We all want to make better paintings, get absorbed in the process of creating art and then stand back and discover a masterpiece. Often it doesn’t work quite like that! We can get swamped in the middle stages and easily lose our way, or even motivation to continue.
If you recognise that frustration, I hope these ideas will help.
1. Don’t stop through fear – trust that you have the knowledge to make it better
There is often a moment when you are quite pleased with what you have done so far. Personally I’m quite drawn to slightly unfinished looking works – the sense of potential and more to come really resonates with me. I don’t mind if the canvas isn’t fully covered. I don’t want to know it all; if I wanted all the detail I could take a photograph. I want to leave something for the viewer’s imagination.
However we all know that fear of spoiling what you have created so far. When you are working on bigger paintings this can get harder – perhaps you already have a lot of time and/or energy invested within them and it can be hard to move forward and ‘spoil’ what you have already created.
This is a large painting on canvas I had been working on over a few months. It’s been quite a play piece. At this point I liked it; I liked the mood, the looseness of some of the marks, but it felt predictable and a bit gloomy. Stopping here would have been so frustrating, because I knew this painting could be better.
I knew I needed to do more, but the fear of messing it up was so overwhelming it almost stopped me. If I had listened to my inner fear voice I would never have completed this painting.
2. Get clear on what you are working on
When you’re caught up in the flow of creating something you are usually so involved in what you are doing that you don’t stop to assess it. You work almost instinctively. Your experience leads you where to go what next, what to try. If you asked me how or why certain marks or colours are there I couldn’t tell you why – they just felt right and arrived. This process comes with experience and practice. It can be tiring. Heck, it can be exhausting, but usually it’s only once you come to a stop that you realise you’ve been working quite a lot out.
But at some point there is a natural break in flow. Particularly if you are tired it can be difficult to recognise this and because we are in some sort of rhythm we keep going. Often this is when I muck it up so I have learnt that when I stop there is often a reason.
It’s hard to be objective about your own work. The very fact that you have invested your time and energy into it means you are emotionally connected to it and this can make it very hard to assess what you have achieved and what should come next.
I liked the marks I had created here as part of a loose play stage, but the composition as a whole wasn’t yet working. It was so hard to do the next stage! The more experimental and uncontrolled means a higher chance it can all go wrong.In the example above I was stuck because I wasn’t sure what the next development should be – the hesitation got me.
Having a set of principles really helps in these moments. Not rules, but guidelines you can use to ‘see’ your own work and know what will take forwards.
After a short time away I could remove myself from the parts I liked and start to see what the painting needed overall. For me it was all too messy so I needed some structure. I liked the yellow ochre but it was too dark and I wanted to really let those linear marks show off – which meant bringing in some areas of clarity. This is how I finalised the painting.
3. If you’re not sure what needs doing next, do anything!
Don’t fuss around the edges, tweaking at small changes. Do something bold!
I was loving the soft greys here with flashes of bright coming through, but it all felt a little…bland? pointless? I knew it needed something radical – a dynamic shift which would bring fresh life.
I find a painting goes through this stage many times, but adding this bold fresh cobalt suddenly gave this painting new direction. Yes, it shook things up a bit, but that’s what I’m looking for. And now I know how to handle this stage I find it exhilarating.
Adding this blue surprised me and gave the painting a new lease of life. Without this it would all be simply too soft. Working like this takes guts, but is so rewarding. (see the final painting here)
4. Check in with your personal ‘bigger picture’
Take a moment to ask yourself what you are exploring within this painting. There should be a deeper level of enquiry… something you are looking to test and learn. That can be as simple as how to portray the light hitting a glass vase or creating a certain emotion within an abstract.
I find it really valuable to re-connect with this big idea in the middle stages. Often as I start painting, I have no idea or plan and this arrives during the process of working on each individual painting. It helps to articulate it, whether in a notebook or just taking time to clarify your interests on that painting.
Here is the finished version of ‘Cloud Shift’.
Adding the brighter sweeps of blue (colour harmony and saturation contrasts) and a flash of turquoise lifts the land from the deeper muted tones. And that sky has carefully adjusted areas of lights and darks and uses a wide variety of marks so it has its own interest.
I work with hundreds of artists within my Connected Artist membership to help them strengthen their professional approach.