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.

The discipline of solitude

If you want to make any progress as an artist, keep the door firmly shut.

Victoria Street, by Carol L. Douglas. Available.

Shelter-in-place has, perversely, not given me lots of alone time. My adult children have, in various combinations, come to quarantine themselves at our house, and who can blame them? Tiny apartments may be smart options for young working professionals, but they’re challenging to be stuck in. That’s especially true when one or both partners are working from home.

There are things about lockdown that are trying my artist peers’ patience, starting with economic dislocation. For those in my age group, the most terrible consequence is not being able to see their elderly parents. But I’ve noticed that none of my artist friends are complaining about the alone time.

Fallow pasturage, by Carol L. Douglas. Available.

Ingmar Bergman ran through his first sixty years of life as an enfant terrible, admiring Hitler and impregnating eight women with nine children. In 1976, he was arrested in his native Sweden on tax evasion charges, which led to self-imposed exile in Munich. In 1978, Bergman returned to Sweden and moved to the island of Fårö. He stayed there for the last 29 years of his life. There he pursued a radically-different lifestyle, married to one woman and spending his days working, walking, and watching movies.

“Our social relationships are limited, most of the time, to gossip and criticizing people’s behavior. This observation slowly pushed me to isolate from the so-called social life. My days pass by in solitude,” he wrote.

Autumn farm, pastel, by Carol L. Douglas. Available.

Bergman managed to embrace the two radically-different impulses in the artist’s life into one memorable lifespan. There’s the lure of chaos, where ideas and inspiration are shaken up and fizz into new forms. That has to be balanced with the discipline of solitude, or the artist gets nothing done.

Of course, most of us go from ferment to discipline as we age. Part of that is embracing solitude. We progress from coffee-shop conversations about art to the difficult business of producing it alone, in our studios. We may love talking about art, but the creative disciplines are not a great career choice for the naturally-gregarious.

Paul Cézanne spent most of his career in obscurity. (It helped that he had a banker father and no financial worries.) His critical success didn’t happen until later in his life, meaning he had the solitude to work out his ideas in paint. Would Cézanne have been able to create the bridge between Impressionism and modern art if he’d needed popularity? It’s doubtful.

Wood pile, Hope, by Carol L. Douglas. Available.

One could say that Cézanne died of aloneness. He developed severe depression in the last decade of his life and was sadly alienated from much of his social circle. Painting alone, he was drenched in a storm and collapsed. He was taken home by a passerby, and his housekeeper nursed him back to consciousness. The next day, he got up and attempted to paint from a model. He collapsed again and was put to bed; he never rose again.

That’s a terrible death, but a good attitude towards work. The problem with company is that dialog mutes your own thoughts, and they’re what’s necessary for the business of creation. If you want to make any progress during lockdown, keep the door firmly shut.

How long did Van Gogh take to complete a painting?

The modern plein air movement is only about 30 years old. How is it changing art?
Not nearly finished…36X24.

I worked on one painting all day yesterday, carefully, methodically and in a focused manner. The Adirondacks are in an unstable weather phase, so I was forced off my dock three times by electrical storms. Still, I spent a solid six hours on this one painting. I expect it will take that much again to finish—if I get that time without another storm.

This is a new approach for me. I’m working bigger, slower, and more deliberately. Rushing to make many small works sometimes like writing postcards. The difference makes me wonder how plein air events shape the way we work.
Rocky, for Cape Elizabeth Land Trust, took me 2.5 days to finish.
It’s easy to forget how new modern plein air culture is. In 1985, painter Denise Burns formed Plein-Air Painters of America (PAPA). The next year, her group started an annual exhibition on Santa Catalina Island. The discipline has exploded in popularity with both artists and collectors. Plein air painting is accessible and comprehensible. The Art Establishment may look down on it, but the typical punter loves it.
Today there are hundreds of these events nationwide. There are also nomads whose profession is to participate in them. But these events are very different from getting together with your pals at the town park. For example, I never would have forced my work through a line of storm squalls if I were at home. I could return when the light matched my start, rather than struggling to finish in sub-optimal conditions. In fact, I could work an hour a day for a week on one painting, if I wanted to. None of these options are available for the event painter. We must work fast.
Towering Elms, for Castine Plein Air, only took me half a day.
Festival deadlines give rise to a fast landscape style as inexorably as the Internet has given rise to the 500-word blog post. 
According to the Van Gogh Museum, Vincent Van Gogh “put a great deal of preparation into The Potato Eaters, his first large figure study, working on dozens of preparatory studies. The final painting took ‘many days’ to complete, spread over a longer period of time. However, during the last two months of his life in Auvers-sur-Oise, Vincent completed a painting every day.”
Clearly, that kind of pace can drive you nuts.
Dry Wash, for Santa Fe Plein Air, took the better part of a day.
As a youth, John Constable was a dedicated rambler, sketching in the Suffolk and Essex countryside. These scenes, he said, “made me a painter, and I am grateful.” But this was a low-brow form of education for the time, and the art establishment suggested he not give up his day job. Constable always maintained a strict division between his loose field sketches and his finished paintings.
Paul Cézanne, of course, didn’t have a car to dump his gear into and go. Instead, he painted Mont Sainte-Victoire more than eighty times, from various vantage points. Most frequently, he worked from what is now known as the Terrain des Peintres. It was close to his studio. 
Tom Thomson was transformed into a landscape painter through his intimate relationship with Algonquin Park. His patron, Dr. James MacCallum, said that Thomson’s paintings “made me feel that the North had gripped Thomson as it had gripped me since I was eleven when I first sailed and paddled through its silent places.”
The modern plein airpainter doesn’t generally develop that deep relationship with a particular place. On the other hand, we are forced to paint very fast, and that often results in a different kind of energy and verve. And it’s always fresh. We, like our society, are constantly on the move. That’s making a new kind of art.

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.

What should I paint?

Getting past the iconic into the intimate means working out what you love about a place.

Apple tree with swing, by Carol L. Douglas

In 2013, I spent a few hours ambling around Castine with my friend Berna. I haven’t spent much time on foot there since. I’m always too busy.
This year, I managed to separate myself from my car keys. While I waited for my husband to drive up from Rockport, I took a quiet walk around town. I poked my nose into places I’ve never investigated.
Flood tide, by Carol L. Douglas
Things look different on foot. A marine creature broke the surface behind the Perkins House. The sweet tones of a flute drew me to a gate I’d never noticed before. The sea sparkled through the garden below.
I had time to ponder Castine’s Post Office. Established in 1794 and in the same building since 1833, it’s one of the nation’s oldest. It’s painted in the bilious yellow-and-rose-brown color scheme that was traditional before New England clapboard turned white. I’ve seen it many times, but never noticed the wooden baskets carved on each corner.
High tide, by Carol L. Douglas
Nor had I ever noted that the fine yellow Georgian on Main Street has brick side walls and a clapboard front. That’s the reverse of the usual pattern, so it’s a curiosity.
At breakfast, Harry and Berna and I pondered another question. If 40 artists each produced six paintings a year for five years, we’ve done 1200 paintings. Castine’s year-round population is 1,366. We’re close to a painting per person.
AM from Jim’s deck, by Carol L. Douglas
My math, of course, is absurd. There haven’t always been 40 artists; we don’t always finish six paintings; many non-residents attend the show. But we have certainly painted Castine’s icons many times.
This presents both a problem and an opportunity. The problem can only be solved in one of two ways: either go farther abroad or dig deeper. This year, I painted two works off-the-neck, on properties overlooking the Bagaduce River.
Penobscot Early Morning, by Carol L. Douglas
Opportunity lies in going deeper. I started to notice apple trees. They were everywhere: leaning over an old stone wall, curving over a picket fence, in lawns, straggling along Battle Avenue. They are as much a part of our history as Castine’s fine old churches and houses.
The roots of plein airpainting include the 18th century equivalent of picture postcards. It’s easy to fall into that trap, but it’s no longer necessary. 

Adams School, by Carol L. Douglas
Paul Cézanne famously painted Mont Sainte-Victoire over and over, using it as a template on which to work through ideas. There is much to be learned from getting past the iconic into the intimate, and working out what you truly love about a place.