When Do You Stop?

Finishing a painting is always difficult for me. I start with an idea of how I want a panel to look, but things happen that changes my plans. For example, I may have chosen to painted things that are just too complicated and tedious for me and I have to figure out a way to abstract around it, so right there my “inner vision” has fractured.

There is a fatigue that sets in as I get to the final stages. I just want to move on to something new. I also have a dread of going too far, in saying so much that the painting becomes boring. This brings on an opposite fear of not going far enough, of breaking off due to laziness.

One of my drawing instructors told me that a painter or draftsman should always have someone at their side telling them when to stop before they spoil the work. That seems like good advice because many people go too far, particularly those with considerable skills. As the saying goes, “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” Fortunately, I was not born with extravagant talent.

A few years ago I was reading a critic’s take on the state of modern dance and the author made a similar point about that branch of the arts: too many choreographers make work that is too long and they need someone to tell them to edit their work. In the arts less is usually more (except in the case of Proust where more is more).

My favorite piece of advice came from another instructor who told me that her work was done when it was “breathing on its own.” I like the vagueness of it, but it is helpful. I believe she meant that her painting was finished when there was nothing left to do, but she seems to have been hinting at her ambivalence about finishing.

I can tell I’m getting near the end when I start looking around the panel looking for what needs to be done to pull it all together. It is, aside from beginning a work, my favorite time to paint. However, sometimes I see an area that could be “better,” but then I realize that I might have to bring the rest of work up to that level. At that time I have to stop and think if it is worth the time and effort. If I’ve said what I needed to say, why keep at it? Paintings are never “finished” they can be worked on forever. So it comes down to an agreement between me and the painting that it is time to stop. If only paintings could actually talk.


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