Monday Morning Art School: is that painting finished?

Our hectoring superegos are not always the best judges of painterly quality.

Self Portrait with Disheveled Hair, 1628-29, Rembrandt van Rijn, courtesy Rijksmuseum

In my studio, there are more than a hundred unfinished paintings in drying racks. I’d feel bad about that, except that most plein air artists I know store up unfinished pictures like squirrels store nuts. We say we’re going to work on them during the winter, and sometimes we do. Other times, we just go out and start more paintings.

There is another stack on the other side of my studio. These are paintings I’ve either decided aren’t first rate or that I won’t ever bother to finish. I periodically go through them with the intention of winnowing them down. Often, I’m surprised that they’re actually not bad at all.

Self Portrait at the Age of 63, 1669, Rembrandt van Rijn, courtesy National Gallery, London

“Ah, a procrastinator,” you might say, but you’d be wrong. I’m actually disciplined in my work habits. I’ve just learned to trust my subconscious more than I did as a younger person. Twenty years ago, I thought a painting was finished when it achieved the effect I was striving for. Today a painting is finished when I’m sick of working on it. I’ve learned to be less critical of myself. My hectoring superego is not always the best judge of painterly quality.

The division between brilliantly-raw and plain-unfinished is highly subjective. That line often changes over the course of an artist’s career. Paul Cezanne’s paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire done in the 1880s are significantly more refined than those done from 1904-6. Rembrandt’s youthful Self Portrait with Disheveled Hair is an amazing exercise in chiaroscuro, but the brushwork is much tighter than his Self-Portrait at the Age of 63 (the year of his death). The changes in Claude Monet’s final paintings are usually blamed on his failing eyesight, but they are also the culmination of a career-long path toward looser, more audacious painting.

Women in the Garden, 1866–1867, Claude Monet, courtesy Musée d’Orsay

That is not to say that every artist becomes looser as they age. Grant Wood painted in the same precise style until his death of pancreatic cancer at age 51. Of course, we have no idea how he might have painted had he lived longer. The same is true of Caravaggio, who only made it to 39. On the other hand, Titian, who lived until his late eighties, spent his last years as an impossible perfectionist. He returned to older works and repainted them, fixed up copies made by his students, and kept some paintings in his studio for more than a decade of tweaking—all of which must give art historians the vapors.

The difference lies in what drove these artists in the first place. Cezanne, Rembrandt and Monet were never interested in a high degree of finish, but rather in the effects of paint. The culmination of their efforts was looseness. In contrast, Caravaggio, Titian, and Wood were what we call linear painters, interested in creating the illusion of three-dimensional space through careful modeling. For them to suddenly become interested in dynamic brushwork would have been a complete repudiation of their life’s work.

Weeping Willow, 1918–19, Claude Monet, courtesy Kimball Art Museum

One of the cliches of art instruction I particularly hate is, “Not another brushstroke! Don’t overwork it.” Nobody else can tell you positively that your painting is finished, because nobody else knows your intentions. We can engage you in dialog and help you clarify your thinking. But the only legitimate judge of whether you’re done is you, the artist. 

I have found that when I can’t finish a painting, the best thing I can do is to set it aside. Sometimes, my skills aren’t up to the effect I was trying to achieve, and I need to practice. Sometimes I don’t know how to finish it, and I need to think. Sometimes it’s a lousy painting, and it belongs in the reject pile. And sometimes a period of reflection reveals that the painting was, in fact, finished all along.

Finishing a stubborn painting

Asking a respected peer for an opinion is good, but sometimes we’re stuck fixing our problems without help. That’s where knowing how to self-critique comes in.
Tom Sawyer’s Fence, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvasboard.
Yesterday I got a text message from a peer that read, “Working on a commission and can’t figure out how to finish it.” She went on to add, “That last 20% of the painting is always the hardest part for me. I can tell something is wrong but finding it and fixing it is the challenge.”
From my perspective, it was easy enough to see that the background needed to be toned down so that the focus could ring. That’s because I wasn’t wrapped up in its creation.
Downdraft Snow by Carol L. Douglas is on exhibition at the Joseph A. Fiore Art Center this summer.
I had a similar experience at Castine. I couldn’t get the contrast to work between the water and a roofline. Kari Ganoung Ruiz suggested I add a shingle edge. That single brushstroke changed everything. Similarly, Kirk McBrideasked for an opinion from his wife, who’s also an artist. Her suggestion made his painting more coherent.
Painting, however, isn’t always a game of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Sometimes, we’re stuck answering the question without a Lifeline. One of the best ways to do this is to subject your own work to formal analysis.
That means you ask yourself how each of the five basic elements of painting design are working. That doesn’t mean you have to write a dissertation. It means you consider your painting in terms of each of these design elements. Are you using line, shape, space, color and texture to guide the viewer through the space you’ve created? Have you emphasized important passages and subordinated others? Is there repetition, pattern and rhythm in the piece?
Marshall Point Rock Study, by Carol L. Douglas
A painting that doesn’t work almost always fails in several of these areas. You are as qualified as anyone to analyze your paintings based on these objective standards. There’s a great advantage in learning to do this: you will never be led astray be a stupid critique again, and you can help yourself fix what’s wrong.
I like to consider my own paintings first on the questions of motive, line, and value. I’m looking for a strong impulse—created by dark shapes—that pulls the viewer through the painting. I’m not relying on chance to create a focal point; I want to drive the viewer there at warp speed.
Good group critiques teach us to look at our own work dispassionately and objectively, rather than possessively and emotionally. For those of us who’ve experienced the nasty criticism of art classes, it can take a lot to unbend from the defensive posture. That’s why I practice positive critiquing.
Ottawa House, by Carol L. Douglas
Positive reaction, done right, is harder than negative criticism. You need to catch a person doing something right before you can comment. That means constant vigilance and a rock-solid understanding of process. It requires being able to differentiate between idiosyncrasy, style, and the real technical issues that can cause a painting to fail. Above all, it requires confidence. Nobody is supportive from a position of weakness.
I demonstrated this technique to my friends in the Knox County Art Societythis week and realized I’ve never blogged about how to do it. Look for it.
Meanwhile, I have two new opportunities for you: a Tuesday class from my Rockport studio, starting on August 20, and a second watercolor workshop aboard American Eagle, September 25-29. I’d love to see you there!

Dreams deferred and taken up again

There’s no reason to beat yourself up for not finishing. You will either find joy in it again, or move on to something else.

Hedgerow in Paradise, by Carol L. Douglas
“Did you ever have a dream or goal, and then let go of it, and try to pick it up again later?” a reader asked. She hasn’t been feeling well, so I take the question as a sign that her health is better.
My first cancer, in 2000, required daily radiation, ten months of chemotherapy, three surgeries and a blood transfusion. Every day was devoted to hospitals, treatment and recovery. I didn’t think; I just did what my doctors told me to do. When I was finally done, I asked my oncologist what came next. “Go live your life,” he said.
The trouble was, it didn’t feel like I had a life anymore. I hadn’t worked in almost a year. My kids and husband were managing. Running, which had been so important to me, was impossible. I was, for the only time in my life, profoundly depressed and anxious.
Prayer Warrior, by Carol L. Douglas
My answer was to seek out a therapist. “All the best people do it,” my friend consoled me. Therapy is likened to peeling an onion, because it is the process of getting past the original complaint and figuring out the deeper issues. I hated it, but it was worth all the time I spent.
A period in the desert can be useful in figuring out what’s important. I saw a former student recently. “I’m just not feeling it,” he’d told me. He’d had the impulse to take up painting and been very good at it. Work got in the way. He didn’t feel like taking it back up.
Cold light, by Carol L. Douglas
And that’s okay. Our callings in life are difficult to discern. In art there is no ‘right’ career path. Experimenting, learning, and moving on is part of the process of discovery.  It should never be characterized as failure, no matter what the voices from your childhood tell you.
Years ago, I had a prayer canvas. Each day when I started working, I would pray for people and write their names on the canvas in paint as I prayed. Unfortunately, it started to look like art. It got turned into the painting above.
It ought to have been simple enough to replace, but I never did. This week I finally fished through my collection of failed paintings for another canvas for that purpose. In doing so, I came across an unfinished nocturne I started with my students in last year’s Sea & Sky workshop.
The very unfinished nocturne that grounded the study above.
I have what realtors optimistically call a “seasonal water view.” That means we can see the ocean during the winter. I’ve watched the moon rise over the water for the last three nights. The light it cast was cool, almost green.
I’ve got a nocturne on my easel that’s exciting, but the color structure is wrong. That little nocturne I found in my discards ended up being an experiment in color for this big painting. I think I’ve got it. And I’ve got another idea for a painting as well. Both came from starting again on something deferred. They were totally different, but somehow related.

Am I done yet?

“Don’t overwork it” is terrible advice. Even the freshest of Impressionists reworked paintings.
Vase of Flowers, started 1882, Claude Monet

Yesterday I wrote about scientific research into color perception and how that affected painting at the end of the 20th century. Another major change of the same period had to do with what constituted a finished painting.

For earlier generations, a painting was complete when it had a slick surface with plenty of detail. The mechanics of painting were carefully hidden underneath the bling of the finish layer. Part of the ideal was that the viewer should have no idea about the sheer hard graft involved in painting. Unfinished paintings had no place in collections and were often destroyed on an artist’s death.
Late 19th century painters inserted the process of painting into the finished work. They used thick impasto, left parts of their canvas bare, and kept outlines and drawing marks visible. That made the painting a temporal record of development as much as a snapshot of a moment. These ideas continue into the modern period (perhaps in some cases to overripeness).
Edmondo and Therese Morbilli, started 1866, Edgar Degas
But were they ever that straightforward? Recently, researchers Kimberly Jones and Ann Hoenigswald analyzedEdgar Degas’ portrait of Edmondo and Thérèse Morbilli at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. They were trying to determine what “finished” meant to Degas.
Degas was a compulsive tweaker of his paintings, sometimes repainting them even after they’d been shown and sold. Many of his paintings appear to be unfinished, but are they? Jones and Hoenigswald discovered that this Morbilli portrait (he painted the couple more than once) was extensively reworked over a period of decades. Passages that appear to be open ground were, in fact, painted over sections with finished detail. The researchers’ conclusion was that, even though they could lay the order of his process bare, they could not determine his intentions.
The myth is that Impressionists recorded things quickly, easily and confidently. Claude Monet’s Vase of Flowers appears to be a finished painting, but in his correspondence, he mentioned his dissatisfaction with it. Analysis shows that he repeatedly returned to it, scraping paint off or painting over dried sections. It sat in his studio for forty years, occasionally being reworked, until he signed it in the 1920s. Did he truly think it was finished, or was he, in his eighties, just sick of working on it?
Route tournante à La Roche-Guyon (A Turn in the Road at La Roche-Guyon), 1885, Paul Cézanne. When part of the aesthetic is to show the bare bones of process, how can anyone but the artist say a painting is done?
Part of the shift in what constituted ‘finished’ might have been driven by economics. During the Renaissance, most work was done to commission. An artist didn’t have the luxury to continuously fiddle with his work.
But part of this is also attitude, and it’s worth thinking about in terms of our own work. Camille Picasso famously said, ‘To finish a work is to kill it.’ The modern interpretation of this is the overused injunction to “not overwork” a painting. This is a corruption of the process-baring aesthetic, and usually terrible advice. If you don’t hit your limit, you’ll never learn how to negotiate past or around it. Jones and Hoenigswald’s analysis shows us that, for Degas, it was possible to bring a painting back from the brink repeatedly.

When part of the aesthetic is process—as it is now—only the artist can definitely say that a painting is finished.

How we arrive at completion is another matter. I prefer a less-detailed surface myself. I often get there by painting over, painting out, and scraping out fussy passages, and, yes, paintings sit around my studio for a long time sometimes. It’s nice to see these techniques validated by art historians.