Done Enough, or Actually Done?

January 27, 2016



As an artist, I am constantly trying to capture an image from real life and translate it into a painting or drawing. There are many ways to do this and many styles one can follow, but whether you go a realistic or interpretive route, there is one thing all artists have in common: It can be almost impossible to say "DONE." 

As a realism artist, I look back and forth from photo to painting and see the differences, whether good or bad. Certainly some differences are desirable to distinguish the piece as hand created art, rather than a photo. On the other hand, there are differences that can take away from the piece of art by failing to capture some element of mood, presence, or reality. The problem comes from getting caught up in all the details and not being able to distinguish between the good and the bad. 

I recently worked on a painting from one of my favorite stretches of the Pacific Crest Trail. I entered the Glacier Peak Wilderness in early evening light on September 12, 2015. The scene before me absolutely astounded me. The colors were rich and bright. The peaks stood out in stark contrast to the bright blue sky. The foreground offered a mix of bright white rocks, tall shadowed trees, and lush green and red shrubs. It was so breathtaking I thought it was just possible that I had stepped into a fairy tale land and unicorns or griffins might start running across the valley. Even without the unicorns, I knew this would be one of the first places I painted once off the trail. 

This was the first painting I completed off the trail and it was also the first painting in a long time where I repeatedly wished I still had an art teacher to help me along the way. Throughout the whole process, I wasn't quite happy with the results I was getting. Originally I was certain that the foreground was the big issue, and almost immediately upon "finishing" the green hills that make up the bottom portion of the painting I began painting right over top what I had just completed. Once I was happy with the foreground and touched up a few spots here and there, I thought "yup, it is finished!" I thought this, even though I knew something was still bothering me. I couldn't quite pin it down, but it just felt as if the painting has a quality of animation, rather than realism, which wasn't suiting me at all. But it was done, right? We artists are always thinking it needs some tweaking, so I should just say done, or done enough. I walked away. 

A few days later I walked back. I pulled out my finished painting and said "No, I can make this better." It didn't take much. I realized that the mountains in the background were the source of my discontent. Even though in my photo from the trail the shadows on the mountain were dark and distinct, in the painting the lines came across as too harsh, giving it an outlined appearance. It only took 30 minutes or so to rework the details in the mountains, but the change was dramatic. 

I always remember my high school art teacher saying that sometimes you just need to walk away for a few days. Still, this may be the only time I have told myself that a painting is done, and then days later changed my mind. Many times as an artist we have to tell ourselves it is done, so that we stop nitpicking every detail, but now I know there are times that we may say it too early. This time, I am just glad I realized that my done enough painting was not actually done. 

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