Unlike so many things in life, painting often gives us the chance for a do-over. We can scrape out what we’ve done or just start again. We learn something from that second (or third, or fourth) attempt that helps make our next effort better. As frustrating as that may be, it’s how we learn. In this post, I’d like to take you through the story of one of my own do-overs.
In 2014 I staged an exhibition called Acceptance. This series was a departure for me. As SeattleMet described it, “Mitchell Albala’s latest collection of works takes a dark turn. While still drawing heavily on soft, semi-abstract horizons, these paintings focus on historical human catastrophes … It’s beauty to ease the horror, and horror to make the beauty unsettling.”
In Japanese the atomic bomb detonation was described as a brilliant light, pika, followed by a thunderous blast, don.
One of the paintings in the show, Pika Don, depicted the Hiroshima mushroom cloud. I wanted to make the mushroom cloud look like a regular cloud, but infuse something into it that would give it an unsettling quality — some clue as to what it actually was. My solution was to use saturated colors, to perhaps suggest the heat and radioactivity of the blast. That might be both beautiful and disturbing, which was the paradox I intended for each painting in the series. But I was never as satisfied with Pika Don as I was with the other pieces in the series.
Ordinarily, once I declare a painting finished, I move on. If it’s less than perfect, I let it stand as a statement in time, a record of my artistic history. Not so with Pika Don. After the exhibition the painting came back to my studio and sat in the corner for nearly three years. One day I pulled it out and was newly impressed by just how much I disliked it. The color seemed unnatural and the cloud itself — which can be one of nature’s most structural forms — looked flat. I was ready to sentence the painting to the dumpster (sometimes a necessary purging), when I thought, Why not rework it? What did I have to lose?
As I was starting the revisions, my friend and colleague Michael Stasinos stopped by the studio. I showed him the painting and the archival photograph I was using as reference. I expected him to comment on the color, but he noticed a compositional problem I had missed.
“A painting answers only to itself.”
In a sense, every painting is like a do-over. Each painting, each effort, each mistake can teach us something that we can apply to our next painting. When working from photos, I encourage my students to depart from the photo as needed. “A painting answers only to itself.” With Pika Don, that was advice I needed to take myself. By departing from the historical “truth” of the photo, I was able to create a stronger composition and a better painting.