Contemporary Art

My blog and studio journal

A little bit of what's happening in the studio, sights and travels, and rumination on art and life and what-have-you.

Knowing when to quit

No, I'm not giving up.  What I mean is, how do you know when a painting is done?

This question comes up a lot.  My husband and friends have asked me this question and it's a pretty hot topic among my painter friends, as well.  Many of them also favor an abstract style and I think that makes the question a little trickier.  If it isn't a thing, how do you know if it looks right?  Of course, you can paint a still life and wonder if it still needs that little something....  Either way, there is a decision to be made.  As I see it, there are two kinds of criteria to use here; formal qualities and your gut.  

First, there are formal qualities like Line, Color, Composition, etc. Art students devote a lot of time learning about these elements and for good reason.  They are important to the success of the picture.  For instance, how does your eye move around the picture?  Is the perspective correct?  Are the colors harmonious and clean or are they muddy?  Whether the answer is yes or no, you also need to ask if the result matches up with what was intended.  Break the rules all you like (whatever they are) but breaking them needs to serve a purpose.  Maybe you really wanted the colors to be muddy or the composition to be jarring.  Fine.  Did it work?  

"Thank goodness - now I know what to do!"  Not so fast, kid.  What about that gut-check?  This question is a little harder to answer, I think. (And the border between gut feeling and formal concerns can be blurry.)  I struggle with this one.  If I've worked a very long time on a piece, there can come a stage where I don't really see it anymore.  Much like editing a paper you've already read a hundred times.  Putting it aside for a while and working on something else can help.  I call this "letting it percolate" because it reminds me of watching my parent's old coffeemaker.  All the elements are there, I'm just giving it some time before coming back with fresher eyes.  Perfectionism and fatigue can make it hard to decide too.  There are some pieces that I feel will never be done and others I daydream about lighting on fire, just to set me free from the darn things.

Eventually - after all the nail biting, self doubt and maybe a small tantrum - I get to a place where my formal concerns are satisfied and I can declare it finished *enough*.  That doesn't mean I love it or even think it's very good, but that it has reached it's own conclusion and at the very least I have learned something in the process of making it.  The best times, of course, are when I make a few last adjustments and feel that little "click" that says, we're all done here.  Then I can stand back and enjoy the feeling of a job well done.  After that, it's back to the drawing board.  Literally.

 This one is percolating

This one is percolating