Updated: Apr 12, 2021
Finishing What You’ve Started: Your “Artistic Karma”
One all too common obstacle for artists, especially beginners in a particular medium, is abandoning projects before they’re completed. We’ve all done it from time to time, but some more than others, and it can become a hindrance to our artistic progress.
What commonly happens is that the painter’s vision exceeds their technical skills at that time. Whether they’ve set their expectations too high, attempted something too difficult and got stuck with a technique problem they couldn’t solve, or improve so fast that they dislike what they’ve previously done to the piece, the end result is often frustration and discouragement. This type of failure is unnecessary, and it pains me to see talented artists hold themselves back with lack of follow-through.
I call this “artistic karma.” Unfinished paintings and abandoned projects accumulate bad artistic karma; they’re like a book with a bunch of incomplete sentences. Imagine trying to read that book and learn something from it—it’d be so much harder with the author withholding all that information from you, just teasing with partial thoughts and no conclusions. With our art, we are that author, and we’re constantly reading our own book—our completed work—in order to learn via hindsight and grow as artists. We need to have finished paintings, no matter how unsatisfactory the end result, to be able to critique (and have others critique), so that the lessons of where we need to improve can fully sink in.
Direct experience is the quickest and most profound way to learn something, because we live that lesson firsthand. By abandoning paintings and losing sight of the ultimate goal, one can only learn the artistic lessons of that attempt conceptually, through the incomplete means of “woulda, coulda, shoulda.” The knowledge and insight of where to go next don’t sink in as far this way. The classic example to illustrate my point is the child told not to touch the hot stove who remains skeptical, versus the child who actually touches it and learns the lesson directly and beyond a doubt.
So having the discipline, patience, and work ethic to put our minds and abilities to the task of making the best of a painting that we hate, will help us much more in the long run. We can ensure our growth and progression by “finishing the thought,” completing the piece at hand in order to give ourselves a necessary sense of accomplishment and closure, a building block to the next artistic step. By keeping a few concepts in mind, this kind of laziness and resulting discouragement, frustration, and hindrance to progress can be largely avoided.
The most important thing to remember is to pace yourself. It’s crucial for your long term success not to take on more than you can handle when just starting out. We all want to paint the next great masterpiece, but we have to remember to be patient—achieving greatness takes time! Learn to set yourself attainable goals for each session, each day, each week, or each painting.
Similarly, it’s often wise not to have more than one painting in progress at a time, especially if you’re tattooing full time or have some other kind of day job. After taking care of all the other tasks of your life, you can be more effective with the time and energy you have left if you concentrate more intensely on a single goal rather than spreading yourself too thin.
Being able to make changes on the fly during the course of a painting, based on what your progress is presenting to you, is a skill you will develop with experience. Each and every painting is an experiment, even more so as a beginner. Sometimes when things don’t go according to plan it’s necessary to re-evaluate and come up with a new plan, or two. Constant critique combined with a goal-oriented mentality will serve an artist well in addressing problems that arise, and in never giving up.
If all else fails and a project becomes too frustrating or bewildering, instead of abandoning it, put it aside temporarily. Do so for a long enough time to get a fresh perspective on what you need to do, but not long enough to lose interest and motivation.
For paintings that may take weeks to complete, keeping your momentum is crucial. To ensure this happens, keep it displayed in a place you’ll have to see it every day. Walking by it and glancing at it briefly may yield an unexpected, spontaneous flash of inspiration. Sitting in front of a painting for hours on end, staring at it from up close, and working logically and deliberately the way sharp focus realism often demands, causes our thought process to tighten up and dulls the immediacy of our creative urges and artistic intuition. So it can really help with any piece of art, to literally take a step back, look at it from 5 or 10 feet away, and “see the forest for the trees” once more.
Another way to loosen up and regain your focus on “the bigger picture” during this break is to have some fun messing around with a different medium, or just fling some paint around on a different canvas or board and see what happens. “Happy accidents” may occur that give you new insights, ideas, and fresh energy to get back to completing the original task at hand. Although this bit of advice contradicts the “one painting at a time” guideline, it may still be appropriate and productive at times, so use your best judgment. Some people do great with multitasking on several paintings at once, while others get hopelessly distracted and might maintain their focus better with the other suggestions.
What often works for me during a longer painting session, is to take a break to do something active like a short bike ride, walk, basketball in the driveway, or something similar. This brief activity releases endorphins, shakes out the tension from sitting or standing still for hours, clears my mind, and allows me to come back to painting with a fresh focus. At this time I often re-critique the piece and figure out whether to stick to my original plan for the session or layer of paint, or make some adjustments and set a new goal.
It’s worth repeating that you need to be self-motivated in order to succeed in the arts, and of course with demanding mediums such as painting realism. If you’re not capable of being your own drill sergeant at times then all of these tips for sticking with a painting will be for naught. Having a community of artists you’re involved in helps with this, but sometimes you just have to push yourself if you want to have any hope of being an artist whose work really stands out.