Failure by Design

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Failure by Design

Created a painting which I knew would be pretty poor, but it was a way back into rediscovering forgotten techniques.

When I can get a decent photograph of it, I'll show it; but you are not to think, getting my excuses in early, that I ever thought it would really work. It might have, of course - can't paint badly deliberately, or well, deliberately. But I thought it likely not to be a chef d'ouevre of mine: so why do it, and persist? Glad you asked. Since November 2018, I took on a job I'd last done some 30 years ago, as Secretary and Election Agent of a political party. It was immensely time-consuming, and, given I'm no youth any more, exhausting. So I painted very little for over a year. In that time, try though you might, basic skills get lost - either one forgets them, or somehow the paint just doesn't seem to behave like it used to (which is probably exactly the same thing). So - I had a rather whimsical sketch (of myself, as it happens, perched on a bench overlooking the Niton Undercliff, with the hat and stick I usually have about me). I didn't think it would make a good oil painting, but I transferred it to a canvas board, had a brief play, thought no: this composition isn't strong enough. About to wipe it off, I reflected on my moribund skills, and decided that I would bring it to a conclusion, throwing every damn' technique at my disposal at it; now - that doesn't work. You don't want to throw everything at a painting - not all your colours, all your ideas, your whole repertoire of brush-strokes. If you do, the picture is very likely, especially if the composition is a touch weak, to be overdone, over-fiddled-with, confusing and unsatisfactory to the eye. But this was an exercise in resuscitation - not an aim to produce a very good painting (not that I'd have minded one little bit if I had turned into one). And so there it is - it is indeed horribly over-worked, it contains techniques I long ago rejected as fiddly, unnecessary, tricksy ..... well, one could run on. But - it hasn't half done me good; I'm not sure that I'd recommend it to anyone else, but then again, perhaps I would - a try-out; a play with techniques (particularly brush-work) and effects. Seeing what I can do with far smaller brushes than I normally use; emphasizing detail (though it's far from being photo-realistic). There's just too much in it for the theme to justify the effort - but I'm very glad I did it, because I feel I can move on from here now; I have re-awakened those brush and colour-mixing skills I feared I'd lost through twelve months of disuse. Looking at it now, it's the sort of thing you could spend years working on (if you were mad enough). Alla prima it ain't! Useful for me though it was, it might be a useful warning to others: just because you CAN do something in oil, it doesn't mean you should; the world stands in no great need of more laboured figurative oil paintings. But now and then - it's useful, and oddly, rather fun, to paint a really fussy, fiddly painting - the Victorian Sunday painters very often did..... and I think I now understand those who paint as therapy: it's the act, the recitation of one's skills, that matters far more than the end result. Perhaps this explains Sir Edward Burne-Jones, because I fear I've seen nothing else that does....


Many of these ‘old master’ techniques are difficult to grasp for many, not to mention time consuming. I can do them, well most anyway, but it’s not how I want to paint. You need a certain degree of skill but also lots of time and not hurry these techniques, I’ve got some skill, but I’m fairly impatient, although I am taking more time over my work lately. Anyway, let’s see this masterpiece and I can comment again.

It's a beautiful painting. You'd said it was overworked. I didn't see that.

Is this not the painting of you on a bench overlooking the sea, as posted on the forum recently, or am I totally confused?

Oh yes, I like to build up the suspense all right! I did put a very, very bad photo of it, at the stage it had then reached, on the Forum (under the self-portrait challenge, slightly mischievously) but it really was a rotten photo. I'll have another go.

Robert, how about posting it as a WIP or would you rather keep us in suspense!?

Well it’s a lot to digest, and as I suspected, it’s making my eyes blurred. I am on my iPhone mind you, I’ll read it again on a bigger screen tomorrow.

Robert, you're building up the suspense here. Come on reveal your work to us. I'm sure it's a masterpiece.

And blow me down dead, I'm still fiddling with it - found some stand oil I'd forgotten I had, thought, "I could glaze with that!", and - did. I'm wasting a lot of time on this, truth be told, but I have never worked this long on a picture, never fiddled with it to this extent (certainly not in oil), but this is, basically, what the old masters did (and I'm old, if not a master): it is SO interesting to do it - and as I'm using lead whites only, it dries more quickly, enabling more to be done. And I WILL post it, when I can bring myself to wrench it from the easel.

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