Monday, March 4, 2013

When to be finished.

I've been working on an oil over gold and silver leaf painting for the last few weeks, right now I believe that I may, in fact, be finished.

This got me thinking about the importance of knowing when to stop.

It's a hard lesson to learn in art. It's probably a hard lesson to learn in a lot of endeavors  But it is an important one.

When you are painting and you are just starting with it, you're young. Not necessarily in age, but in art. There's an edge of youth to your concept design and execution as you learn how to handle your tools, and paint what you see. And there's a lot of things running through your head;

"This is going to be great"
"This is going to suck"
"I can't wait to show everyone my masterpiece"
"I can never let anyone see this"
"If I keep going I can make it perfect"
"I'm going to be famous and rich from this *followed by five minute daydream*"

the cacophony when you are starting out is great and it's hard, very hard, to filter all that out until you are left with the two most vital things:

The meditative state of just "being in the moment" of the painting (what I often refer to as an artistic coma)

and the only thought you need to listen for - "It's done now"

That "voice" is there from the beginning, but learning to listen for it is a skill you need to practice.

For me, in my experience, I found that once I was able to slip into that meditative "working state" at will, that knowledge of being finished with a piece came to me at exactly the right time, often stilling my hand and forcing me to push away from the easel and put the brush down.

How did I get to that point, the point where that other world was always ready for me to slip into? And that voice was clear?

It's actually more boring of a reason than you might think.

Up until I was about 8 or so I mostly drew and doodled and sketched with dry media, pencils, crayons, and such.

My painting experience up to that point had been on paper, with good ole crayola kids' watercolors and a little set of pentel watercolor tubes (remember those? I'm old now) and I'd never liked them.

I always wanted them to be thicker and brighter and have more coverage and body. I would mix them to an ink like consistency, washes annoyed me... (looking back I can't believe I ever felt that way, because now, I love them for just that reason, but I still felt that way about watercolor as recently as 6 or 7 years ago)

So, for a birthday present my gramma (I'm sure my mom had some influence here) gave me a set of liqutex acrylics. A starter set of a beginner's palette, having a red, a blue, a yellow, a white and a black. I also got a few brushes and a package of canvas panels.

I LOVED it, it was bright, it was thick, it was colorful, it was exactly what I wanted painting to be.

And the problem with it, the problem that stunted my ability to really learn what painting should be, was this: It dried fast.

I could "knock out a painting" in a few hours. I didn't have to stop and think, there was no conscious reflection on each stage of the painting. I sat down, I painted, I was done.

When I was about 27 or so, I decided to take a class in oils. I just wanted to learn the basics, the tools the chemistry the theory of layering the paint, how to use it effectively, etc.

Once I started with that, and was forced to slow down, wait for things to dry, only do so much and come back to it later.

An oil painting is a lesson in taking your time. You have to learn how to build your layers, fat over lean, how to make corrections in form and line in the next pass, how to shade and highlight as separate machines of use. You have time to watch the paint dry, basically, to step out of that coma and really look at it between passes. You see the process happening as you go. Instead of being swept recklessly up in it. Instead of grinding away layer after layer in one sitting, and going too far, you see and hear and KNOW when it's done.

You become more connected to the piece, you have more awareness of the intimacy you are experiencing while painting. It teaches you how to slip into that head space whenever you need to.

Most art teachers will tell you that you need to have the basics down before you can throw them out the window. Well, this is the basics. This is learning to connect with what you are doing, thinking out each step and making a "to-do" list for subsequent steps. This is shutting out all thought that is not essential to the work, and learning to listen for the "stopping point"

Once I learned that, I found I missed the immediacy of the acrylics, but was so in love with how oils behaved during a piece, that I wanted to do "a la prima", one pass paintings, in oils.

So I took my new found knowledge of when to stop and went back to the beginning, reveling in the immediacy of doing a painting in one sitting, but applying the techniques and tools I'd learned from doing oils in the traditional manner.

Now that the "stop" was clear as a bell to me, it was easy to not overwork things, to let little quirks slide into the work and not obsess about digging them out. I can still see these little mistakes, but they no longer scream at me, like they used to when I was obsessed with perfection and ignoring the sound of the "stop".

I firmly believe that embracing that golden whisper has made me a better painter.

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