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Evolution of an intuitive painting

“Love. Magic.” by Norah Soughayer Christmann, November 2020, 24 x 36, Acrylics, Pastels, Graphite, and Chalk on Canvas

One of the questions I often get asked about my paintings and the intuitive painting process in general is, “How do you know when a painting is done?”

My answer is always, “When I no longer feel like I need to change something” but that doesn’t take into account all I have learned about color, composition, balance, contrast, texture, value, line, and the general energy of the painting. All of that, whether I think about it consciously or not, supports the intuitive sense of “done”.

Over the last few days, I’ve been working on a commissioned painting and I thought I would share the progression of it’s many layers from the first energetic lines and marks to the final step back when I say, “Yes!”

Step one… Choosing colors and tools

I had a fairly clear idea of which colors I wanted to use going into this painting. My 9-year-old daughter recently painted this…

Aren’t the colors beautiful? I’m not a big fan of stencils but these stencils used with gold paint are gorgeous, so I decided to try stencils in this painting (I can always cover them up if I don’t like them). I picked the colors, adding a few to the four she used for balance and contrast, and came up with this jewel-toned palette…

I then choose my mark making tools, pastels, pencils, pens, chalk, etc. in the same colors as my palette. Even though I won’t necessarily use all of these, I like having options…

First layer…

The client wanted a 24 x 36 landscape size. I use a pre-gessoed gallery-wrapped canvas with a depth of 1.5 inches because I love the look of the painting wrapping around to the sides… it looks polished and adds even more interest. I “activate the canvas” by using as many of those pencils and pastels as I can as well as drips and blotches (very painterly term: “blotches”) from the wet paint left after making the palette strip above. I never waste paint… if I have any left over on my palette from a project, I’ll pull out new paper or canvas and offload my brushes and palette and call it the first layer of the next painting. These first lines, drips, and blotches give me something to respond to in the next layer and give the painting both texture and a history that you may or may not be able to see peeks of in the final piece. Here’s layer one of this painting…

Second layer…

While sitting back and starting to contemplate the direction of the painting, my 9-year-old bops into my studio on “recess” from remote school and decides to add to the painting… what’s more fun than scribbling? So very helpful, huh?

Third layer…

After my assistant’s recess was over, I decided to use gesso to activate all of those marks… they are made with water-soluble drawing tools, so adding wet paint moves the marks around. I really went at it and smeared all those pencils, pastels, and chalks with a foam brush. It was very satisfying at the time.

Interesting experiment. I don’t love it but learning to be fearless and to be willing to let go is one of the reasons I paint this way. The beauty of these paints and drawing media is that I can continue to paint and cover up what I don’t like and keep what is starting to ring true for me. It’s a continuous process of learning what I like and what I respond to and of trusting my intuition.

So… there is always an “ugly stage” in every painting and sometimes more than one ugly stage. Part of painting intuitively is learning to trust that the piece will come together eventually and to sit with the ugly for a while until a mark or a color push you past it into creating with joy and energy again. It’s a life lesson for me… to take my time and sit with what’s uncomfortable or difficult and let the path forward unfold in it’s own time.

The composition of the painting is starting to develop here but this piece hit it’s “ugly stage” really early in the process! Moving on…

Fourth layer…

After that layer dries, I start adding paint with brushes, sponges, and my hands. I love the sensory nature of painting with my hands. I turn the painting 90 degrees and add drips that will run across the painting in it’s final orientation. I end this painting session with more mark making, lines and scribbles, into the wet paint so that prior layers peek through.

I am loving the colors and blending the paint directly on the canvas. It’s taking shape now but I need to let this layer dry in order to avoid making muddy colors with all that wet paint.

Fifth layer…

(Wow, I really need to get a good camera for taking these photos… my camera phone is not making the grade.)

In this layer, I’ve added more paint and layered more drips. I also added stencils of a middle eastern geometric design, the sacral chakra, and a lotus with gold paint. I know that I’m not done yet, but I’m making progressively smaller changes and stepping back from the canvas more and more to look at it from different angles and depths. I like the addition of the stencils but I don’t want them to pop too much, so I’ll partially hide some of them behind paint and may cover some of them completely. More layers add more mystery and interest to the painting and I find that the layers invite viewers to look at the piece closer and spend more time with it.

Sixth (& Final) layer…

In the final layer, I’m looking at the balance of dark and light, thick and thin lines, the “flow” of the painting (composition and movement) and the intensity of color and paint quality (i.e. is there enough paint on the whole painting and it’s not too thin in any areas). I also ask are there enough marks but not so much that it’s distracting, do I want to add words or collage (not in this painting but I do add them in many of my paintings), and do I need to add a color or two for additional pop or to draw the eye through the painting?

Damn, that’s a hot painting! I love it. I love to look back at the ugly stage and pat myself on the back for sitting with the discomfort of it until something beautiful like this emerges. I learn that I can make tough choices, do hard things, and love what comes, whatever it will be.

Here are the edges…

To finish the painting, I get the final sign off from the client (done), I’ll sign and date it, my husband will take professional photos of it for the website and so that I can make prints of the painting for my Etsy shop, then I’ll varnish in multiple layers to protect it from fading. A few days more work and I’ll hand it off to the happy client.

Every step of the process gives me joy and I learn more about myself as an artist and a human, and about my style and what I love. I trust myself more and more every time I paint. I am so lucky to do this work!

By norahblueart

I am an artist, mom to 2 sassy, spunky, smart and kind girls, wife to an amazing and supportive man, a lifelong learner of anything that strikes my interest and passions, and San Francisco Bay Area native... I love music I can dance to, music I can think to, bold color, walking in nature, cooking and eating, yoga and deeeep breaths, reading really good books, getting dirty, crossword puzzles, games, mazes, the excitement of discovery, learning something new, paint on my hands and clothes, big jewelry, hats, and I especially love that, according to my daughters, "weird is the new awesome".

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