Thursday, March 3, 2016

How many artists does it take to paint a painting?

A friend once asked me, "How many artists does it take to paint a painting?" The answer, it turned out, was, "Two. One to paint the painting, and the other to yell: STOP!!"

One of the challenges every artist faces is knowing when to call a piece of artwork done. For some, such as Willem de Kooning, perhaps no painting is ever truly done, while others, such as Bob Ross, will confidently know their work is complete as soon as they've included all their formulaic elements. For everyone in between, the concept can be a bit of a moving target, and the real task at hand becomes learning how to play both the role of painter and the role of artist who yells: STOP!!

In my experience, it has become a lot easier with time to know when a painting can be called finished, so experience with one's own evolution as an artist will help. This can mean focusing on developing a certain style, exploring a specific theme, or simply becoming better at using your tools and materials, to give a few examples. I plan and sketch out a lot more of my paintings these days than I did ten years ago, so I'm usually working towards something in particular and I have a much easier time sensing when I have achieved whatever goal is driving the work.

However, I still have my moments of not knowing when to call a work done, particularly if I suspect that I'm not pushing myself to fully explore the piece, in which case I actually have to say, "Paint, Tara, paint!". The first step I take is to step back and observe, think about the painting, and consider what might be missing or causing unwelcome tension. If I come up with something specific that is bothering me, I go back in and work on it.

But, what happens when there is nothing further to address? How do I recognize when I'm adding paint simply for the sake of adding paint? My simplest gauge is this: If I am still putting paint on a canvas but no further value is being added to the essence of the work, then it's time to yell: STOP!!

In the case of the painting seen here (and also here), I knew that I needed to differentiate the male figure a bit more before calling it done, so my final session consisted of applying more quinacridone crimson to the actual figure, and working some titanium white into the background section to the left of the bodies, both with the goal of bring out the contrasts, as seen in the final photo above. After I did this, I stepped back and wondered if I was finished. My first thought was, "I could do more!", but to what aim? I had resolved the problem, so what else could be achieved by continuing to work? It turns out, there was nothing more to say. Adding more paint or refining another area would not have contributed to the composition or the energy of the piece. At this point, I was just being mechanical in the service of anxiety, and the risk of continuing to paint would be to run in circles in the pursuit of a solution to a non-existent problem. So I decided to paint my signature on and call it done, in effect yelling: STOP!!

The Dance. 26 x 20 1/4 inches, acrylic on rag paper.

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