One of the things I’m asked most frequently by students is, “When do I know I’m finished with my [painting/sketch]?”
I’ve heard many people give the flip response, “When you realize that you’ve gone to far, then you know you should have stopped.”
It’s actually more simple and more complex than that.
First, yes, if you go too far you can “ruin” a piece. But I would like to remind you that until you have pushed past the point of no return you will never have seen the actual point of where you needed to stop. That means you’ll never know when to stop.
That should be more daunting to you than “ruining” several paintings and sketches.
Also, keep in mind, that in some media, like gouache, you can push and push and push and still have some time to “recover.”
You won’t learn that either until you have “ruined” a couple of sketches or paintings.
Why Does Roz Keep Putting “Ruin” in Quotation Marks?
If you’ve been reading my blog at all you know that “ruin” is a relative term. I don’t believe that you ruin things by taking them too far. I focus instead on all the learning you do by PUSHING past the point where you think you are safe, close to finished, or damn near perfect.
I think that it is more important to push, and to learn to develop your sense of how far you can go, how you can recover, how you can use your fresh eye to come back after a rest and see new approaches to explore…
All of those things are not the result of ruining something. Those aspects of growth come out of a fully engaged creative process.
How Can I “Ruin” Some Sketches or Paintings?
The best thing you can do to improve your skill level is to push yourself hard, past your comfort point. But with INTENTION and insight.
So let’s say that you think your values are weak, not your ethics, but the range of light and dark that you get down on paper when creating the dimensionality of a three-dimensional subject on a two-dimensional surface.
You look at your sketches and they seem weak or lack luster. Perhaps you feel they don’t have any oomph. Something you can do that will immediately improve the sketch or painting is to develop the values and create greater contrast between them.
Remember too that the eye always goes to the area of greatest contrast, so use that knowledge to design your painting or sketch to lead the eye.
Now in order to do this you’re going to have to push your values in various areas of your sketch (or painting, I’m just writing about either and will use sketch as short hand…). When you do that, if you push too far you just my “break” the sketch, you might break the illusion of dimension within your sketch.
But here’s the good news, you now know where to stop the next time you are pushing your values.
You will also learn, the more you practice, how and when to go in strong with values, and how and when to creep up on values if you aren’t sure of what they need to be in a certain area.
To hedge your bets, especially if you are working on values you can also do a thumbnail sketch mapping out the light and dark areas of your subject. (Thumbnail sketches are typically 2-3 inches square or rectangular and have no details, just large shapes with values.)
You can of course just jump in. In my practice sessions I simply jump in because I know I work quickly, and jumping in is fun, and I know I can’t “ruin” something because my goal in practice is to learn and push myself.
There is no attitude more fun and expansive to develop than that.
To Paint or Not To Paint
But wait, there’s more, there are always side issues. You’ll find that as you practice more and more and push yourself more and more you’ll hit new areas of complication that you have to focus on. That’s all part of learning a skill, we can’t learn something in one gobble.
So one of the complications that enters into the realm of sketching that I deal with a lot, and see a lot of my students deal with is—should I add paint to this sketch?
Ask yourself what your intention was when you sat down. If your intention was to paint, by all means paint. If you didn’t have that intention but the paints are right there and you have the TIME, by all means go ahead and paint.
There isn’t a write or wrong answer to this position.
If your goal in sitting down was to simply work in pen, then you can of course stop. You met your intention. But if you really feel like painting and have the TIME, by all means…
You get the idea. Sometimes people worry about the wrong issues when they are learning to draw and paint.
If your concern is whether or not your sketch would look better painted than left as an ink drawing then you have a stylistic dilemma.
Begin to solve this issue by asking what your original intent was, whether you satisfied it, what your inclination now is, and whether the original sketch stands alone or needs paint.
The answer to the last question is only clear if you go ahead and add paint. And now you don’t have the original sketch.
I recommend therefore that if you are always wondering for yourself if you “should” paint, stop and take a photo or scan of your line drawing so that you can refer back to it. Then go ahead and paint. When you’re done, compare the two. Which do you like best? What would you have done to the sketch to improve it and eliminate a desire to paint it?
That last question is important because sometimes the idea of whether to paint or not comes from a sense that painting will improve a bad sketch.
Painting will not improve a bad sketch.
Fix your drawing, then your painting will work.
Sorry I Don’t Have Final Answers for You
There are no definitive answers to any of the questions I brought up today. But if you follow these guidelines you’ll have a lot of fun and the questions will answer themselves over the course of your practice.
- Practice with intention: Sit down with an idea in your mind, even if it’s just a glimmer, of what you want to accomplish and how you think it’s best to do that. If for whatever reason things do not go as well as you had hoped you’ll still be able to look at the process and find the learning. You will find bits that you love. You’ll know that you can go forward in your practice on this new basis.
- Let go of negative words like “ruin” which force results into categories that strip them of their PROCESS.
- Put in the time. The more time you put in the more these questions resolve themselves; and it happens in fun ways you can’t even imagine because you haven’t gone there yet.
A Couple Additional Thoughts About Today’s Sketch
I could have stopped, even without darkening the eye sockets, at the ink stage because
- I really liked the negative space around the head, especially the ears.
- I went too large in scale when I started and didn’t get to include all the elements I had originally hoped to include. (Starting over and not finishing this sketch would then make sense, but I’d probably still want to push this sketch.)
I decided to go ahead with paint because I wanted to make strokes on the paper. Sometimes you just want to keep going and paint. But I also wanted to practice more with a large watercolor flat brush. I wanted to experiment with laying in flat washes on an essentially “rounded” surface, the face.
Another issue that came up is that the contrast is not as intense as in some of my sketches. I’m still playing with this paper, but in this instance I’m also still thinking about how to deal with make-up in the eye sockets.
I decided to play with the background, bringing some opacity to it that would contrast with the transparent washes used on the face—again, this is the urge to play with paint plain and simple.
When I finished the background I did a couple touch ups in the face but basically left it alone. It isn’t what I normally try to do with faces, but it makes a nice change and at this point in the process I wanted to stop and savor it for a few days.
For me at this time in my life I’m finding that texture often exerts a siren call upon me. I find that the lilac background, broken up by white dry brushing creates an outline of paint in areas around the ink lines that actually pushes the portrait forward in what I can only describe as a “yummy” way. That works for me. I know that about myself.
Paying attention in this way is how we prepare ourselves for making informed decisions about our process and our plan of action in the future.
There’s never just one way to look at the decision to push or to stop.
But fear of “ruining” something is best left out of the equation.