfying me. Something was wrong but I couldn’t see right away what that was.

When this happens, I ask myself questions in order to find out why the painting isn’t working. What was it about the scene that attracted me? The answer must be more than “I liked it.” Did I lose sight of what attracted me or is it still clear? Is it a compositional problem? Does the eye move around the painting, or does it get stuck some place? Are the values a problem?

Moving the eye from the foreground to the mid-ground trees and then back to the cliffs that make this part of New Mexico called O’Keeffe Country is what attracted me. (Georgia O’Keeffe had lived nearby in Abiquiu and on Ghost Ranch.)

This is where my painting was when I returned to assess it. I tend to be very literal and paint what I see in the landscape. This is fine if I am painting plein air and want to record the scene as accurately as I can to use as a reference for a studio painting. But in the studio, I need to remember I am creating a painting and I can leave things out or re-arrange them. When the painting is finished, it won’t be next to the landscape that inspired it, so a literal depiction of the scene is not important. What is important is a painting with a good composition.

When I asked if the eye moves around the painting or gets stuck somewhere, I could immediately see there was a problem. The foreground prevented my eye entering the painting. Once I saw this, I started reworking the painting, but it didn’t turn out to be a quick fix. I made several changes before becoming satisfied with the painting.

I started changing the foreground by opening up the spaces between the little bushes. I still wasn’t satisfied. Some artists do all their compositional planning in thumbnail sketches. For me, I find small sketches are not helpful because what looks fine to me in a sketch does not look fine in the full-size painting. I’d rather go through these incremental improvements.

With more looking, I felt I still could make more improvements to the painting. One of the reasons I think UART is such a great pastel paper is I can brush pastel off and put more and more pastel layers on. The tooth of the paper still grabs the pastel.

I thought I needed to make the path of the eye movement clearer. My intent is the eye enters at the bottom left with the road. Then the bare dirt patches lead to the left to the mid-ground trees, up the hillside dotted with junipers, across to the right side of the cliffs and up to the clouds, then back down on the left by way of the triangular hill just in front of the distant hills.

I decided to open the road more to better lead the eye into the painting. I added erosion ruts to pull the eye back and I made the dirt near the old road travel over to the left to lead the eye to the mid-ground trees. I also added more highlights to the mid-ground trees and reduced the number of little bushes to simplify the foreground.

With even more looking at my painting, I decided the little bush at the beginning of the area where the dirt leads to the left was too big and too dark. This seemed to hinder the eye movement to the left.

I’m happier with this painting now. In general, however, if the painting still does not please me even after making changes according to the questions I ask, then I abandon it and put it away, perhaps to later destroy it. There should be no shame in letting a painting go unresolved and abandoned. As one of my instructors, T M Nicholas, told me years ago (paraphrased) you have to paint 100 paintings to get 4 really good, wow paintings.

“On Monastery Road”, 16 x 12” pastel on UART 400 grit sanded paper mounted onto museum board. Mostly Terry Ludwig pastels used.

Lee McVey

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