Returning to Oil: Talent Has Its Limits

by Brenda W. Clough

 I had dinner with  my sister and brother this past weekend, and we were discussing (as one does) life. How do you know when you’ve ‘made it’? My sister said that she realized she had achieved it when, in a store, she knew that she could buy anything in it. My brother, as I recall, said that it was when he was in a restaurant and realized that he was no longer constrained by the prices on the menu. I said that what was important to me was to be able to acquire the necessary to make things. If I need that yarn, that $30 tube of cadmium red oil paint, I can afford it. (In our family there is only ever one creative person in each generation; I am that person for mine and I have a niece who is clearly the one for hers. My grandson is too young for us to tell if he’s the next generation’s creative; maybe when he hits kindergarten.)

As you can see, mine is far and away the most fatally dangerous of these philosophies. With this sort of thinking a yarn stash can be amassed that calls for rented storage units and U-Haul transport. Prudently I have channeled the main stream of my creativity into words, which cost nothing, take up no space, and are endlessly available. And this has been the correct decision for me, because I cannot make the paint do what I want it to do. Annoying! Look at the blue version of the Roman bridge up there. It is not right, and I can’t seem to make it right, generate versions as I will.

What the painting, what all art, ought to do is create the emotion. You should look at it (or read it or listen to it) and say, ah! I feel it, what the artist wants me to feel. She has communicated! Well, I can’t do that. I can achieve a mild technical competence, but I can’t make that leap into art. To achieve that I’d have to paint in oils for another twenty years, slowly fumbling towards greatness. I can paint it, but I can’t make it speak. I knew this when I was twenty, when I first laid this paint box aside — paint is not my true medium. And it is very possible that by now I no longer have the time to learn.

Well! At least I can see what this version needs. The ruin, too yellow. It’s going to be more gray. The blue, especially at the front, boring. I may layer in a round of my fatal nemesis, green. Clearly this would never have done with the reddish version, but blue and green are good friends, so it could be done. Do I have the values right? That river looks pale. As long as you can see things to fix, you aren’t done, eh?

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About Brenda Clough

Brenda W. Clough spent much of her childhood overseas, courtesy of the U.S. government. Her first fantasy novel, The Crystal Crown, was published by DAW in 1984. She has also written The Dragon of Mishbil (1985), The Realm Beneath (1986), and The Name of the Sun (1988). Her children’s novel, An Impossumble Summer (1992), is set in her own house in Virginia, where she lives in a cottage at the edge of a forest. Her novel How Like a God, available from BVC, was published by Tor Books in 1997, and a sequel, Doors of Death and Life, was published in May 2000. Her latest novels from Book View Cafe include Revise the World (2009) and Speak to Our Desires. Her novel A Most Dangerous Woman is being serialized by Serial Box. Her novel The River Twice is newly available from BVC.

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Returning to Oil: Talent Has Its Limits — 9 Comments

  1. You’re talking a lot about hues and colours, but that’s only part of why this picture doesn’t work quite yet. A good painting (or photograph) tells a story, and to tell a story it needs to be dynamic. In the painting above, the eye gets led from the right along to the river and stops dead at the arch, if it hasn’t just glommed onto the arch in the first place. That’s it.
    The original photo, because of the light, draws the eye along the front towards the arch, across the arch (you’re painting it more face-on and in a colour that stands out from the rest), and back towards the right. It’s not the strongest example, but it keeps you engaged with the picture for longer, lets you discover more.

    As a random example, https://digital-photography-school.com/improve-impact-urban-images-using-lines/ explains the principle quite well.

  2. Dare I say that I really think it needs more green?!

    To complement green_knight’s feedback, I’d add that it tends too much towards the monotone: there isn’t enough interplay between light and dark to really make the composition move, and pop. I think some of your other versions (the one in your “Loosening Up” post comes to mind) invoked more visual excitement and mystery.

    Keep going! As Russell Hoban always said, it’s not the end result that’s important, but the process.

  3. I’ll offer a different angle, because I had different artists teach me, and I’ve had a different path going forward. (Feel free to totally ignore this, but we seem to be getting into a conversation like I used to have with fellow students.)

    My professor Marty Kalb would gesture to the landscape (rocks, growing things, water) in the painting and say something like, “Right now this is just paint–no definition, no depth, I don’t see it as a thing or an abstract talking about a thing. Where are you going?”

    From a more metaphysical POV as a writer I would say, “For whatever reason that arch is Real. Everything around it still isn’t Real to me.”

    You chose this to experiment with a lot of things and colors. But have you decided yet where you want to go? I agree that I don’t see the story yet–is the story getting your feet wet with the medium again, and you’re going to toss this eventually, or gesso over it?

    Or is there a story about that arch standing there like it just popped in from another dimension? Has it taken over the river’s story?

    Does that make sense?

    I hope you keep going if you’re having fun. Process process! (But I can tell you have so much FUN with writing I am not sure this can keep up.) I’m inspired and will dig out the acrylics once I am in a safe harbor. (Oils I have to find; where did my box end up?)

    You are brave, returning to an old path with new insights!

  4. I have accepted that I’m =very= creative, and a number of outlets is good for me. (The moment the book gets sticky, out with the knitting, etc.) And I am guided by quality. Oil is clearly never going to be the main channel, because I’m not good enough at it. It will always be a sideline, because there are things I am very very good at indeed. I can knit a garment that will make you fall to your knees.
    But the other rule is, I have to go and find out. Maybe a few times, every decade or so, to see if it isn’t going to be a thing now. So this iteration of oil landscape painting is a good exploration. Just poking a stick into the hole, Muse, to see if that’s where you’re at today.
    When I finish this particular landscape (green!) I have to switch quickly over, to acrylic. Signs. You’ll see. I’m quite good at them, the NY Times says so…

  5. My mother when she got stymied by a painting would look at its mirror image. The reversed image would bypass the ‘familiarity filter’.

      • An old editing trick is, change your entire ms into some other font. Suddenly, it all looks different, unfamiliar. And, always read it aloud. You can hear problems that your eye can’t see.

        • I love playing with fonts! The entire atmosphere of a piece can change just by altering the typeface. And when you mix the fonts up within the piece, really interesting things start to happen with the voice.

        • I am a *huge* fan of reading aloud, but I lean toward a font that is easy to read on the screen–and then change to a print font if printing a reading copy.