Give up or keep working…your choice

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A question occasionally asked of me by art students is, “Do you ever create paintings you’re not happy with?” Voiced in slightly different ways with each individual, the implication is that “his paintings are all so fine…surely he never experiences the difficulties and frustrations we do.” It is believed that every stroke is made with confidence, sureness of concept, and excellence. Of course that’s not true. So, when demonstrating painting techniques, students experience a sense of relief when something being painted is wiped out and begun again.

Collectors have a similar idea, but with a twist. Since they’ve never painted, they often look upon an artist as naturally gifted, needing to exert little effort. That too is a false assumption. I’m thinking about these things…expressed in last week’s post, and now this one…because I’m experiencing a time of dissatisfaction with just about all my work. I know there’s something out there to be attained, but as yet I’ve been unable to discern exactly what “it” is and therefore frustrated in achieving “it”.

All that is said to say this: The two winter scenes shown here, created some time ago, remind me of such a time as this…when I fretted over them during all my waking hours until they were birthed and I could say, “Finished, I’m pleased with you.”

Many times areas were scraped down and repainted. At times, quitting was seriously considered…but then I had a deadline to meet. Sticking with it, figuring it out, resolving the unsuitable was really the only option. Looking back, I think these paintings took three times longer than they should have.

Many artists will suggest I should have junked them. In fact, just the other day I read an artist opine that we should never work on a painting unless totally enthused and with a sure knowledge of the next stroke; if we do, we will invariably ruin it.

I guess those days as a freelance illustrator are still with me…those times when a deadline loomed and an assignment was not going well. There was no choice; stick with it, figure it out and meet that deadline.

What is it that hinders the smooth, progressive creation of a painting? Apart from emotional issues (how we’re feeling on a particular day), the major hindrances can always be traced back to the same old principles: clarity of concept, composition, drawing, values, color, technique…and insufficient preliminary work. I think the solution to my current dilemma will be found there, I just need to continue the search. Even though times such as I’m experiencing now can be very difficult for an artist, and can result in an increasing lack of confidence, I do believe this too will pass. When? Now that’s the question.

Let me take you through the creation of these two winter scenes.

“Rural Winter” was pretty much created from imagination so I had to imagine how the scene would appear in winter. Imaginative works always seem to take longer to birth…at least for me. An area of great struggle with this painting was creating a convincing relationship of trees to sky. This area was probably repainted five or six times.

"Rural Winter" - 14" x 14" - Oil

“Rural Winter” – 14″ x 14″ – Oil


The photo below is actually the reference used for “Rural Winter”. Pretty ridiculous, I know. How can anyone expect to create a winter scene from a summer photograph? Well, I did. It all goes back to what was said above.

Photo reference for "Rural Winter"

Photo reference for “Rural Winter”

"Rural Winter" (Study) - 4.5" x 4.5" - Oil on paper

“Rural Winter” (Study) – 4.5″ x 4.5″ – Oil on paper

Raw Umber drawing and block-in

Raw Umber drawing and block-in

Color application before changes made. Sky was repainted and allowed to dry before trees were overlaid.

Color application before changes were made. Sky was repainted and allowed to dry before trees were overlaid.


I had good reference for “Only in Winter”, except for the background, tree in sunlight, and the mother pulling her son on the sled. My mistake here was not doing any preliminary work, so all the successes and failures were created right there on the canvas…put down and rubbed out until it was to my liking.

"Only in Winter" - 18" x 18" - Oil

“Only in Winter” – 18″ x 18″ – Oil


Indian Red, which I normally don’t use, was added to the palette. It’s a bluish red, opaque, and absolutely permanent. It’s not as intense as alizarin crimson, which I generally use, and therefore seems more appropriate for landscape painting, being more earthy and natural in appearance.

White, Ultramarine Blue, Indian Red, Cadmium Red, Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Yellow Light, Chromatic Black

White, Ultramarine Blue, Indian Red, Cadmium Red, Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Yellow Light, Chromatic Black

The major color and value mixtures found in the snow...from lightest light to  darkest dark

The major color and value mixtures found in the snow…from lightest light to darkest dark


I am asked by students, from time to time, “How do you paint trees? How do you paint skies? How do you paint water? How do you paint snow?” To sum up, the question is really, “How do you paint…things?” The young, untrained artist has a tendency to paint what they “know”…that is…skies are blue, trees are green, snow and clouds are white. Therefore, you might be surprised by the colors shown here, used to indicate snow; however, in the painting context they indeed become snow.

The difficulty for any painter is moving beyond the idea of painting “things”, and beginning to think in terms of creating accurate drawing, value and color. Drawing (perspective, proportion, and shape) is important because it gives the sense of scale and space to your subject on a two dimensional surface. Correct value is important because through the convincing use of light to dark shapes, and soft to hard edges, the artist can create a convincing atmosphere and mood. Finally, if the hue, intensity, and temperature of the color is accurate…wa-la…the trees, skies, water, and snow will all look perfectly convincing.

Ignore these important points and the work will always remain amateurish. That’s kind of how I feel right now about my work.

I generally ask artists that I have interviewed, “When you become discouraged and feel the well is dry, what do you do?” The answer is ALWAYS…Keep Working. That’s what you and I need to do. Don’t give up, keep searching, keep working. There are brighter days ahead.


John Pototschnik is an Art Renewal Center Associate Living Master
To view his art and bio, please click HERE



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