Question: How do you know when to stop working a painting?
Answer: How finished is finished?
“A fine suggestion, a sketch with great feeling, can be as expressive as the most finished project,” Eugene Delacroix
When I’m teaching I often come across artists who say “I liked it better before but now I’ve finished I’m disappointed with it.” I certainly can relate, and I think we’ve all experienced those feelings of heightened excitement and possibility in the early stages of a piece of work, only for that work to then come to an end borne of our own limitations to satisfactorily take the work further and a sense of frustration at not quite fulfilling the early promise, an opportunity lost.
I’m sure you’ll understand me when I say I’ve seen many a piece of work lose all it’s vitality and freshness when “finished,” and ending up with a range of malaise from muddied colors to having lost sight of the drawing. Usually an overworked painting is recognizable by being too stiff, somewhat lifeless and lacking in recognizable focus. Despite what anyone else thinks, as an artist we just know when we’ve gone too far.
Is the real problem here that we get too precious and the longer we work on a painting we may get quite defensive about all that time we have put into it and soldier on with a grim determination? If you find this happening I suggest you put it away for a while and when you come back to it be prepared to make a radical overhaul using your largest brushes or a thorough scraping down with a palette knife or a good “tonking” with paper. Nothing ventured, nothing gained! Guard against being precious and working to tried and tested formulas. We learn far more by being daring and trying new approaches, and are more likely to recognize when something isn’t working and make the large changes it needs. To get a fresh view of a piece of work when you know something is wrong with the drawing but are unsure what it is, try looking at it in a mirror. Or turn it upside down and consider how the colors and values are working together as an abstract arrangement. Is there discord where you were seeking harmony?
When I was a student I read a quote by an American artist which said, “Say what you need to say in the painting then get out. There is no use chattering on after you have made your point.” I don’t remember who said it or where I read it, but I have never forgotten it. It struck a chord with me and has been my mantra for the past 24 years or so. Always I am striving to say more using less means. It’s important to ask yourself before you start “What am I trying to say in this painting?” If you can’t answer that then you can’t expect to know when you’ve said it.
My painting approach is to work on all areas of the canvas throughout, considering the entire composition right from the beginning rather than working section by section in a piecemeal fashion. I concentrate on bringing the painting along as a whole, and am always alert as to when I might have said enough. I may start a painting with quick linear marks positioning the subject but I am keen to soon move on to large areas of tonal value. I believe this approach helps me to form the main structure of the painting before getting involved in details that don’t add very much impact. I aim to make a concise statement.
If you suspect that sometimes you go too far in your own work I have a few ideas that may help.
When working plein air or from life, turn away from the subject from time to time and regard the painting rather than the subject. Ask yourself what’s the biggest difference you can make to move from where you are now with the painting to where you’d like it to be when finished. Go on from there to asking what else the painting needs to improve it and keep in mind the initial inspiration behind it or the feeling you are trying to convey.
If working in the studio consider taking more breaks. A break is either a time to think and absorb ideas about the painting or to get away from it altogether and come back to it with fresh eyes. Looking at a painting in progress in a mirror can help you to see any inaccuracies with the drawing. Desirable as it may be to achieve a loose impressionist look to the work you still need the underlying structure or drawing to read well, otherwise you will lose the believability and it will be difficult for your viewers to engage with the piece.
Another idea for self-training purposes is to take regular photos of a painting during the stages of its production. You might find afterwards when looking at the series of photos that there came a point where you continued working and actually lost more than you gained from there on. This can be something of an eye opener and can help you to spot when and how you might bring future paintings to a different conclusion.
Also consider timed exercises. Painting en plein air is terrific training for getting an idea down quickly and developing a short term visual memory. Even when working from a static reference it is a good project to set strict time limits to train yourself to get a complete idea down quickly and with minimum fuss.
The level of detail and finish that you aspire to is a personal choice and it would be a boring world if we all responded the same way. What excites me is that people perceive a level of detail in my paintings that isn’t really there, and I love them to get up close to the surface and see the abstract marks, dots and patches which led them to believe that they could see a whole village on a mountainside. Knowing when to stop is hard, but think of your painting as a collaboration with the viewer and try to leave a little something for them to work on. Notwithstanding all of that, the very best way to finish a painting is to start on a new one.
To learn more about Haidee-Jo Summers, visit her website.
Allan Duerr, publisher of Art of the West Magazine, is the July judge for Art Muse Contest.
You don’t have to enter a western themed piece of art in this month’s contest, however, if that is a genre you enjoy painting you should really consider entering.
Watercolor, pastel, oil, acrylic and mixed media 2D artwork are eligible to enter.
Compete at your skill level for the chance to win $500, $250 or $100.
Plus the opportunity to win 6 months of gallery representation and participate in the winners show in 2017.
Deadline is July 31st.
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