One of the most essential skills for an artist is to be self-critical--not as in "oh, terrible me, I'm no good at all" (although I guess most of us have lived at times with that awful conviction) but in a way that identifies, confronts and moves through problems. It's very hard to achieve the distance and clarity to do this, and sometimes another person's eyes are needed. But I think that ultimately you have to be able to critique yourself in a tough but positive manner, so that you can keep on track during all that studio time when you are by yourself with no feedback from anyone.
I have a list of criteria that I use as a check-list--though really it isn't as methodical as that sounds. Usually a quick scan through will help me pinpoint a problem. Very often, if something isn't working, I see that there is either too much happening in the painting (confusion, lack of focus and direction) or too little--the curse of the subtle painter, caught up in each minute nuance and losing the energy of the painting as a whole. I try to be sensitive to these and other bad habits that can undermine the good progression of a painting. (Knowing what to do about them is usually a harder job.)
As much as a person may analyze and question work in progress, sometimes the insightful truth chooses to arrive at an awkward moment, say, at the opening of an exhibit or when a deadline is imminent. This is a real challenge, keeping one's cool while acknowledging that a change is due. (Once--years ago--I suddenly saw, in the middle of an opening, that my work had descended to a level of subtlety that could only be called monotonous...)
Usually, the knowledge that I will be exhibiting my paintings in the near future (which is the case right now--my show at Circa Gallery
in Minneapolis opens in just over a month) serves to sharpen my vision and energize me in a good direction. Although I used to suffer a lot of pre-show anxiety, at this point I take exhibiting pretty much in stride and can work steadily towards the opening date in a good frame of mind, without much inner drama.
But frankly, this has been a difficult week in the studio--a couple of paintings have come along well, but they are the exception. Most of my time has been spent slipping into ruts, making mud, spinning my wheels, and losing my sense of direction (insert additional cliches for describing frustration here!) Of course, I know this is all part of the process, and I'll bear with it--and fortunately I am not down to the wire yet. There is still plenty of time left to pull things together, and I'm confident that I will. Still it has not been a good week, and I am definitely ready for a new one. (Actually, a whole New Year sounds like a great idea!)
There is also a thought that comforts and sustains me as I pick at and tweak and fuss and rip things apart--I am aware that this sometimes ridiculous-seeming degree of fine tuning is what makes my work mine. Many abstract painters work with the same basic elements--color fields, geometric divisions, layered textures--that I do, but each of us has our own individual way of resolving the infinite number of details and nuances of our own work. My own are very labor-intensive and intuitive...meaning a great deal of trial and error is involved. Yet every layer leaves its rich traces, even when totally wiped outwith solvent. There are really no mistakes.
(The above painting, Remebering Catalunya #2 (60"x36") is one that I did manage to finish early this week. )