Are we There Yet?

Now that the paintings have been varnished, titled, mounted, framed and hung on the wall how many of you have wondered—what if I had done it differently?  What if I darkened the background, lightened the sky, emphasized the outlines, or cropped the painting? How do you know when you’ve done what can be done? When is a painting finished?

Jackson Pollock replied: to that question with another: “How do you know you’ve finished making love?” I’m not sure it’s that decisive in my mind, but it’s an interesting point of view.

James Elkins, Art critic and historian, School of the Art Institute of Chicago responds this way: This used to be a simple problem: when the artist had filled in the blanks, she was done. Over the past two hundred years it has become a very difficult question. Artists, critics, and scholars debate it endlessly. It’s one of the mainstays of conversation in artists’ studios. There is a lot of talk about intuition: artists say, “I just work until it feels right,” or “I’m not sure if it’s finished, but I am slowly getting the sense that it might be.” But feelings can be elusive. Many painters mull over this problem for years on end.

The discussion of when a painting is finished cannot be separated from the discussion of process. A conversation between John Stewart and writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson who wrote and directed There Will be Blood and the upcoming movie The Master, talks about the similar process of writing. Stewart asked the question: “How do you know the writing is done?”  Thomas extrapolated: “When I write and everything is going pretty well, you blink your eyes and then 10 pretty good pages have happened. When you’re desperate to try to get it right, it never is. (sic) It’s very difficult to not be precious with the words–to convince yourself to just put it on paper. I’ve written 50 drafts of things—you had it right the first time —it just sort of vomited out.  Other times, the 50th re-write made it better.  So there is this endless reach for something that keeps you hungry and wondering how does this stuff work?  It’s so confusing.”  Stewart asks “What makes you stop?” (Stewart has to stop because he has an audience waiting).  “When that is not the case, how do you not overwrite and destroy it on the back end?” Anderson says “It can’t be an endless search for ideas. But you can create situations where accidents can happen.  It’s critical to create a fertile environment –aspirational but realistic– (sic) and seize the seeds of inspiration.”

So in answering the question it might be the lack of answers that is so compelling in the process: “…. this endless reach for something that keeps you hungry and wondering how does this stuff work?

Winston Churchill (a Sunday painter) said: “The way to be happy is to find something that requires the kind of perfection that’s impossible to achieve and spend the rest of your life trying to achieve it.”

So perhaps that’s it.  Perhaps it’s simply about the striving not the stopping. About finding a fertile environment and asking questions but not expecting an answers. We stop working on a piece when there are deadlines, when we get bored with it, or tired of it, or when, as I read once, you stop learning from it. We put it on a wall or in a drawer and we start again “trying to figure out how this stuff works”.

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