French poet Paul Valéry once quipped, “a work is never truly completed—merely abandoned.” I’m sure his words were intended to be at least slightly hyperbolic, but nevertheless for the artist they carry with them the ring of truth.
When I start a piece my heart and mind are full of excitement. I have trudged through the murkiness of my mind to come across a nugget of inspiration and tucked it away for a chance to grow it into a real piece of work. The spark of inspiration can be fickle and fleeting—showing fresh glimpses in the middle of the night or on a long drive—spots that make it hard to clarify a growing vision. I tend to carry a sketchbook wherever I go to make sketches and thumbnails to try and hammer down the corners of these slippery images. By the time I get an idea to the point where I feel it’s ready for a canvas or a wood block, it’s normally been rattling around my head and my sketchbook for months. All of that is just planning and sorting: the real battle is about to begin.
I’ve found that my most successful works have a clear vision. I don’t want to iron out all the kinks, but I feel like my time is really the thing I am selling, so if I can be more efficient, I’ll be more successful. It only takes a couple of large paintings that fail to make sure the planning is thorough on the next ones. Essentially, if I can see it in my head, odds are I can paint it. If I can’t see it yet, then pushing paint around on a canvas is just as likely to fail as succeed. There is a time for experimentation but if you’re tackling a 48” x 60” canvas like the one on my easel right now, you don’t want to waste all that time and paint.
With the first marks of paint on canvas begins the winding journey of a new work. Regardless of how much planning I do, there always seems to be winding paths to explore, evil foes to vanquish, and a bit of blood and sleep lost along the way. The process of watching a painting emerge from a blank canvas can be a wonderfully mystical experience even, at times, to the painter. When people ask me for specifics all I can do is pass on the best advice I’ve ever gotten about that part of the process. My friend and mentor Angela Morgan once casually said to me, “I make marks I like, and I leave them.” She makes it sound easy (and look easy) though while it’s not actually that simple, her words are a good reminder that when you recognize a good mark, just leave it. If you make enough of those and then stop, the painting will be a winner.
When I first started painting, I found knowing when to stop to be the most difficult decision of all. Overworking and underworking are the two largest pitfalls for an artist. Many of my early paintings were underworked because I had a fear of not recognizing the finish line, so I’d stop short of it and hope for wisdom from the ether. I once proudly showed a new piece to a painter friend and she said to me, “It’s a great start!” which is how I knew that I had abandoned the journey too early. There were also many other pieces that I pushed way past the finish line and ruined them by fussing with marks that should have been left alone.
Regardless, once I recognize that the battle is won and the piece is finished, I get off that train immediately because it’s fast moving and that station can go whooshing by. It’s easy to second guess yourself as you jump off a moving locomotive into the darkness. But if I stare at a piece, close my eyes, stand back, move close, go outside, stare some more, and get to the point where I can’t think of anything more to do, then I know the piece is done and it’s time to go to bed. Good planning and a clear vision can help me know when I’ve finished. There is something to be said for having a good sleep before making your final decision, but if I’ve abandoned the painting at the right time, I find myself doing nothing more than signing it in the morning.