Painting with Anteaters

Back on April 9 I blogged about the uglitude  that was pouring out of me every time I tried to paint this street scene of Me and Top Cat strolling down an early evening street in the lovely little town of St.-Malo, Normandy (France).

That (above) was my first try.

This (below) was my second try. (Cropping it didn’t help, after all.)

Why why why why why did it keep coming out brown?? And why why why why why did it keep coming out looking like an 8th grade art class assignment (so badly drawn, so poorly colored, so over worked and fussy and dead)??

So I tried again, this time after hiding the brown paints from myself. (see below)

ARRRRRRRH. What is up with this?? Even after I got rid of some of the street clutter (the box trees and the flowering geraniums in the hanging baskets) it STILL looks like CraP, capital C and capital P at the end because I deserve it.

It’s embarrassing to be this bad because I thought I’d come to terms with my strengths and weakenesses as an illustrator and had learned how to avoid drawing attention to my deficits. To whit (is that what you’re supposed to say here?): I’m good at perspective and line drawing and composition and every once in a while I get crazy lucky and I can draw a figure; I suck at color and modelling and a certain lightness of touch when it comes to brush strokes. (And big deal: every painter has weak spots. What can you do? An anteater can only paint like an anteater.)

But here I am, trying to paint a scene that is all about the stuff which I am very bad at painting.  But I really really want this scene in my Damn France Book because I love these streets of St.-Malo and I love the way they look in the low light of late day on a rainy September afternoon when I’m walking with Top Cat who I am rather sweet on. ..

That’s a lot of stuff to get into an illustration, and maybe it’s too much. on account of all my limitations.

So I let it alone for a month and I worked on other things and I painted some successful pictures of vintage French linens and a Breton forest and a dinner table in Bordeaux. See? See? I’m not a total hack.

And then the other day (see: post last Monday) I got this brain wave about Raisin Bran.

The Raisin Bran post is all about about how easy it is to find oneself entrenched in mental and creative ruts that one wasn’t even aware of, and how easy it is, once you realize the rut you are in, to pound your fist into a bag of Raisin Bran and escape from your own rut self.

Here’s the fourth effort at that street scene in St.-Malo that I painted today:

(I left in all the color testing dabs I took on the side of the paper.) I think you can see that I’m taking a different tack on the whole subject, Raisin-Bran-wise.

According to my Chocolate Box theory of book design (whereby every time a reader opens one of my books she should get the same feeling of surprise and visual delight as if she were taking the lid off a chocolate box) I already have reserved a place for this street scene in a two-page treat that I sketched out like this:

This represents how I want to arrange the various illustrations on a two-page spread devoted to The Streets of St.-Malo (the blank spots are where the text will go, probably about 200 words in all; one other thing I’m pretty good at is eye-balling word count).

Not that you asked, but in case you’re wondering, this is how these two pages look so far:

The street scene on the right-hand page (recto) is one that I painted about a year ago, and its been waiting for me to get around to giving it some company. It’s done in my usual up-tight, out-lined, paint-every-brick-if-you-can style…but in this case, it kind of works. But I might be wrong:

So you see: whether I’m writing about Raisin Bran or Anteaters or not knowing how to paint you way out of a rut…

It’s All Connected.

I’m just glad that there are so many other anteaters reading this blog. 

Thought of the day: When it comes to making art, do you know what you are good at and what you aren’t? More importantly: do you know to leverage the stuff you’re good at into your own personal, unique, individual style?? Or do you need me to tell you? (Please please please: I love telling people what to do.)

12 comments to Painting with Anteaters

  • August

    To wit.

    I’m hard of arting, myself, but I really enjoy your blog.

  • I enjoy your paintings. The ones in your WWCTR book are wonderful, too. Now I understand the WORK involved in doing these books.
    A new appreciation for each and every painting.
    Thanks for sharing.

  • maryann

    Tell, tell, tell!!!!

    And thanks!

  • Jacquelyn

    hmmmm, yellow is good….but I would put back the plant life and then make bran muffins.

  • Barbara Lemme

    Yeah, I miss the plant life also. It’s a living part of the scene. But, hey, that’s MY art brain thinking.

  • Marina

    No…I don’t find it easy to identify and pursue a personal style…and yes, yes, yes, it would be lovely if you could tell us what to do (please)

    I love all of your work, but the latest version with the yellow does have something about it…

  • Deborah

    The recto brick-y painting works for me. I still like the earthy browness of the 2nd (verso) painting — the one I preferred in your original blog entry.

    After I got When Wanderers Cease to Roam, I tried my hand watercolor painting & felt I was an abject failure at it. In thinking about it, I finally realized that every attempt I made, I was trying to make look like one of YOUR paintings. I figured if I didn’t have enough of my own sense of self in that medium, it meant it wasn’t for me.

    Photography & writing are something else. In these mediums, I do have a sense of self that is not easily co-opted by anyone else’s style.

  • No…I don’t find it easy to identify and pursue a personal style…and yes, yes, yes, it would be lovely if you could tell us what to do (please)

    I love all of your work, but the latest version with the yellow does have something about it…

  • Sally

    If you REALLY mean it, that you love people telling you what to do:

    If you’ve already given up on the third crop from the top (which has turned out to be my favorite of all), perhaps you might try this little experiment with it: deepen the shadows overall with a bluey grayey wash (ideally several layers of same until something says “Stop!”), perhaps just straight Payne’s gray. This will pop out the couple, in the light of the windows, heading down the road to the bright future. (That’s corny, sorry, but that really is what this scene says to me). I really like this painting even as is; the trick is to make you like it.

    The new version doesn’t work for me. Light too yellow. The softer window glows you got before says “evening is coming.”

    The recto brick-by-brick really does work, and it is VIVIAN’S style. You do have a style, actually, slight variations on a style; why mess around with it? If it’s good, why is it a rut?

    Here I am speaking as someone still trying to find her style.

  • I’d rethink the yellow. I like the second and third ones best. Window light in the evening often appears orangey, so how about playing up the orange light and blue shadows complementary colors thing? That could help you get rid of the grays and browns (use payne’s gray and some blues instead) and warm up that window light into something closer to orange. Just my two cents, thanks for sharing your process – most interesting! Love the chocolate box analogy…

  • Sandy

    Oh please do tell, your work is fantastic and I can see how marvelously talented you are to pull it all together so seamlessly :-)

  • Shelley

    I cast my vote for either the 2nd or 3rd renditions too, but I prefer the wider crop in #3.

    I like the warm glow of the light, and the flowering geraniums in hanging baskets. I think #3, if done in your “paint every brick” style would be wonderful!

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