One thing that I did not anticipate learning was one of the most important lessons.
Matt Smith was painting a demo of the Grand Teton Mountains in Wyoming. The afternoon light was perfect. The Tetons loomed larger than life as the Snake River carved a gentle bend in the foreground.
I watched as Matt divided up his canvas into major shapes and values. As if by magic, the painting began to take shape as he worked the forms, edges, colors, values, drawing, etc. We students were in awe. Drool was pooling beneath our feet. The painting was simply magnificent; even majestic. It was even delicious.
At least I thought so.
The following day, someone asked about that demo. Matt said that he wiped it off. We were all aghast! How could he destroy something that seemed to be so perfect? To me, it was a wonderful work of art – and the other students seemed to agree.
Yet to Matt Smith, it represented less than what he was capable of. He knew he could paint better. The painting wasn’t up to his standards he set for himself; standards which continued to inch higher year after year. So, that painting will now live only in memory, thanks to the handy paper towel and a bit of thinner.
He explained that when he first started out painting, a huge percentage of his paintings were ‘wipers’. He didn’t want mediocre work out there. He continued to wipe off anything that he wasn’t completely excited about. (This practice also saved him money as he was able to reuse the canvas panels.)
This was a great lesson to me. The reason he had reached such a high level of recognition was because he was willing to accept the fact that not everything was a winner. He wiped them off and started over. He learned from each failure. He could have easily sold that painting of the Tetons to someone. There were a few students who bought some of his demo paintings, and I am sure that painting would have sold as well. But rather than making a quick buck, he had maintained his integrity. He simply wouldn’t sell anything that wasn’t his best work. It is no wonder that he is a highly sought after artist whose prices continue to climb.
Another artist friend of mine shared a similar story about Jim Wilcox. My friend had taken a workshop from Jim and during one of his demos, he wiped the canvas clean – right there in front of all the students. He taught his students an important lesson. Sometimes you need to recognize when things aren’t working. Sometimes you need to be willing to wipe it off and start over. Recognize your failures and learn from them. Don’t be afraid to admit it when it isn’t working.
It has been said that John Singer Sargent would wipe an area repeatedly and repaint until he was satisfied with the results. I have read many articles and commentary by a number of other master artists, both living and dead, who would do the same things. It is hard for those of us who admire the works of these great artists to accept – let alone watch – a piece become scrapped. Yet, this very practice is what makes them masters. They self critique. They hold to the standards they set for themselves. They don’t settle for less.
On the other hand, there are many artists who send out everything that falls of the easel. I would venture to say that most of these less-exacting artists seldom reach that same level of demand and reputation.
I find myself somewhere in the middle ground. I certainly have wiped plenty of canvases. But I have also exhibited many that never should have left my studio. I am getting better at it, though.
Is this an innate or learned trait? I think there is a bit of both. Just like anything else to do with art, there is something that comes from within, but there is also a lot of development through hard work. It is becoming easier for me to recognize when I need to throw in the (paper) towel on a certain painting. I am continually raising my standards and am better able to recognize my limitations and failures.
How about you? Where do you fit in? Remember, it is okay to paint a ‘wiper’, but are you in denial? Or do you accept it for what it is, wipe it clean, learn from the experience, and then move on? The more you demand from yourself, the larger the strides you will take forward.