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Artistic Growth – From “Huh” to “Wow”

This week, we’ll talk about changing artistic direction and how the first reaction doesn’t always matter as much as the second one.

Lovestory - an oil painting by Paivi Eerola of Peony and Parakeet. Read about her artistic growth!
My newest painting “Rakkaustarina – Lovestory”, oil on canvas, 40 x 50 cm.

My seed idea for this painting was slightly different from usual, and I wanted to see how it would grow on canvas. It took many sessions and lots of struggles with finishing. “There’s still something wrong with this painting, Paivi,” I said to myself after correcting a couple of shapes that my husband pointed out. Last night, I had a dream that I walked an ugly dog on a thin leash. The breed was an odd choice, but the dog was still mine.

“Huh” and “Wow” – First and Second Reactions

Isn’t it so that we want to change, but as soon as we begin to see the results, we are likely to bounce back? It’s so easy to say: “No, this is not for me, I’ll try something else. I’ll try a different style, a new technique, another art class, or find other artists to follow and admire.” And this is not only a bad thing. In the long run, bouncing back is about integrating the new stuff into our natural self. But in the short run, it can prevent the growth we want and need.

Oil painting in progress. Artistic expression on canvas. By Paivi Eerola of Peony and Parakeet.
I use an easel when I want to see the big picture, and put the painting on the table when I work on the details.

I have been reading James Victore‘s Feck Perfuction as an audiobook. It’s a book about creativity and easy listening about things that are really tough in practice. It’s more like a two-hour inspirational speech than a down-to-earth guide, but it feels current with this painting. In the book, James Victore refers to an American pop artist Edward Ruscha. He has said: “Good art should elicit a response of ‘Huh? Wow!’ as opposed to ‘Wow! Huh?'”

This week, my favorite video podcast, One Fantastic Week, talked about “Instagram art” – pictures that the Instagram algorithm likes. It’s colorful, easy to consume and comprehend, but its exposure doesn’t ensure the artistic quality.

Artistic Growth and New Truths

When a painting is not for a class or a specific exhibition, I try not to think about the audience too much. I trust that you will pick what you like, and forgive me those you don’t.

But with this painting, I realized that I have played in the “Wow! Huh?” category, and this one tries to be more “Huh? Wow!” And that change makes me uncomfortable. It’s like I have been written a revealing story but in a code language, being afraid that anyone who stops to look will see to the core of me. And at the same time, worrying about that anyone who doesn’t, only sees a mess.

Oil painting in progress. By Paivi Eerola of Peony and Parakeet.
Oil paints are different from acrylics so that you can easily smoothen or remove the paint with cloth.

An Outside View to the Inside World

Teaching art has helped me to grow as an artist a lot. For example, when I get to see a student sharing a wonderful painting saying: “I don’t know about this one,” my gut reaction is then: “What!? This is beautiful!” But what’s “huh” for them is “wow” for me because I see the painting in a context that’s still new to them. They haven’t got used to seeing themselves like that. They are in the middle of a change, and it’s tempting to get back to the same old thing.

Oil painting in progress. Paints and palettes. By Paivi Eerola of Peony and Parakeet.
In progress. Oil paints are stored in a wooden box that my husband made for them.
I recycle plastic lids and use them as palettes.

But when we do something regularly, it’s natural to miss the change. Floating on the surface isn’t enough anymore, and we get curious what’s deeper – “behind the glass” as we say in Floral Freedom, referring to Wassily Kandinsky‘s teachings. Then we need to learn, stretch, and redefine. Accept new truths.

Lovestory - an oil painting by Paivi Eerola of Peony and Parakeet.

When looking at the mirror, I see more wrinkles than before. What was “huh” some years ago would be “wow” now. But with this wisdom, I hope long life for this painting. That the “huh” that it causes now will be “wow” someday. Maybe after I have fully accepted that my artistic growth is towards more and more abstract art.

Paivi Eerola and her oil painting. Read about her artistic growth!

It’s also good to accept that some paintings are just “huh-huh” and a few manage to be “wow-wow,” and what’s “huh” for some is “wow” for another. What do you think?

21 thoughts on “Artistic Growth – From “Huh” to “Wow”

  1. I love and respect how you talk about your own vulnerabilities in approaching your painting practice. The way that you pair your photos with the text is also very helpful. Thank you!

  2. Wow-huh great subject….yes, i want to grow as an artist and there are times when my painting is a wow for me and I’m afraid to add another stroke. I let it sit and hang it in my studio and after awhile the huh usually kicks in. I’ve gone back into many a painting and have created a huh-huh. Your class is so inspiring in that I’m learning structure, resisting it at times and yet i can see the path as it leads to greater freedom and possibilities for future work.
    Thank you.

    1. Thank you for sharing, Karen! You decribed the process so well – how wows and huhs take turns when creating. Your comment is a wonderful addition to the post. It’s so nice to hear that you have been enjoying Floral Freedom!

  3. I think that I just love your art work! It truly inspires me. I am of Scandinavian descent and something in most of your work just speaks to me. Your videos are just such a help.

    1. Thanks so much, Yvonne! You know, when I started blogging over 10 years ago, I thought I should not talk about Finland at all. And then when I started mentioning it, I was surprised how many have some relation to our country. It’s great!

  4. I can’t look at what I paint as wow. I’m afraid I’m seeing something that really isn’t there. When others see the wow, I can believe it’s true. I had an
    art instructor in college that ask me during a charcoal drawing class to critique my own work. I said, I’m very happy with it. She then “ tore me apart in front of the class” and said a true artist is NEVER SATISFIED with their work. Etc etc. I was so devastated. It was hard to face the class the next day. I haven’t seem to get over her criticism that day. It was a huh kind on day.

    1. Hmph. Not such a great teacher. Yes, there is always room for critique, but a better teacher would have asked you -why- you were so happy with it, and moved on from there… =) Happy is good! And, happy does not mean perfect. But happy is a wonderful start. I hope you’re more happy with your art years later!

    2. That’s terrible! I can’t think of any other reason than jealousy – jealousy of your work and your satisfied feeling. You have the right to be happy, and I hope you are!!

  5. Hi Paivi
    My first thought when I saw your painting was that it had wonderful movement in it. To me it looks like a flurry of leaves. It’s more than beautiful, it’s alive.
    Cheers, Marilyn

    1. Thank you so much, Marilyn! Expressing movement and speed is very important to me. I feel that change is one of the core things in life, and I want my paintings to express that with movement.

  6. Päivi, I love that work. It feels like brushy tickles, and the depth of the undergrowth that just gets more amazing the further in you look. The colors and translucency are just beautiful! And it is very you, as well. I also see a knife prying apart the darkness to let light and joy in. Thanks for another thoughtful and thought-producing post/video!

    1. Thank you, Heather!! I love painting with watercolors because they are so translucent. But I realized that I can also paint like that in oils, and get all the good stuff that oils also have. Like being able to bring white back, and use my fingers too.

  7. This may be a repeat message as i did post yesterday however it doesn’t seem to be showing up….
    Great appreciation for the passion and playfulness you bring to your teaching. The huh/wow top ice helped me to realize how reactive i am to comments or lack of comments on my work. There is certainly a part of me that gets so excited when i like a painting i did, the initial Wow….i did that….most often turns into a huh? That’s when i have to put it away for a rest. My tendency is to go back in aNd work it rather to recapture a wow rather than let it rest and i often create more hugs than not.
    You have helped me to slow down and practice patience….which renews the playful aspects.
    I am so grateful to you and to this group!

    1. Thank you for your comments. The posts don’t always show at once, because the system leaves some for me to decide if they are spam or not. This time, there were many comments that definitely weren’t spam!

  8. I think, for me as an artist, the process is more important than the end result. My primary reason for creating is that the experience of creating is very exciting, challenging and satisfying. Sometimes I dont get the “wow” experience until years later when I stumble across something I have done in the past. I like trying new things, playing, and discovering different aspects of myself. I am learning to trust, when I get that sick, uncomfortable feeling in my gut, that it will resolve. I enjoy the feeling of the new light, new way to resolve whatever the “problem” is. I am fascinated hearing about your process and continue to learn so much from you Päivi.

    1. Jan, I agree with you about the process of art! Art making is part of my spiritual practice. Have painted Icons in the past and since 2019 I’ve created a mandala a Day. and have a collection that I’m considering burning. I’ve witnessed the creation of Tibetan Sand Mandalas and the power of letting go. and that’s how I approach most of my work.
      And admittedly, I still like validation that my art is something other’s appreciate!

      * The destruction of the mandala serves as a reminder of the impermanence of life. The coloured sand is swept up into an urn and dispersed into flowing water – a way of extending the healing powers to the whole world. It is seen as a gift to the mother earth to re-energise the environment and universe

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