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Watercolor is Labor

It is Labor Day weekend so the labor of art is an appropriate topic.

I have spent the last couple of weeks (on and off ) working on a watercolor of a stack of rocks that someone had made in a ditch near our home. The painting idea began in my sketchbook with studies of positive/negative space, a focus on shapes, and then value drawings. I thought I would be able to go back to my studio with all sorts of reference drawings and begin the painting with confidence.

So I began, three hours later I realized I had painted myself into many dilemmas. Another two hours of problem solving with corrections to shadows, scrubbing out edges to change the rock forms, I realized the painting was not worth trying to “fix”. I had hoped a tweak here and a tweak there and all would be well. This was not the case yesterday.

 I needed to start over.

It is hard to give up hours of work. However I took advice from a painting colleague remembering her words of wisdom for being grateful for the making a “mess” and paying attention to what I learned for the next rendition. Watercolor painting does not often go as smoothy as you hoped it would, but  learning from the messes is valuable.

There are many stories of artists who have labored lots more than I did this week-end and many of their labors were crazy! Consider that before the advent of power tools, weeks and even months of hard labor was required for sculptors to hammer, chisel, rasp, and hand-drill their way into stone. Most of the hard work in Grecian times was done by slaves. Also consider:

  • making parchment with all sorts of toxic chemicals to de-hair the hide and then turning it into glorious illuminated manuscripts. The complaints of manuscript writing monks are well documented,  “Oh, my hand,” and “Now I’ve written the whole thing: for Christ’s sake give me a drink.”
  • stories of years-long projects never completed. 18th-century curator Lambert Krahe, who had the ambitious project to set out to create an art catalogue larger than anything ever seen.  He hired draftsmen to painstakingly render hundreds of paintings, which would then be transferred to copperplate to use for mass printings. The process was so involved that he nearly bankrupted himself after making a grand total of…four.
  • weavers at the Gobelins factory produced luxurious tapestries to warm and adorn the homes of European nobility. They only wove two square inches per day. Some of the tapestries created could be over 12 feet square in dimensions.

“Suffering for art” is not just a metaphor. Many early textiles included arsenic in the dyes. The arsenic would leech out of the tapestries hung on damp walls of medieval homes. Caravaggio was famous for being very messy with his (lead-based) paints. He is thought to have died of lead poisoning. Other famous artists thought to have fallen victim to their materials include Goya and Van Gogh.

I just started over on a painting and this is a far cry from the labor of the artists of the past. Doing the labor of imagining or problem solving in art is hard work, but satisfying in the end.

Happy Labor Day!