Even the master artists of the past made mistakes. None of us are perfect. Don’t let fear stop you from sharing your art with the world.
Kristie and I went to Chicago to renew her passport a few weeks ago. We got there early, as soon as they opened. Once we finished with the first step in the process we had to wait 7-8 hours to pick it up.
I wasn’t complaining. That gave us a happy opportunity to lose track of time while visiting the American Academy of Art.
We got there a bit before it opened and were amazed at the long line of patrons waiting outside. In a society filled with possible distractions, it sure was good to see others as anxious as us to enjoy a day at an art museum.
I could fill pages and pages with photos of the inspiring beauty and masterful artwork we saw.
That, however, is a topic for a different blog post.
Maybe it’s the past 3 years of monthly critiques I’ve been doing with The Master Oil Painting Membership, but even with some of history’s most celebrated artists, glaring design problems jumped out at me.
What a wonderful thing! The best artists from history left design flaws behind. That should give all of us hope.
Imperfections in the Masters’ Works
These incredible artists who have touched our hearts and brought tears to our eyes with the brilliance of their work – they struggled just like us. Our paintings don’t have to be perfect to touch someone’s life with light and beauty.
Keep in mind – much in design and art is subjective. There really isn’t a ‘right’ way. Maybe the artists put each of these ‘mistakes’ in for reasons I’m just not seeing. Either way, let me show you what stood out to me.
Claude Monet – Boxed in Clouds and Floating Trees
The first one was a beautiful piece by Monet. The warm and cool colors in the cliff shadows and the figures were dazzling. Then the cloud pattern struck me.
Monet created a box with four equally spaced and sized clouds in the upper left. It didn’t ruin the painting for me, but it was definitely a distraction.
Moving on to one of his nearby paintings I found myself staring at another distracting element. He painted a floating tree set distinctly in the midst of small dabs of splendidly painted poppies. There is nothing to suggest that the tree is rooted to the ground.
It seems to hover like a giant green asparagus.
And according to research, the painting was done partially on location and finished in the studio. Why does that matter? Because it means it wasn’t just a quick on the spot capturing of nature. He thought through the composition and worked and reworked areas until he had what he wanted.
Still, his ability to capture subtle color variations and light is entrancing and inspiring, but it feels good knowing even Monet made mistakes.
Childe Hassam – Misplaced Horizon Line
Childe Hassam is another of my favorite painters. His work sparkles with light and movement. He brings seemingly mundane views to captivating life!
So why did he place the horizon line right in the middle of the canvas? Did the painting need that much empty sky?
Maybe he felt all the brushstroke action in the lower area needed to be balanced by a large, and equal, amount of quiet space. Cropping the painting to me makes it much more exciting though.
Henri Fantin-Latour – Distracting Angles and Tangents
One final painting that caught my attention was a still life with Rhododendrons by Henri Fantin-Latour.
I was a fan of his work already, but those exquisite flowers took him up higher on my list of favorites.
After pulling my eyes from his masterful flowers I noticed a few inconsistencies.
The most glaring was the frame in the upper left corner. That might be how it looked when he was painting it, but it sure felt awkward. And what happens when something feels awkward? It demands attention.
Why draw attention to something comparatively unimportant? It looks like he is directing the viewer to the signature of the painting in the frame, but to me, it does so at the expense of the rest of the beautifully painted piece. The frame looks like it is jutting out toward the viewer rather than sitting back against the wall.
Next, I noticed that the lower flowers are all arranged on a straight line.
Right above them, two leaves at the top of the plant are painted like wings on a fluffy-headed bird. And the right leaf comes to an uncomfortable tangent with the fruit – almost but not quite touching.
Bill Inman – Light Source Confusion
Yeah, I know, I’m not a historical master. But, if I’m going to throw out jabs at the masters, I thought I should let you know I’m right there with them.
When I did the blog post about Cast Shadow Length, I used a couple of paintings to demonstrate creating shadows from imagination.
The next day I took a second look at those same paintings to see how well ‘intuition’ fared when it came to the light source direction. Oh, boy – I didn’t pay enough attention.
In The Dance (above), the aspen shadows don’t all tilt in the same direction. A portion of that could be explained as ground level changes, but certainly not to this extent.
In Breakfast is Ready (above), there’s some odd shadow in the lower left I never noticed before that doesn’t seem to match up with any of the objects or the light source.
Considering how strong the tall tree shadows are, many of the other shadows in the painting should probably be longer and the bush in the middle is missing its shadow.
The tree shadow in the upper right red circle is slanting the wrong direction.
You know what, even with all those glaring mistakes it remains one of my favorite paintings.
Our work doesn’t have to be perfect to be memorable.
Don’t wait until your work is perfect to get it out for the world to enjoy or you’ll never progress. How often do you hear anyone complain about mistakes in Monet’s work?
This was the first for me. Regardless of mistakes, his work will continue to stir my soul.
Of course, I’m still going to pay closer attention to things like shadow direction in my own paintings in the future. But I’m not going to let it slow me down by second-guessing every possible problem, or get discouraged by past mistakes that I can’t fix.
Soul stirring emotion trumps cautious perfection every time!
Sometimes, when we paint with feeling and bravura, we’re going to miss something. That’s okay. Soul stirring emotion trumps cautious perfection every time!
Paint with gusto and throw caution to the wind. If a painting doesn’t resonate with anyone, then look more closely for something you might have missed. Otherwise, keep moving forward and paint your next masterpiece.
Oh, and visit the American Academy of Art – you can’t leave there without being inspired!
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If I may I’d like to point out to 2 things that drew my attention.
1) In Monet’s Poppy Field with the giant asparagus floating in the middle, you say ” the painting was done partially on location and in the field.” Isn’t location and in the field the same thing ? + Looks to me like the asparagus-tree is sectioned in the middle, which gives me the feeling that this painting wasn’t finished when it left his studio.
2) In Fantin-Latour, the reason the frame seems like it ”is jutting out toward the viewer rather than sitting back against the wall” is probably because in Europe frames were often hung higher up, not at eye level, and with the top away from the wall so that when viewed from below you could take in the whole picture. Still, you’re right, there’s a weird perspective distortion going on, unless the room was not square and walls not at 45-degree angle.
For the flowers, could it be possible that the planter was set parallel to the viewer/painter and not to the table ?
Thanks for pointing out these discrepancies. I remember noticing some that no one spoke about, but you’re right these guys were human after all. It makes a good case against perfectionism. I remember Jim Wilcox made a painting for a lodge in the Canadian Rockies and there’s a ”mouse” in his sky, so people point to the mouse, I think JW felt somewhat embarrassed. But it’s an amazing work nonetheless. LOL
Thank you for pointing out the ‘location’ ‘field’ repetition. It was supposed to say ‘studio’ not field. So much for a ‘perfect’ blog post, eh! Oh the woes of being an artist and having our work visible for all the critics to see. Fortunately, most people focus on the beauty more than the problems.
Wonderful insight Bill. Thanks for your excellent teaching and direction!!
Wonderful post. I was in the Laguna Art Museum 2 weeks ago studying the California impressionist and noticed mistakes in nearly every painting. It didn’t ruin their impact at all and didn’t take away my awe of the artists ability. In fact as you mention in this post, my response to them encouraged rather than discouraged me.
At first I was a little embarrassed; who was I to question these masters? I realized as you point out that mistakes are a part of painting but not not necessarily ruin the impact. Thank you for writing this insightful post.
Loved this iconoclastic blog, Bill! It is reassuring to see how the Masters goofed. And I liked the idea of looking at yourself in the mirror! A winner blog.
Thank you! Sets me a bit more free…
You are just amazing artist.It definitely needs lot of courage to accept the mistakes in a painting,great.Well explained!