There is an old joke in the business about how to keep a painting from going bad. In truth it takes two artists to prevent it from happening. One to paint the picture, and a second to club the first over the head when he won’t stop.
There does seem to be some truth to the matter as I’ve ruined more pictures by overworking them than not.
And while I don’t believe there is a hard and fast rule about the issue, I came to a realization yesterday after driving around all afternoon only to end up with only 90 minutes to paint a picture before having to hop in the car again and drive home to cook the family some dinner. It was my turn. Thankfully, it was one of those moments of clarity out in the field that I could recall.
So here it is, my brainstorm:
“Quit when you aren’t painting the shapes and have begun painting the thing.”
Right. The thing. What the heck do I mean, painting the thing?
Well, everything you or I can see, or might want to paint is made up of shapes. And every one of those shapes is composed of smaller shapes. It goes fractal as we work, meaning smaller shapes beget more even more smaller shapes — all the way down to infinity. But at some point those shapes become smaller than the brush we have in our hand, and that becomes the point for us to put it down.
Well no, actually, the better time to stop would be right before that. (Ha!)
Sure, we could keep stepping down to a smaller brush, and some artists do. All the way down to a single-hair brush. But at some point the paint begins to handle different than before. It expresses a different quality and character. And it becomes harder and harder for us to see and recreate the shapes we need because now there are so many of them to track. So our brain gives up, our mind goes blank, and we begin to cat-lick our painting with a pathetic hope that something might hit the target.
Fussy-wussy, hatchy-whatchie mark making: That’s catlicking. It’s when our art begins to become brittle, forced, or labored. It is when we lose those brave and bold shapes and colors, and all those vague strokes reveal our indecision . . .