Monica Burrow
Original Art from BC and Beyond

Blog - A Palette of Ideas - on being an artist

(posted on 17 Apr 2018)

Now coming to the end of months of working on the commission I mentioned in an earlier blog:

At the end of the last work session, I started feeling that things were getting to a point where I was getting to the home stretch.

Early on when I was first learning to paint, an elderly lady in our Guild said "Always quit when you think you are 3/4 finished." She also said "Put some paint on the canvas before it is fully mixed on the palette, that way you get more complicated colours."  It's something I've always tried to keep in mind. Don't overwork the piece.

Another person I learned from said "Don't fall in love, don't marry any one part too early." A great way to say that if you become attached to any one part of a painting too early, and spend the rest of the time protecting that area and painting around it, it will affect the success of the work.

Learning when to stop is one of the most important things for an artist. When is enough, enough?

Here's where I Spy comes in. That game we often played as children mostly when an adult wanted to keep us occupied with something that involved sitting down and keeping relatively quiet. People often ask me how long it takes to paint a piece. It's not an easy answer to give. As with anything that involves the puzzles of the mind and perception, one can spend as much time observing the piece figuring out what happens next, as actually squeezing paint and applying it.

From Plein air where one has to get the scene composed and down on the surface before the light or weather change, to the studio where one could work forever on one piece, there's a middle ground, but it's rare that I don't spend some time backing away and observing. It's usually at the point in the work session where the brain starts to wander that little bit, and one becomes aware that one is in danger of putting down a stroke that is not thoughtful. I don't think between each stroke. Each stroke is not deliberate, but before I start painting the group of strokes,  I have deliberated.

Stepping back for a few seconds is the minimum and the larger the work, the more often I find I have to step back. Once I hit the point I described above where the mind starts to wander, if I'm not hungry or thirsty, I know I have to put the palette away, clean the brushes, take the piece off the easel and take it to where I can put it into my daily life backdrop to watch it. Observation confirms where to go next, points out areas for attention and improvement.

It can also draw out a word of opinion from my husband, who is really objective and has very useful things to say as he plays music but doesn't paint. Because he doesn't paint he is objective, and not competitive. He doesn't know the "rules", he just knows when something bugs him. Most of the time the stuff that bugs him is right where the problem is. Often he knows when it's done too. How does he know this? As a viewer, he doesn't need to be hit over the head with every detail. If I am going to leave something for him to think about and participate in when viewing the painting, than I have to leave room in the picture for him to fill something in for himself.

It's that magical quality where you look at the brush strokes the artist put down on an individual basis and then resolve them into the subject, before going back to the parts again, only to return to the total. Your eye begins to move through the painting in the way that pleases you enough to stay with the work and marvel at how the shapes allow you to see what the artist saw and add in something of your own.

The observation stage can last a few hours, or it can last a week or two. It calls for patience.

After over 25 years as a painter, even when I stare at the blank gessoed canvas before I start a piece, I know with confidence to a decent degree what I am aiming for and how to get it there. Things can change as I work through the piece, but I always know there is a light at the end of the tunnel. I can see it from where I begin. There is a point though where you just know you are so close you can touch it.

It's at that point that I start making a list. The bigger the piece, the more I write it down rather than carrying it in my head. It's just like I Spy.

I spy with my little eye: and the list develops from there. It's funny how that list is enough to create the objectivity I need to make the last adjustments. Changes in tone, value, mass, highlight and low-light. It's the final adjustment just as a chef makes a final adjustment to the seasonings just before serving the dish.

And suddenly it's there. The painting is done. Each last stroke is put down thoughtfully and I know I'm there. It makes sense to me and it's enough. Time to put the work out into the world and enjoy it without looking back. It could be time for a new piece or painting the next one in a series from similar reference material. Either way, it feels like the piece is done.