"Thread It" an 18x24 inc acrylic on canvas. This is to one I write about.

“Thread It” an 18×24 inc acrylic on canvas. This is to one I write about.

I finally finished a painting that had been sitting around my studio all winter. It’s one that I made the drawing for, painted the basic line work of it on canvas, and even did a color sketch of. Then I grew bored with it and let it sit. This weekend I got tired of looking at it and decided to finish it. The bulk of the work was still to be done on it and as I was slogging my way through some of the early stages of painting the question occurred to me, “What makes a painting come together at the end and be finished?”. That’s a question that I didn’t know the answer to when I was younger and never contemplated much as I got older. Over the years I figured out how to make a painting come together and be finished but it wasn’t a conscious thing but a consequence of wanting to make paintings.

First of all finishing a painting takes planning. Some artists plan more and some plan less. From a practical standpoint you need to plan where and when you’re going to make your painting and have all the tools to make it on hand. That’s basic and obvious stuff but the novice might not know it. And so many artists have a hard time carving a place to paint out of their basic living space so it’s not always easy. Not to mention carving time out of life. And if you haven’t figured out what basic picture making tools you might need, from pencils to paint to canvas, then you’re going to have to spend some time and effort doing that. It’s amazing how these most basic steps can trip you up and stop you from ever finishing anything so take some time and get them locked down. After I got out of art school I had no money and no easel to paint on but I did have some scrap wood and basic carpentry skills. So I ended up building my own easel. It’s not the prettiest thing in the world but it gets the job done and I’m still using it twenty five years later. It was supposed to be temporary but it still works.

The next part of planning is the plan for an actual painting. Usually it’s idea, sketch, drawing, color sketch, and then painting. At least that’s how it goes for me. Some people have more or fewer steps in their process but usually everyone has a process. Some people do even more prep work like tracking down reference photos or doing a greyscale value drawing. Others skip right to the blank canvas stage and come up with ideas right on the spot. They then proceed to sketch or paint right on the canvas. They plan as they go. Any way you do it it’s important to plan. You need some sort of end goal for your painting in mind as you start otherwise you can find yourself with a directionless mess.

The next thing you need is experience. This is the tough part if you’re a young artist because you might not have any. You can compensate by having a good plan and being ready but it’s still tough. The problem is that at any time your plan can go wrong or not be good enough. There can be a flaw in any one of your phases from drawing to color sketch and you might not be able to recognize it. That is one of the most frustrating things. You know something is wrong, you can see something is wrong, but you don’t know where and when it all went bad. That is one of the most common picture making problems especially when you’re young. And it’s tough to let go. If the problem was in the drawing stage and you’ve done all this other work since then it’s tough to have to abandon that work. You’ll want to fix it. It takes experience to know when something is beyond fixing and toss it and start over. We’ve all had to do it but that doesn’t make it easy. With experience you learn to look more closely at things in every stage. It doesn’t stop all mistakes from happening but it sure does cut down on them.

The final thing you need to make a painting come together is confidence. This is also something a young artist has to build along with experience. When I was in art school I remember some people believing the very modernist idea that a painting should “Look finished” at every stage in its development. This is nonsense to me. Maybe if you don’t take the statement so literally and instead think of it as a way to be mindful as you go along making the painting I can accept it but there are some stages in my painting where it looks like crap. I’m specifically referring to after I paint in all my underpainting. I paint my holding line and then my color underpainting before I come in and do the bulk of the painting work over that base. Believe me when I get that underpainting done the whole thing looks like crap. And believe me the painting looking like crap at this stage affects me. It makes me think the painting is a failure and I don’r want to continue. That’s when I need the confidence to calm myself down and know it’s just the stage it’s at and I’ll make it pull together in the end. It was a moment just like that while working on this last painting that sparked me to write this piece.

I stood there in front of my painting wanting to stop because it looked so horrible and had to tell myself to have confidence in my plan and talent that I would be making a good painting in the end. It didn’t happen right away either. It was another couple of hours of sticking to the plan before I saw some of the results I wanted to see. Then I just followed the paint. Part of my plan is to have no plan near the end and let the needs of the painting in terms of color, composition, and brush strokes guide me. This is the stage that also takes experience. The experience to see that the painting isn’t leading me anywhere anymore. Sometimes I have doubts and ask myself, “Am I adding stuff will nilly?” but it always turns out that I find the place to stop. And stop I do.