Yesterday, Coco Treppendahl of St. Francisville, Louisiana wrote, “I have lots of unfinished paintings in my studio. I kind of know what needs to be done but I much prefer to start anew. Is this typical? Do you have any advice on how to inspire completion? Or is this some sort of psychological issue?”
Thanks, Coco. If it’s a psychological issue, then it’s an epidemic. Some artists complete one at a time and then get on with the next, but they’re the exception. Being forever dissatisfied and unsure is more commonplace and probably better for the art. Before we get you on the couch, here are a few thoughts:
There’s wisdom in abandonment. Very often a painting is telling you it has “permanent fatal errors.” Ill-conceived to start with, these unrealized works are part of the process — mere sorties on the way to better ones. In abandonment there is knowledge.
On the other hand, if you accept that desire is the greatest thing in the world, there is always a possibility you can turn lead into gold.
To do this you need to try to figure out what’s important and what’s not. Casting your eyes around at your orphans, the workable ones rise in your vision and become more desirable to your hands. As Steven Pressfield says in his excellent book, The War of Art, “You must do what’s important first.”
At any time, beginning or finishing, you also need to know your span of concentration. We’re all different. As a poor-finisher myself, I’ve found that before starting out on projects, I need to think ahead to my chances for completion. I try to get a rough idea of the approximate work periods, problematical passages and potential joy zones ahead. My forecasting doesn’t always work, but it’s generally worth doing.
Coco, if you’re like me doing the heel-and-toe polka to get through your studio, you need to have a day of sorting. Divide unfinished work into three categories — possible, borderline and impossible. Relegate the latter to somewhere off the premises, to be revisited much later as reusable canvases or as re-primed gifts to the needy. If you don’t, those really poor starts will drag you down and jinx you.
On the other hand, brilliant finishes can often be had among the possible and the borderline.
PS: “The triumph of anything is a matter of organization.” (Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.)
Esoterica: There are many reasons why we don’t finish our work. Fear of failure and fear of success are two of them. A friend I’ve known since university is still in university. At 68 years of age he has several degrees, a Wiki mind, and the concentration span of a gnat. He’s disorganized and unemployable. I’m okay saying this because he loves to talk about it. Fact is, he’s comfortable on the yellow brick road and seldom feels the need to get to Oz. Some people are like that. Question is, do you need to be another one of them?
Robert speaks! Today, Leslie Saeta and Dreama Tolle Perry had a one hour conversation with Robert Genn on Blogtalk radio. Take a listen at Artists Helping Artists
Accident opened opportunities
by Bill Stephenson, Santa Rosa Beach, FL, USA
Recently, I had an accident injuring my left shoulder such that during recouping I was not able to do a big part of my usual creative process — I embellish wood-turned objects. Fortunately I had accumulated a couple of boxes of unfinished works. While the creative mind continues to run, especially when the mind is otherwise idle, the unfinished works became my canvases to continue and even perfect some rusty skill sets. I have thusly concluded “Sitting on a pile” can be a godsend.
Techniques for tackling the pile
by Rosalyn Cherry-Soleil, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
How about rearranging the categories of the unfinished pile: I would prefer to think of sorting the pile in order of which one is ‘speaking to me.’ Let the most intriguing one come to the top. My enthusiasm for the piece will carry me through all sorts of creative problems. Time will become irrelevant when I don’t want to stop working on the piece. I’ve even made lists, putting my preferences into sequential order.
Another technique is to take my three preferences, then work each in a 10-hour rotation. When one is complete, add the next one on the list. I work in needlepoint art and that’s a very slow process. However, I’m now completing a 10-year project, have just completed a 3-year project and another 3-year one is almost done. I just have to get a handle on what fascinates me at the moment of choosing — where can I expand and express myself most.
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A gem out of the closet
by Warren Criswell, Benton, AR, USA
I usually finish one painting at a time, but the other day, when attempting to clean up my studio, I discovered in the closet a little painting I had started back in 2001 from a sketch I had done during a concert of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. A visiting piano soloist was playing a concerto, but I’ve forgotten who he was, what concerto they played, or why I abandoned the painting. It was just a sketchy 9 by 12-inch underpainting on linen. Maybe I thought it wasn’t working, or got on to something else and forgot about it, I don’t know, but now it looked good to me, so I put it on an easel and finished it — actually just reworked and overpainted the center part of it because I wanted to preserve some of the sketchy underpainting. So there’s an example of a painting that took ten years to paint. Still an orphan, but now that it’s out of the closet maybe somebody will adopt it.
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Questions raised by BlogRadio interview
by Claire Remsberg, McCall, ID, USA
In your BlogRadio interview, I’m curious where you saw the trivia tidbit that 80% of active artists in North America are women. This is fascinating. What implications do you think this has on the art world, present & future?
Another question — How do you recommend an artist charge for commission projects? Is it reasonable to charge more than a similar piece heading to a gallery? If so, why and can you give a guide as to how much? I feel like commissions pose extra challenge and risk, but I’m not clear how I can clearly justify this to a client.
(RG note) Thanks, Claire. One need only look at the current sex ratios at art schools, workshops, seminars, art clubs and guilds. Our subscription list is a good guide too. It’s currently 78% women. The BlogRadio interview was conducted by two bright women and all of the 20-odd topics covered were presented by women. Women may be individualists, but they network. Implications? — the great artists of the 21st Century are going to be women. Regarding commissions: In my case I charge the same as the gallery price for the same size. Many artists ask a premium — generally 10 to 25% more. I agree, commissions can be disorienting and interfere with the natural flow of your work, but they can also be useful in taking you to places you might not otherwise go.
by John Gardner, London, ON, Canada
Very early in my career a dealer educated me on how to describe the dimensions of a piece of art work. This was a valuable part of my education. Height by width was the established way to describe the dimensions of a painting. This allowed for a quick mental adjustment to either landscape or portrait format in one’s mind, especially if you weren’t looking at the work.
Recently, the square format seems to becoming more common.
I use the square quite a bit — everything from 12×12 to 48×48. Obviously this format doesn’t require a strict rule for description. What drives me nuts is a portfolio of work described mostly by width x height descriptors mixed in with height x width in a random sort of fashion. I seem to be seeing this far too often in the art world. Have the rules changed or is it now accepted as normal to describe the dimensions of a painting in a random mix of height by width measurements?
(RG note) Thanks, John. No, the rules haven’t changed. People are just getting sloppier.
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Satisfaction in art
by Sheila Norgate, Gabriola Island, BC, Canada
Your comment, “Being forever dissatisfied and unsure is more commonplace and probably better for the art,” got a rise out of me. Why is it that we still seem to be hooked on the pseudo romantic myth of the artist as tortured (by insecurity and dissatisfaction) soul? I, for one, am blessed with a sense that my best work is always what I am doing right now. I don’t need the ‘carrot’ dangling out in front of me, that my best work is yet to come. I am certain that it is… but it doesn’t help me get to it any faster if I am awash in uncertainty and dissatisfaction.
(RG note) Thanks, Sheila. This has nothing to do with being tortured or pseudo-romantic. It has to do with the difficult task of always trying to advance your quality. Being easily satisfied and accepting lower standards is one of the scourges of our times.
by John F. Burk, Timonium, MD, USA
I am one of those who work on one painting at a time. I feel each painting to be much a matter of doing what I think it needs to have done, and looking under rocks to see if there’s anything else it has to tell me. I am happy with most finishes, and deliriously so with some. (My wife will confirm this with a smile.) I confess I worry about discussions such as this that make me wonder if my methodology doesn’t depend on me being too easily pleased. I don’t think so. Over the course of a half dozen or so completions, I can see where I could do better or, as I prefer to see it, can now do better. Each painting is potential money in the bank, or an addition to a body of work, but is more importantly a stepping stone to where I’ll be two dozen paintings from now. Or a hundred and twenty.
My style, always realism, is migrating to stylization, towards abstract interpretation where I see the opportunity. I like that direction, and wonder how far I can go. This is an adventure. I love what we do. The day before I die, I want a painting half finished on the easel. The day I die, I want to yearn to finish it.
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Discouragement sets in
by Freda Alschuler, Martigny, Switzerland
I just loved to hear you this morning after so many years of just reading your letters. Not sure, though, whether this has broken the spell! Just joking. You have given me so much inspiration and motivation from your letters. Thank you so much.
Over the years I have had lots of ups and downs with sales and trying to get into galleries and snobby artist associations, so I just plucked up some courage to trying to sell and it has worked, which also was very hard.
I live in Switzerland where, believe me, it is very difficult to not only be an artist but to get into galleries. I have gone on my own way, and right now am fed up with trying, so I approached a restaurant with the same wallpaper as in my latest works of art, and am now exhibiting there, and in their Bistro in London. Great, but no reaction as for sales or in fact anything but very few ‘very nice’ comments. I once won a Saatchi Online competition 2008 and now have my painting in London in the Cafe Mess Saatchi Gallery. It is all on my website. No reactions to this.
I have been teaching watercolour for 20 years at art schools and have taken people on workshops to lovely spots in Europe and even through teaching, there have been no sales. The workshops by the way are very reasonable so I am not overcharging anyone and giving so much.
At 64 I was told by the school where I was working as a watercolour instructor that it was their policy and time to retire. This was quite a blow to my morale and I find it difficult now to even teach again.
I don’t know why, though. Please tell me why, since I’ve have a great website for many years, it has produced nothing but nice comments. But I am sure that it is good to have a website as a ‘serious artist statement.’ If you have some time please go and look and tell me what I should do. I feel like just giving up everything, but as you know this is impossible. It is in my blood.
(RG note) Thanks, Freda. And thanks to everyone who wrote in after that BlogRadio interview. A few people thought I was out to lunch. I guess I’m just so interested in exploring ways that might actually help people realize their dreams. At times I’ve wondered if any sort of chit chat is any good. Some evolved artists do completely without it.
There are 6 comments for Discouragement sets in by Freda Alschuler
Art pile used in collage
by JoRene Newton, Georgetown, TX, USA
I am a retired art teacher who worked in all media with children of all ages in public and private schools. When I retired I had to make a decision of “what to do next!” I began to explore the field of mixed water media. Teaching others what I knew about the creative process was what I loved best so I have continued to share my knowledge with adults and children in private classes.
Like you, I had a large collection of paintings and drawings that I felt “needed something else” so I began introducing collage into my work. I had introduced my earlier students to the works of Picasso and Braque in the ways they used collage in their work, so I thought that using collage would be a good way to transform those “unfinished” works. I began to explore different ways to use collage in those paintings. Since they were works on paper, it was not difficult for me to cut, or tear them apart and reassemble them in new ways. Through the years I have developed different ways of painting using collage. In the past few years I have begun to use wrapped canvases on which I paint with acrylic and add collage.
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Studio pile management
by Jeanean Martin, Boyds, MD, USA
I go through my work periodically mainly when my studio space gets into such a state of disarray that it is impossible to work in. When this happens, I take everything out and start sorting. I place paintings into categories like good, bad, maybe, save, terrible, wonderful (yes, you can call your own work wonderful) etc. The good paintings I put aside and place on shelves with cardboard protecting the front and back of each. The bad paintings I either strip from the stretchers or in some cases paint over. I rarely do paint over old paintings, though, as I do not like the feel of something underneath and I am afraid of pentimenti (underpainting showing through). Paintings that I like but have not sold or I chose not to sell I pack up and place in my son’s house. He has kindly offered storage space in a spare bedroom. This is the best solution. Do not store finished paintings in your studio. I do keep a few on the wall that I feel are successful as they give me “hope” that I might be able to pull it off again. In fact, some paintings that I really like I hold off from selling because they give me such confidence that I really can do this and am not a complete failure. The “maybe” paintings I sit down and evaluate. I get out my journal and write down the problems or strengths that I see. If the strengths outweigh the problems then I will spend the time to “save” the painting and rework. Titian would turn his unfinished paintings to the wall and then re-evaluate with a fresh eye at a later date. This is a good practice to do with a painting that is problematic. Sometimes you need a little time away from the painting to truly understand what it needs. If it simply isn’t working in any way, shape or form, I get rid of the painting. It is simple as that. Oh, one distinction that I do have is the time element. If I find a painting from twenty years ago, for instance, I will never rework it. Paintings have a life of their own and belong to certain “time frames” of your developing work. They reflect stages or periods that have brought you to where your work is now and it is important to appreciate them for what they are and what they were to you then. Honest evaluations of your work are very beneficial and essential for progress.
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You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Karen F Rose of Facebook who wrote, “I so enjoyed hearing your interview on Artists Helping Artists. For many years I have subscribed to your letter. You provide a wealth of information and inspiration to artists all over the world. Thank you.”
And also Ruth Phillips of Quartier du Ravon, Bedoin, France, who wrote, “We thought our readers might like to see this picture. Julian Merrow-Smith burned 200 or so unfinished canvases that have been cluttering his studio for the last ten years. Unfortunately we had to have a house fire that destroyed almost everything (ironically except for these and luckily my two eighteenth century cellos) for him to get to this point. A fresh canvas never had such meaning!”
Enjoy the past comments below for Sitting on a pile…