Sunday, June 28, 2020

So When Is a Painting Done?

Prothonotary Warbler Along the Wissahickon. Acrylic Painting in progress. 9x12 inches. Copyright 2020  Ken Januski

Prothonotary Warbler Along the Wissahickon.  Acrylic Painting in progress. 9x12 inches. Copyright Ken Januski  2020

The smart ass answer to the question in the title is: right before you screw it up. I should know, as I'm sure should a lot of other painters. I'm working for the third day on this nearly finished painting of  a Prothonotary Warbler  along the banks of the Wissahickon in Philadelphia. I have made very minor  changes to it  today and yet it is  a different painting than it was when  I stopped working on it two days ago. (After I'd posted this I went back into my studio and realized that the painting there  looked different than the one here. I posted the older version. So now I've added the newest one. But I'll leave the viewer to decide  which is  which. Sorry....)

I made those very minor changes because  I wasn't completely happy with the shape and color of the Prothonotary. I hope I've made it better but I'm not sure. I hope this painting won't stay in my memory as one of the "before I screwed it up" types.

Though I run across a number of painters, rarely ones  who  make a living from it, who brag about how much time they put into their painting, time spent has nothing to  do with when a painting is finished.  For me it is mainly when the painting seems to have a coherence, to look like it is all of a piece.

But  you might ask, well couldn't you have a coherent painting  that was just dull, dull, dull?? I suppose you could. There certainly are plenty around and probably have been throughout  history. This is where  the answer to the question gets difficult.

For the artist I think the painting has to have some excitement to it, something that keeps the painter interested in painting. So I'd say it's finished when the painting  still interests the artist and also seems coherent. I think many artists, certainly myself, assume that if it's interesting to  them as a painting it will also be interesting to at least some others.

In this  painting the coherence  came very quickly. And I think it is  still exciting. When that happens I think it's very wise to just stop. I did  for two days and then went back into  it  because  something bothered me a little bit about it.

Artistic  wisdom I think is knowing when you shouldn't  worry about the little thing that bothers you.

When a painting comes together quickly like this I think  it  has a freshness that is rare  in painting. That's another reason to stop and let it sit.

On the other hand sometimes a day or two later the painting will just look dull, or wrong, just too bad to leave as is. That is the case with the next painting. I'm not sure how long I left it sit but  I think it's somewhere around seven years.!!

Wilson's Snipe at Ottawa NWR. Acrylic Painting. 9x12 inches. Copyright Ken Januski 2020

I went back into it because I returned to acrylic painting recently, was feeling somewhat confident about using it again, and had been bothered for many years by  this and the three or  four similar versions  I'd done of the same theme: Wilson's Snipe, and one Yellowlegs in the  distance, at Ottawa NWR.

I don't believe I'll go back into this but I do think it  is now  a coherent painting. To me it doesn't begin to have  the artistic excitement of the Prothonotary Warbler painting but it does at least seem like a reasonable, workmanlike and coherent portrayal of the scene.

Spring Hill #4. Collage of old drawings with Charcoal and Pastel. 23x29 inches. Copyright Ken Januski 1981

There are also artworks, in this case a collage/drawing rather than a painting, that seem to need to be kicked into submission. Or that finally defeat me or other artists. Sometimes you just feel like you need to break through to something new, that your old way of  working is just stale and dissatisfying. It's the exact opposite of the method in the Prothonotary Warbler painting. Because I have a long history of  working this way in my older abstract work I will often work this way in my paintings and sometimes my prints. It is NOT a good way to work in watercolor, and perhaps not Moku Hanga either!

This way of working can be both  incredibly wearing and incredibly rewarding. The main time I worked this way in printmaking was when I did reduction prints, mainly linocut but sometimes woodcut  or  both together. I decided it was just too wearing for the reward, particularly when coupled with the oil-based inks I was using at the time and the solvents that they required.

It can also lead to  constipated  paintings. They can become just thoroughly  overworked without a hint of  freshness. And yet at other times they can be the epitome of both excitement and freshness. The collage/drawing  above isn't my favorite drawing of  all time but I am very happy with it.

It came about as I  was getting disgusted with some of my abstract charcoal drawings and decided that the best way out  of  this  was to just tear them up and use them  as the basis for something  new. It was liberating and led I think to some very good, and at least to me very satisfying , art works.

But I'm equally satisfied, at least I hope I still will be tomorrow by painting at top. There are many ways to make a work of  art and many ways to know when it is  done! Some  happen far more quickly than others. I think what's most important is to  in dialogue enough  with the painting to know when it  seems done even if  you'd already planned  to do something more.

P.S. Blogger seems to have been kidnapped by a new interface. I've had to edit most  of the html that it  'automatically' came up with because  it  seemed so bad. But  I  don't have time to write html, nor do I want to. So if  this looks bad, and if it was that bad you probably wouldn't reach this point, I would  blame it on  Blogger's horrible new interface.

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