No, not Kafka. I'm talking about making big changes to a painting and giving it a new lease on life.
This painting is not finished but I've spent quite a lot of time on it. I've been thinking about my decision making processes on this particular painting. There's so much going on (which was, now that I look at it, the main problem with the picture) that many conflicting ideas had be resolved. I got confused at every turn, but in rare moments of clarity I told myself "this is important. I need to write this down before I forget and become confused again".
And so here are some of my thoughts as the painting went through drastic changes.
This is where the change started. It was finished, hung in a show two or three years ago, and came back to me. It wasn't a bad painting, but my painting style has changed and it no longer looked like it should have my name on it. Too tight, too literal, too Hopper, too narrative, too cute.
At first I thought the tightness was what was bothering me the most, so I went over every surface, doing a looser version of it on top. If you've ever tried to loosen up an already finished tight painting, you know it's not easy to do. Much, much easier to tighten a loose painting than to go the other way. (there's a lesson in there somewhere)
But I knew it had to be done, and it could be done - I just had to keep going till the entire painting was loosened up because only then will I have a "loose context". A little bit of looseness in an otherwise tight context only looks like a mistake.
And then I decided that this painting relied too much on the narrative. The story there, like a scene from a novel. Nothing wrong with that, except I didn't want a narrative-driven painting. So I took out the car and the figures, the main players of the story.
Now I'm left with the set, without the actors. The visual elements such as the fire escape shadows and the striped awning became more important, and I noticed that there were actually a bunch of strong elements competing for attention. Is it about the fire escape, the cast shadows, the awning, the sign... Too many good things crammed into one picture. Too many statements.
As much as I hated to do it, I had to get rid of the awning. That was a tough decision (I really liked the awning!) but I think it was the right thing to do. It felt right immediately afterwards.
Once that was cleaned up, I noticed another BIG problem. Actually, I had noticed it long ago but was in denial, hoping that drastic editing of the elements would somehow solve my problem or may be help me fake it. No such luck.
What's the problem, you ask. It's the color vs. tone structure. Look at the cast shadows of the fire escape in the earlier versions. They have a lot of blue in them, and feel much lighter and airier. Toward the bottom of the painting, the shadowy areas are much more tonal, dark, and moody. This is a conflict of light conditions that doesn't make very good sense, even accounting for artistic license.
Do I want tonal and moody, or light and airy? Can't have it both ways. The tonal approach will give me a grittier, more somber, and perhaps a more timeless feel. On the other hand, the lighter, bluer shadows imply that I have a blue sky above the buildings, contrasting with the orange afternoon light. It implies a particular time of day, a particular kind of light, and that my intent would have to be to suggest that that's important. Is it about the color temperature shifts, or the patterns and shapes of the shadows?
I concluded that it was the latter. With considerable doubt, I took out most of the blue in the cast shadows. And I really liked the result. It's still got that warm afternoon light, but without making a big statement about color. The painting wasn't about pretty colors, after all.
Now I could see the overall mood coming forth, that of the afternoon sun, a mundane urban street, the familiar, comfortable yet slightly anxious feeling of living in the not-so-slick part of the city.
Yes, this is what I want. But the emptiness of the street seemed to be making too much of a statement. Why is it empty? Is it a ghost town? Did the plague wipe out the population? Am I making a statement about death and abandonment?
Hardly. But you see how my mind makes one association after another. Anyway, I put a pedestrian back into the picture, taking care not to overplay his presence. No bright colors or contrast on him. Let him lose some edges and be integrated into the scene rather than be the center of another narrative. Give us a sense of life but don't let the painting be about this particular person.
So this is where I am right now. I'm still working on it, but all the main issues are resolved, so I'm just tweaking edges and refining shapes and strokes. I like it very much.