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Risking Everything for a Great Painting

| Elaine Weiner-Reed

In this article, Artist Elaine Weiner-Reed shares paintings that she considers makeovers. These makeover paintings fall into two categories: unfinished and finished canvases. In the two examples provided, something continued to bother Elaine about each painting, pushing her to risk everything and continue painting, subtly or dynamically evolving a piece until she was satisfied with the results. 

Read more to learn how Elaine faces her fears, pushing her creative voice to the limit to create art that meets her criteria and makes her happy. She hopes her story will help others face their own personal fears and create joyfully and fearlessly.




Evolution of a Painting

What Scares You?  I was thinking about what scares me and realized something: What scares me and other people seems to change with age and experience. 

Life is about facing our fears  One night, during a bout of insomnia, I realized that what had scared me many years ago no longer scared me. Fear number one: I used to be afraid of failing. Not true anymore. I see failures as trophies showing that at least I had enough courage to try something new. Getting over that fear alone opens doors to us creatives, allowing us to experiment and learn, expanding our artistic vocabulary. Fear number two: I used to be afraid of what people might say or how they would judge me: not anymore. I could care less what people think because at least I am doing and experiencing new things, learning along the way. Getting over that fear also helped my artistic development thrive. Fear number three: I used to be afraid of heights. Okay, I am still somewhat afraid of heights and I will never like suspension bridges. But I face those fears: I have been in small planes (a 2-person French Mirage pilot training plane over Mont Sainte Victoire, France, and a half dozen 4- to 6-person Cessna’s locally) and I took a helicopter ride over and through Sedona’s rock formations and cave paintings. Finally, a fear I was born with: I was painfully shy as a young girl and was afraid to talk to or meet new people. Now, I get over that fear by imagining strangers I meet as potential new friends or rich storytellers I have not yet met. I think of new encounters as opportunities to learn something, and some encounters lead to new friendships.

True Confessions  What currently scares me the most is the fear of not taking chances and not continuing to learn new things. More than anything else, the fear of stagnation terrifies me. As we know, taking chances sometimes leads to failure, but is that really so bad? I think it is better to fail than never to have tried at all. Living means facing our fears. To push ourselves forward, we have to do something, and that generally involves taking risks – big or small. Which leads me to my Dream Sheet and all the new things I want to still do and experience. Dreams and goals involve risk-taking, but risks carry untold rewards. For example, several weeks ago, I swallowed my fear and got on the back of a jet ski, which resulted in the same euphoric feeling of joy tinged with fear that I experienced many years ago flying as momentary co-pilot in the 2-seater pilot-training plane over Mont Sainte Victoire in Aix en Provence. Most recently, I began to face my fear of power tools… More about that in a future article!

Which leads me to Art and what scares me about it… Yes, for me, all things lead back to and relate to my art eventually, because my life and art are intertwined, one enriching the other. My art voice is the embodiment of my life experiences.

Once we leave fear behind, we unlock our creative muse.  Let me ask you this: Are you a member of the Afraid to Mess It Up Club?  I know I was. I have worked hard for many years to put that fear behind me. Now, I like to think of myself as a member of the Fearless Art Club.

Changing our mindset is often all that is needed. It took a long time for me to be able to - or know how to - give myself permission to mess up. Messing up is vital to growth. Having gotten over that fear eventually, it took me a bit longer to get over the fear of risking it all to push an idea to its limit. Instead of looking at it as “messing up,” view it as having tried something different, learning something new. Get messy and have fun as you learn!

I have to tell myself that it is my art and therefore I can do with it as I like – regardless of others’ comments or fears. I created it and I can re-create it in different ways, pushing the ideas and mediums to new heights. In other words, I give myself permission to explore my ideas and to own my work. Like a child, I tell myself “Mine” as I gaze at a piece that still bothers me for some reason. I believe that if I can own my art and overcome my fear, you can own yours and overcome your fears, as well.

We owe it to ourselves and the world to create our very best work with all we have to give at any point in time.  Artists each have their own individual fears. I don’t know about you, but after every painting or sculpture I complete, I worry that it was the last great work I have to give... Once it is completed and ‘out of me,’ I sometimes look at it in awe. At that moment, all the steps and stages and thinking and torture that accompanied the myriad creative processes fall away into a blurry memory. “How did I do it ?!” I muse in wonder. After briefly savoring that moment, we need to immediately get back to the studio and keep creating! Otherwise, the fear of failure could take root…

Take Calculated Risks  Do you have paintings on your walls that bother you for some reason, but because they are hanging or in a frame, they have magically become sacred?

Important: Do not destroy everything you created in the past to get you to where you are!  Some portion, a cross-section of one’s life work, represents a valuable chronological history of an artist’s progress and growth. Many of the bodies of work in our past will not be representative of our current style or thought process or themes, but they constitute the pictorial biography or retrospective of our creative journey and evolution over time. To that end, I believe that periodic scrutiny and selective purging of artwork helps us cull our bodies of work to the very best created during each phase of our professional development. Consider how you want to be remembered and retain work that most clearly represents your “retrospective” or “best of” each pivotal creative phase, stage, and series.

I review my work periodically and pare down my collections to the paintings and sculptures I love. If it is a work on paper, sometimes it is reworked, sometimes recycled. If it is a work on canvas, it goes back to the studio and gets in the queue for its time at an extreme or subtle make-over. Its fate depends on how happy I am with the piece as a whole. I have torn up many paintings that were framed or matted – ones that had even been in shows or had many “likes” on social media. If I am unsatisfied, it eventually finds its way to the studio or recycle bin.

Once you begin your own analysis, think of it as “Spring cleaning,” and tune into your muse and your artistic vision. Consider making three piles: 1) The definite keepers/winners – the GREAT paintings you love (prize-winners yet or not); 2) The good ones you like, but which you for some reason do not love; and 3) The ones that bore or bother you or leave you cold.

Remember: They are YOUR creations and you should be the one who ultimately determines if they are good or great or finished. Be honest: Do you look at some works now and judge them to be merely “okay” or mediocre paintings? If so, what do you do? Personally, if I decide a work is not up to par, it becomes fair game and I generally prefer to take the risk and push it further, aiming for the winner I believe it can be. Often, I am successful. Other times, my makeover becomes a whole new set of lessons learned.

Come What MayFear Factor, Artist Style  In a previous article I wrote called Finding Our Effortless Power, I discussed my “art swing” and provided images of one painting’s extreme makeover. Illustrating the evolution of the painting pictured above, “Come What May,” I described my thought process and showed a before and after image of the painting.

In this article, I provide two examples of similar transformations or creative makeovers, as well as some of my criteria and thought processes while working on the paintings. My goal with each painting is to create a winning painting. Throughout, I have to be willing to risk it all, not letting any one section become so precious that it cannot be altered to make the entire piece work as a unified whole. Remember: Design elements aside, ultimately you are the creator and best judge of your art vision and legacy.

My Criteria Throughout the painting process with each and every painting, I ask: Do I love it? Does the entire painting work? Am I willing to sacrifice the whole thing – including that sweet little section or quadrant that I love – to make all sections of the painting work together? If the whole painting does not work, no one is going to hone in on that one little precious quadrant that ‘sings’ sweetly to you now and say “Oh, my, isn’t that little spot just so lovely, I must have this painting!” Seriously. Take a picture of it to remember it, but risk it to unify the entire piece.

Ask yourself: Does the resulting artwork you create “sing” and stand alone, captivating the viewer? I believe that if I do not LOVE my work, then there is little hope of it resonating with others, touching them in some way, exciting their imagination…. My artistic vision pushes me to make each piece the best I can make. Every piece, whether it comes easily or more painfully, must meet certain criteria and make my heart sing. Each time I linger over a painting or question whether it is “finished,” I know I must push it (and me) to the limit. There is no middle ground for me…no pass/fail. I I have seen that passing grade, that middle ground…, and it is unacceptable.

Subtle Transformation  Compare the following two images of the painting “Sticks and Stones”. At one point I thought I was getting close but could not pull it all together or finish it. I had already been working on the painting for about two years…, but sadly it was not finishing itself. (Haven’t you sometimes wished that the Cobbler’s elves would finish a piece in the night while you slept?!)

Why was I unable to finish it and what happened to enable me to complete this painting?  What it took for me to push this painting to the finish line - to where it needed to be, even risking the primary figure in the foreground – was a series of unfortunate events and experiences at work. Through that troubled period, I kept creating as I developed a new arsenal of defense mechanisms. Spirit and heart intact, I survived, pouring much energy into new and in-progress paintings and sculptures over a 6-month period. My creative muse had thrived. Perhaps it had saved me.

Sometimes, we simply cannot finish a piece until we live through something new or experience something different. Sometimes this missing ingredient involves overcoming some personal challenge, which in time gives us the additional personal artistic vocabulary needed to complete a given work. That is what enabled me to finally be able to put “Sticks and Stones” back on my easel and complete it. Apparently, I had needed to internalize new feelings and ideas and then transfer all of that into the painting.

Note: “Sticks and Stones” found its way to the home of a new collector this summer, and I am convinced that its story touched the lives of its new family, who decided they related to it and had to own it. It is my fervent hope that it continues to inspire them to survival and hope!

Looking at the in-progress stage of the painting, I felt it was a bit undefined in some areas, while in others, I saw disparate sections that were not cohesive. Painting through challenges not only helped me maintain perspective in difficult situations, but it helped me remain connected to my artist soul, greatly contributing to the painting’s ultimate voice and heart and message. My makeover process was holistic, painting over or through the painting’s undercarriage, unifying it and giving it definition. The visual journey through the finished work is one of discovery and intrigue. A short story or screenplay yet to be written…

Sticks and Stones Early StagesWeiner Reed Sticks and Stones 
               Sticks and Stones - in progress 2017                                           Sticks and Stones - Elaine Weiner-Reed 2018                    

Dramatic Transformation  In this next example, the metamorphosis of the final painting also took place in stages, over months. As with many of my paintings, “The Gathering – Still Waiting” began its life as a neutral toned abstract painting, but in this case, the abstract was a finished painting I had titled “Out of Line,” pictured below. I had lived with it for a while and liked it. However,…

 beginning stages undercarriage of paintingAbstract "Out of Line"

…one day “Out of Line” found its way back in my studio, where it progressively was transformed into a figurative work in my subseries “The Empty Chair.” Inspired by a quick small drawing in my sketchbook, the abstract gradually underwent changes in layers. Gestural figures took their places in the space, featuring the chair and a solitary figure in center stage. Intuition is a key criterion, along with all the elements of design (shape, line, color, perspective…).

The Gathering Still Waiting Undercarriage in LayersAbstract became "undercarriage"

I strove to keep the creative energy flowing in this piece as I painted. Lone figures were given mass as I continually worked the entire piece, unifying it. At this stage, the mood was being created and figure placement and grouping were key. Layers upon layers followed as I gradually defined forms and a larger group composed of intriguing sub-groups.

The Gathering Still Waiting Elaine.Weiner ReedThe finished painting "The Gathering - Still Waiting"

I choose cool and earth tones and colors, limiting the vibrant red to a toned-down appearance in the chair. Human features are minimized and the tone is set through posture and the juxtaposition of shapes. The mood is a collective one of waiting, anticipation, intrigue, and a dash of angst. What is going on in the scene? Why the chair and solitary figure juxtaposed with the crowd?

Indeed, the phrase judgment day springs to mind as we try to unravel exactly what might be going on in the room.

Your Art = Your Legacy  How do you want to be remembered? What is your Art Legacy to be? Quantity or quality? And are you willing to risk it all to potentially create a work that excites you every time you look at it? As I continually review my work with a critical eye from year to year, I keep in mind the fact that my artwork will outlive me, representing my voice, my soul, my vision, and my life story in the future. My art truly is my autobiography in progress.

May all our creative legacies be meaningful and speak volumes for a creative life well-lived.


Invitation to Creative Collaboration

On that note: What do you think is going on in the painting? How does it make you feel? How did the story start and how might it conclude?  I invite you to write your thoughts and feelings down – whether in story, poetry, or music.

Share your thoughts with me and be inspired as was the case with musician Natalie Spehar from the talented Rogue Collective, who created an original, structured improvisational piece “The Gathering – Still Waiting” on her cello. Natalie played her piece for the first time live in front of the painting during my “Masks and Mirrors – Evolution of Identity” solo show companion event “Every Painting is a Song”. This short Every Painting is a Song YouTube video explains my creative collaboration concept. Please contact me via my Website and share your own creations inspired by mine. Your creations, in turn, shall inspire me. (A future article about my sculpture will explain how Rogue Collective’s music inspired me in a new direction.)

Other articles by Elaine Weiner-Reed:

The Seeds We Sow

From Artists to Art to Art Shows - 3 part series