Oh, it’s not hard. Really?

After one rather long session of painting, I was reminded of a quotation that I had seen on Facebook, supposedly by Edgar Degas. He said: “Painting is easy when you don’t know how but very difficult when you do.”

Maybe this was in my mind when I started the picture but by the time I had finished for the day it was firmly implanted.

I had been given some really colourful pomegranates with attached branches and leaves and so naturally I wanted to paint them. This particular day was the perfect opportunity with the rain and wind lashing the window, my studio was cosy and after spending some time setting up I started painting. What could go wrong? I had a palette of paint, clean brushes, a piece of linen canvas, great lighting and some Ravel in the background.

My marking out went well. Even the scrub in looked good. I studiously mixed my tones and so I hit the canvas bearing in mind Alan Martin’s dictum, ‘Ask yourself what is the biggest difference between the canvas and the subject?’

This statement is the basis of the tonal method once the tones have been prepared and probably the most difficult part of painting for most students. The reason is that unlike measuring of even tonal or colour comparisons it is widely open to interpretation. In other words what I see as the biggest difference may not be what you see.

The problem for me with this subject was that Alan’s question was particularly difficult to answer. Was it the tonal extension in the shadows or the various colours in the fruit? I went for the tonal extension.

This has occurred before, once frighteningly during a demonstration, but that time I managed to ‘give myself a good talking to’ and got back on track. This time, no such luck. By the time I had finished for the day I was still quite lost and my assessment of my work was not pretty. I was tempted to wipe it off, a rare event for me but I decided to let it dry and go back for a second session.

My analysis so far is that I think that I was intellectualizing too much, thinking too much about teaching and not just using my eye to determine what I should do next.

About 7 days later I returned to the fray. The painting was dry so after retouching varnish being applied I commenced mixing my tones and analysing the differences as before. This revealed that I had been following Alan’s dictum but had forgotten Shirley’s, ‘measure, measure, measure and when you think you have it right, measure again.”

Boy, was I wrong, not so much with sizes but with angles. After setting my tones again I recommenced using Alan’s advice and this time achieved a reasonable likeness to the subject.

When teaching I often liken painting to juggling. Most people can toss a ball into the air and catch it. Some can deal with juggling two balls but when I watch a great juggler with several items such as apples and very sharp knives together I realise what real concentration can achieve. Painting requires that degree of concentration.

When we achieve a degree of reality on the canvas the degree of satisfaction is in describable. As Manet is supposed to have said something like: “If at the end of the day’s painting I can relax in my chair and say that I have correctly related two tones, I am a happy man.”

Don James 7th January 2022

One Reply to “Oh, it’s not hard. Really?”

  1. Happy New Year Don and to Marie.

    Oh I love this blog, so true for me too. The article encaptures for me the absolute difficulties of this amazing craft.

    Thanks for sharing it with me.

    Kind regards



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