On Saving Unfinished Paintings

“After the Rain”
Watercolor, 22 x 30 inches
There are times when a painting just doesn’t seem to want to enter the realm of excellence.   The stubborn rascals (paintings) can seriously stump us artists about where to take it next.   I have had many of those times when a painting just would not allow me to finish it because it would not tell me what it needed.
Does this situation ring a bit of truth for you?
If so, maybe you do the same thing, or something close to it, with those pieces . . .
I found that if I kept a flat file drawer (now two of them) reserved strictly for those paintings who steadfastly and stubbornly held sway with the Art Gods and would not coach me to the finish point.
The file drawer has held paintings awaiting finish for years and years!   Every year, some occasion would arise that would cause me to go into that drawer and look through the paintings there.    Something like an upcoming show or class might cause me to scour through that drawer just in case I may have accidentally slipped a good one in there.   Then one would grab me in a sudden instant!  Most often it was a complete and sudden realization of what needed doing to a few of those pieces resting in the drawer.   Out they would come, onto my easel, and in a matter of a few moments and some simple changes (or additions) the paintings would find their completeness.   Then there are those who stubbornly remain in the drawer for goodness knows how long!
I recently upgraded to a new, bigger flat file as I had outgrown the other . . . .that is to say I could no longer open the drawers without something getting caught or jammed in the works!   I had just plain filled it up!
So, in the transfer from the old flat file to the new, I discovered the piece above.   I know, for a fact, that painting has been hiding in there for over 15 years !!   Yes!!   15 years !!
Before I finish my story, allow me to make a few instructive statements here . . . .
The first is that I have come to realize that while our vision that began the painting in the first place us is often way ahead of our artistic understanding and development when the actual act of painting occurred.   That is to say that these “stalls” in the completion of a painting are quite normal!   Sometimes we just have to wait while we gather more experience and knowledge before we can see what a painting needs.   When we rediscover one of these paintings at rest in its hiding place, the realization of what it needs, in order to be finished, hits us like a bolt of lightening!   Am I right?   It is a sudden realization and usually a verbal muttering of “Of Course!   Why didn’t I see that earlier?”
“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear!”   In other words, we need to be “ready”  . . . .that is we need to have reached the proper point in our development to actually see the needed modification and how to accomplish it!   We simply had to put the piece away until we were “ready.”
On occasion, we will rush to the finish out of pure excitement . . . .and ruin the piece.   My question to you when that happens is “So What?”   By the time we got around to ‘fixing’ the piece, we probably didn’t have the emotional attachment that we did when we first painted it.   The painting has been silently, microscopically disintegrating while it waited for us to get around to it.   Okay, I spoiled another one.   Move on!  Chalk this one up to more experience!   There is no point in shedding tears.   We gave it the “old college try.”
Back to my story about the above painting.   I remember discovering this rascal and pulling it from hiding.   As I scanned it, instantly knew what had to be done ( I won’t bore you with details ).   Better, I remembered all the build up to get to the place where I put it away (a lot of water, paint and paper has passed under the bridge in the last 15 years!!).   I was instantly reminded of my old painting buddy, Bill, and how we happened upon this scene . . . .and the ensuing excitement to put the subject to work.   And, of course, a lot of “Bill Memories” flushed into existence then, too!   I suppose that is one very good reason to put a few of those stubborn ones away . . . just to remind us of some great times.
In summary, be patient.   Be patient to allow your artistic growth to catch up to you and your painting attempts.   In time you will understand.   Gradually, you will gather the needed wisdom about making art.  You won’t feel it happen, but you may see it in your work.   Remember, your development as a painter can only come with experience . . . .lots and lots of brush miles accumulated at the end of your arm and hand.   Only then will you be able to “save” those few pieces that you put away for later.   Don’t throw them away!   Just keep moving forward.   And you will, at some place in time, be able to bring the full measure of excellence to your work . . .old or new.

9 thoughts on “On Saving Unfinished Paintings”

  1. This is a brilliant blog…and will hit home to all artists wherever their development may be. What you say has happened to all of us! Now I call these unfinished symphonies "studies" which be looked upon as eventually leading to a masterpiece. There is much to be learned from looking at them.They are a part of your life..a visual diary. There were only two instances that I threw away paintings…one of an antique store that burned two days after I threw it out and the other of a pier…and someone called later on to buy it….live and learn…and as you say….keep the paintings!Thank you for your post.

  2. Dear custom writing . . .

    I can very much appreciate your technique development challenge. Put simply, you probably haven't put in enough brush miles. Becoming good it this stuff is merely a matter of making hundreds of paintings and not expecting much other than the fun you have doing it. If you enjoy the doing, then who cares what the outcome of each attempt is? Just play and before you know it, you will start seeing some great work. Now, go paint!!

  3. THANK YOU. I spoke almost the exact words yesterday when I sat, staring at a massive 4'x3' acrylic and said, "I know it isn't finished but I have NO IDEA what it needs!" I document the progress with digital images, and then just put it away, but this piece is a big one that has a deadline. Thank you- I appreciate your insights.

  4. Dear Farmgirl . . .This is the problem with deadlines! Making art is very different than manufacturing. Since inspiration usually comes when we are working, here is a suggestion you might want to try: Obtain some clear, "water media acetate." Lay it over your painting when the painting is dry. You can then paint directly on the acetate to see if a chosen solution would work without damaging or risking damage to the painting. First, try darkening a region of the painting to see if maybe a value adjustment will work (on the acetate, of course). Wipe that off if it doesn't work, then try another approach by modifying shapes somehow. You might also want to use the acetate to modify the composition of the piece by assuring that you have the strength of a dark mass or light mass (grouping of value shoes) connecting the sides of the painting. As you can guess from this process, eventually you will stumble on a solution without messing up where your painting currently stands.

    Good Luck!!

  5. Always so greatful for you insights! I have lots of paintings I've put away and not sure what to do with. I've had more than a year to let the "rest". So coming 2016 I hope to resurrect some of these. Love your blog!

  6. Right you are, Sam ! if you are familiar with golf, most of the pros became pros by hitting balls until their hands were bleeding. Tens of thousands of hits just to gain the 'muscle memory.' It's the same deal with painting. Your hands won't bleed, but eventually you will develop highly refined habits that will lead to fine paintings. In short, put in the brush miles.

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