On Finishing Paintings
Most of us have an artwork wasteland somewhere in the studio. A space dedicated to paintings or drawings that didn’t work out, or were set aside recently. Now, they’re starting to fade out of relevancy. If it’s a habit to add work to the wasteland, starting new projects becomes more seductive than finishing ones that you’ve been plodding on for months. On this path, all works are works in progress, or abandoned, with nothing getting done.
We want our paintings to be smooth sailing all the way through. Instant gratification. The reality is, it’s ok to argue with your paintings. Talk it out! Don’t avoid the issue and pretend it never happened by setting it aside for too long. You might learn something about each other in the process.
Honestly, I still struggle with this. I’m still sorting through my wasteland trying to finish things (getting to the bottom though!). The worst era was when I was learning to manage my free time after graduation. It was hard to finish work without a deadline.
I’ve since adopted a new policy. Here’s what I learned.
It’s ok to have a wasteland. But, simply put: You need to ‘finish’ every painting.
Abandoning works is too easy. I could abandon a painting every day if allowed. Now I force myself to solve the painting. The benefit? It might take me in a new, interesting direction that I may not have tried otherwise.
Let yourself learn from bad paintings!
What do I mean by “finishing?’ In its current state, you probably feel unhappy just knowing your painting is sitting in limbo. Try to tilt it towards being satisfying to you when you look at it. Solving this issue may take less than an hour or spread out over several days. Knowing when and how it’s solved will be different for everyone.
If you have a big pile, choose your five most promising. Throw away the others. This is the only time you can do this! So choose wisely. The more you choose to keep and commit to finishing, the more potential for growth there is, especially on the ones that have strayed farthest from your preferred path.
From now on, only have a set amount of paintings that aren’t finished. From now on, paintings are only finished, or being actively worked on.
The best way to get back into them is to start by setting the abandoned painting out. Look at it, meditate on it. Make yourself think about it because its somewhere you have to look at. When you know the next step, do it. Try something new. Dedicate an hour of studio time each day before starting “serious work”, or a specific night of the week to work on your abandoned painting. Experiment on them. Use them as a warmup.
Promise yourself to finish an old painting before starting a new one, every time. Trade them in and out this way. Know what your limit is for in-progress works. Three? Five? Ten? Don’t exceed the limit. Don’t spread yourself too thin. Got a new idea while at your limit? Put it in the sketchbook, close the book, and get back to work on the in-progress pieces.
There is no risk involved here. Unfinished works head for the trash anyway, after they’ve become stale enough! Why be afraid of messing them up a little more?
I’m already prepared to argue about any view as why there may be a risk. Here:
“But I only have time for paintings I’m dedicated too now!” If you’re a habitual abandoner, I hate to say this, but those paintings you’re in love with now will be face down in the wasteland soon anyhow. You have time to break the habit.
“I need to reuse the canvas/surface.” Some painters paint over their old works with a new painting. I don’t have a lot of experience with this, finding that now the surface is “haunted” with regrets of the old painting and nothing ever goes right on it again. That’s me though. In this situation, a good learning experience is worth buying a new surface and leaving the old one to be finished.
“I don’t want my less than perfect paintings out there in the world”. That’s ok! You don’t have to show anyone. Finish it for now! Finished, at the least, means you like it a little, but maybe not enough to share. Put it in the finished pile and allow it to mature. Allow it to live for a while, perhaps six months. If you still don’t think anyone should see it, take a good pic of it and into the burn pile it goes. I recommend getting feedback though, whether it be a quick post on Insta or showing someone who’s opinion you respect. Some of the paintings I was most unsure about are the ones viewers like the best (oh the struggle!!)
“I abandoned this painting because the support is coming apart/the paint is cracking/other physical problem.” This is a great excuse! Now, chuck it in the dumpster and move on the the next!