May 13, 2008
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
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."
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)