Monday, March 21, 2011

Thing-a-week: Knowing when to stop

When I first set up my art site a couple years ago, I was positively giddy when people began leaving comments in the guest book. Until one morning, when I came across this:

your paintings look like over-worked acrylic, but you do have potential and an interesting perspective... My advice (NOT THAT ANYONE EVER ASKS!) is to stop sooner on each painting, they will have more light this way and will look more fresh.
My knee-jerk reaction was to roll my eyes and rant about his arrogance to my cats (who were surprisingly unsympathetic). The problem was...he wasn't wrong. Even in the photographs of my work, he could tell that I'd edited and re-edited my paintings, piling layer upon layer of thick acrylic paint on the surface of the canvas.

I've always been drawn to thick paint -- I love the feel of it -- but I realized that it was limiting me. It gets tougher and tougher to modify a painting with every layer of paint. I generally like to paint fairly tightly, and it's hard to get clean edges and tidy lines of colour when you're painting over layers of paint.

Since then, I've made it my mission to practice setting a piece aside early in the process, rather than pushing ahead in order to "finish" (but later make a gazillion changes). Now, I work on several at a time, and put try to put each piece aside after an hour or two, and move onto something else. Fresh eyes can make a huge difference (that's a life lesson, really).

It's tough for me to stop. I regularly see things I don't like and feel a strong need (compulsion, really) to make changes. But a painting isn't a piece of writing; it cannot be modified ad infinitum. The vibrancy of colour and my original intentions can get lost in the process of "editing."

Last week, I decided to start another triptych, on three 12 x 16" stretched canvases. I resisted the urge to finish it in a single sitting, but when I sat down to tinker with it a couple days later, I got lost in the piece and 45 minutes later, the piece was covered in flowers. My partner politely noticed that it was "busy" -- but that was probably an understatement.

Fortunately, I hadn't slathered on the paint and could go back to make changes without damaging the integrity of the work. After lightening the forefront and painting over many of the flowers, I had a fresher piece, with greater visual balance.

So, thank you, Mark from London, Ontario, for your critique. Not bad for unsolicited advice.

As always, check out Mike Kendrick's Thing-a-Week at his blog,  This week, he offers a quirky rendering of Paul Bunyan a Facebook friend, and another dino wearing sunglasses and a cheesy smile. You ride that productivity train, Mike!


  1. I'm envisioning this how it may have looked when it was "too busy", and you were right to cap it here. I love seeing how your style manifests in different subjects like this piece.

    Something I'm really trying to push myself toward lately is quantity over quality. I've spent the better part of my artistic life agonizing over minute details in mediocre pieces. What I failed to realize until recently is that it didn't matter how much effort I put in, because I hadn't drawn the "Chuck Jones requistite" 100,000 drawings beforehand in order to improve my techniques. Now that I've started doing more quick, individual pieces, it's a lot easier to track my progress, understand my errors, and correct them without feeling like I've just wasted hours on a flawed piece.

  2. Great post, Cait, and comment, Mike. You're both so right about just working through the piece--visual or written--and letting it sit for awhile.

  3. @Mike - It's really hard to strike the right balance, hey? It's a boggle. Sometimes I think I don't spend enough time on my pieces... :S

    @Tash - The advantage of writing, is that you can re-tool writing as many times as you want and it tends to get better, not worse...or, worse for a while, but better, after more tinkering. :P

    However, just like with art, it's a LOT easier to find the sweet spot after you've let a piece of writing sit a while and marinated in its own juices.

    Which sounds gross. :S

  4. Oh I can totally see what you mean! It's understandable to want to smooth it out but it really seems like it has some depth or wildness or something. Interesting.