Painting with Abandon

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“In art and dream may you proceed with abandon.” – Patti Smith

Last month I finished up the second of two very detailed portrait commissions. I’d been working on them since before the first of the year. In my artistic process, I lay down a wash of watercolor on paper and then alternate layers of colored pencil and paint until I feel like the image is totally in focus. I end up with stunning results, but I was beginning to avoid my drawing table and had to figure out why.  After some reflection, I realized that my painting style had become so tedious I was beginning to resist it. I had to figure out a way too work faster. I was ready to create something for fun.

I determined I needed to let go of my perfectionism and decided to explore only using watercolor in my next piece. In a very real way, that medium can’t be controlled. Trying to rework a watercolor can be the ruin of it. You have to work fast knowing that you can’t always direct the pigment’s course.

“The making of art is no different than prayer “- Rainn Wilson

The above image is the result of my “painting with abandon experiment.” It’s based on the daughter of an artist I know. I purposely worked from photographs of poor quality, so that I wouldn’t be able to labor over the details. I was forcing myself to fill in the blanks with my imagination. In my watercolor, I began by painting the night sky. I loaded my brush with water and soaked the paper. Next, I laid down the color and watched it flow and pool. Then I sprinkled salt on the wet pigment, so it would crystallized and texture the sky. I loved how the watercolor paints had a life of their own. I was exhilarated with the results. I knew something higher was painting through me. I could feel the presence of the Divine.

I remember painting like this as a child. The joy of expectancy that I felt back then was akin to prayer. It was the physical act of “letting go and letting God.” I was never certain what I was going to end up with, but I knew it was going to be good.

I decided to call my painting, “Dancing with the Moon,” because of the magic I found in painting my subject without restraint. I have to admit that I ended up using some colored pencil to refine the details on the image. Even so, the painting took only four days to complete, verses the six weeks my last piece did.

What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?” – Vincent Van Gogh

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Last week my niece, Andi, and I visited the Chicago Art Institute to see the Van Gogh exhibit. The experience filled our artist souls and reminded me of how I used to paint with vibrant colors. In my early twenties, I poured over Van Gogh’s paintings in my huge coffee table book that cataloged his works. My eyes drank in the vivid pigments he used. I began painting with bold complimentary colors like he had learned to. Over the years, my devotion to color was lost in my pursuit of mastering the minutia of realism. I wondered if my decision to paint with less restraint meant that all those years I had spent on meticulous detail were a waste of time? Andi looked at me and said, “I think you had to perfect your technique before you could be loose with it. You couldn’t have the latter without the former.”

Her words reminded me that we are always on course. Our best efforts are never wasted on God’s good, green Earth. And now it was time for me to begin painting with abandon, in brilliant color…

She Was the Moon and Stars to Me 1

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

10 thoughts on “Painting with Abandon

  1. I love reading about your artistic and creative process. It was really interesting to learn of the use of salt with the water color. Cool effect! Thanks for sharing. The painting is beautiful!

  2. Are you saying that the young girl was done using water color and not color pencils? The effect is beautiful but I can’t imagine the girl was painted rather than drawn. Of course, you always amaze me with your art. I brag about knowing you.

  3. Dear Sue,
    The painting is beautiful – and the sky is spectacular. I love the effect of salt on watercolor! And yes…I agree that it is so wonderful because of the many years you have spent perfecting your technique. It is now a part of you that comes out even when you are “painting with abandon.” Thank you so much for sharing! Blessings,
    Lois

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