Getting it Wrong

My painting is bad enough to warrant constant practice. —Fairfield Porter


You have to get it wrong before you can get it right.


Or maybe the italics should be: You have to do it wrong before you can get it right.


This sentence came to mind this morning while I was painting away, happily. (Happily! Did you read that?? I have not painted “happily” in lo these many moons. Indeed, I did not know if I would ever care to paint again for the better part of a year now.)


I’m painting an interior scene—the living room in our apartment, which is painted a melony shade of orange. We didn’t choose it—our landlady, Jean, did—but luckily orange is maybe my favorite color. Also, it helps fight the Portland winter grays.


I’ve never done this before—painted an interior. Just set up and painted right in my own house. But I’m loving it. I’m not sure how well the painting is going to turn out. I’m not sure it looks like anything right now. But every day when I paint on it, I experience pleasure. Pleasure in the process of painting. And when I’m done, I always experience a bit of a let down when I look critically at the painting, and it doesn’t look as good as it felt. But I’m not letting that distract me too much. I think this could be a sea-change.


I was reading my Fairfield Porter book, a painter I love, and envying his practice. Painting his household, his family, his rooms & furniture, the landscape around him. And I found myself wanting to do the same. And feeling like I couldn’t. That it somehow wasn’t serious enough as an enterprise. That it was also boring, and bourgeois, and archaic, and not a cool contemporary thing to do. And that it wasn’t a focused enough project, that it would be scattered and piecemeal. And then I just thought, fuck it. Having a more narrowly focused project (pictures of figures turning into trees, for example) wasn’t working for me anyway. So maybe I’m not a project artist. And this feeling that my overall work has to be “about” something, preferably something based on critical theory is just a hangover from graduate school. That is to say, more or less bullshit. And maybe, just maybe, things will come together somehow anyway. Over time. If I can manage to keep painting over the Valkyrie chorus of my own nay-saying.


I am not trying to interpret any slogan or phrase in my painting. The visual arts are non-verbal and direct; modern education is verbal and indirect . . . The experience of a painter while he is painting is about the nature of the paint—that is his most direct experience—all other things, like what he is looking at outside the painting, what he remembers, what he thinks about with the left-over part of his mind, all talking to himself, etc., and all translation of outside sensation, insofar as they have to do with the painting, have to do with illusion. Therefore the realism of my paintings is its illusory side. What illusions this evokes in the spectator is mostly beyond my knowledge.

—Fairfield Porter, Interview with Paul Cummings, 1968


The thing that I am experiencing very intensely with this painting—besides, of course, always and forever “the nature of the paint,” as Fairfield says—has to do with getting it wrong. By which I mean, when I go to paint anything, I initially always have it in not-quite-the-right place, and not-quite-the-right color. And I used to be very discouraged by this and think, why can’t I get it right? If I were a better artist, I would get it right from the beginning. But what I’m seeing more and more clearly is the utter fallacy of this idea. In fact, the only way I can see how something should look is by painting it and then seeing how it isn’t quite there yet. I have to paint it first so that I have something to compare with the world in front of me. That first attempt is not just a regrettable error, to hasten past on the march to goodness and rightness and doneness, it’s an unavoidable, deeply necessary part of the process. The wrongness is what gets you to rightness. Only actually making something allows you to see how it can be adjusted, moved, tweaked, changed, to better reflect reality or express yourself. You have to write the first draft before you can write the second draft, let alone the final draft.


I’m not sure I’ve fully expressed how revolutionary this is to me. Maybe it sounds damningly obvious. But to actually experience this in action feels nothing short of of revelatory, hitting home with the force only a truism can bring to bear when you suddenly realize that its cliched wisdom actually applies to your own, unique existence. (And yes, air quotes and eye-rolling accompany that "unique.")


And furthermore, if I actually just painted a painting perfectly straight from the get-go, everything in the right place, nothing to be scraped out, or moved or repainted ten times, the surface of the painting would be about the most boring surface ever. Smooth and flat, with no history of its own making:  no brushmarks, no depth, no layers, no impasto, no glimmers of colors showing through other colors, in short: none of the physical qualities that I love about paintings. The haptic stuff. The textures you want to touch. The actual paint, built up on a surface that both makes an image and is a thing itself. All the reasons I started painting in the first place. Whoa.


You have to get it wrong before you can get it right.