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Calling a Painting 'Done'

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Most jobs have an identifiable beginning and end. The dentist drills around the cavity, fills it, smoothes the filling, perhaps polishes the tooth, and then the patient is on his or her way. Time is money, and the waiting room is filled with people with toothaches. Artists, on the other hand, may keep regular hours, but individual works could take hours or years to complete, depending on a variety of factors. One of those factors is when the artist finally decides to call the painting done, and artists can get quite picky on this point -- some call it obsessive: The forms aren't distinct, the composition is weak, the paint (as surface, as light, as description, as gesture) is muddy, there is too much or too little information in the picture, there is a need for more red or less green. "Art is the ultimate search for perfection," said Overland Park, Kansas painter Dean Mitchell, adding that "interesting imperfections" is the best that he can achieve. Still, he keeps trying for better. "Unless the painting leaves the studio right away, I find that I keep messing with it. Paintings that I thought I had finished, I pull out and change the whole color scheme."

His need to tinker is not unusual. ("They're never done," said New York City painter James Willis. "There are just levels of done.") Many artists, past and present, male and female, emerging and successful, realists and abstractionists, have found the process of calling their paintings finished quite troublesome. School of Paris artists Alberto Giacometti and Georges Rouault were renowned for never knowing when enough was enough, reworking again and again the same areas until other people (Rouault's dealer, Giacometti's brother) physically took the pieces out of the studio. It is not at all uncommon to see paintings in museums whose dates span years, such as American artist Edwin Dickinson's "Ruin at Daphne" (one of his most renowned works) on which he labored for 10 years (1943-53), probably not every day but off and on. All we see now is the painting that the artist let go in 1953; presumably, all that tinkering helped. The potential for many artists, however, is that they overwork their paintings, making them less clean, less fresh, less spontaneous and more plodding. "I get too into the minutiae," said painter Nancy Hagin, "always wanting to correct, correct, correct. Sometimes, you can be overcorrect." Watercolor artists may go over an area so many times that their transparent medium becomes opaque. This calls to mind an art school saying, "It takes two people to make a painting: The artist and someone to kill the artist before he ruins it."

Some artists do rely on a second person, not to kill them but to offer a second opinion on the work's quality and completeness. Painter Emily Mason noted that she and her artist husband Wolf Kahn look at each other's work ("Sometimes, it's done when Wolf says it's done"), and Eric Fischl similarly asks his painter wife April Gornik for her opinion. If she sees problems in the picture, there is more to do. "On many paintings, I'm exhausted," Fischl said. "I'm hoping it's done. I want it to be done, but I'm not always sure. Every painting I've ever done is overworked, at least in some area of it." He stated that the question of when a work of art is completed comes up regularly during question-and-answer periods following lectures to art students, "and my stock answer is that I only know it's done when I become the audience, when the painting is talking to me." Separating from one's own artwork, perhaps like letting a child go off into the world alone, is something everyone acknowledges needs to happen but it is never clear when.

There may be ways to contain the problem of knowing when the work is done, by planning ahead, such as making preliminary drawings and value sketches, in which the problems of composition, color, light and texture may be worked out in advance. Fischl stated that he works from photographs that are collaged together using the computer program PhotoShop. "This has freed me up to explore painting, and my painting has become richer," he said. Others subject their work to a rigorous analysis in which a passing grade spells completion. Artist Daniel Greene noted that he has a "mental checklist" that he imposes on his close-to-finished paintings, including if he has used enough colors, if there are repetitions, highlights and values. "There could be dozens of areas I need to check. Then, I begin to calculate how many things I am advancing and how many things I am undoing. If I undo more than I advance, I stop." Yet other artists simply put paintings aside for a period of time, allowing them to look at the works again with fresher eyes some months hence (those who work on more than one painting at a time necessarily allot a certain amount of breathing space between one picture and the next), or find that a deadline, such as producing enough works for a specific exhibition, makes them focus more intently and make faster decisions.

Keeping pieces around for a time is the most customary route -- a solution may float in. After months of glancing periodically at a Manhattan street scene he had painted, James Willis whited out the words "One Way" on a road sign, leaving it a blank arrow on the canvas, "and then it was done." At times, the experience of working on subsequent paintings suggests solutions to problems in earlier ones. Emily Mason stated that one of her paintings, "Round Fog" had been "hanging around for four years. I turned it sideways, so I could see it differently, and found a whole different juxtaposition of forms; then, I could finish it." On the other hand, artist Jerome Witkin claimed that once worked nine months on one painting and "every day was a battle. Nothing worked. I started to get superstitious, changing my soap, changing my jacket. I finally destroyed the canvas." Predictably, within a few days, he thought of the solution to the problem he had been having with the picture, starting another version that turned out this time to be successful.

There may be no universal answer to the question of when a painting is completed. In response to the question "How do you know when you're finished?" Jackson Pollock once made the reply, "How do you know when you're finished making love?" That, or the less clever (and less orgasmic) "When I'm satisfied," is perhaps the only true answer, but it is neither precise nor helpful to other artists who are in a quandary. Many artists describe themselves as obsessive, and there may be a level of obsession that has nothing to do with their painting and more with their need to keep working on it. As long as it remains in the artist's possession, a painting is subject to revisions -- oil paint may be scraped off, water-based media can be soaked off, and the changes begin. Unsatisfactory pieces may be gesso-ed over or destroyed. Mason has turned a few failures into studio drop cloths, while Nancy Hagin has salvaged successful sections, cutting them out of larger canvases and exhibiting (and selling) them as small paintings.

As artists become more exacting in their standards, their unwillingness to call a painting done may suggest more about a work's overall quality than if it passes a formal checklist. "The older you get, the more demands you make," Witkin said. "Taking two or three years to complete a painting doesn't seem long to me, whereas graduate art students think nothing about finishing a painting in two or three weeks."