Some things in life come easily. Not most things.
One larger watercolor called “Retaining Wall” falls into both categories. The first step was a preliminary thumbnail sketch, to get the gist of how this scene was going to lay on the paper. Then I sketched it on the full-size paper with pencil. So far, everything seemed fine.
The house came together quickly in the first session, and most of the major color masses, too. Then it was time to set the painting aside to let it dry and to collect thoughts.
The next time I returned to this piece, I added some definition to the red brick building, the tree, and the retaining wall. So far so good. But the color and the texture of the dark, patch of dirt in the foreground just wasn’t coming together.
Unsatisfied, but determine to prevail, I returned to this part over the course of about a week, finally covering up all the mishaps with a flat wash of black. Gone were all the visible mistakes. But gone, too was the vibrancy of that area, and gone was the balance in the painting.
Black can be a great tool when the aim is for a somewhat flattened, graphic look. However, it simply didn’t work in this naturalistic scene. In the words of my colleague, Tom, it was “a black hole”. It sucked all the light out of the painting and held the viewer’s eye captive. It dominated the house, which had been my favorite part.
Tom suggested that I lift the color out of that area and try again. My first response to Tom’s critique was defensive. I pointed out that artists prior to the impressionists frequently used black in their work, that perhaps I was going for a flatter look on purpose, but finally I couldn’t lie anymore. I conceded it was a mess, and beyond hope. It was time to move on: to take the lessons learned from this debacle and apply them to a new painting, rather than waste one more minute on this failed experiment. The painting got shelved under some other work, and was all but forgotten.
Then, on a rainy weekend, the Retaining Wall piece was resurrected.
I had learned how to remove paint while working on the Coffee Mug painting (here). Armed with this knowledge, and a few hours to kills, I decided to tackle this painting once and for all.
Removing the black paint from the affected areas without disturbing the pigment from the areas that needed to be left alone took about an hour and half of precision work. Then another hour of so was spent going back in with a mixture of dark earth tones. A little extra ooomph was added to the red brick buildling (actually, the back side of Leo’s Chow Mein from this previous post), and a little bit of softness added to the wooden railroad ties that make up the wall in the lower right.
Finally, balance was achieved. This doesn’t mean that every attempt to put pigment to paper has to result in a finished piece. Sometimes, things go far afield and it is best to know when to cut and run. But it was very satisfying to see this one reach its full potential in the end.
Bonus: Can anyone guess who lives in the house in the picture?
Oh, and I wouldn’t want to leave without crediting Tom Petty for the words that make up the title of this blog post. They’re from the song “Walls” off the “She’s the One” movie soundtrack.