Saturday, 15 August 2015

The great struggle to finish.

I've painted and drawn all my life, and I've long realised that sometimes no matter how well you plan, however many rough sketches you do - things start to go wrong.  And I also know that sometimes you can produce pretty good work with little preparation, almost as if by magic.  And it's difficult to know what happened in either case.

Sometimes you can exhaust your commitment to a project by working and re-working the design over too many times.  For instance if I design a picture with a number of figures and other elements in the background, I sometimes find myself redrawing each figure over and over so that when I come to paint the finished image I can get it right quickly.  I suppose it's like an actor rehearsing a role over and over so as to be as good as possible on the night.  But I often get to the stage where I've done the drawing so many times it starts to feel stale not sharp, and I get so sick of it that my enthusiasm wanes.

But I keep doing it because experience and common sense tells me that the finished result should be better if I've 'rehearsed' the thing.  If you don't put in that extra work the whole thing is liable to go awry.  But that extra work can also be the thing that bores you to a standstill.  It might, I suppose be something to do with my bad technique which has been largely self taught, and therefore lacking in system.

The Shrimp Girl by William Hogarth. (1697 - 1764)  This fine work was once lauded as an impressionist painting before the fact, but its free handling is really all due to its being unfinished.  Why is it unfinished?  Only Hogarth knew the answer to that.  Wikipedia Commons.
Uncertainty must also play its part in this, because if you know your drawing is sound because your training is good then maybe you don't feel constrained to re-draw it so many times.  However the scores of great drawing studies by famous artists show they always did the groundwork, and made superb studies that are works of art in themselves.

  But there are still a lot of unfinished paintings out there.  Like books and musical compositions often they're not finished because of that old excuse - death, however there are a lot of paintings that were left unfinished for various reasons ranging from the artist falling out with the sitter of a portrait or the patron who had commissioned a work suddenly changing their mind about the cost half way through the work.

Jacques Louis David (1748 - 1825)  Madame Récamier.  I think this seems finished enough for a Neo Classic painting.  They're meant to be spartan.  Jean Auguste Dominic Ingres (1780 - 1867) painted the lamp stand.  Wikipedia Commons.

J. L. David is supposed to have left his portrait of Madame Récamier unfinished because he felt insulted that she had invited another artist, Gerard to paint her, because David was taking so long.  It was reported that she liked Gerard's painting better.  David wrote her a letter stating that just as ladies had their whims, so did artists, and that he would leave the painting unfinished.  But is it really unfinished?  It has the sharp emptiness that the Neo Classic artists valued, its simple and elegant.  Even that scumbling that you see in the background, usually a sign that the artist has only just placed in the undercoat doesn't mean much with David who often used that approach for his backgrounds.

Gustav Klimt (1864 - 1918)  The Bride.  One of a number of uncompleted paintings found in his studio at his death.  Wikipedia Commons.
Death prevented Klimt from completing a number of works.  He had a stroke which put him in hospital partly paralysed and according to the account by Alessandra Comini while he was in hospital burglars broke into his studio and were confronted by these large paintings still on their easels and in various stages of completion.  He had painted the naked figures and had begun to paint patterned clothing over them.  Comini imagined the burglars in the darkness of the studio, bemused by these strange visions as they came to light before their torches.  

This was 1918, the year the First World War ended, but also the year the terrible influenza epidemic began, killing almost as many across the world as the war itself had done.  And Klimt in his weakened state did not escape it.

The one unsettling note is that these artists only left work unfinished with a good reason, whereas I seem to find it harder to finish paintings now I'm older than I did when young.  I tell myself that its because the better I am the more exacting I have become and that it all takes longer.  Nothing to do with laziness then.



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