Mining for Gems

When the Big Pile of Nope in your studio gets too big and discouraging, it's time to go mining!

I do a lot of experimenting. I work in multiple drafts. As most of you know, the “duds”, demos, and experiments I don’t know what to do with go onto the Big Pile of Nope.

Maybe it should be called “the Big Pile of Maybe Later”.

I can always paint on the back. Skies that don’t work out for the painting I’m working on might work for another one. Sometimes I need paper that already has some layers of paint on it where I can practice or demonstrate a technique. The Pile is useful. It’s a great way to get full value out of every piece of watercolor paper. But eventually, it gets big enough to become the Big Pile of Discouragement.

That’s when the knives come out.

It’s time to redeem the Big Pile of whatever (and mix metaphors). Let’s go Mining for Gems!

Getting ready to go mining in the Big Pile of Nope.

Lurking in those “failures” are seeds of greatness! Or, at least, the beginning of a bunch of postcards.

All you need is a Gem Finder™, a.k.a. a piece of paper or cardstock with a 4×6″ window cut in it. An old mat, if you have one with that size opening, works great. Obviously, you can search for larger or smaller “gems”, too, by just changing the size of the opening. Cutting a larger mat apart into two L’s works well if you want to be able to slide them to make the opening bigger or smaller.

If the paintings in your Big Pile of Nope are already postcard-sized, go even smaller! Little 2×2″ or 2×3″ bits can be great for a notecard.

Take a painting from the Big Pile of Nope, put your viewfinder down on it, and slide it around, looking for possibilities. You don’t have to stick with the same orientation all the time. You can turn the paper upside down or sideways or even on a slant. You can mine for horizontal or vertical postcards.

This has great atmosphere! It could definitely be the start of a beach scene. I would just need to add some sand and a couple of people walking their dog, or a few seagulls, or some big rocks offshore, or a boat.

Once you settle on a Gem, make little pencil marks in each corner, lift off your Gem Finder window, and cut out the part you want to save. For a postcard I’m going to mail, I cut down to exactly 4×6″. If you’re going to work on something you might frame later, be sure to add at least a quarter-inch margin to go under the mat when it’s framed. (Your framer will probably be happier with a half-inch.)

Here’s a leftover section of a painting that had a section of streaky, blotchy wash ruining the sky. I used the streaky, blotchy part to test ideas for fixing streaky, blotchy parts of a sky wash (which obviously didn’t work!). This section still has potential. I don’t want to toss it out, but I don’t have any great ideas for “finishing” it. So, it’s sitting in my Big Pile of Nope, just making me feel guilty, and reminding me of how I messed up the initial wash.

Nope.
(Leftover from a painting with a dark, streaky area in the sky.)

Let’s go mining!

Gems discovered! Great starts for two postcards—yay!

With my Gem Finder, I discovered two sections that would be great starts for postcards. Sometimes, these little Gems give me postcard starts I wouldn’t be able to make happen on purpose, like the interesting broken white area on the bottom of one of these Gems.

Before . . .

One of the toughest types of landscapes in watercolor is one with bright fall trees and a blue sky. It doesn’t work to bring the blue sky wash all the way down, because having the blue under yellows, reds and oranges dulls them and turns them greenish or brownish. It’s also really hard to paint a blue sky (especially with clouds involved!) that ends with a raggedy edge that looks like the tops of a bunch of trees. But this little start has a broken random white area at the bottom that’s in just the right spot, and just the right sort of shape, to be the tops of some trees. (I’d never be able to make that happen on purpose on this small scale!)

. . . and after.

I decided to add some mountains just to give the painting a bit of depth. It’s not the most fabulous painting ever, but hey, it’s a pretty nice postcard! And it’s one that would have been really hard to paint without watercolor and my Gem Finder giving me the gift of the perfect raggedy-edged white shape at the bottom.

Best of all, discouragement and guilt has been transformed into excitement and satisfaction! The Big Pile of Nope has given me one postcard that would have been tough to pull off from scratch, and another start that has some great sparkly water (another thing that can be tough to make happen).

This time, I was mining for square shapes for greeting cards and small abstract paintings. I got some collage bits, too.

Even paintings that seem to have no gems lurking inside can be a source of lovely little bits of color and interest for collaging onto a greeting card.

More possibilities!

Little bits like this are great for collage. It doesn’t have to be a scene; it could be just a decorative border or random colorful bits arranged to enhance some words of friendship or celebration. I like to use to create a colorful border to enhance an ink drawing.

I used to say I would use the Big Pile of Nope for collage, but it was too discouraging to sift through all those reminders of “failed paintings” just to find a colorful bit of paper. Now I extract the exciting bits ahead of time and keep them in a little bag beside my blank greeting cards. Having only the “gems” to sort through makes it quick and easy to dress up a blank greeting card. On a grey day, it’s therapeutic just to pull them out and look at all the wonderful colors and textures.

And speaking of grey days . . . Mining for Gems is a great activity for days when you feel too stressed or depleted to work on more challenging projects.

So, grab your Big Pile of Nope and give it a try! By the time you’re done Mining for Gems, your big Pile of Nope will be transformed into a treasure chest of potential, and your discouragement will be replaced with joy and anticipation.

Happy mining!

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