Going Through a Phase: a painting process

posted in: All, Art Lessons, Work in Progress | 8

“A work of art is the trace of a magnificent struggle” -Robert Henri


Phase one: the honeymoon

The blank canvas. Empty. Stark. Daunting. It’s got a bad reputation, but honestly, we’re good. I show it who’s boss with a single stroke of Egyptian violet.

My brush sambas across the surface, loaded with loose and drippy paint, laying down the composition with abandon. I block in major shapes, making sure they’re comfortably situated, happy with each other. Lines form a map, establishing the underpainting. No fear, no possibility of mistake. None of these early marks will remain once the work is finished. It’s pure exploration and all elements remain in flux, moveable.


Phase two: problem solving

With a sense of urgency, I lay in base colors, cover up the raw canvas establishing sky, ground, figure, etc. The brushwork stays loose, inaccurate. There is danger in getting it “right” too soon. I want a good excuse to build up the surface, revise, edit.

The middle phase requires the greatest amount of faith. The honeymoon is over and the relationship gets complicated. Colors muddy, structure comes and goes, lines and edges waver. The image remains in the dark for hours, or days.  With oil paint, the light tones come last, buttery mixtures riding on top of silky darks where they appear all the more brilliant because of their shadowy neighbors. But it takes discipline to hold back until the time is right.


I work with abandon for a while, then slow down, step back, assessing the progress. And the problems. Working yourself out of a jam is an opportunity for something wonderful to happen.


Phase three: finishing

“Can I be done now?”

This is my least favorite part, an explanation for the the sixteen unfinished pieces laying around my studio. Towards the end, creativity begins shutting down in favor of fine tuning, fixing small elements, and trying not to screw up what you’ve already done. I am restricted to the smallest brushes and a kind of tunnel vision.

Ideally, I would be willing to risk it all right up until the end. But that’s pretty much impossible.



8 Responses

  1. mary

    Amy, your description of the process is awesome, and I have experienced similar feelings. You and your work is something spectacular!!! ……….in all phases!

  2. Gigi Godfrey

    OMG Amy, this is such a PERFECT example of taking on the painting project. I love the “can i be done now” part. You articulate this with such ease, Thank You for sharing your brilliance.

  3. Tannis

    OK, now I’m getting hooked, pretty soon I’m going to be binge watching your blog posts Amy. After this show is complete it may be time to write your book!

  4. Jim

    I’m right there with you! For a moment, I thought you could equally have been describing the process of creative writing. But then I remembered the obvious difference: with writing, you can save a version of the work in progress, and work on the next step with creative abandon. If it doesn’t work out, go can always go back to the last checkpoint. But for you, with every brushstroke you risk “screwing up what you’ve already done”! But there is the plus side, for as you say: “Working yourself out of a jam is an opportunity for something wonderful to happen.” May your jams turn to gold!

  5. Leslie Lutz

    It’s so cool to see your process. I experience a similar set of emotions when I’m drafting a piece of writing.

  6. simonetta

    what a wonderful description, beautifully written as usual, and again, applicable to most artistic work…. my writing for sure!!! and i absolutely love the relationship similitudes, ahahah! after all…producing art is always a love affair, with its ecstasy and drama…. the push for more, the fear of jumbling things up… love it. thank you so very much for letting us into your world

  7. Steven Weinberg

    When reading your description of process, I appreciate the clarity of your writing. I am thinking about how writing is and isn’t analogous. I know that I can think a writing is completed, only to discover a few hours later or the next day how much remains to develop and revise. Thanks for your fine verbal explanations.

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