Chickadee dee dee dee dee dee dee dee

I have always enjoyed watching birds. I’m not a “bird watcher” but I really do get a kick out of watching the greedy little bastards slobber at the bird feeder. I remember a field trip I went on as a kid. We went on a hike through the woods with a tour guide from the metro parks who taught us that a chickadee says, “Chickadee dee dee dee dee dee dee deeeeeeee.” (That’s seven Dee’s, if you’re counting.) Ever since then, for some reason, I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for the common black-capped chickadee. They aren’t a magnificent bird. They aren’t rare (at least, not here in Ohio.) And they aren’t big. They are just a very common, very unremarkable bird that I am able to identify immediately, on sight, or just by their nearly omnipresent call.

So, yesterday, I decided to paint one. It didn’t, go well.

So today, I decided to paint one.

It went a little better, but I’m still not entirely pleased.

Here’s the first one I tried to paint. As you can see, I got a lot stupid with the background. I think it’s fairly obvious that I had no genuine plan or goal in mind when I started painting that background, and as a result it looks like Jackson Pollack’s uninspired cousin threw up after a late-night Taco Bell binge.

So, I tried again.

Ok… not too far along, and I’ve already made a good amount of mud. The problem I’m running into here is that I don’t give the pigment enough time to “do its thing” on the paper. Instead, I worry “that isn’t what I’m after… more here. Nope… more here. Nope… dammit… more here…”

As you can see, this approach results in a few moments where I achieve an interesting result, but on the whole, I get a muddy mess. I love what I have going on just to the right of the bird’s breast, but everything beneath the branch feels like a puddle of confused brown mud.

How do I solve this problem you ask? Well… I don’t. It’s too far gone, already. Thankfully, I started this painting knowing that I’d be experimenting. By that, I mean that I’m painting on the back of the first painting – so even if this one accidentally turned out great, it would still be junk, because there’s a big old mess on the obverse.

I like to paint on the back of failed paintings like this, because it takes away the self-imposed pressure I have whenever I paint. Instead of worrying about getting it right, I can paint with more reckless abandon. If something works – I try to remember what worked. If it doesn’t (and more often than not, it doesn’t) I can also try to remember what didn’t work.

The biggest lesson from this disaster is LEARN WHEN TO STOP. When I’m painting, I really really need to listen to that small voice in my head that is screaming “Stop, you idiot! No. It’s not right. But you won’t make it better by smearing more shit on it.”

Instead, I need to stop. Let that mess dry – and I mean really dry. Then, come back and see what I can rescue. Instead, I convince myself that I can fix it. That it just needs another splash of water, another drop of pigment here… but when I do that, I really just magnify the problem.

I heard that small voice at this point, and decided to stop here. I probably should have stopped about five minutes earlier, when I still had some white on the page. Lesson learned. Now I just have to put that lesson into practice.

I did actually decide to let that part dry – and when it did, I moved on to the branch and the bird. I like how I did these. For the branch, I used one of my Joseph Zbukvic brushes, because they have such a super-fine tip, and hold a ton of water. I used a mixture of raw umber and indie blue to get a multi-dimensional brown-black. Then, I painted by just drawing lines, and dropped a few dollops of saturated pigment here and there to suggest some dimension.

For the bird, I painted clean water over a section (starting at the head) and then dropped pigment into the darkest areas – ushering that thick drop of pigment throughout the patch of wet paper. This worked really well.

For the thin stripes, I tried the same thing. I painted a thin stripe of clean water, and then tapped one drop of thick pigment into one end of the stripe, hoping it would migrate to the end on its own. This didn’t really work, so I ended up needing to paint the stripes more traditionally, by using thick pigment to – you know, actually paint a stripe.

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