The Imperfect Butterfly

When we're first learning to make art as children, we hear a few things that become familiar over time.  Skies are blue! Tree trunks are brown, leaves are green.  Butterflies are supposed to be perfectly symmetrical!

"Mini-Butterfly 1"
4 x 4 inch found metal and acrylic on canvas
Click here to view auction
Well, if you take a long look around you, you'll notice that most of that well-intended advice was wrong.  Trees can have blue, purple, and green trunks-- or even red or yellow, depending on the lighting.  Leaves can be just about any color too!  Butterflies, while appearing symmetrical, aren't necessarily so if you look closely.  Most of the butterflies I paint from photos have damaged wings, which isn't noticeable to me until I take the time to examine the photos in detail.

"Mini-Butterfly 2"
4 x 4 found metal and acrylic on flat canvas
Click here to view auction

So why do we hear the same advice being repeated to kids over the years?  What's the first question most people have when a child shows us a painting?

 "What is it supposed to be?"

I catch myself asking this with my own kids. I've tried rephrasing it into "What did you paint?" Or "What did you make in your painting?"  It still implies the same thing though: "I don't know what you painted!"

It's human nature to look for the familiar in a picture.  We look for faces, blue skies, tails on animals, or green grass.  Using those tired, familiar rules helps people immediately identify what objects are in the painting.  Making a butterfly symmetrical helps the viewer recognize that you painted a butterfly, which eliminates the awkward practice of having to explain what you painted.

"Swallowtail" 5.25 x 5.25 Mixed media on paper
View on my website
So, when presented with paintings (particularly by children), I'm going to try harder not to ask what they painted.  Instead, I'll stick to some different responses:
                                   "Tell me about your painting."
                                   "What do you like about your painting?"
                                   "How did you feel while you were painting this?"
                                   "What inspired your piece?"
                                   "What did you learn by making this piece of artwork?"

In my piece above, "Swallowtail," I used a photo of a butterfly I took on this past Easter.  Looking at the photo, I thought the bottom part of one of the wings was shaded by the leaves.  Once I zoomed in and looked closely at a couple of different angles of the subject, I could see that part of the "tail" on one of the wings was missing.  

Instead of making the wings match, I left one of them shorter and less defined.  The original butterfly was no less fluttery and beautiful because of its missing piece, so I left it that way in the painting.  There are enough perfectly symmetrical butterflies out there to look at!  Butterflies go through an amazing journey, and it's ok for them to end up with a few imperfections by the end of it.


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