The painting above is not finished. It's in a place that I stumble on regularly and dread every time. This place is called THE MIDDLE, and it's that wasteland of working that seems to stretch forever between those first daring streaks on fresh canvas and that final triumphant stroke on a glowing painting that says 'done'. The work looks nothing like I had in my head when I began, and I'm not sure where in the world it wants to go now. I wish this place wasn't so darned familiar, and that by now, after hundreds of paintings, there would be an easy solution, but there certainly is not.
I suppose this is part and parcel of desiring to create things from my own stream of consciousness. I am dazzled by the technical ability of realist painters who focus on the external world around them, and with such precision and heart replicate what they see. However, even though there are fairly realistic studies on my website, I have always been primarily pulled into the shadowy world of painting what is behind my eyeballs rather than in front of them. And this process demands a certain kind of letting go, of letting a work emerge on its own, independent of my conscious plans.
And so, in choosing to paint this way, it often happens that I start out with a blazing idea, sometimes fully-formed in my head. It seems, at the time, to be an idea that is gloriously singing, so easy to execute, that all I need to do is take dictation with the brush, and bam! it's done. It also seems like it is going to be the best idea I have EVER come up with. I suppose this kind of overblown optimism is crucial in order to create, much like Charlie Brown yet again contemplating kicking Lucy's football. And after charging full-steam into the work, suddenly all the pink clouds dissipate and yet again I am left, sprawled and bruised on the grass. As
Dr. Eric Maisel mildly states in his book, "Fearless Creating", it's a 'time when
the work is mysteriously drained of merit.' It's a time I refer to as 'the ugly duckling phase', and even though it is a hard, humbling lesson to be reminded again how clumsy my work can be, it is also a time to know that the only way out of this place is to keep on working, to keep on facing what is in front of me.
Even though this place is always difficult, I have adopted a few major, unchangeable rules along the way.
First of all, there are two major errors I believe an artist can make while in THE MIDDLE. First of all, she can decide that the work is irredeemable, and discard it. However, if she does this, she will cheat herself out of some of the most intense triumphant creativity she can experience. She won't know what it is like to solve the dilemma in front of her, to triumph over it and make it work. She will deny the power of her subconscious, and instead, walk over to the side of the track just before hitting the finish line. One of my art professors used to say that a painting you want to throw away is at the PERFECT place to work, because you no longer have any inhibitions of perfection holding you back. It's been 'broken in', so to speak, like a good pair of shoes, and now it's comfortable to do anything with, without worrying about screwing it up.
If you simply cannot stand to see the work another minute, stash it away in a dark corner someplace, where you no longer can see it. Take it out some time later, when you think you can bear to look at it again, and see if some new glimmers emerge. Even just tinkering with some details that you are certain about, such as refining colors and shadows, will keep you working physically on the piece, but also keep your inner mind open to possibilities. I have often heard it said that in order to work, one must work...in other words, these things can't be solved just by imagining or wishing them away. I am really wondering about the figures in the background, what their purpose is, but right now, I plan to work on the flowers in the foreground, and also refine the castle burning on the movie screen. Those are elements I am certain about, and I hope they will serve as a bridge to get me to the far right hand corner, where the confusion is.
With that point being said, another strategy is to just intently study the piece, examining it closely in all its unfinished, muddled glory. This kind of mental work can look like you are just sitting for hours in your studio doing nothing, when actually you are working very hard. Dr. Eric Maisel, in the book mentioned above, calls this 'hushing and holding', the idea of imagining all sorts of ideas for your artwork. It surprisingly takes a great deal of energy, but I have found that some of my best a-ha moments come when doing a manual chore like washing the dishes, or going for a long walk. My studio has always been in my living room, and thus, most of the time, I have become desensitized to the growing pains of my work, and it is advantageous because I naturally have it in my face all the time. I try to pause and look at the work as if I didn't create it. I ask myself what it is trying to say, and it helps to think someone else made it so I can embrace its 'strangeness.' This is also a time to be very, very aware of your self-talk, and to constantly remind yourself that this is something that is still unfolding and developing.
The second mistake an artist in THE MIDDLE can make is to think that because she doesn't know what else to do with it, it must be finished. I have made this mistake countless times in my art career, I think mainly because my work takes so darned long, sometimes I just get tired of it. It never pays, however, to just decide a work is 'done', just because it has temporarily worn you out. I want everything that comes out of my studio to be the very utmost I could do at that time in my life. And so, now my criteria is that the painting must stir up a powerful feeling of completion and gratitude in me. It is finished when I want to look at it and look at it and look at it some more, not in a critical way, but in a way of drinking it in. I have to feel at peace with the work, and even when I think these criteria have been met, I wait a day or so and see if I feel the same way. If I still do, the piece is officially completed and it's time to move on.
Art isn't easy; that's why lives have been dedicated to producing it. Be gentle on yourselves, and trust that the artwork got you this far, it will see you to the end, if you will let it. I'll keep you posted on this piece, once I have finally made it to the end.