Lessons learned from 50 paintings in 50 days

Winter is rest time for most of our gardens, so we have more time to pursue other projects – reading, writing, planning for next year’s garden, sitting by the fire, sipping tea. One of my favorite ways to spend the extra time is by drawing and painting. Just after Thanksgiving, I began a journey through the book, Learn to paint in acrylics with 50 small paintings by Mark Daniel Nelson.

About 50 days later, I finished the book and the 50th painting. With some nudging by Mr. Endlessseeker, I finally hung them on my studio wall. These are not masterpieces, but when I look at each small painting, I remember a technique I learned or an obstacle I overcame to make the painting better. As I look at the whole body of work, I realize I learned a lot more than just how to paint with acrylics.

My 50 paintings…
  1. There is always more than meets the eye – In many of these paintings, as in all of life, there is much more than meets the eye. All of these paintings begin with a layer of primer on the canvas. Most of these paintings also have a layer of sketching and/or a background of color. Added on to that are layers of shapes, glazes, values, details. Each layer has some effect on the overall finished painting. Some of the layers are transparent, allowing the underpainting to show through. Some simply guide the painting of the shapes and details. But each layer is important to the impact of the final painting. Too often in life, we meet people or hear about someone and draw conclusions about them based on one look, one act, one story. The reality is that each of us is made of layers. People are complicated, shaped by genes, geography, family, education, media exposure, experiences, and more. We may not see all the layers. We may not understand what shaped someone else’s being, but we should be aware that everyone is created by their own unique set of circumstances, their own layers. Being tolerant, getting to know them better, looking closely to see the layers below the obvious may just change our impression of them, and help us all make the world a nicer place.
  2. Sometimes the process is more important than the product – As a means for learning how to paint with acrylics, I discovered that it didn’t matter to me so much how good the final paintings were as long as I was learning, practicing, getting better at the techniques. Each painting focused on a different technique, building on the ones before, and each painting gave me an opportunity to work more with the paints, the brushes, the mediums, the canvas. The process of mixing paints, thinning paints, experimenting with various brushes, and learning what worked and what didn’t was incredibly valuable. It didn’t matter that the final painting looked a little different from the one in the book. What mattered was that I developed a relationship with the materials that allowed me to create something I liked and build my confidence in the art. Whether it’s painting, exercising, running a business, or making a relationship work, the process matters. Being willing to try, to change, to adapt to the situation is what makes us successful.
  3. Consistency of practice builds skill – For many years – no, for my whole life – I have jumped from one project, hobby, job, you-name-it to another. Consistency is not my strength. I have too many interests and too much energy, and I love the challenge of being in a new situation and learning new things. When I first began learning to draw and paint, people kept telling me to draw the same thing for 30 days in a row or to stick with one medium for a few months or a year. I couldn’t do it. I dabbled in watercolors, acrylics, mixed media, pencil, charcoal, photography. I didn’t master any of them, and I often felt frustrated. After working with these acrylics consistently and exclusively for nearly two months, I feel confident I have mastered a few techniques and am now willing to work on my own designs with this medium. I’m no Dave Hockney or Andy Warhol, but I’ve got much more of a grasp on the medium now and am more willing to stick with it to create my own work.
  4. Painting is mindfulness in action – When I was working through this book of small paintings, I would go to my studio room, get out all my materials and begin working. In the process of painting, focusing on the paints, the mixing, the colors, the shapes, the laying down of layers of art, I was completely in the moment, present in the act of creating and learning, undistracted and unmoved by other thoughts or deeds. Each hour of painting was an hour of meditation, of mindfulness – as each moment of life should be.
  5. This collection is a study in values, of shadow and light – I sent a photo of the 50 paintings to my future daughter-in-law. Her response was, “It’s a study of values.” Until she said that, I hadn’t really looked at the whole body of work for any kind of pattern beyond the progression of complexity that I knew from working through the 50 paintings. After her comment I looked again and realized she was right. It is a study of values – of shadow and light. In art, value is how light or dark a color is. Those value differences make a painting feel balanced, give it contrast, shadows, highlights. It is often considered one of the most important aspects of art. It’s also important in life. We all feel light and shadow, cast light and shadow, and absorb light and shadow as we move through the world. In psychology and other circles, your shadow represents what you see in yourself, most often the darker side of yourself. Some people do “shadow work” around the Winter Solstice to clarify what they believe, what is important to them, what they should let go of in order to move forward during the coming year. We must acknowledge and honor our shadows to bring out our light. Painting light and shadow is a good reminder to do this work for ourselves, too.
This little painting is a favorite, not because it is a particularly exciting subject or well-done, but because it taught me about the value of value in art, and helped me understand how to achieve similar values with different colors.

What kind of projects have you been doing lately and what have you learned from them?

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