Sunday, October 28, 2007

How do you know when a painting is finished?

I really appreciate this blog topic because it addresses a struggle I have with every painting.
It helps to talk a little about my process first, which follows:
Spark of an idea.
Asking myself will this make a good painting.
Preliminary sketches.
Drawing on the Canvas.
Block in of forms and shadows.
Then repeated passes from back to front, light to dark, and periodic evaluation of the painting as a whole, i.e. "is this working?"
As the work progresses to a somewhat realized image I inevitably hit the "good enough" phase which can be translated to "I've finished the easy parts now it's time to slow way down and ask some difficult questions but can I get away without going any farther, the answer is usually no. So I ask myself;
Is the space convincing, does the painting feel like a fully realized three dimensional space?
Do the values work, and are they consistent?
Is the color, texture, detail enough or too much?
Do all of these elements support the focal point or story?
Then it's revisiting these same questions til it's done.
All of that said, the challenge is to keep asking the questions until I sit back and smile. This is my signal that I've taken it as far as I can and it's time to ask for a critique. Then fix the problems until my critiquers sit back and smile. There are some paintings that never reach that feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment. The more I study the more I realize those paintings are usually cursed by a bad beginning. The composition wasn't strong and or the idea was not fully realized are the two main problems.
The funny thing is the answer to the question of when is it finished changes as I evolve as an artist. Maybe I'll look at the question again next year.


Kathleen said...

I agree that if you have any kind of a weak start, composition or value that no amount of working will fix it. It's so tempting to skip ahead to the fun parts!

Rebecca Bush said...

I can relate to what you refer to the "stand back and smile" test, Michelle. My working method is very similar that and reminds me of something I heard in art school, to the effect that "I begin each work by making a mistake and spend the rest of the time fixing it." (It may have been attributed to Giacometti) There is a vision in my mind that I strive to reproduce, and my only guide is my emotional reaction to work. One part will seem to be the "wrong" color or the composition will make me uneasy, and my only path will be to change things until that feeling of unease has been removed. Hopefully it leads to an immediate "smile", but often I will not be able to "see" it until I return to my studio with fresh eyes.

jog said...

I struggle more with knowing when the drawing is ready than with the painting--I feel much more confident in the latter stage, although it is not without its own problematic moments.

I seem to do a "dance" with the drawing, editing and rediting until I drive myself (and probably every other POBL member) absolutely crazy. I seem to reach a point equally composed of "OK, it's really ready" and "OK, I'm sick to death of this, trust your efforts, let's get to the paint."

Then I go part on auto-pilot and part on calculation with color balance, value balance etc. Like Michelle, it is a constant back and forth of all the elements, keeping the challenge lively until the sit back and smile moment. Then,I actually panic, and feel that something must be wrong. I definitely need a group critique at that moment. I am always wary if I like a piece too much, never quite trusting myself and feeling that I have lost all objectivity. And yet....sometimes there is a piece you know you will always love.

Once I have the comments, I add in what is needed and then usually there is a little voice that says "stop" and I always pay a heavy price if I don't listen.

If it's possible, I try very hard not to look at the piece for a few days, or to look at it in some other format (like a computer screen) if that is not possible, just to see at it with a little bit of regained objectivity.

I find there is a feeling of rightness when it is done, or when you realize that it never will be done because, as Michelle says, there was something wrong from the beginning in its underlying structure or in the application of color or value along the way.

But what is "right" and "finished" now, is only true for the artist that I am at this point in time. The artist six months from now may have a very different opinion on the same painting. We do indeed evolve, and hopefully our work comes along for the ride!

tlc illustration said...

Such a good post, and such good comments guys! I can only concur! (and it's totally a love-hate thing with the 'artist 6 months down the road'. I love that I am [as are we all] evolving - but it does make it hard when your work is just coming out in print 6 months later or something else that you cannot do anything else about!)