Nothing to lose: taking risks when painting

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about taking risks when painting. In fact, risk-taking has become an integral part of my process. I will wipe out, paint over, glaze, scumble, and do whatever it takes to get at what I’m trying to communicate in a painting. I take risks to grow as a painter and to push past hurdles. Sometimes I ruin a painting in the process, but if the painting was mediocre or unresolved, then I didn’t lose anything.

He has nothing,
thus has nothing to lose.

-Lao tzu, Tao te ching

I’d like to say that taking risks always results in a successful painting, but that has not been my experience. But as I wrote about previously, I try not to focus too much on creating “a painting” anyway, which makes it easier to take risks. For me, paintings are the byproducts of an experience. Risk-taking fits nicely with this as it’s about letting go of control; being detached from the outcome. That’s part of the joy in painting for me. And it helps me grow as a painter.

Letting go of outcomes

But it is not always convenient to take risks. It can be hard to detach from outcomes when I am getting paintings ready for a show or have had good sales recently. And if I am painting in an event where I need to show finished work at the end, it can be nearly impossible.

I experienced this last year when I participated in a week-long plein air event in Bucks County. Each artist was expected to have at least two finished paintings by the end of the week, framed and ready to hang. For the first few days, I was so focused on making “good paintings” that I was nearly paralyzed. I tried to play it safe, which was a disaster. Not only did it impede my progress, but more importantly- I was not enjoying it.

I’d rather risk an ugly surprise than rely on things I know I can do.

-Helen frankenthaler

By day three, I was tired, frustrated and had not painted anything I wanted to show so I returned to a favorite painting spot to find my joy again. I gave in to risk and I told myself that it was OK if the paintings I hung for the gala were not my best work. I can still remember how much fun I had painting this that morning:

oil painting of green tree

By the last day, I had found my stride again and painted well enough to win an award, which I mention only to illustrate the point.

It’s not about winning awards, though.

Skills and joy

Awards are nice, and it’s incredibly rewarding when someone connects with a painting enough to want to live with it in their home. But ultimately, the two things I care about most when painting are building skills and experiencing joy. Risk-taking is an important part of both, for me. I remind myself of a few important things whenever I find myself playing it safe:

  1. I have nothing, and so I have nothing to lose.
  2. If I even question it, take the risk.
  3. I will embrace the ugly and paint through it.
  4. Growth and joy are more important than any one painting.
  5. There are no shortcuts and there is no straight, predictable path.
  6. If I trust the process, it will take me where I need to go.

Taking risks is always worth it. Always risk ruining a painting for an opportunity to grow.

Best wishes and thank you for reading.


3 thoughts on “Nothing to lose: taking risks when painting

  1. Tracy, I really like your blog. Thank you for your honest sharing. It is inspiring and helpful to aspiring painters.

    1. Hi Sharon – thank you for taking the time to read and leave a comment. I’m glad you’re finding the blog helpful! Happy painting…

  2. Thanks for sharing your personal frustrations with us. We all suffer, and it’s nice to know that someone as accomplished as you experiences the same growing pains and small failures.

    Congratulations on being included in the amazing group show at sugarlift- it must be so exciting!

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