is it finished?
I'm often asked "how do you know when a painting is finished?" It's a good question since I don't work towards a preconceived endpoint, and adding more layers of color and texture usually just increases the depth and beauty of the surface. Also, since my working methods allow for rapid changes in color and format, a new idea or technique can spark a desire to rework everything in sight--meaning that big changes can happen fast. Yet in spite of this fluidity, I do get a lot of paintings out of the studio, and each one I send off is "finished."
So how do I decide to stop working on a painting, and bring it to a conclusion? Deadlines and external demands play a part, as well as a sense that I've gotten what I need from the piece, and it needs to either be done or become something totally different.
A prerequisite for the final stages is a certain depth and complexity of surface that makes the work my own--this is something that I recognize intuitively. Once I have that, entering the home stretch is usually a conscious decision, though actually finishing can take only a few hours or many days. (I tend to think I am closer to being done than turns out to be the case...as always in the painting process, a minor change can lead into many more.)
Wrapping things up involves some self-critiquing--for example I look for the sources of tension or focal areas in the painting, and push and pull if one is not clearly dominant. (At least in my particular style, this makes for a stronger painting.) I consider whether the painting is strong from a distance as well as from close up, and in a multiple panel work, I spend some time making sure the arrangement of panels is my favorite.
The last stages of a painting amount to an editing process. I assess the amount of visual information presented and whether it is too much or too little (I actually do this more intuitively than that sounds, but I'm just trying to explain the process.) As in editing writing, it is all about fine tuning and subtle changes. I love this stage when every small tweak makes a real difference.
Finally, I set the painting aside, panels clamped together as needed, for a few days. I look it over with fresh eyes as I come into the studio, and glance at it once in awhile throughout the day. If it passes all this scrutiny, and if it continues to excite and please me on a gut level, I'm done.
A completed painting has what I think of as a personality--a presence that is hard to define, complex, yet connected and whole. It seems outside of myself, yet I recognize it as part of me, someone or something I know.
It's kind of funny, but in spite of all my efforts to make something exactly right, I recognize a certain arbitrary aspect to the process. There are so many decisions along the way that could have gone one way or another, right up to the very end. Seen a month earlier, a month later, a year later, the same painting would look different to me, and I might not think it done at all. Most of my paintings do hold up over time, though--and some even get better. But there will always be some that don't, that make me cringe and wonder what I was thinking. (If a "finished" painting is a snapshot of the artist on his or her journey...not all will be flattering.) Please excuse me for repeating my mantra one more time--but being able to call a painting "done" may be the ultimate move in Trust in the Process, and includes the acceptance of an occasional misjudgment.
(The painting above, Green Alchemy
, 14"x 11" is finished.)