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  • Writer's pictureDave Shelman

Perfectionism and Painting - Part 2

In my last post I talked about two “best practices” in oil painting that have been helpful to me in overcoming my innate perfectionism. The first was rendering shapes instead of specific “things.” The second was to work from the largest shapes, then to the next smaller and so forth to the smallest ones. Of course, rendering these shapes is accomplished through the use of colors and values. I arrange the shapes to achieve the overall effect, or impression of the “scene” from which I am creating a picture. This leads to the next “best practice” which is to keep the whole composition progressing more or less simultaneously.


By attending to the whole picture I am less likely to focus too narrowly in one area or to slip back into rendering detail too early in the painting. A term that has been used in labeling this practice is alla prima, or “all at the first.” This has a freeing affect on my perfectionist bent. It also helps me prioritize my decisions about color, value, contrasts, brush strokes and so forth. It is a major help in keeping the work unified and preventing unnecessary elements. (Alla prima is also sometimes used to describe the approach of painting an entire work in one sitting which is a separate topic)


As I learn and practice these principles I have begun to experience painting as a more “fluid”—in contrast to a linear—craft. Of course it is fluid in the sense that paint is plastic and to a certain extent, the paint leaving the brush “flows” into the adjacent strokes. But it also makes me aware of painting as an editing activity—my decisions become creative acts. I am working with a general goal in mind, but I am continually responsive to what is unfolding on the canvas in front of me. This takes me out of the “copyist” mindset and moves me toward actual picture making.


All of this is an evolving experience for me. I am curious to see where it leads. Will I be able to hold off the perfectionist tendencies that have formed habits of thinking as well as working? How will the insights find their way into the actual pictures? How will the principles of making pictures influence my subject matter? Do they apply to ways of working if I paint abstractly as well as representationally?



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