My intention when I wrote that title was to simply talk about watercolor painting: specifically, how do you know when to stop fiddling with your painting and call it good.
As soon as I typed the title, though, I realized how great it feels to know when to quit any number of things.
It’s January, that time of year for endings and beginnings. I look at all the automatic charges on my credit card, subscriptions to video services and online exercise programs and charitable organizations and I ask myself, “Which of these would I sign up for today if I were starting with a blank slate?” It is so easy to keep doing things because you have always done them. In January, I question everything.
Checkbooks and datebooks
If you want to see where your values are, look at your checkbook and your datebook. That is not an original thought, I assure you, but it is an old truth that I carry with me. In January I look at all my weekly/monthly commitments and ask myself, “Am I still willing to spend what little time or money I have left on this? And if I eliminate a few things, what might I be making room for?” It is reinvention time.
Teaching vs Learning
I have been teaching at my local art school since October 2017 and have derived a lot of enjoyment from it. Aside from meeting a wonderful collection of folks, I have learned how to have a lesson plan that is solid yet flexible. My classes attracted some naturally shy people, and hopefully I was able to help them get more comfortable experimenting with like-minded explorers.
My classes were never directed at teaching advanced, specialized techniques; my main goal, instead, was for each student to acquire a heightened level of comfort and excitement. That is essential in order to sustain interest for the long haul.
I would rather instill hunger than technique.
Sketchbook Skool (an online teaching website) changed my life in 2014. I already had ‘the creative itch’, and by early 2014 I had reached another plateau of restlessness that was not assuaged by weaving or gardening or cooking, or even by writing. I was pouting because I wanted my full eyesight back so that I could paint the way I used to paint.
Sketchbook Skool taught me, “So if ya can’t do that, you can still have fun playing with all the art supply toys, ya know.” Sketchbook Skool removed my ambition and gave me back my joy. It left my Inner Critic baffled and aimless. That Critic had nothing to pick on, because every time it said, “Ouu, that line, that mark is wrong!” my heart’s response was, “Yeah I know, I love it! Isn’t wonky so much more interesting?” That is what I learned from Sketchbook Skool.
And that is what I have tried to convey in my classes: the sheer joy of ‘mark-making’ can exceed any other pleasure you have as an artist. What if Joshua Bell cringed every time he hit a wrong note when he was learning to play violin? He never ever would have become a virtuoso. It is that simple. What I have tried to teach for the last three years is that reacting to our moment-to-moment successes and failures uses up energy better spent on the next drawing. Keep going, keep practicing, until it feels like something is missing when you go a whole day without a hot date with your sketchbook.
When I started writing this blog post (in my favorite cafe this morning with oatmeal raisin cookie in hand), my intention was to focus on an article in the February 2020 issue of Watercolor Artist Magazine . In it, the author asks six artists the question, “What’s your #1 strategy to avoid overworking a painting?” The answers are brilliant of course, and I may well talk about that in my next post. For today though, my fingers wanted to explore a larger version of the question:
How do you know when you’re done?
For me it is more of a realization, an inner settling, than a decision.
I may wobble, and ponder, and weigh pros and cons. But then, out of nowhere, my gut quietly whispers, “Yup, we’re done here.”
A painting, a project, a hobby, a job, a relationship, a focus. How do you know when you’re done? How do you know when you are long past done?
These are very good questions for this time of year. Endings make room for beginnings, and both can be exhilarating if we let them be.