Karen Pettengill of Portland, Maine asks, “Why do we see problems in our work after it has been put away for a period of time? We’ve all heard and experienced the ‘looking at it with a fresh eye’ thing. I’m sure there is some scientific basis for this syndrome but I’m curious whether it’s a life-long experience with all artists or if it diminishes with hard work and training. I’m curious about it also because even though problems can be corrected sometimes the freshness and spontaneity are lost.”
The wiser eye that comes with the passage of time is part of the process that we spend our lives trying to speed up. Faults become more obvious when we leave things alone for a while. “Why didn’t I see that before?” we ask. The fact is that as we work we are regularly and deceitfully blinded. Our egos, our distractions, our incompetence all hinder us. Also, just by being among the trees, we may overlook the forest. Perhaps it is a syndrome. We know that the human mind is programmed to glaze over when bored. Conversely, the mind is more alert in the presence of novelty. Our muse needs to stay seductive to keep our hands doing the right things. Tendencies such as homeostasis, tired-brush, and lazy-look, are in the business of pushing artists around. If an artist is aware and trying for quality she must dig out these lapses and fix them. Earlier is better than later.
The interplay of the critical and creative faculties is at the core of what we do. The passage of time gives both the blessing of intervening experience and the advantage of seeing the work as novel. We approach older work as newer artists. I’ve often looked at the performance of professionals and concluded that they have simply been better able to telescope the process.
With regard to whether the condition diminishes as you get more proficient, I now have to report that in my experience it gets worse. The reason is that we know more. We have history and we are more fussy. I adored my first paintings. I couldn’t see anything wrong with them. I took them to bed with me and fell asleep loving them. Ignorance is bliss.
Esoterica: The tricky bit is knowing when to finish. With the premium on freshness, it’s early. With the premium on getting it right, it’s late. We all make different demands of our work. It’s in our hearts. “Each one sees what he carries in his heart.” (Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe)
The following are selected responses to the above and other letters. Thank you for writing.
Expanding the bubble
Philip J. Carroll, Haddonfield, NJ, USA
We become attached to the work and fail to see its faults. I like to walk away from my paintings for several days at a time so that I might see them again with that “fresh eye.” But at the same time if we do not come back to our work at a later date and see things that we could have done better then as artists we do not grow. We fail to create better work, which in turn pushes our talent to the next level. If every time we created a work of art and it were pure perfection, what would be the point? We would never have anything to look forward to. To me the challenge of a work of art is that pursuit of the perfect image, the perfect brush stroke, the satisfaction of pushing my talents to the brink and expanding my bubble of knowledge.
Flaws in others
Larry Moore, Orlando, FL, USA
I’ve often wondered why it’s so easy to pick out the flaws in others’ work and so difficult to see them in my own. I have a small circle of painter friends that frequently e-mail images to one another for critique. I can clearly see what to fix in their work and almost every time more than one of them will make the same suggestion that I just plain didn’t see. I think part of this phenomenon is that, subconsciously, I just don’t want to see the flaw because I don’t want to have to make the correction. And the other part is looking at something so long it’s hard to remain in focus (forest/ trees) Having a friend with a critical eye is important, keeping a mirror near by to see your work in reverse is almost as good. I’ve also discovered that just sanding down those old paintings that have fallen and can’t get up removes the preciousness of the painting and puts it where it belongs.
Good and bad bits
Stuart James Burgess
The well-known Canadian artist Jack Shadbolt had a stroke and had not been painting for about 2 years when his insurance company asked him to catalogue his paintings in storage. As he was pulling these older works out to document them, he started to recognize good bits and bad bits in the works. He began to work again, or re-work, these images and eventually got back into painting. He had a show of these “new” paintings. He used the original date of the work, plus the reworked date, so “1979-96” would be a typical annotation. Shadbolt died about 3 years ago, in his 90’s, but had worked to the end.
Bring a friend
Sally Webster, Scotland
With regard to seeing your work afresh, I like to pretend I’m collaborating. Yesterday’s work was done by the other person and I’m only too keen to point out her faults and pick her up on her mistakes. She’s equally hard on me. We do have a common vision though. And sometimes we have to concede that the other person has a point or a vision worth pursuing.
Paint from the heart
David Lussier, Woodstock, CT, USA
For me, it’s a state of mind. When I paint, I try to “let go” of what I think I should do and just paint from the heart. An artist once said, that, when the “shoulds” start replacing the “why nots,” it is time to stop. I think this is wise advice for the artist that wants to get their true selves into the work. I think sometimes, we may miss the obvious mistake for the sake of the wholeness of the piece. Later as time goes by, we take a look at some of our previous work, and find that we are just not in that same place (inside us) that we were when we made that painting, and so, we see glaring little mistakes, instead of the whole big picture. I’ve had paintings over the last 20 years that I love one day and hate the next. I’ve had times when I hate just about every piece in my studio. I think it also has to do with the “daringness” of being ourselves. When we are uniquely “us” we have nothing to fall back on to comfort us. What I try to do when I see something I don’t like after awhile, I wait until tomorrow and see what comes of it. If it’s really a problem that needs to be resolved, I may try to paint on the piece but hopefully not at the expense of the “spontaneity.” If I lose that, I’ve lost the whole painting and into the scrap heap it goes. One time I went through some older paintings still kicking around and threw out a winter scene that I thought was not up to par. (something not quite right about the tree, I think). Three weeks later, I had an inquiry about that very piece. A collector had seen the painting at an earlier show and wanted to purchase it because it had the best feeling of a winter day then anything else they had seen.
Don’t fall in love with it
Ron Ukrainetz, Montana, USA
I too, share the somewhat confusing task of looking at my work and not seeing anything wrong at that time. Even by using mirrors, looking at it upside down, and a host of other ‘tricks’. Sometimes it still looks okay to me. Experimenting, I found that by shooting a digital shot of it, and looking at it in a smaller format, I can see the errors. I also ask my wife, who is my ‘critic in residence’. She’s been most helpful. She calls herself “the voice of the uneducated consumer.” I have also emailed the image to my peers and as for a critique. This has been valuable too. Long ago, when I first started painting, my father gave me terrific words of wisdom that I still hear today. “Never fall in love with your own work. The divorce could be a killer!” Don’t we all wish it were that easy?
It’s a scientific fact that the human brain ‘fills in the blanks’. Often when I’m starting a new painting, excited by the fresh subject, I’m surprised when visitors to the studio can’t ‘see’ what I’m doing. Then I realize that I’m mentally projecting onto the canvas my mental images. In the same way that visually impaired people fill in the missing sections of unperceived lines, so many painters need to disassociate from their work to “see” it with a fresh eye.
A record of where you were
Jerome Vorndran, Wisconsin, USA
I’m still in art school, so I’m just getting started as an artist. I’ve found that the more I know and learn, the worse I was. The first work I did in high school I thought was awesome, and I thought that for a long time. Now that I’ve been studying art and doing art for four years, I find problems in things that I finished last week. I’m not about to go back and change old things. I’d rather spend my time on new projects. It’s better to learn from mistakes and not make them on new projects than to always look backward and correct them on old ones. Art is a learning process and when you leave mistakes in your work, it gives the piece some originality and character as well as a record of where you once were as an artist.
As an artist that has done some teaching, workshops, demos, judging and critiquing as well as working a lot on location (alone and with groups), I’ve heard so many artists tear their earlier work apart. And, at times, it is a good idea to get rid of the work where things just didn’t go right or the ones done experimenting different techniques. When looking at earlier works the artist shouldn’t cringe at the quality of the work, but, honor the work as being a stepping stone to the abilities they have today. In regards to putting work away for a time and then looking at it with a “fresh eye.” As you mentioned an artist can get too much in love with a certain piece of work and fail to see an obvious oversight of part of it that just doesn’t work. Looking at it at a later time enables the eye to pick out those places. Sometimes it’s a matter of the artist growing in ability since doing that particular piece of work. A mirror is also a useful tool in the studio.
Art is such a damned difficult activity that only rarely do we see a painting in its entirety. Georgia O’Keefe once wrote to Steiglitz about starting a painting in the top left-hand corner and working down the canvas until it was complete — in a single sitting. Most of us have had the rare experience of a painting “happening” during a single session, but for the most part (and this is certainly my experience) it is work, work, work to find the solution to a painting. And of course, walking away from the easel and coming back after a cup of coffee, a meal, or a good night’s sleep will reveal the solution. Nothing miraculous, it’s just that our poor mortal minds and bodies, can’t do it all at once.
Second look not necessarily wiser
Susan Correia, California, USA
I had to mention a different point of view with regard to “the wiser eye.” What if the second look was not the wiser one? What if you had it right the first time? What if all the new wisdom you’ve gained over the years hasn’t given you more than you had earlier? What if it’s just more marketable? I think of children’s art. They have something magical. As they get older they erase more, they use techniques they’ve learned in classes. But has that all helped? Sometimes, but often not. So what if the tree was a little funky. Did that tell the story better than how you decided it needed to be changed in order to be more “correct”? Maybe the proportions that were “off” gave a better understanding of the situation. I have to consider these things before I change anything of mine. I trust the creative moment. The analysis later may not be as important. I loved the part about falling asleep loving your paintings when you were younger. Isn’t that the point? Aren’t we artists because we have something to express and love doing it? Then maybe we should quit tripping ourselves up with all that analytical stuff. Do what you love. It’s the process of DOING that’s important. It’s the things you feel and know while you’re working, the choices, the daring, the challenges. Not the post-game analysis.
Fuss with it a bit longer
Ted Berkeley, Portland, Oregon, USA
Yes, how does the brain judge that the work done is or it isn’t, and why does a fresh look after a rest period gives us new incentives (sometimes erroneous)? I remember from my working days as a brain surgeon that I used to get a flat affect after concentrating for hours on removing brain tumors or decompressing a spinal cord. Working in a small but magnified field had a mesmerizing effect, and I intentionally moved around the field for diversification. When was the job completed? In malignant tumors there was no end as such, and the criteria as to when to stop were blurred, despite one’s experience. I suppose it’s very individual, but I always remembered neurosurgeon instructor Matson’s advice: “Fuss with it for a bit longer.” Which parallels your advice about having additional easels to let the works mature in one’s mind as it were, have an oblique furtive look, ignore them, then later come back and fuss with them on and off, until they are either done or buggered.
Source of quotes
I am not an “artist” in the artistic sense, I do not paint, or draw. I am developing the artistry in my profession, as I am an attitude adjuster. I work with peoples’ mental and emotional postures to bring clarity of assumed programs being played out since childhood. My canvas is my mind, my template my emotions. I find your commentary on art is always relevant to my emotional space. I especially like the quotes you have and wonder where you find such information. If you could let me know where you resource this part of your letter I would truly love that. I have had several people sign up for your letter, and they enjoy as much as I do, they are all artists. We are ALL artists in our own way.
(RG note) “I’m wondering what an “attitude adjuster” is — somehow I feel I’ve been one all my life. My attitudes, and those of others. I’ve seen leopards change their spots. And other leopards hang onto their spots as if the spots were totally stylish. How do you practice that profession? To answer your question, practically everything I use in the way of quotations I now get from our own Resource of Art Quotations. It’s the largest collection anywhere, it has all been done by our volunteers, and it’s free.
The following are a few more of the 140 or so entries that have come in since the contest was announced a week and a half ago. They are not necessarily finalists in the “Free Painting Workshop in Brittany with Robert Genn” contest.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 97 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2002.