A subscriber wrote, “I have a bad habit of overworking a painting. I need to turn it to the wall and walk away…start something else…but I do look for ways to improve my work and make a mess…am I alone there? Any suggestions as to what to do?”
I’ve noticed that overworking is often just an overzealous, knee-jerk response to perfectionism, pressure, guilt and self-doubt. Let me explain:
Perfectionism: “Some people think perfection can be achieved by simply continuing,” said my Dad. Rather, excellence is grasped by cultivating hard-won skills over time and knowing what your goals are. While exploration is key to development, he would often recommend a simple ploy of knowing how you want to end up and stopping there. For this exercise, can you summon a mental picture of your finished work? Knowing when to stop is half of mastery.
Pressure: While casual sketches and long, uninterrupted, deadline-free periods in the studio produce fresh and evolving work, commissions can inspire a kind of imaginary, inner critic who watches for errors and leaks skepticism about any ability to satisfy expectations. Pressure can tack on destinationless noodling, second-guessing, laboured passages and turgidity. In this case, overworking is another word for over-compensating. The secret is to understand and accept that the mystery, incompleteness and the unreachable mountaintop of your creative striving are what give your work its ineffable magic.
Guilt: If your fresh sketches are feeling a bit too easy, you may be tempted to indulge in the impulse to go back in to try to add some struggle. “Guilt is that part of human nature that has us think we need to give or do something penitent to be more worthwhile within ourselves,” said my Dad. “Unnatural sacrifice and latent guilt are the wrong reasons to do anything.” Instead, hide your labour — what John Singer Sargent called his “horny hand of toil” — inside the élan of well-executed work. “Start with a whisk,” wrote Sargent, “and end with a broom.”
Self-doubt: Any successful outcome most often requires a plan. A lack of leadership in any organization — be it a family, a planet or the self — diminishes confidence, producing aimlessness and difficulty with decision-making. This leaves a vacuum for the impulses of our lizard-brains to take over. In art, our lizard brains want to keep pushing paint around until our strokes are destroyed — you only need to inspect the work of toddlers running out of fresh paper to know what I’m talking about — most of that stuff is at genius level after five or six strokes and totally indistinguishable from all others after 20. Self-doubt, like other learned habits, must be vigilantly deadheaded — replaced gradually with personally earned achievements, skill and productive thinking. “Not learning by doing,” wrote Toba Beta, “but learning by risking.”
PS: “To be a painter, you need to know how to paint, and when to stop.” (Pablo Picasso)
Esoterica: In my experience, it is better to be 10 percent underworked than 1 percent overworked. Learning how to stop takes practice. Begin by stopping way too early. Here’s an idea: Build up a new set of paintings, in various states of “underworked.” Lay them around your studio and study them over the course of a few weeks. You’ll find your eye growing accustomed to your new, fresh strokes. Release your attachment to the old standards of what you thought was “finished.” Make a gut decision about the exact location of your new sweet spot. Now, go back to an old painting you once felt was a success. Can you now see signs of overworking? “It makes me feel guilty that anybody should have such a good time doing what they are supposed to do.” (Charles Eames)
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“A painting works only on the edge of not working. Then what is ungraspable comes near.” (Kazuaki Tanahashi)
The Killarney are of Ontario is in what is called the ‘near north’. The landscape is wild and rugged. Giant granite cliffs plunging deep into the glacial lakes. There are no roads leading to our painting locations. We travel by a large, sturdy pontoon boat. This is a self-catered retreat. You bring your own provisions and cook your own meals in our fully equip cabins at a northern camp. Our instructor, Keith Thirgood, has been teaching artists his own unique approach to painting for over 12 years. Learn how to find order in the chaos, control your colours and create paintings that work. Learn modern colour theory, values, shapes and lines, what makes for a good painting. This retreat is suitable for beginners wanting to learn to paint in a fun, outdoor location, as well as more experienced studio artists who want to try plein air, plus artists who are looking to loosen up and paint in a more post-impressionist style. To find out more and register, please visit www.wilsonstreetstudios.
Capturing the beauty of nature and expressing those impressions in oil paint is a joy. Every hour of the day presents new possibilities and keeps even the same landscape location, same composition, an ongoing and beckoning challenge. For this reason, I love painting series: it is exploration made visual.