May 13, 2008
Robert Gennnnnnn 
Yesterday, Rich Woy of Ocala, Florida asked, "How do you know when a painting is overworked? Are there boundaries or clues? Is this judgment left to the artist or the critic?"
Thanks, Rich. Good question. Funnily, at dinner last night a subscriber happened to mention that I habitually overworked the word "overworked." I had to explain myself.
For sure, it's a term among artists. "Too many notes," said the Emperor-composer Joseph II to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Similar thing comes up in painting. Too many strokes. Having said that, you have to know that tight photo-realism is not necessarily overworked. A close-up look at evolved realism can show understated brushwork and strokes in appropriate places. Overworked mainly applies to expressive, impressionist and broad-treatment works where freshness and surface quality are denied.
Overworking takes place when you lose control. As you fail in facility and freshness, you try to save the day with fiddle and fuss. The passage looks laboured.
Overworking happens when you're overtired, distracted, suffering from desire deficit, and particularly when you're not paying enough attention to reference material or personal creative vision. More crudely, it happens when you don't know what you're doing. The clue comes when you see you've gone too far. Work doesn't look as good as it might. "A painting," says Harley Brown, "is always finished before the artist thinks it is."
While the general public may not be so sensitive to overworking, and sophisticated critics may be looking at other criteria, to the actively creative eye, overworking is easily spotted and often spoils the look of otherwise fine work. Artists have ruses, however. The bad areas can sometimes be obfuscated by nearby passages of bravura or other visual distractions, but smoke and mirrors doesn't always hide the true measure of the artist. The main antidote is to scrape off and start over.
The overwork boundary often lies in the grey zone between the intuitive mode and controlled rendering. The fine art is in watching yourself in the act of intuiting. As Ted Smuskiewicz says, "You learn to leave your strokes alone."
Best regards,
PS: "Great is the art of beginning, but greater is the art of ending." (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)
Esoterica: The most powerful antidote to overworking is a habitual, timely pause. Work periods need to be laced with both brief and long ones. Lean back, stand back, walk around, move the work to another easel. In my much-celebrated case of Attention Deficit Disorder, long pauses are difficult, so I work on more than one at a time. As Quebec plein air painter Sylvio Gagnon says, "The best way to finish a painting is to start a new one." In any case, you need to neutralize indecision. "When you've just done it, you're not sure. But when you've sat with it for a couple of hours and you don't want to do anything more to it, that's a great feeling." (Damien Hirst)