perfectionism, failure and art

As you will know if you’ve read some of my past posts, I am a becoming-artist; I have, this year, produced four pastel paintings, and am on my 5th. My 4th one, shown below, was an interesting journey into a reptilian world. I chose to paint an Eastern Water Dragon, a giant lizard that inhabits the east coast of Australia, and is semi-aquatic. When threatened, they will either scuttle up a tree, or submerge themselves in water, where they are specially adapted to stay for up to an hour.

They appeal to me because of their striking body shape and markings, and because they can freeze like a statue when they are on the alert. They live all along the river banks where I am, and they can become quite tame, and frequent people’s gardens.

water dragon

This painting was an experiment for me. My teacher, Andy Reimanis, suggested that I take a leaf out of the book of the great wildlife painter, Raymond Harris Ching, and fade the body of the animal into the background. I found it surprising that, for the first time since I started pastel painting, the details of the animal’s body were easy for me. What was hard was the background, and when it came to merging the two, the body and the background, I made many attempts at it; in the end, with Andy’s help, I achieved this painting. I’m not convinced it totally succeeds. I’ve sent the jpeg to friends and family, and some say they like the faded/blurred effect; others say they would like to see the whole body of the animal fully realised. I have decided this painting will stay as it is, but I may do another one, further down the line, when I’ve learned some more, and see what I can achieve.

Doing art is like doing life; it’s a succession of trials and errors. I am continually reworking what I have done, especially when it comes to backgrounds, where my under-developed visual imagination lets me down. I can’t visualise a scene until I’ve put something on paper, seen it doesn’t work, reworked it again and again, until finally I feel it has a life I can believe in. I guess it’s like writing. You have to create a world for your characters to live in, and that world is made up of detail, atmosphere, perspective, context (background, middle ground, foreground). All this is a world for your character(s), written or painted, to inhabit. They need a world to live in, it brings them to life.

Now I’m struggling with the background/foreground for a bassian thrush, which inhabits rainforest and schlerophyll woodlands. I won’t tell you the painful details. On Saturday, at pastel class, after 3 sessions, I thought I had a credible background; only for Andy to tell me it didn’t work, and challenge me to brush it all out and start again. The air was blue for a while, and I had to do some personal work on old feelings about wanting to be perfect, not being good enough, not being recognised, this morning; but I’m on track now, I think, and am starting to create a credible world for this beautiful creature. It deserves it.



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10 responses to “perfectionism, failure and art

  1. Congratulations Christina on this latest work. It is a valuable part of your journey. Even if you ultimately decide you would have preferred a different outcome, you learned much from the experiment. Paint on.

  2. That’s true! I may or may not decide in future that I can do it better. But for now, it’s good enough

  3. Lovely representation of a fascinating creature … I’m pretty sure it’s the Eastern Water Dragon that we see abounding at the National Botanical Gardens here. One time we were near a little pond and saw one, then two, then looked really closely and there were 5 or 6 in the vicinity. They are wonderful to look at. I don’t mind the fading out effect … it focuses us on the important part, the head! And, isn’t that what writing is about too? Getting to the important part!

    • Thank you! Yes, they are fascinating, full of character and what my painting teacher calls ‘attitude’. I’m glad you like the fading out, and yes, the tail, though important, is secondary to the head. And yes, there are so many parallels with writing. Focusing on what the inner mystery is, the answer to the question: what is the secret life of this book/picture?

  4. PS Is pastel a crayon tupe medium?

  5. they are a pigment combined with a binding agent to hold them together in a stick, but little enough binder to allow them to be smeared onto the board. We use cardboard which has been coated with a primer that roughens the surface, to hold the pigment. Even so, of course, it’s very fragile, and one of the frustrations of working with them is when you are trying to achieve fine detail, it’s so easy to smudge/lose it. But you can use pastel pencils, which are firmer, as well, for lines etc.And when it’s finished, we don’t spray them, as that changes the colour and texture, but handle them very carefully until they are framed.

  6. Elisabeth

    You’re an inspiration, Christina, as you go on your many journeys. Talk about nomadic through life, nomadic through art and nomadic through creativity. the way you link the writing life with that of an artist is also fascinating. Perfectionism can be a problem for us all. As distinct from striving to do our best. Thank you.

    • Thanks for reminding me of that word nomadic, Lis. Deleuze and Guattari are my signposts for that; they helped me to understand how life can be creative, nomadic, ever-becoming. And yes, there is a fine line between perfectionism and doing one’s best, in art, in writing, in life. Your life inspires me too, the way you have created art and transformation through your life experiences.

  7. He’s beautiful! I like the blurring of the distal body—makes the part that’s in forcus stand out more. It’s like a photograph with a narrow depth of field so the background is blurred—it draws the eye to the focus of the photo.
    You’re an incredibly talented artist!

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