50 Shades of Grey and Other Lessons in Modesty: What I’ve Learned Painting Every Day

When I started painting in college, I was very much drawn to color. My professor showed us paintings of impressionists and moderns which exhibited what she called a “ping” of rich, vibrant, saturated color.

I loved the “ping”. So much so that I think for years I used only “pings,” diluted only by own inability to thoroughly wash my brushes between colors.

PicMonkey Collage 2
Earlier painting vs. recent painting

And then I did two thirty in thirty challenges– a painting every day for an entire month– one in April and another in September. When I look at the two thirty day series and at my current work, I see growth and changes. I see shades of grey. I’m learning nuance. It took me over tens years, but I’ve finally begun to learn the value of neutrals.

Before September, I NEVER mixed grey. I’d very occasionally desaturate certain colors with their compliments but never, never, did I intentionally mix a neutral. In fact, I searched for the color in sidewalks and shadows, assured that all greys would yield to purple, blue and sometimes even orange. And they do, but not the flamboyant colors of my imagination. It’s more like grey-purples, grey-blues, etc.

Discovering grey was like finding the missing piece. So often I’d look at a painting and say, “It needs another color.” But which one? What was I missing? Grey, of course,  but I didn’t realize it until just recently. And I want to shout it from the rooftops.

PicMonkey Collage
Side by side of my favorite painting from my first challenge and my favorite recent painting. Notice the neutrals and bigger brushstrokes in the second image.

Now I make grey by mixing blue, red, and yellow in different ratios to get different shades. And the shades are glorious. The saturated colors of my palette can now be that “ping.” They aren’t overwhelmed by the competition– a lesson, no doubt, in modesty.

big brush little brush
Big brush vs. little brush. Size matters!

There are other lessons too. I’ve never been a fan of the tiny brush, but lately I’ve abandoned even my not-so-small brushes for a nice, flat 12. I use it on my 6x6s and have found that it declutters my paintings. No longer any need for five brushstrokes when one will do. The bigger brush has made me less hasty, more thoughtful. A single stroke now far more important than it’s ever been. With the smaller brushes, countless strokes pile up and it becomes all painting and very little looking. Being modest and a bit reserved in my strokes creates a subtlety to my work I didn’t know was possible. I find my paintings to be more peaceful, the work of my hand more aware, my art more modest and yet more compelling.

And if it took me years to learn something most artists learn right away, well, I’m happy to add humility to my burgeoning virtue of modesty.

Thirty day challenges have changed me. But they don’t quite feel enough anymore. I’m considering 100 paintings in 100 days, but even though both humility and modesty are on my mind, I’d sure feel better about such a feat if I got a few resounding “Go for its.” Just saying.


Picture of Denise Hopkins

Denise Hopkins

January 5, 2015

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