“Art is never finished, only abandoned.” Leonardo da Vinci
Starting a painting is the easy part. Knowing when to stop is a different matter. I had a frustrating Monday afternoon this week. I was just going to tweak a couple of pastels I had been working on. They just weren’t right, and felt unfinished, so I thought I would just work the problems I saw. Disaster!
Finishing a work of art is often the hardest part of the process. How can you tell when your work is finished? And more importantly, how can you avoid over-working and ruining your work? Which in two cases, is exactly what I did. The third I decided was a poor editing job. I was trying to put way too much into one painting. Two will probably hit the circular file, one may get cropped.
A good idea for a painting is one that can be expressed in an interesting way. Its success lies in good design and good editing if using a reference, interesting mark making, or a beautiful palette. But, the good painting is almost always one that leaves a gap for the viewer to fill in. It should leave something to the imagination and hold a level of intrigue. If you are using a photo reference, it is not always the best photograph that makes the best painting. Editing is crucial. Some of my worse photos have made my best paintings. Maybe it was because there was more of me in them.
Wetlands in Bloom
Here are a few things that might help to determine when to stop. What I needed to do Monday, was follow my own advice.
It is always good to view our piece while painting. We do this by stepping back periodically to view the work from a distance. When working on a painting we become necessarily absorbed in detail and the application of paint, forgetting that every mark we make influences the rest of the image. I usually work standing up and step back frequently. I did not do that on Monday.
Work on the Whole Painting at the Same Time.
Lay in the big shapes, working all parts of the painting at the same time. Sometimes we get so caught up in one area, it is overworked before we get to the rest of the painting. When we work the painting, as a whole, we might find that the detail that was put in one area was not necessary to the message. I did not do that on Monday either. I tried to correct a specific area without seeing how it was changing what was around it.
A good practice is to take the painting out of the studio and prop it up somewhere else. Look at the work critically, without the temptation of paints and brushes being available to you. Stare at it for a period of time or look at it over the course of a day. It can help to go one step further than this, put the painting away where it cannot be seen for a while. Seeing it again after a prolonged absence can really help to assess the painting as it is, rather than what we think it is. I had done this, but I just zeroed in on one area.
If we are having difficulty deciding whether an area needs adjustment, we should try turning the painting upside down or looking at it in a mirror. Seeing the work from a different angle can be helpful. I like to take a photo of it and look at it on the computer screen. But remember to ask yourself; “If I do this here, what is it going to do to this other part?”
Forget the Reference. Remember that viewers will not be seeing our reference material; they will only see the completed work. When in doubt about something, leave it out.
Asking someone else what he or she thinks of a piece can be informative, especially if you ask someone who will be honest. A fresh pair of eyes that belong to someone that hasn’t seen the image in your head, can be useful. Even if you don’t have a fellow artist at hand, every viewer’s opinion is valid, and gives you something to consider.
There may be no universal answer to the question of when a painting is completed. In response to the question “How do you know when you’re finished?” Jackson Pollock once made the reply, “How do you know when you’re finished making love?”
Some say the answer is “When I’m satisfied,” I am not sure that is a good answer either, because I know some artists that are never satisfied, or conversely, there are potentially good artists that get bored and say I am done, when they could achieve so much more with a little tweaking. My rule of thumb for myself, has been, when I am ready to take full responsibility for it. When I can put my name on the bottom and know its OK for the world to know I did this.
Some artists describe themselves as obsessive, and there may be a level of obsession that has nothing to do with their painting and more with their need to keep working on it. That is where I was Monday. It was not a good place for me, or my painting.
I invite you to suggest some other thoughts on the subject. When do you know you are you done?