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Blasting Through the Creative Block

Sunday, December 21, 2008

We're not done with Guyana, not by a long shot. But I need a little break, because I've fallen behind thanks to the Christmas madness. So the next three posts are about painting.

I'll tell you a secret. Since I've started blogging, since photography and daily exercise of my writing muscles have taken increasing prominence in my creative life, I haven't painted very much. In fact, I've probably painted less in the last two years than at any time of my life. Complaining? Nope. Just pointing it out. I'm happy with what I am; my creative output is as high as ever; it's just in a different form than before. I'm thinking more in terms of commentaries and essays and photos than in drawings and paintings these days.

Having admitted that to myself, accepted it, and found no shame in it, I still love to paint. It's just harder to work up to it. I'm sure you creative souls out there know exactly what I'm saying. You think, "Well, today I'll start that painting." (Substitute whatever significant creative endeavor you wish for the word "painting.") And then you look, and the orchids all need to be repotted. Or the studio's a mess, and you can't work in a mess like that. Or you need to vanquish a huge clothes monster lurking behind the bedroom door. Or...whatever you can come up with. I've used all those excuses and more.

What's behind that avoidance behavior, at least on my part, is fear. Fear that I have lost it. Fear that I'll climb on the creative bicycle and have a horrible wreck, a tangle of rubber and metal. Mistrust of myself, my own power to make something however I want to make it. It's stupid, it's a huge waste of time, but it does tend to get the house cleaned and the trash gathered and the laundry baskets emptied. And it also gets me a blocked up soul.

So I put off starting this painting for weeks, until it got close to when it was due (early December). It's a commission, a secret Christmas present for a Florida fan of Letters from Eden who also happens to be a photographer, commissioned by her fiancee. One of the nice things about painting on commission is that you meet the nicest guys, who want to surprise their girlfriends or wives with something you've painted just for them.

By the way, he couldn't wait until Christmas to give it to her, so I'm not spoiling anything here.

Commissions get me off my creative duff. I had no more excuses. So let's paint a wood stork in the rain, shall we?
This was a private commission with very specific parameters. The commissioning party wanted a painting of a wood stork in the rain. Nice subject, moody; maybe a bit challenging. I had to make sure my raindrop spatters were convincing, and aligned right for the plane of the water, yet pleasingly random. I relied heavily on a photo by the surprise giftee of rain spatters on water for that, and transferred each little set of rings to the watercolor paper in pencil.

I wanted the bird to enhance the mood of solitary reflection, maybe tinged with loneliness. I wanted it to be at rest, yet alert, on the verge of changing position. So I puffed out its neck feathers as if it had been sleeping awhile, but raised one foot as if it were about to take a step and break that solitude. There was another reason I wanted to show a foot, which should be obvious in the first image in this post.
I cut the shape of the stork, which is white, out of masking film, and sealed the edges with liquid masking compound (I use Incredible White masking compound, a rubber cement-like liquid that dries to a tan rubbery finish). This would allow me to paint a nice runny wash over the whole page without worrying about going around the bird's shape.

While I was at it, I painted some of the ripples on in masking liquid, because they would be lighter than the dark ground of the water.

And remembered that I had forgotten to stretch the sheet of watercolor paper before starting my work. These things happen when you haven't painted for two months. So I sprayed the back of the sheet with water, laid it on a piece of particle board, and taped it down. It warped and bent and then as it dried it stretched taut, and was ready for my washes.After all that prep, the fun part finally arrived. I sprayed the sheet down with water and laid in a nice juicy wash of cobalt blue and burnt umber, with a touch of German raw umber to give it an earthy cast. Now you can see how the masked ripples jump out. I masked the ripples only where the water was going to be dark. It was a little tricky figuring out how to do this, and I had to think about it for about a month before jumping in on it. At least that's what I told myself as I wiped counters and emptied trash.Couldn't resist sprinkling a little salt in the darker parts. Salt is hydrophilic, and it attracts water and repels pigment, resulting in little white sparkles wherever the grains fell.

In light colored water, the ripples appear as dark lines. In dark colored water, the ripples are pale lines. I had to figure out how to transition between the two zones of the painting, and make the whole thing believable.  Ninety percent of watercolor painting, at least for me, is in thinking it all out. I like to plan it, and figure out exactly what I'm going to do before touching brush to paper. You have to plan watercolor because you have to leave the white parts, either by masking them, as I've done, or by painting around them. You don't have the option, as you do in oil or acrylic, of painting a dark ground and then painting white areas on top of that dark ground. In watercolor, you paint from light to dark.

When all this dried, it was time to paint those ripple lines. After that, I'd peel the masking film off the stork shape and get going on the bird. Dessert!


Great water effects! Thanks for sharing your creative process in such detail.

I can imagine with your frenetic life, and especially with so many things that bring near immediate feedback, painting, by comparison, must now be somewhat dull and slow (even if also meditative and pleasurable).
Anyway, Wood Stork... nice subject! favorite posts -- Painting!

I love to watch the paper buckle and then settle down when dry.

Beautiful painting. I love the moody contrast and that wonderful moving foot.

I appreciate you sharing your journey. It's a universal fear. I tell myself I don't have time, there's too much clutter, this other thing has to be done first. And when it gets right down to it, its the out-of-practice doubt.

The one thing I love about it though, when the painting is done and all the effort works, it feels like the universe just handed me a surprise!

I don't know a thing about art, be it watercolors, oils, or what have you, but I love watching you "build" a painting and "listening" to your explanations.

PS: I know why you wanted the foot to show. It is the only spot of color in an otherwise B&W world, no?


Glad you got over your block, and found time to paint, Julie. Your stork and the water effects are great. You needn't have worried about your mad skillz.

They're still there, in spades!

I had a block for about 6 months after my mother died, and my instructor said just paint through it. Easier said than done. And the laundry and the litter box changing, and the cooking and cleaning still have to get done, too.

What weight paper do you use? 140 or 300? I've never stretched my paper, I've been meaning to try it, though. I use 140 lb hot or cold press..and if I get the curlies I just dampen the back of the painting with a sponge and weight it down with books, or whatever's handy.

Keep on keepin' on, Julie. You're doing just fine. April

PS. What you said about having to plan out the painting...I have to write each step down....paint this first, mask that's a challenge!

and what you said about fear. The white paper is mighty big and fierce, LOL!

When I first looked at the finished painting I thought it was a photo. Well done Julie.

Thanks for sharing some of what goes into a great painting.

You haven't lost it. It's always there, you know. In the back of your mind while folding the whites and hanging trousers...

It's gorgeous and I love your process, although I don't understand much of it :o) Just loverly.

When in elementary school, I won art awards and even had them displayed in the public library. But when Sister Marie asked me create a watercolor mural above her chalkboard, I got it. THE BLOCK. I'll never forget my apology...


Thanks, everyone, for the nice words. April, my favorite paper lately is 140 lb. coldpress Winsor Newton. I always stretch my paper, using white paper tape (the kind you have to spray down to make sticky). I spray the back of the paper pretty heavily, until the water drips off it, then lay it on a piece of Masonite and use the white tape around the edges. Once it's dry I use white sticky Artist's tape around the inside edge to give a clean outside line.

I often use a blowdryer to speed up the buckling and drying,but only BEFORE the masking goes on--heat does weird things to masking compound, like it makes it stick until eternity. You don't want to put a masked painting out in the sun to speed drying, either. The idea is to get that masking compound off the second you're done with it. The longer you leave it on, the greater chance you have of having it bond with the paper and wreck your effect.

Hey Julie,

Very nice! I really like the way you set the mood.

I think you have still got "it"--not to worry.
I suspect that what happens--with writing moving to the forefront in your creative brain--is that you are hyper-aware of things you can write about. So, you see something, experience something and you have the "that'll blog" reaction. That may diminish your eye being attuned to the paintable scene.
However, when you experience the paintable scene--along with a little nudge (i.e. a commission) it all comes back.
I write poetry--occasionally. Every Lent season, I take a couple of pages in our church's booklet, and MAKE myself write some devotional poems. It is amazing how quickly the creative juices can get flowing when I make them.

Wow Julie. Doesn't sound like you've forgotten anything to me! It's so very beautiful, and I think you captured exactly what you set out to.

This was very interesting. I have always said if I can back in another life and could chose my talents, I would be a painter and a ballerina! I think no matter what our medium, we all tend to put things off out of the fear that you described. It is when we allow ourselves to work and make mistakes that we get the greatest freedom, but that is hard to do.

This painting is gorgeous, brilliant, WOW! The woman who is going to hang this in her home will cherish it forever.

As a now-struggling songwriter, I know how you feel. It's been a much longer drought for me, but I keep hoping I'll get back into it.

BTW--you've still got it, Zick!

Funny that you post this now. I just started another reading of "The Artist's Way" by Julia Cameron now that I'm ready for another wave of creative release.

Beautiful work.

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