Drawing to a Close
When is a picture finished? This is a common question from students, but it doesn’t have a simple answer. My flippant reply is ‘about ten minutes before you asked the question!’ In other words, as soon as it crosses your mind, stop. Put down your pens, pencils, paints, whatever, and take a step back. This is just one of the advantages of working with an easel; you can move away from your work and assess it more easily.
Prop the picture up where you can see it clearly. Walk away from it. I turn my back and walk to the other end of the studio. Or several feet away if I am outside. Distract yourself by looking at your phone, have a swig of water, jump up and down – do Something Else. I mean it – you need to switch off and then on again. Then turn and catch the picture by surprise. You will see it more objectively and any mistakes or hiccups will be much easier to spot.
Another trick is to look at the picture’s reflection in a mirror. This is why most artist’s studios have a large mirror, not for reasons of vanity! Some also carry a small pocket mirror as part of their kit. They turn away from the picture and hold the mirror up to look at it over their shoulder. The reversed, smaller image can be quite a revelation. This is a great way to check perspective, and also portraits, especially of animals. Cat’s eyes seem to pose a huge problem for many people. Use a mirror!
To look at the design and composition, the arrangement of tones, shapes and colours and whether the picture hangs together in an abstract sense, turn it upside down or on its side. I also like to put paintings on the floor and look down at them. I even continue working on them like that sometimes; it gives me a certain distance and freedom of movement.
If you’re still not sure whether your picture is finished or not, take it away from wherever you have been working on it. Put it somewhere that you will see it while you’re distracted by other things. Talking on the phone is great – it occupies your logical, linear, language brain and leaves your creative brain free to evaluate your work in a really helpful way.
You can also put the work away completely out of sight for a while. Weeks, months or years. I often come across half-finished works that I hadn’t known what to do with. Seeing them again with fresh eyes – and maybe more experience – often brings an easy solution.
Watercolour in particular loses its vibrancy and flow if it is overworked and controlled too tightly, so it’s better to stop earlier rather than later. It’s always possible to go back and add a little more here and there, but not so easy to take things out. Too many washes just turn to mud. Even ‘cheating’ (which is always a good solution) with white paint, gouache or pastels, has to be handled with care.
Slaving over a picture, trying to get it ‘right’ can often be counterproductive. We often become so tightly focused and involved with it that we hunch closer and closer over it, fiddling with the tiny details and worrying it to death. Stepping back to see the overview, the overall effect, can give a whole new perspective. Perhaps those tiny details really don’t matter so much? It’s the bigger picture, the sum of the parts, which holds the story together and has the greater impact.
Perhaps that’s true in Life too?