Often, as I’m working on a painting, I’ll get to a point where I think I’m done, and I pull the tape off and share it, feeling pleasantly happy. I’m a genius! I can do no wrong! It’s the best I’ve ever done! Hahahaha!
Of course, as I’m sure you can guess, later on, sometimes a day or a few hours later, sometimes a few weeks, I’ll come back to the painting and see the work with clean eyes. This is usually because I’ve taped it to the wall of my studio (aka, what used to be our dining room), where I can pass by it and assess it repeatedly over time. I’ll note what I like, for sure, but I’ll also see the deficiencies in composition, structural issues, little missed opportunities, etc.
This “gallery-style” set up is incredibly useful for self-assessment, because I can see pieces from different distances, and in relation to other works of mine. Sometimes, I leave it alone and accept it for what it is, deficiencies and all. These pieces often then come down and get stored or sold. They’re “complete”. But there are also definitely times when I take a painting down and get to work on it again.
In this example from Barcelona, I knew just what I wanted to do and the surgery was minor. This approach is almost always to push a highlight in a focal area, to tidy up a crooked line, to add a high chroma pop, or darken up a small area. These are the sorts of things that don’t take long, but are a clear part of the “story of the painting”. Here, I recognized I really wanted to repeat that clear, well-lit streetlamp in the distant midground. Next to it was a footbridge, and in the reference photo a section of it was lit- a feature I liked because I felt it helped draw the eye and open up a blank, dark area. If you poke around, you’ll notice other little pops of light and dark I added here and there. These sorts of things are minor in terms of scale but can really build a sense of depth and light.
However, there are also examples where I really don’t care for the original piece, in which case I dig in and re-work the painting. Here’s a painting I did from Granada, where I practically coated the center area with white, pushing highlights and drastically altering the composition.
When I work like this, the goal is not to create a finished piece. Instead, the work is used as an exploratory template for the next time I paint the subject.
Here, I took that original piece, and used the re-working I did to guide this second painting. It’s better I think, but after I was done I still wasn’t satisfied. Granada was very quiet at certain times of day, but even so, the painting lacked a bit of life. I added the people after the fact, to explore the idea of their inclusion. Once I went there, I knew the piece would never work on its own- I was destroying it to figure out what I wanted to do next. If I paint it again, I’ll plan on their inclusion from the get-go and add some cleaner colors to stretch the composition and open up that dull area.
In this third piece, after I “finished” painting (ha!) I came back and saw that I had lost that soft, undulating, dappled light I was looking for- the kind you get on pristine new snow. I knew I was going to have to paint it again, if I was ever going to create a piece I was satisfied with, so after I was all done, and it was taped to the wall for a day or two, I took it back down and set about pretty ruthlessly carving out my whites. All those bits on the snow are what I’m talking about. Of course, the brushwork is pretty chunky, but if I back up and squint my eyes, my opinionis it’s better- the dark/light shapes are more integrated and the foreground has a much more dynamic ground plane. That tells me I’m on the right path, and that I need to preserve these whites in the future.
In the end, however, it all really starts with finding a place where I can keep my “finished” work up and available for viewing and comparison. This has had many unexpected benefits, and has provided a space (literally) where I've been allowed to learn how to view and critique my own work (and for others to engage in the critiquing too!). This kind of thinking process, combined with the fact that I’m ok blowing up a painting I’ve completed to better see what I’ll do next, has been very informative for me and is a regular part of my practice. If others have similar (or alternate) working processes, I'd be curious to hear about them.