The causes of overworking

Dear Artist, After noting the tendency of kindergarten kids to keep pushing paint until their images were destroyed, Susan Marx of Orange, N.J., wrote, “You raise an important question. How do you know when to stop? If the best result of the painting is obtained during the first five minutes — when your excitement, emotions, instincts and experiences are all lined up — are you supposed to stop right then before your brain takes over? How does one prevent overworking?”

“Poppies in a Millburn Garden”
acrylic painting, 16 x 20 inches
by Susan Marx

Thanks, Susan. For many of us, overworking is chronic and out of control. Looking at your work, it seems to me that you are one who has beaten it. Your paintings are fresh, direct and understated — you’re hardly a victim of overworking. Overworking has many causes. Here are a few: Perfectionism presses atavistically on the human soul. The need for something better, something perfect is hard-wired into our DNA. Unfortunately, some people think perfection can be achieved by simply continuing. 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. Unnatural sacrifice and latent guilt are the wrong reasons to do anything.

“Flowers, 2010”
acrylic painting, 30 x 24 inches
by Susan Marx

Facility is the persistence of a particular skill or technique. The mere presence of cleverness does not obligate its use. Example: A talented draftsman may become tedious with too much drawing. The fear of unknown outcome. This is a tricky one. While a lot of art involves exploration and discovery, another ploy is to have a pretty clear idea how you want to end up, and stop there. When an outcome is unknown, there’s a tendency to continue to work toward an unsatisfactory one. “To be a painter,” said Picasso, “you need to know how to paint, and when to stop.” Too much riding on it. Artists often notice overworking when expectations or obligations are highest, such as commissions or solo shows. Spontaneity fails. Tossed-off sketches or field work seem to fare better. A casual attitude begets freshness. Thinking too much. Susan got it right when she said, “before your brain takes over.” Sure, thinking is good, but your brain is perpetually thundering down the tracks with intent to derail your creativity. Clutter. In art, it’s often what you take out, not what you put in. As a general rule, artists need to smile on simplicity and frown on the extraneous.

“The Beach at Trouville-sur-Mer, France”
acrylic painting, 16 x 20 inches
by Susan Marx

Best regards, Robert PS: “Art is the elimination of the unnecessary.” (Pablo Picasso) Esoterica: A healthy ego, whether genuine or affected, builds confidence in what you do. The extreme egotist thinks he’s doing just fine, no matter what. “If I spit,” said Pablo Picasso, “they will take my spit and frame it as great art.” Childlike and self-focused, even the mild egotist has little time or inclination for overworking.   Susan Marx

“Basseterre, St. Kitts”
acrylic painting
16 x 20 inches


“Fall, 2010”
acrylic painting
24 x 30 inches


“Reflections, 2010”
acrylic painting
24 x 30 inches


“Bright Fall Verona Lake”
acrylic painting
16 x 20 inches

            The guilt of the easy by Marlien van Heerden, Pretoria, South Africa  

original painting
by Marlien van Heerden

Overworking is so often my downfall. Although the balance when I think something is finished and my husband differ many times as well. My mom framed one of my early paintings but I still believe after 20 years I ought to finish it. Sometimes I think artists feel guilty if something happens too easily. I have had a request to paint a sunset with the silhouette of camels or trees, but I feel it is cheating — too easy! That’s not fair towards the buyer — she is entitled to more, but isn’t that just the fact of today’s art? Some artists are marketers (some marketers become really bad artist but sell like sweet cakes) and some have the skill to really paint, but miss the market. Thereby I do not suggest a lack of skill with really good sellers, it’s in my eyes just not always the case. Luckily there are a few people that buy my overworked, uncompleted or just right paintings allowing me to do what I love most! Thank you to each and every one of them!!   Fear of losing control by Jim Williams, Terrace, B.C. Canada   My background is mostly performing arts and the same tendency to overwork is seen there. There’s the almost pathological desire for just one more line run, or dress rehearsal, or tech check. Some years ago an artist friend of mine, Marc Channon, suggested that the reason behind overworking was the same reason as that behind over-parenting. The moment we stop, the moment we allow our work to move into the world is the moment we lose control over our offspring. Whether it’s a play, a sculpture, a puppet or a painting, it is now at the mercy of the world. And we don’t want our offspring at the mercy of anything. But it’s part of nature to set that which was once dependant on us free. No-one ever said it was easy… but on the other hand, there’s an empty easel/rehearsal room/nursery over there… just waiting for the next one. There is 1 comment for Fear of losing control by Jim Williams
From: Sheila Minifie — Nov 30, 2010

That comment by your friend Marc Channon, is on the button for me. There was I, someone who hasn’t had children, on occasion grousing about parent’s perfectionism and inability to let go of their children …and I’m doing the same thing with creative work! Thanks for the tip….I can now be conscious of that.

  Overworking foiled by material availability by Angela Treat Lyon, Kailua, Hawaii, USA  

“After the Moon….”
original painting
by Angela Treat Lyon

You forget one really important factor: lack of available materials. There have been times in my life when I had so little dough I wasn’t able to do more than one or two pieces. That goes against the grain for me, as I’m usually massively prolific. So instead of doing 3 or 25 progressive drawings, each of which would get better and better, I’d be stuck with one sheet of paper or one canvas. If I’d had more materials to play with, I coulda-shoulda-woulda done a whole lot more. I suppose I could have gone and borrowed paper or painted on wood, but that never occurred to me. That’s why I now prepare 5 canvasses at once, instead of just one.     There is 1 comment for Overworking foiled by material availability by Angela Treat Lyon
From: Deby — Nov 30, 2010

Your ‘After the Moon’ is just fantastic!

  Confessions of an artist-engineer by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada  

“Goat Mountain Patterns”
acrylic painting, 24 x 30 inches
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki

My causes for overworking are mostly due to fixing of overcomplicated composition or color schemes — by the time I admit that the complexity will have to be scaled down, the surface is overworked (acrylic). Sometimes this can be worked out, sometimes not. I enjoy planning complicated compositions, so this is a challenge for me. The yield of finished pieces goes down with complexity, and the process is always a learning experience. You just made me ask myself — why not go back to simplicity? Well, never say never, we sometimes retrace our steps and take another path… but this one still has so many possibilities to explore… I think that I finally understand why I keep getting into this overcomplicated trouble. There is a huge comfort in knowing that there is endless reference material that can be taken apart, from large to very small elements, that can then all be examined, modified, and re-assembled into a painting. Sounds technical? Sounds like something an engineer would do? That’s exactly it! That’s me! I really, really like my Lego world! There are 3 comments for Confessions of an artist-engineer by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki
From: Liz Reday — Dec 01, 2010

Is this recent work? I really like the direction that your work has taken here. Does anyone else like the textures created by layers of overworked and abandoned acrylic but me? Take comfort in knowing that you are taking chances, going beyond the comfort level in complexity. You may not always succeed, but shoot for the moon, at the very least you will land amongst the stars.

From: Liz Reday — Dec 01, 2010

Sorry, I pressed too hard/often!

From: Tatjana — Dec 02, 2010

Thanks Liz, yes, this was a play with acrylic texture and patterns. Tnanks for your supportive comment.

  Definition of ‘finished’ constantly evolving by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA  

“Along Beaver Creek”
pastel painting, 12 x 15 inches
by Paul deMarrais

It is hard to know when to stop because the definition of when a painting is ‘finished ‘ has changed over the years. Prior to impressionism a finished painting exhibited a smooth polished surface devoid of brushstrokes. Paintings with that looked were valued and feted with honors. Impressionism gradually changed the taste of the critics and the public and a new idea of finish developed. The sketches were now the finished works. Immediacy and freshness became more valued than polish. The style and personality of the individual artist became important. Modern art completed this evolution and completely destroyed the notion of what was finished. The work was finished when the artist said it was finished and hung it on the wall. Now the artist has no guidelines to follow whatsoever in this matter. Our taste is influenced by the many paintings we have seen and admired, by the foibles of marketing and by many other factors. In my mind I am seeking some sort of perfect level of finish in each painting but perfection, by definition, can’t be achieved. All my efforts will fall short. I would rather fall short on the rough understated side, than the smooth polished side! It’s just a matter of personal choice. There are no right answers. I must create my own guidelines. I tend to ask myself if I am adding anything of value to the painting with each additional stroke. If the answer is not a solid yes, I tend to quit. There are 3 comments for Definition of ‘finished’ constantly evolving by Paul deMarrais
From: Diane Artz Furlong — Nov 30, 2010

Paul, I think I’m with you here. Always keeping in mind what my original vision was, I ask myself before I apply that last mark if it will enhance that vision.

From: shirley fachilla — Nov 30, 2010

Those splashes of saturated red in your painting are wonderful.

From: Rene — Dec 07, 2010

Shirley, those lovely splashes of red are his own handmade pastels. I bought some and they are fabulous!

  Techniques to avoid overworking by Mary Moquin, Sandwich, MA, USA  

“Side by Side”
mixed media painting
by Mary Moquin

Many artists speak to me of their fears of overworking. Often I find this fear prevents them from pushing their paintings further for fear of ruining them in the process. I don’t believe that overworking is necessarily a byproduct of working too long on a piece. It’s working too long without a clear concept or direction. Or, let’s put it this way, overworked pieces can still be revived, sort of like what I hope a vacation will do for me. When at a loss, put the overworked painting aside. Somewhere that you can glance at it now and then. One day it will call you, when you’re not so invested in it, and you’ll know what it needs and you can either fix the problem right there and then or start a fresh painting right over the previous one if need be. Paintings painted over previous paintings are some of my best paintings, some of the history of the previous will show through adding a new dimension of beauty. The new marks will be fresh, because you are fresh and your vision is clearer. I have resuscitated many a painting this way. Stopping a work prematurely from fear of overworking to me is worse, it is playing it safe. It often becomes mere slight of hand and predictable, the end goal was too obviously premeditated. Creation involves risk and new discoveries. There are 4 comments for Techniques to avoid overworking by Mary Moquin
From: Casey Craig — Nov 30, 2010

“Side by Side” is a wonderful simple painting, Mary. I love the simple composition…clearly you have mastered the overworking issue.

From: Mieke De Roeck — Nov 30, 2010

I love your work!

From: Anonymous — Nov 30, 2010

Wonderful atmosphere. A great piece.

From: Anonymous — Dec 01, 2010

Less is more; never more true.

  Technology dulls imagination by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA  

“In blue”
oil painting
by Rick Rotante

Overworking is an epidemic in our (artistic) society. It comes from the technological world we now find ourselves. We lack imagination because there is little imagination around us. Machines do most everything for us. This permeates our subconscious and manifests itself into our waking hours. It takes effort and understanding to make and appreciate art. Without this an artist is forced to ‘spell’ (or overwork) everything so the public can get a handle on it. This makes for boring artwork. Artwork that shows flair, looseness and imagination confuses us, so artists get tight and overwork our subject until most artistry is erased and we make the work pleasing. We conform to sell, win awards or get into galleries. This is what I see when I go to shows or look at current artwork. Artists have to reclaim art and stop pandering to a mostly unsophisticated, disinterested, “match my sofa”, prints mentality. There are 4 comments for Technology dulls imagination by Rick Rotante
From: Richard Mazzarino — Dec 01, 2010

Man! You can say that again. I find many artists making pictures, not art. We artists should be commenting on our world not copying what we see to make a sale. It goes hand in hand with where art is in our society.

From: Antony Marks — Dec 01, 2010

I believe; if we continue on our present course of cutting the arts from the school; fine art will be dead in short order. Mickey Mouse and the Simpsons posters will be what we hang on our walls.

From: Susan Baughm — Dec 06, 2010

I agree we may be coming to the end of fine art as we have come to understand it. If you consider artists today, they come from an illustration background. Commercial art. Fine art IS being painted today by some but it’s hard to tell the difference. Mass media, conglomerates, corporations and sales are what drive our art economy.

From: anonymous — Dec 13, 2010

The future is computers. They are here to stay and will over time supplant every medium from the past. Fine art, in fact all art, will be produced digitally. Elecrtonics techniques are here. The average Joe can paint on his or her Ipod. And galleries will soon be accepting this as the one and only art form. We won’t need actual galleries. You won’t even need the expense of and art education soon. Everyone has the supplies- you index finger is your paint brush the scteen your canvas. AND, you can get it to the world in seconds sans galleries. Welcome to the future.

  Under-working just as bad by Deborah Weinstein, San Clemente, CA, USA  

original painting
by Deborah Weinstein

Most of the art I’ve done that really makes ME happy has been completed in 20 minutes or less. It takes me weeks to complete a painting. Some of them do manage to communicate something of the impulse that originally led me to the subject matter, but just as many do not. Contrary to the common wisdom regarding overworking (“DON’T”) I’ve noticed that the ones that work actually have gotten better as I worked on them longer — I do believe that under-working can be just as big a mistake as overworking a painting. Now it’s my habit to just keep at it, refining, editing (painting over, painting out, redefining) until I’m sure there’s nothing more I can do, or undo, to turn my painting into a statement. But the easy spontaneity I feel with a stick of charcoal and smudge of pastel evaporates when the paints come out. I wonder how many artists experience this kind of disconnect in their work and whether and how they might have overcome it. There are 2 comments for Under-working just as bad by Deborah Weinstein
From: Sharon Cory — Nov 30, 2010

I too experience this, because I love all the fast mediums like pastels, watercolours, ink, charcoal, conte, etc. but I also love the way you can dig deep into the slow ones…acrylics and large scale watercolours which require as much time and engineering as acrylics. Here’s what I do. I recognize that there’s a certain subject matter or theme such as colour, that’s driving me at any particular time. Sometimes it’s a commission that I’m going to have to follow parameters on and will therefore begin to hate at some point. I have all my materials ready to go so that I can work quickly, such as some sketches in pastel, and then move on to a larger or more complicated rendition, example an acrylic, and then if I reach an impasse, back to a fast medium. All the time, the subject is still strong in my mind and is being worked on, but being able to go back to the fast mediums keeps the impulses fresh. The whole process will take about a month before I tire out the subject, but usually I have a massive amount of work at the end of it. Hope this makes sense. Sharon Cory, Winnipeg

From: Tatjana — Nov 30, 2010

I experience this as well. I think it has to do with control. In dry media I feel more in control than with paint. There is probably no other solution than to keep painting. Let’s see if Dr. Bob has a different cure.

  Holding the brush differently by Penny Collins, Auckland, New Zealand  

“View from Big King”
original painting
by Penny Collins

I recently painted a gate and fence beneath a large overhanging branch. The work started off fresh and exciting, but soon became laboured and fudged as I tightened up the gate, then the area behind the gate, then the gate again. I vowed the next painting would be ‘underdone’. Following some advice I read in the book of all the twice weekly letters, I held my brush far back along the handle, and pressed down hard. It was a fun process and I am really pleased with the result. There are 2 comments for Holding the brush differently by Penny Collins
From: Anonymous — Nov 30, 2010

Wonderful and charming.

From: Penny Collins — Nov 30, 2010

Thank you, Anonymous!

  Open ended overworking by Liz Reday, South Pasadena, CA, USA  

“Offshore Platform”
acrylic painting, 36 x 40 inches
by Liz Reday

I can relate to the perils of overworking. I do it too much. Mine is the open ended variation, where I’m just exploring, experimenting and have no idea what I’m doing except putting one color next to another until it feels right. So often it just goes on for days and becomes necessary to put the painting aside. Then I have too many paintings put aside for the same reason and I’m really in trouble. New Year’s Resolution: Keep it Simple. I do need to reserve large sections of the painting for just blank quiet areas instead of frenetically connecting everything together (which was my theme, but I got carried away). There are 2 comments for Open ended overworking by Liz Reday
From: Matthew Joseph Peak — Nov 29, 2010

I too have MANY paintings in a state of “not finished” and am battling with this. I have ruined many a great starts by trying to “finish” them. I don’t have any answers. I love starting paintings, all filled with excitement, then I get to this point of disapointment…. even when I do sign and finish things it takes months before I can see what I DID DO instead of what I COULDN’T.

From: Dottie Dracos — Nov 30, 2010

Love your painting! Not overdone — just right.

  An agonized portrait by Norma Hoyle, Abbotsford, B.C. Canada  

oil painting
by Norma Hoyle

“Too much riding on it” rang such a clarion bell with me! Caring too much about an outcome is one hang-up that definitely murders my personal artistic expression, and I’ve learned to walk away when that emotion makes its presence known. While it may not be true for everyone, for me, when the process is not relaxed or coupled with joy, it generally attracts creative disaster. Happily the converse is likewise true. To share an example: I spent many hours agonizing over each detail of a portrait I was attempting to render from a borrowed photograph. My angst made it a painful process, but I thought I had done a credible job and finally retired with only the hands to complete which I planned to do equally carefully the following day. During the wee small hours of the night, however, I awoke from my sleep, grabbed my brushes and in short order completed the rendering. I then fell back into bed and slept soundly. The following morning, when I awoke, it was with a feeling of horror at the memory of what I had done and I bitterly regretted my impulsive action — until I looked and found that the hastily rendered hands were the best part. I never corrected the very many errors with the oh-so-carefully rendered rest of my painting, as it took me a very long time to recognize them, but the painting, flawed as it is, remains a favorite as it also represents a milestone in my understanding. There are 2 comments for An agonized portrait by Norma Hoyle
From: Anonymous — Nov 30, 2010

Love this painting.. the sense of peace made me smile

From: Elizabeth Rutledge — Nov 30, 2010

I love your beautiful portrayal of Abdu’l Baha. Alla’u’abha

  When it’s done, I know it by Marney Ward, Victoria, BC, Canada  

“Amethyst Iris”
watercolour painting, 21 x 29 inches
by Marney Ward

I would like to plead the case for artists who prefer to spend more time on each painting. I generally spend about a month on a painting, but I don’t consider my paintings overworked, though others may. I work in watercolour and my passion is light, which can be achieved in unique ways with the watercolour medium. Some of these techniques involve layers of glazing with each layer drying completely before the next is applied. All sorts of tricks like the use of salt, granulating pigments, wet-into-wet or into-moist or dry for unique effects and edges, must be experimented with and ultimately mastered. Watercolour is very unforgiving, as one must save the whites of the paper for one’s lights or whites, so a degree of planning is essential. But the rewards, in my opinion, are great. Because the light comes from within the paint, the quality of light is more transparent, luminous and spiritual than in any other medium. I personally think that the current preference for freshness and understatement is nothing more than the flavour of the month, though flavour of the decade might be more accurate. I’m not against paintings that are done quickly, and certainly economically its nothing short of stupidity to try to live off of your art if you only paint one painting a month. But that doesn’t mean that a painting is less worthy or flawed because the artist spends a long time on it. Is an Albrecht Durer overworked? No, its just done differently and more exactly than most work today. I love working on a painting over time, we grow together, I nurture it and it nurtures me, it speaks to me and I look at it, listening for what it has to tell me. Darker over there, less defined here, wet it again, blend it into the background. It takes time to commune with a painting. When its done, I know it. There are 4 comments for When it’s done, I know it by Marney Ward
From: Marti — Nov 29, 2010

Beautiful colors, Marney. Lovely painting. A workshop teacher once told me that most watercolors that people said were overworked were actually underworked……makes sense to me most of the time. Lots of layers of glazing takes lots of time, but the results are well worth it.

From: Brenda — Nov 30, 2010

Again, I love your watercolour paintings! I’m wondering if perhaps some that I’ve considered ruined are possibly ‘underworked’ as ‘Marti’ suggests … do you have any hints on reviving an ‘old dog’? I’ve been known to bathe them in the bathtub and scrub out; would you agree with this? Can whites/lights be recovered? Thanks!

From: Rose — Nov 30, 2010

Your painting takes my breath away….

From: Rick Rotante — Dec 01, 2010

Speed isn’t the issue. Correctness and finish is what’s important. I agree what passes for “ala prima” today is just quick and bad. You can make a wonderful statement quickly as well as with taking your time.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for The causes of overworking

From: Henry — Nov 26, 2010

Painting is just another way of keeping a diary. ~Pablo Picasso

From: Rene — Nov 26, 2010

Overworking seems to be the bain of inexperienced painters. It also has to do with a lack of confidence in handling the medium. Confidence comes with experience. With that said, having a plan or sketch of what you want your work to look like that will help. When you get to the point of what you set out to achieve then you are done. If you don’t get that feeling your work is done set it aside for several days. Bring it out for a renewed look and see if anything else needs to be done to it.

From: Dwight — Nov 26, 2010

Painting is like cooking veggies. Better undone than overdone.

From: Maria Reinhard — Nov 26, 2010

I too was one who constantly overworked my canvas. I believe it was fear, a lack of knowledge and confidence. It finally clicked, as I obediently did as my mentor had so often recommended. I often heard him in my head; “do your work and planning before committing to your canvas”; but refused to believe that I required to plan, the freshness of the work would disappear, and why so much extra time when I knew what I wanted, in my head. Therefore in frustration and fed up with repainting my work looking for the ultimate masterpiece…. I did the work! What a difference. Planning, sketches, small color studies…. preparation has become my best friend. My mentors voice is constantly in my head and I am definitely grateful to him. Regards Maria Reinhard

From: James — Nov 26, 2010

I think I’ve always been plagued by a comment my 7th grade math used as her mantra,”Make your best, better!”

From: nkm — Nov 26, 2010

Overworking your art can be due to the sheer pleasure of painting! You get into that zen mode and you don’t want it to stop. You’re being creative and it’s awesome. You don’t want the experience of painting to end. You’re having too much fun doing what you love to do so you keep on working – hence overworking. I have stopped myself from overworking a piece, grabbed a second canvas hoping to keep my momentum, and start fresh. But the truth is, so far, that second piece rarely works. My brain has to snap back into ‘blocking in’ mode, not ‘final stages’ mode. It’s a tough transition. Perhaps knowing this, and starting a painting session planning to do two paintings, not just one, will help me, and others, find a way to transfer the zen of painting from one piece to the next! Happy Painting.

From: Peggie Mojé — Nov 26, 2010

Many years ago, I read this: Interviewer: When do you know your painting is done? Picasso: When do you know you’re done making love? I find that answer translates well to the “Painting, done?” question.

From: Edna V. Hildebrandt — Nov 26, 2010

I think at some point in the process of painting there is should be an interval of viewing at distance the image on canvas to review it. Is it reflecting the inspiration we had for the painting, checking the colors and perspective and others that was intended to be included. Perhaps we need to set it aside for a while and look at it again at a later time. I have made the same mistake too. It is hard to decide when to stop. But I think when you have reviewed your work and like what you see as close to the picture you had in mind then it’s time to stop. I don’t know if there is a hard and fast rule when to stop. Thanks for the challenge we all have.

From: Mary Lou Reed — Nov 26, 2010

I have used this quote many times. “Speak not unless your words enhance the silence”. Now I use “Paint not unless your paint enhances the excitement.”

From: Mike Young — Nov 26, 2010

It takes two people to create a sculpture or any art piece: one to do the work and another to clip the artist around the ear when its finished. Find that other, critical “you”.

From: Inez Hudson — Nov 26, 2010

Susan Marx’ question is close to my heart, as is your comment about kindergarten children. My first experience with painting was finger painting in kindergarten (age 4.5!) I distinctly remember the room, the table and its placement, and the piece that was giving me so much trouble. Even then I wanted things to look as they are (I’m a realist, can you tell?), and I remember getting frustrated when the teacher said how nice it looked, when I didn’t think so at all. Now some 60 years later, I’m painting exactly what I like – anything and everything – the way I like to paint it. Overworking? Yeah, at times, but who doesn’t. We all try to avoid it but we all have those days and those paintings.

From: Linda Blondheim — Nov 26, 2010

I am often asked by beginning artists “How do you know when the painting is done?” My answer is simple. When putting one more brush stroke will not improve it in any way, I know I am finished.

From: Susan Marx — Nov 26, 2010

So, if the painting is really finished, because it is wonderfully spontaneous after 10 minutes, stop !!

From: Kelley MacDonald — Nov 26, 2010

I am currently frozen solid at a commission. They want it for the holidays. They have asked for a huge canvas, a particular view (actually the interest is horizontal, yet they ‘need’ a vertical, narrow canvas). And I have, for 6 weeks, avoided putting more paint on the canvas. But today, I’m going to just ENJOY myself. If it doesn’t work, I’ll wipe it off and be no worse off tomorrow. BUT if it goes well, then I’ll be happy and they’ll be happy!

From: Beth Carlson — Nov 26, 2010

One of my teachers used to say that it takes two to paint a painting; the artist and someone to hit him over the head to tell him it’s done.

From: Augusto Balossino — Nov 26, 2010

Yes, we are all prone to overworking. Great French painter Renoir, when asked the classical question: “When do you stop working on a painting?”, is reported to have answered: “If I am painting a woman’s butt and I feel the urge to tap on it, it means it’s finished”. Congratulations for your Newsletter; it’s always a source of inspiration and reflection.

From: doris — Nov 26, 2010

sometimes you have to live with that dreaded canvas for months, look at at, keep looking at it..then you find the flaws in it ..or in you. Really depends on the mood you are in. I love repainting a canvas, if not just to change the entire mood but changing the colors. To me it all experimental, expect the unexpected and try to remember not to paint inside the lines. I look forward to each and every letter and set time apart to read them. Thanks

From: sara star — Nov 26, 2010

I usually consider overworking a painting when another brush stroke will pull off the layers below it, or will create mud. I never considered working on a painting after it was done. If it looks good as good as I figure I am capable of making it, I stop. I only pick up old paintings and work on them again later, if I know I am a better painter by then and can improve the work considerably.

From: Richard Smith — Nov 27, 2010

I have a really bad habit of overworking so the easiest thing to do is ask my wife what she thinks. She’s a business woman with no art training or background so when she looks at my work she’s seeing it with a totally unprejudiced eye.She doesn’t know art but she knows what doesn’t work. She can spot areas that need work that I figure are done and she can tell when any more work would start to “muddy” the piece. Always good to get a second opinion.

From: Janet Toney — Nov 27, 2010

Adults can over-work. I’m not so sure children can or do. I think they just over-paint, or over-enjoy painting. I can remember my first painting experiences. I just loved to see the brush moving the paint and how painting FELT! I was not very concerned about how the thing looked when I was done. So what I ended up with was ‘over-painted’, however, there was no work. It took a while before the look of a painting mattered much to me. After it did, then I learned to over-work. And ego wasn’t a part of my childlike painting (“Childlike and self-focused, even the mild egotist has little time or inclination for overworking.”), because it wasn’t about me, it was about experiencing something joyous. As an adult ego causes me to over-work, because now I’m more interested in how my paintings will be viewed by others, so it has to be ‘right’. However, I am working on that.

From: Eugene Kovacs — Nov 27, 2010

According to different comments on overworking, in my opinion, when we push the mind and the physical activities overboard, we cannot function any more. From time to time, we need to stop thinking , forget the world as it is , take a deep breath and relax. At the end, our mind will clear up and physically we will be able to continue with the brush.

From: Gavin Logan — Nov 27, 2010

Guilt causes some artists to continue and continue. Elimination of guilt needs to be ‘Job One’

From: Marvin Humphrey — Nov 27, 2010

Leonardo began the “Mona Lisa” in 1503. He kept it with him, and would “touch it up” from time to time, until shortly before his death in 1519.

From: Jan Sorensen — Nov 28, 2010

I often think overworking has something to do with an individual’s degree of patience. Many painters simply grow bored with a work and abandon it when they have established the main idea or said what they wanted to say. Others with more staying power or perhaps a greater need for perceived perfection, stay with the job. Some, it has to be said, stay with it until the results are really good.

From: Neeman Callender — Nov 28, 2010

In Watercolor, the tolerance for overworking is minimal Do not redo a brush stroke. Work from the top of the sheet to the bottom and stop: never go back. If you think of a smaller brush, stop.

From: Robin A. Smith — Nov 29, 2010

I am not sure we can talk about overworking in reference to 5 year olds. “Overworking” implies that there is an ideal state at which one could/should stop to keep from ruining a product. Are young children investing in product or process? I suspect their main business is learning through play.

From: Jo Allebach — Nov 29, 2010

I did not know when to stop so I was loosing the feel I had originally in my head. After years of painting the simplicity is allowing my true meaning to come out.

From: Rena Williams — Nov 30, 2010

A little Haydn helps–he never did too little or too much.

From: cynthia wick — Nov 30, 2010

Brian. Beautiful work. I completely know the dread of creative death and loved reading Robert’s thoughts on it. Almost funny though when I see your strong paintings. Hard to believe you ever have trouble. Keep up the good work. All best. Cynthia

From: Betsy Glass — Nov 30, 2010

Hey, Susan, you go girl…because you know when to stop! I’ll never forget being at Bonnie’s with you and Elyse in August. My intent was to wake up early and go out to paint with you. But by the time I’d stumbled down the stairs, you’d already finished your painting. Just so everyone knows, not only does Susan know when to stop, she also knows how to start!!! XO B

From: Mary E. Whitehill — Nov 30, 2010

Think Spring! Your feelings may be due to depression from the present climate in the Highlands. I always feel that way on a dark , dreary day. Now that days are longer, darker, light the lights, get a daylight lamp, play some Christmas Carols and start making some of great designs for small gifts in the form of cards.

From: Gail — Nov 30, 2010

really great work Brian! please don’t give up, the world needs to see your work!

From: Dan Young — Nov 30, 2010

For me this is POST PARTY BLUES…..After a great weekend, party, workshop or family event the high is gone….. So this is to be expected….. Returning to responsibilities, unfinished artwork or a messy crappy studio can also sap energy…… Define the aspects of the event that you loved..plan specific time to re-experience and try to include them in your everyday life….like a planned “play date”… for me it is usually that I miss the camaraderie…. Trying to find fellow artists on the same wavelength can be difficult…. When I feel this I have to go to a gallery, call a fellow artist or plan a playful project…. Hope you can find a toy to bring back this child like enthusiasm….Best wishes…. I am preaching to myself as well.

From: Michael — Nov 30, 2010

Just keep your eyes open and you will know when to stop. Sometimes I am sitting there with my brush poised over a section of the painting when I suddenly realize that the underpainting or loose passage as it exists is already very beautiful. Eventually, I run out of things to ‘fix’ and I know I am done.

From: Brenda Brown Taylor — Dec 01, 2010

Thank you for all of your wonderful letters dealing with so many of the issues that plague us artists and creative types. It is so easy to relate to this piece on overworking. It is such a temptation (especially painting en plein air) to dab a painting into oblivion instead of stopping while it is still fresh and spontaneous. Also, having just gone through a difficult move back to Houston after living and painting on St. Croix USVI for over 5 years, I am having trouble getting back into painting. Usually, I jump start my art by putting my paper or canvas on my easel and make a few first marks. Then before I know it I am painting again. Have had many distractions since my return and really need that alone time to fuel my creative energy.

From: George Kubac — Dec 01, 2010


From: Rick Rotante — Dec 02, 2010

We are all at different stages of development so we have to take what we do with “action of forethought”. What I mean is we have to stop beating ourselves over the head if we don’t produce the exact piece we intended. Or if the session didn’t go as we planned. Real art is achieved with thought, deliberation and planning. Even those pieces we think are dashed off by painters we believe are better or more experienced than us. This “first time” idea is a fallacy. Agreat painting done in an hour or less has more thought and understanding than we think. If we are in the moment, overworking vanishes. If, as someone said we put too many “extra” strokes, we can remove them. With experience, we learn what it takes to paint a great picture. If we know where we’re going, when we get there, we stop. It becomes instinctive. Painting is not a mindless, ethereal, blind experience. It takes planning and thought. Sometimes a “happy accident” happens and you hit it right, but this happen rarely. The best work by the best artists is deliberate and with conscious effort no matter the time it took to create. When your experience level soars, you reach your goal more quickly and effectively.

From: Helen Fuller — Apr 25, 2013

I draw pencil portraits and they usually turn out pretty good, but I have a tendency to overwork them and I erase and erase and erase until I can’t erase what I’ve done. Which in turn ruins my drawings. They look messy! I don’t know why I do this? I usually start a drawing by drawing the out line of the head and then start with eyes, nose and mouth. But…I get stuck! I will start with one eye and I try to copy every detail from the picture I drawing from. Like I said, I get stuck and also…I am a perfectionist. It just doesn’t look right/ The shapes, shadows, contouring and such. I could really use some tips? I took a couple Art Classes and went to Art School for about a month, but that was 20 years ago. I stopped drawing for about 15 years and recently picked it back up. I know I have the talent to be really good but this overworking is ruining my art!

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oil painting, 36 x 48 inches by Joseph Marmo, Stuart, FL, USA

  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.

The Dance (left)
The Green Line (center)
The Joy of Life (right)
by Henri Matisse

That includes Ben Novak who wrote, “May I suggest that one has a look at some the works by Matisse, to see how few lines and color patches can constitute a fine work of art.” And also David Martin who wrote, “When asked how he knew when to stop, Picasso also said, ‘How do you know when you have finished making love?’ ”    

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