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?”
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.
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.
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.
This letter was originally published as “The causes of overworking” on November 26, 2010.
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Shawn’s paintings evoke the feelings of the West Coast, its shores and islands, ponds and lakes.