My Struggle: Balancing Creativity and Technical Ability, Derek Penix

"Spade Fish" 40x40  Oil Painters of America Gold Medal Winner 2016

When I began painting I was really intrigued by the idea of expressing myself through color, brushwork and abstractions. I loved the idea of piecing together colors and shapes, creating what was basically an illusion. I was attracted to the creativity and the idea of expression, and the romantics of painting. So, I tried to teach myself to emulate the impressionists. I bought art supplies without knowing what I was doing at all. It was exciting and fun. Like falling in love. But after years of painting, I started to hit a wall. I realized I had developed all that I could on my own and needed to develop more technical ability.

My mind became more opened up to drawing, values, etc... I became more attracted to and really appreciated the technical genius of masters like Sargent, and Zorn’s work. More and more I tried to develop my own skills. The better I got at seeing, the more I saw. I started to see more of the subtleties. I began seeing too much though, in the way of just copying what I saw. I would just describe instead of expressing what I wanted to say, all the while not really even knowing what I wanted to say.  

"Spade Fish II" 17x24 Available through Gallery 1261

Over time I fell into a trap of technicality, in turn losing the intuitive side of painting and the joy of creativity. It became more of a duty instead of an adventure. Hard work.  I would dread painting. As I would paint I was at war between my left-brain and my right-brain. My process would start off by copying too much information of the subject. I would make the painting look stiff and over-worked. I would then step back and hate the painting. I would try and change the whole thing by busting up the edges to break up the monotony so it wasn’t so stagnant. But I still wouldn’t be satisfied and would try to bring it back, only to again over-work it. I would even change mid-painting by trying this idea or that idea. Sometimes the painting would have gone through many many versions before I would have to settle and force myself to finish it before I lost my mind! The process was mind-numbing and extremely frustrating.  Because of this, painting lost its appeal to me. The positive side though, was that I had been actually growing through the pain.

Now as I’m thinking about all these struggles, I can see their value.  For many reasons.  As you develop “you,” you grow and get better.  But it comes at a cost.  I can easily over think my paintings and work too hard.  Searching for something but not knowing what it is.  But I do know I’ve learned a few things in all of this. For one, not to overthink it!  Just let myself go, and not worry, having no fear of what anyone thinks.  Finally, not to be too hard on myself and avoid judging myself too much. Failure is good.  That's how you learn, and grow!

I think as an artist, you will never really “arrive.”  Painting is about a process. It’s not a destination. It's a journey.  I think you will stop growing once you think you’ve arrived.  

"Recess" 16x20 Reserved for the Oil Painters of America Salon Show at Castle Gallery Fine Art in Fort Wayne, Indiana Sept. 30 - Oct. 29, 201

So, the question is, “How do we learn how to paint and still have the freedom to be creative?” There are certain laws in painting that bind some, while others throw the rules out because, “rules are meant to be broken.” All the while the chasm between the two can be great. Everyone is different, with different temperaments and personalities. Because of this, some artists are geared to be more technical, and some more expressive.  I’m looking for a balance between the two. For example, you must develop the technical skills to even be able to express what you want to say. It takes time and work.

"Into the Blue" 36x36 Reserved for Oil Painters of America Western Regional Show at The Marshall Gallery of Fine Art in Scottsdale, AZ, November 4 - 30, 201

With this in mind, I’ve recently come up with an idea for my next series of paintings. I’ve started a series of Spade Fish that I’m particularly excited about. I plan on stretching myself like never before with this subject matter.  I am going to work on distorting reality, whether that be through changing the way I paint it, like many dry brush layers, or by playing with a particular color, like to paint a painting that's only blues. At other times I may say I love the subject the way that it is and paint it the best I see it.  I want to play with the elements of design.... Line, shape, value, color, texture and edges, but take them to their extremes!

I know that painting can be super hard at times. I hope that by sharing my struggle with you, it will help you in some way!

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Learn more about Derek and his work at


Lori Putnam5 Comments