When to Stop: Resisting the finish

Posted by: Carolyn Schlam

It is human nature to try to perfect our work.  Of course we want to present ourselves as excellently as we can.   But with our creative endeavors,  as with many efforts we make in life, the axiom “Less is more” often applies.   Indeed, knowing when to stop is one of the most perplexing questions in art-making.  When will doing more be counter-productive?  When will that next stroke turn our direction into a downward spiral?   To all artists who have had the experience of ruining their work, I speak to you now.

This is the way it goes.   Our imaginations abide in the beginning.  Like little children, with minds uncluttered by the detritus of myriad impressions, we come to the canvas fresh and clean.  We are excited by every stroke as an image begins to slowly materialize on the canvas.   (I use a painting metaphor here, but you can substitute the verbs relevant to your art practice.)  We see the paint as pure matter, as paint, not the hand or foot it may later suggest.   We are enmeshed in the play of color and light and texture and movement.

But gradually a different mindset begins to take over.  The pixels of pure color now begin to suggest shapes and then the shapes suggest forms and then the forms suggest those feet and hands.  Now we are getting into a troubling arena?   Why?   Because we are now set on consciously making those hands and feet and color and texture and color have now taken a backseat.

Oops.   We’re about to slide down the slippery slope.   Our minds are splitting us off into two directions.  Duality.  Yes, we are applying paint, but our intention has shifted.    We may still be OK, unless we slip further into what I call the “plastic surgery realm”.  In this realm, we are no longer in love with the feeling and quality of the paint, we’ve become fixers, doing a mani-pedi on those hands and feet.

The truth is that we are no longer creating.   We are beautifying which is not an aesthetic activity, and if you continue in this vein, you will ruin your glorious beginning.

You can do two things if you get to this juncture.  You can stop, and be happy with what you’ve heretofore accomplished.  Or, which may seem radical, but I guarantee it will work, you can deconstruct, DE-beautify.  Take a big brush and undo all the fixing, which will automatically take you back to the sweet spot, your beginning.   Then you can go on.

You cannot say everything in a work of art.   You can say one thing in one work, and then you can take another canvas and do another.  If you try to say too much, you will wind up saying nothing at all.   As my teacher used to say, and I repeat this mantra every day I work in the studio, “Say one thing, but really say it.”

If you do this, if you stay in the zone, loyal above all else to your inspiration, you will do wonderful work.  It will not be perfect, but it will be true, honest and personal.  It will be art.

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