“When you hit a wrong note, it’s the next note that you play that determines if it’s good or bad.” -Miles Davis
How often when painting do we put down a color patch, a mark, or a brushstroke that just doesn’t hit the note we’re after? Too often. The many ways that our moves on the canvas can be off are dauntingly large. The value can be too dark or too light. The hue and temperature can fail to mesh with the existing colors. They might pop out or sink in, or create a jarring discord. The drawing – things that affect the rightness of proportion, or the readability of the space – can go off track, creating strange distortions.
Our first reaction is to think we’ve made a mistake! A mistake is something that is not correct, an inaccuracy. But what if we change the way we look at, and think about, this apparent disaster? Learning to paint is not just about learning techniques, it’s about appropriating new eyes and a new mind for considering this fraught enterprise in which we’re engaged. What if we stop thinking about that bad color note as an isolated “incorrectness” and instead consider the whole context in which this misstep appears defective? Sometimes a mistake is a gift in disguise.
In the end, every color we put on the canvas is simply a fact. Every color is a verb that acts. That patch of paint we’ve just applied to the canvas has a color hue and temperature, a value and an a level of saturation or intensity. Further, and more importantly, it’s appearance in our painting is a function not just of pigment but of relationship. Leonardo was perhaps the first artist to note the phenomenon of relativity in color and value. A color, he says, appears as it does according to the context in which it is placed, and that same color can look very different depending on the other colors it is seen against. Delacroix, embracing this phenomenon of painting said, famously, “Give me mud, and with it I will paint the flesh of Venus, if you allow me to surround it as I please.”
Miles Davis, the great jazz trumpeter, gives us a new way to think about these so-called mistakes. Everything depends, he says, on what comes next. The next notes you play can either confirm and compound the sense of wrongness, or they can begin to welcome that mistake into the ensemble and make it meaningful, even revelatory. A mistake is what we make when we’re following a preconceived aim and a piece of the puzzle doesn’t fit. If we stay open to what happens we have the potential of following the work into some very interesting territory. The many gaps between what we think we’re doing and what actually happens is where a lot of the excitement of painting happens. Thinking of painting as a kind of visual improvisation, rather than a step by step process, opens new doors. It gives us a whole different set of sensitivities with which to solve the problems of a particular painting.