"When working on a piece of art, how do you know when to stop? I often find that the more I look at something I've drawn or painted, the more small things I'll find that I'm not quite happy with, and I'll keep altering and tweaking, which is fine up to a point, but I can end up ruining it. When do you draw the line and say enough is enough, this piece is finished? Is there always going to be something that you're not 100 percent happy with, or should you keep working on something until you are 100 percent happy?"
Knowing just when to declare a work of art finished is an eternal struggle for many artists. The issue is that if you don't work on a piece enough, the work can come across as incomplete. On the other hand, overworking a piece can cause the work to appear tired and tedious. The most compelling works of art throughout history are able to establish a strong balance of gesture and spontaneity while simultaneously appearing to be substantial and fully resolved.
So how does one learn how to achieve this balance? One of the classic problems that I see in the beginning of my freshman drawing classes is students not pushing their pieces far enough, and therefore never fulfilling their piece's potential. To learn how to truly bring a piece to a full finish, I encourage my students in my classes to experiment with intentionally overworking their drawings to the point that the drawing is ruined. This way, when they have the experience of pushing their drawings too far, they develop an awareness of the entire process, and will know in the future when to pull back. You'll never know how far to go until you've gone too far.
I look for specific signals in my work pattern that tell me that I am either finished or getting very close. In the beginning of a piece, I work very fast because there is just so much to be addressed. Gradually, my pace slows down as I start to work specific areas and hone in on smaller details. When I start to notice that I am needlessly picking at a piece and making the most minor adjustments that really have no impact on the overall work itself, I know that it's time to stop. Other times, I'm simply sick of looking at the work for so many hours that I can't stand to work on it anymore.
After staring at your work for many hours on end, it can be nearly impossible to see the work objectively with fresh eyes. There are a few simple strategies you can employ to help this. One trick I use is to look at my work in a mirror. Seeing the reverse image can frequently allow me to see mistakes in the piece that I wasn't able to previously see. Usually when I'm deep in the trenches of working, my opinion of the work is very biased. Instead of making decisions on the spot, I reserve judgment on the work by putting it away for two weeks where I can't see it. After that time period passes, I take the work out again. I'm often times surprised that my initial opinion of the work was quite off and that getting some distance from the work allows me to make better informed decisions.
In my experience, being 100-percent happy with a work is so incredibly rare that it's not a goal that I even strive for. When I reflect upon my past works, there is always something that I'm not totally satisfied with. To combat this feeling, it's a good idea to not be too precious about your work. Maintain a high level of productivity so that you aren't investing everything you have into a single work. It's usually a better use of your time to create a work, learn from it, and then know when to move on. Students ask me all the time whether they can rework their homework assignments. The majority of the time, I advise them to simply absorb what they experienced with that piece and then to move onto the next work. Getting too stuck on an individual work can cause one to obsess over details and concerns that in the larger picture don't matter.
Ask the Art Professor is a weekly advice column for visual artists. Submit your questions to clara(at)claralieu.com