How Do You Stop A Painting? Let Me Count The Ways
Updated: Jun 29, 2019
For artists, the existential question is not, What is the meaning of life? It’s: Is this done??
How do you know when to stop? And do you actually know, as in possessing a fact or piece of received wisdom, that a painting is done? Or is it something else that makes you put the pastel down?
People tend to angst over when to stop. I do not. I just do it. I’ve come to realize that paintings are stopped rather than finished, and that we stop for many reasons, all legitimate. So while I am not the angsting type anyway, I think that my little way of classifying stopping has been useful to me in understanding my own work. Perhaps it will be useful to you as well.
So far, I’ve noticed five ways of stopping. For brevity, I’ll call them: decision; intuition; expedience, ennui, and warning. I describe each below (with an example from my work), then make a few remarks about how they can overlap, and how being cognizant of what makes me stop a painting has actually helped my painting.
In the ideal world, we know when our painting is done. We are working in a goal-oriented way, in the sense of trying to achieve a particular thing or plan for our painting, and when we do, we say, “Great, that’s what I was going for. I’m done.” We stop, satisfied.
Deciding to stop is a proactive judgment. Judgments require criteria--as I said, a plan with parameters, and/or goals or objectives subject to evaluation as to whether or not they have been met. Let me say right here that I am talking about goals beyond the standard criteria of value, color, composition, edges, and so on; these are fundamentals for any painting that we work on and strive for. I’m talking about goals for a particular painting.
I think this sort of decision to stop is pretty rare, or at least, it is for me. First of all, I’m not much of a planner. I do however, have goals for the look and feel of what I’m doing. Even so, deciding something is done because it achieves what I wanted is unusual. Why? A lot of my paintings, like characters in a novel, take on a life of their own as the work proceeds. Their development is not completely under my control, and the idea I had in mind when I started is no longer completely applicable.
Without specific goals, I have no real basis for judging, in the sense of deciding, anymore. But I do have a basis for intuition.
Intuition is a kind of tacit knowledge. It can come from experience, but also (in the secular sense) in the form of a revelation: a sort of Eureka! moment. For me, this is distinctly different from a decision to stop. In this case, I just do. I feel as if I’m done; I know I am. It comes to me, and I lay down my pastel. As opposed to feeling satisfied, or that I’ve accomplished something, as I do when I’ve “decided,” I feel . . . happy, content. Something that took on a life of its own in my hands has come to a natural end, and let me know. Things have fallen into place, whether as I originally intended or not. My painting and I share a moment of mutual admiration. We worked it out together.
Sometimes this happens after making a single mark while working and then seeing, realizing, that the painting is now done. Sometimes that single mark will lead to one or two additional, intuitive marks or adjustments. But I can feel it when it is coming to an end in this way, and know that it will be done in a jiffy.
I think the paintings that I like and enjoy the most are those that I intuitively stopped. I think they truly are “finished.” They are often among those I consider my best, even when I least understand how they got like they got. I love the intuitive stop. It occurs more than pure decision, and I wish it happened more.
Expedience (or Tick-Tock)
I stopped because I had to, or it was practical to do so at the time. A deadline to submit to a show, the need to move on to some other scheduled item (which may or may not have to do with another show deadline), changing light outside. Parts of the painting therefore may have been rushed, or altered, or left undone, or pursued frantically up to running out of time. I didn’t necessarily want or choose to stop, but I did out of necessity.
Most of my plein air falls into this category. For me, the essence of plein air is trying to capture a moment in time, so I don’t spend more than 1 ½-2 hours on a painting because the light changes too much; I consider the painting “finished” when I walk away from the painting location. In the studio, a race against the clock doesn’t happen too often, because it is rare that I feel I must finish something according to schedule--that I was so motivated to enter a particular show and therefore had to finish. I rarely paint specifically for a show and almost never do to a theme--but do occasionally. My Degas copy is a rare example.
I should probably have called this category “Apathy,” but I like the word ennui, so . . . . Sometimes I stop because I lose interest, and sometimes I’m outright bored with something. I lose motivation to continue. In most such cases, I just don’t care enough about the painting to keep working on it; I’m not attached to it, or challenged by it, or curious about where it might go next. I suppose we all have paintings we just don’t like all that much (even if others do, and even if they are “good” paintings). For me, the paintings that I feel indifferent toward invariably are ones I stopped because I lost interest in them.
I make a distinction here between those I’ve stopped because I’ve lost interest and those I put aside and eventually come back to. When I stop the ones I’ve lost interest in I never come back to them: I abandon them. When I put something aside, it’s for a reason: to stew on some problem with it; to wait until I have the time to really get into it the way I want; or to start another idea while it’s fresh in my mind.
There’s nothing wrong with stopping a painting you’ve lost interest in. You don’t have to be wildly excited about every painting (were it only so!), but you should feel committed to and curious about the process and the outcome if you are to continue. Working on something you’re indifferent to is a waste of precious time.
Think of this as a corollary to the blissful intuitive stop. Sometimes, my hackles come up, like some primal alarm going off, warning me that if I don’t stop I will ruin it or otherwise do something irreparable. This happens when I intend to keep going, and am working merrily away, and then suddenly: warning! I may hesitate, doubting it’s actually done, even think it is not. But when this happens to you, you have to listen. Put the pastel down. Could it be a false alarm? Maybe. But as my mother always used to say, better safe than sorry.
Stops and Starts
Are these ways of stopping really different? One could argue that each is a kind of decision, but I maintain that a true decision requires an affirmative judgment of completion based on goals specific to the painting in question. It’s glorious when that happens, but rare. It does not necessarily produce our best paintings. And of course, our personal judgment could be wrong (and certainly different from another's). That’s why I love the intuitive stop; I think this is the one where the implicit measures of every good painting--values, color, composition, edges--have found their way into balance, giving rise to a liveliness that cannot be forced. In a painting where we decide it’s done, we’ve probably labored much more consciously on the fundamentals, as we have at achieving the more specific goals we had for the piece. A warning has some of the characteristics of intuition but is telling us we haven’t been paying enough attention to our instincts; there’s a good chance we’ve already made some error that cannot be easily corrected, or gone too far.
I’m actually OK with all kinds of stopping because they are, in their own ways, what makes me start again. I like to consciously reflect on what, exactly, was the reason I stopped something. It has helped me see both what I need to be more mindful of as I work, and what makes my own paintings mine. Stopping, by whatever means, provides insight into your working methods, your style, your willingness to experiment, your strengths, your weaknesses, your artistic personality, your life. So don’t worry about whether it’s finished by some set of criteria that we all know and take for granted and are (or should be) evaluating throughout every painting, because the technical holy grail is not, in practice, what makes us stop. At the meta level, we stop when it's time to move on using what we've learned. Always a good reason, whether it's done or not.