The hardest decision an artist faces is, “When is a painting done.” I am teaching classes and I will literally take a painting away from a student and say, “You’re finished.” Students generally tend to be grateful when I do that because they have a difficult time recognizing the finishing point. Let’s not kid ourselves; figuring out a finishing point is a gut wrenching, mind bending and heart-breaking task. Many artists struggle with it and all of us wonder if we didn’t push a piece far enough. Stopping takes as much courage as pushing and both can make a piece fall short.
Why don’t we stop working a good piece? Because creation is a marvelous thing. We get so caught up in how wonderful it all is that we don’t want to walk away. Starting something new is always frustrating and not everyone creates different pieces everyday of the week. To get a good start takes work and there are tasks that are tedious to get a painting up and running. Setting design, finding material, mapping the composition, laying out colors, preparing the surface; these are the chores in this industry, and they all keep us from the joy that is creating art. They don’t really keep us from getting there. The chores set us up for success and make it possible for us to have a productive creation time.
Now, I am not saying that I have found the secret to knowing I’m done. I have tricks that will help me and the biggest one is to just put the piece I am working on aside and wait to look at it again for a few days. Doing that gives me a fresh look at my work, for a few seconds; I am not the creator, I am an observer. The fresh look doesn’t last long, in mere moments I become the artist and I will see the shortcomings. It is that first moment that tells me if I am failing or succeeding and that is important. It gives me objectivity. I get to see it like everyone else for a moment. That is when I can see if I am finished.
Creating art is hard for a lot of reasons but stopping is one of the most difficult. We need to find our own way there because being an artist tends to be a solitary lifestyle. We don’t always have a handy instructor to tell us we are done, there is no finish line for us, no checkered flag that drops to tell us here and no farther. As artists, we push boundaries and go further than others would look to go. In the end though; our drive is our danger, our nemesis.
I think the best way to look at is, we are done when going farther serves no purpose and in fact, will cause harm. We all face this question. Time, we hope; will give us wisdom and clarity. The ability to recognize when we are about to cross that line. In art, in love and in life.
Now to the most important lesson. Always remember, quitting isn’t the same as finishing. Mistaking the two is a killer of a career and drive. So, when do we quit? Hopefully, when we no longer take air into our lungs.
The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this blog belong solely to the Spokane Art School Artist-in-Residence, and not necessarily to the Spokane Art School.