I envy people like mathematicians or engineers who know when they’ve solved their problem; there’s a sense of accomplishment that artists rarely feel. We often ruin our work simply because there is no way to determine when we have reached our goal, when the piece is finished.
Watercolorists have it easier. They must get it right the first time or throw it away; there is no such thing as reworking a watercolor. Spontaneity is the name of the game. The rules for watercolor are pretty simple. When someone asks me if I can teach him or her how to use the medium, I say, I’ll teach you the basics in fifteen minutes and then you have to practice for the next twenty years. You can’t rework a watercolor the way you can oil paint or gouache. You go from light colors to dark, not the other way around. The trick in watercolor is to not overwork it; keep it loose and transparent and get it right the first time or throw it out. Any piece that takes more than fifteen minutes to complete usually lacks the spontaneity and spark the medium requires.
Oil paintings, on the other hand, lend themselves to NEVER being finished. You can easily wipe off anything you don’t like and if you are the least bit patient and wait til the paint dries, you can keep applying layers forever. You can “scumble” light paint into dark areas and “glaze” over the lighter ones. The joke among artists is that there are two people involved in creating a work of art: the artist who makes the work and the person who takes it away from him. Some artists are notorious for never being able to call it quits. For example, there are legendary stories about Albert Pinkham Ryder who often ruined his work by never being able to finish, always needing “a little something more” to be done He would put on so many layers of paint, that the surface became cracked and unstable and a restorer’s nightmare.
Seriously, how did Mondrian know when the last stripe he applied was exactly right and should be his last? Or how did Cezanne decide that the wedge of green he just painted perfectly resolved the form? A few years ago, Renoir’s son did a movie of Picasso painting on a sheet of Lucite so you could watch the process from behind. He kept painting and repainting over and over again. When he finally decided the piece was “finished,” I thought it looked no better than it had in several previous versions. In fact, it was often worse.
Some artists have it easier than others; they treat their work as if it were a page in a coloring book. When all the spaces are colored in, it’s finished. Today’s New York Times art section has an interview with an artist I never heard of where they ask her how she knows when a work is finished. She chatters on for an entire meaningless (it seemed to me) paragraph about a “sense of arrival,” finally comparing it to focusing a photo on your phone. If it’s “in focus” it’s done. But what if you have astigmatism?
Basically, there is no way of knowing when you’re done. It should be when anything more you do to the piece will only spoil it. In my case, it was when my husband would walk into the studio, look at what I was doing, shake his head and say, “Leave it alone. You’re ruining it.” Now that’s what I call real criticism.