“Upon the Heath”


The above is my most recent painting. As this post, it is titled, “Upon the Heath.” oil on canvas.

I am not totally in love with this painting. In fact in some key ways it is one of  if not my least favorite of all my paintings.

Yet in other ways, it has done something for me that most of the other painting have not done; it has taught me a bit of a lesson.

Believe it or not, this painting started out as an icy landscape. My goal was to do a study in shades of blue, with some mountains in the background, some water, snow and ice. I’ve had the idea in my head for a while now, and last night I had the time.

Almost right away I made an error. Usually I just incorporate the error into the painting, or paint around it in such a way that it’s hidden by the time I’m done. That’s not what i did this time.

Instead, I tried to correct my error. I tried to change the shape of what I had so far to more closely resemble that which I had in my head. I made it worse. And did so again. And again.

Before I knew it, I’d spent over an hour mixing a million and one different tints and hues, using different brushes, and more than once scraping off entire sections of the painting with a paint knife.

I’d never done that before, scrape off what I’d already put on. Yet with this canvass I did. Over and over again. Even tried to make the scraping part of what I was doing, but nothing was happening. Nothing.

A hill appeared, and vanished under more paint and thinner. A cloud. More clouds. More brushes more paint. Mess multiplying, vision for the piece collapsing.

“Enough,” I finally said, annoyed and exhausted by this corruption of my painting process. I’d burn the damn thing in the backyard if I had to, but I was not going to continue in desperation to bring about something I couldn’t bring about.

I turn the canvas on it’s side. I at last envisioned something approaching a concept. A tree, or plant, clinging to life, on a strange, but green and brown landscape. Not a blue in sight.

I did throw in some white at last, which makes for a ghostly effect. Plus no other colors would show up in the thick ultra-wet canvas. I also went from planning a somewhat realistic painting to a far more impressionistic approach. Near the end I thought of a heath, and the line “Upon the heath,” from the first scene in Macbeth. I knew I would call it that, and consider the landscape to represent a heath.

In the last few moments I threw in those little comets of color you see mostly on the right side. I figured the would represent magic, oddity, perhaps the witches from the above mentioned scene, hard to say. At any rate, it was done.

All I could think of was how much blue and white paint I had wasted trying to paint something that I didn’t even accomplish. That annoyed me the rest of the night.

As did the fact that the process was not the usual creative enjoyable, mostly relaxing experience I have had while oil painting. Not a feeling I want to repeat when going back to the easel. (Which I may not let myself do for a while, because of all the waste.)

Not until this morning when I was journaling some thoughts did it occur to me that because of what I titled it, and what i had gone through to produce the painting, this work held the lesson I mentioned.

I tried to be too precise. I was far too in love with the image I had in my mind of the icescape, that I kept trying to force that into existence after every error. Instead of letting the painting take me to a place I could work with and enjoy, riding a wave of amateur artist enjoyment, I was insisting on specifics way beyond both the nature of the painting and my own abilities. I could have made a choice to be content with what I had, and advanced in time to something greater. But I chose to force it, and caused a great mess in the process.

Sound like a certain Scottish character from literature?

The metaphor isn’t perfect, but like Macbeth I insisted on too much in too little time, and forgot to incorporate the flow if you will. I became single minded, and impatient to create the painting in my head. And it screwed everything up, both on the canvass and in my mind.

Unlike Macbeth, though I made a wrong choice, I was able to later course correct and make a right one. I resigned again to the flow of the painting,allowing myself to just paint what “wanted” to be painted. I did it for the fun of putting oils on canvasses again, and the idea to make the heath came to me. The Heath, where in some ways Macbeth makes his first choice to force the hand of nature, the universe, God. (Depending on how you want to read things.)

Whenever I look at this painting from now on, I will remember to not force things. I will remember that there can be depth and significance to an experience even after through poor choices we have made a shit show of things. I will remember my choices, and unlike Macbeth, leave the heath with most of what I am intact.

Like Prince Malcolm, (who incidentally I played in a production of Macbeth last year) I come away from the experience wiser, more in control, and most importantly, forgiving of myself for mistakes I made.


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