The title of this post comes from a quote by Edgar Degas. The exact quote is "Painting is easy when you don't know how but very difficult when you do". I found it when I was googling quotes by artists to see if any of them would jump out and me and give me ideas for content and this one definitely did.
On the surface, the very idea of it seems ridiculous. Why would something become more difficult the when you know how to do it then when you don't? Well, I'm sure with most things in life, they get easier the more you know about them, but art, as they say, is a different ball game.
When I was painting as a kid, I didn't know anything really about how a painting should look. I didn't even have a particular style in mind. So I was just painting for pure pleasure. I didn't care really, how it came out and that made it very easy. Now that I know more, though, I find myself judging my work more critically. I have higher expectations of myself and that's what makes art more difficult as a consequence of knowing more about how to do it.
The main expectation I put on myself is to produce my best work all the time. That makes doing the experimentation I know I need to do sometimes in order to grow very daunting. I broke through that anxiety in order to do my current piece, which, if you follow this blog, you know is an experiment to see what kind of results I can get by layering pink on top of green in the creation of skin. Now, I don't think my results came out great by any means. But you know what, I've realized the fact that I made a less than stellar painting doesn't really bother me. What I've learned from this is that I don't understand how to do the "underpainting" technique as well as I thought I did and I need to learn more about it before I attempt it again.
Part of the problem is that knowing more about a topic makes you more aware of what you don't know about that topic. A way that I like to deal with this uncertainty is to latch onto what I do know, what I am sure of, work on that, and for the time being, pretend the rest doesn't exist.
I did that in my current piece with the woman's hair. I knew ir had a dark ash brown base, so I just mixed some transparent burnt umber into gray made by mixing zinc white with ivory black and glazed this all over the hair, not worrying about other shades at the time. Because I'd thinned the paint out enough, though, the lighter values on the ends of her hair still showed through.
Also, if something about your piece is making you miserable, take a break from it. Don't quit it altogether, but put it aside. For example, I couldn't stand the thought of working on this woman's skin any more. That's why you I decided to work on things like her hair, features, and clothes.
To me, this quote seems very related to another quote by Salvadore Dali, which is something artists need to remember also and that's, "Have no fear of perfection. You'll never reach it." When we start thinking about reaching perfection, we can start to get that voice in our heads that tells us we can't paint and that's where this quote from Vincent Van Gogh comes in and that's "If you hear a voice within you say 'You cannot paint', then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced."
I explain more and talk a bit about what I'm doing on my painting in the video embedded below.
Painter of portraits and wildlife