Terry Miura • Studio Notes

Monday, March 31, 2014

You Win Some, You Lose Some

When you see an artist's work online,  typically you're looking at finished pieces that the artist deemed good enough to show. Sometimes you get to see demos and works in progress, but these too, are ones that eventually turned out good.

You rarely see failed paintings, do you? Of course not. why would anyone broadcast their failures? It's not good for your fragile ego, and it can't be good for marketing your brand.  

But any artist knows, and anyone seriously interested in any kind of art knows, that failures are a part of the game. The great artists aren't great because they make successful paintings all the time. They're great because they've had, and have learned from, more failed paintings than your average artist has had successful ones. I mean how does one hope to learn and get better if you didn't fail?

Truth be told,  I have more failed paintings than successful ones. That is to say, most of my paintings are never shown or sold.  

So today I thought I'd share a recent failed painting. Oh, don't worry about my fragile ego - this happens so often that it doesn't affect me so much anymore. (Yes, there was a time when every failed painting caused despair )

OK, so this painting is from a figure painting session last week.  I don't have shots of earlier stages, but we start here at the end of the three hour session. As a sketch, it was OK. It wasn't great, but it wasn't really bad. The drawing was reasonably accurate, and form and colors were OK too, if predictably boring. 

What I didn't like was the way her legs didn't have enough variation. Didn't have enough brush activity. Not just her leg, but the surrounding darks as well. The way the legs were positioned didn't create a shape that were strong enough to hold interest on its own, so I needed something more than shape. I tried a few different leg positions, but of course this being after the session had ended, I didn't have the model in front of me. Sometimes I can make stuff up. Sometimes, I can't. 

Her head is scraped off too, because I didn't like that it was too literal.  If you're familiar with my work, you know that, unless I'm doing a head study, I prefer not to get too specific with the features. This is because I'm not interested in creating a portrait and communicating a specific identity. What I'm interested in is more universal, so the specific identity would get in the way. I prefer to suggest anonymity.

 And then I had this idea to put a dress or a nightgown on her. The idea was to break up the boring single shape of the legs and create two different shapes in the leg area. The fabric, and the flesh of the lower leg.

I also turned the head away slightly (more anonymity, less identity), and gave her a dark hair and a dark background so that I could connect some like-valued shapes and simplify the head area. I also lightened the background behind the upper torso, to lessen the value contrast between the figure and the background.  I wasn't trying to paint any particular piece of furniture, just putting color/values down abstractly.

I crossed her lower legs, in an attempt to create a little more dimensional interest. The legs were profile view before, which was one reason it wasn't interesting enough.

Then I thought, hmmm. Too much suggestion of the environment. I need to make it simpler! So I extended that violet gray color in the background. I made it close in value to the face to lessen the impact there (again, less information) and lightened the hair mass so that the value contrast in that entire area is decreased for the same reason. Less information = more anonymity = more mystery.

The head got too big so I started reshaping it, and it kinda became a blob.  I thought too, that I lost too much contrast overall, so I brought back some darks in the background. I tried shortening the nightgown to show her knees which would give me an opportunity to show some anatomical information that I lost by clothing her.  And the balance of shapes would be better, overall.

But of course I can't paint anatomically convincing knees without a model, so...

At this point, I saw that it was deteriorating quickly. I lost too much information which I couldn't bring back because again, I can't always make up stuff.

I was getting sloppy and careless, so it was time to concede defeat.

And so this is where I stopped. Can I get a model to sit for me again in the same position and finish the painting? Yes, but I don't want to. I've exhausted my enthusiasm for this painting. The best thing to do is to wipe it clean while it's still wet, and reuse the canvas.

This was a painting which started out as a sketch, and became a vehicle for exploration, meaning I didn't have a real concept or a plan.  I think it's important to be clear about this. Because when you're exploring, you expect that sometimes (more often than not?) you don't find what you're looking for. IF you even know what you're looking for.

Many of my successful paintings are not done this way. I do a fair number of studies and planning when I do larger paintings, and with those I know where I'm going. When I fail with those, it hurts. But with an exploratory pieces like Miss Sadface here, I don't necessarily expect to have a show worthy piece so if it  blows up in my face, it really is not a big deal.

Being unrealistic with your expectations can really mess you up, ya know?


  1. Quite horrid, that's true. But at least your ego is strong enough as to produce more passionate and well modeled pictures. And the petticoat...

    1. Thanks Isabel~ My ego isn't particularly strong, but I still produce more paintings because I don't have any other skills :-D This is all I know how to do.

  2. Terry, this blog post is worth printing out and saving. It's a wonderful painting lesson for all of us who struggle and fail...and I guess that's all of us, isn't it? I love your ability to step away from a painting that's going astray, think about what the causes may be, and then experiment with possible corrections. When I have a painting go south I seem to freeze mentally. I aimlessly push paint around in a sort of mindless trance. Needless to say, it never helps and I never learn anything from it. Time to stop panicking and start thinking! Experiment and learn! Fail and learn! A great post.
    By the way, there are several of those steps above that I would have considered a success! But then that's where I am in the process...and that's were you are.
    Thanks for a blog worth following! Keep painting, keep experimenting and keep making great art.

    1. Thanks Bruce!~ Early on, failed paintings depressed me, but after a thousand or so, I got used to them. If we learn something from a bad painting, it's not a waste of time nor effort, right?

  3. Brilliant post - and timely for me. I've just started experimenting with still life. My first attempt wasn't bad. My second attempt was pretty good, then my third attempt was hopeless. I spent a couple of days toying with it, trying to work out where I'd gone wrong, carefully repainting individual parts. I learned a lot and it looks much better now, but it will never leave home. I have a special place I call "the pile in the corner", or just "the pile" and this one will find a home there.

    I've been posting Youtube videos recently and my son suggested I should post the occasional failure, to impress the point that they do happen and that we have to accept them and learn from them. We had a quite a discussion about the pros and cons of exposing "the dark side".

    1. Thanks Andy~ I have piles in the corner too :-D "Exposing the Dark Side", as you say, has its merits and demerits, as you know. I don't show EVERYTHING, but a few here and there - provided that they have lessons in there somewhere - can't hurt much. We're all human after all, and even the best has had bad days!

  4. Awesome post!!! *w*
    Your blog is becoming one of my favourite reads!
    (In my last life drawing session I failed a drawing so bad I scribbled a mustache and muttons on the female model's face.....and I think she saw it at the end as people were looking through my work :'D )

    1. Ha! Been there~ I still remember how the model gave me a dirty look. I gave her one of the successful drawings as a peace offering.

  5. loved reading that & and enjoyed seeing your progress (or de-progress. Un-progress?). Though the final product, with the black sad face... there's something about it! I like it!!

  6. Actually, I think this painting is very meaningful. I like it a lot!

  7. Thank you so much for posting this Terry (only just discovered it!) It's brilliant. From someone who admires your work and is looking at a pile of rejected canvasses and panels in the corner of his studio its very reassuring!