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Are we done yet?

Work in progress in the art studio of Judith Monroe
Playing with a photo of the piece I’m working on lets me experiment with different ideas before committing to them on the panel itself.

“How do you know when you’re done?” People often ask me that question and I usually give them some flip response, “Sometimes I don’t!” It’s true, it can be hard to know when I’m done creating a piece of artwork. Sometimes a deadline is pushing at me, so I can’t just keep going. Sometimes it’s easy to tell, the piece just feels finished and I happily send it off into the world, confident of its completion. And then there are times that I really struggle with knowing when a piece is done. With the nature of my process, adding layer upon layer and usually obscuring at least part of what lies below, it can be hard to know when to stop.

Take the piece I’m working on now, for instance. It has a long and storied past. Underneath lies a completely different painting, something that came back to the studio and then I decided I could do far better if I started over from scratch. It’s pretty easy to paint on top of something, once you get over the emotional part. I know, some of you just gasped at the horror of me obliterating an artwork, but most painters I know do this sort of thing, they just don’t tell you. We just gesso over the old piece; gesso is a like paint primer, and it’s always the first layer that I put on my wood panels. When I gesso over an older piece, I’ve got my texture already in place and I work like I would after the layer of texture when starting with a fresh panel.

Back to the work at hand: this piece is already the second set of imagery on this panel, painted live during a couple church services and put on display for a while, as is normal. But at a certain point it just didn’t feel right to me. I don’t know how else to explain it. I certainly felt happy with it when I finished it and put it out there, but then I saw it again after not seeing it for a while. And it just didn’t sit right with me. Pretty soon, the feeling grew and became a bit of a nag. When the opportunity came, I brought the artwork back home to my studio.

At that point I just let it sit in the studio, out in view where my subconscious could work on it. I don’t know about you, but my subconscious is a busy little creature, working on several different projects in the background until it gets tired of being ignored. As I was finishing up my most recent set of live paintings, (more on those soon,) I felt the strong urge to tackle this one. Mind you, I have several of other things sitting in the studio waiting for me to get back to them, but sometimes certain things just need attention right now, thank you very much. So I got to it.

It’s funny how this sort of thing works. I could tell you that the border was feeling too overwhelming in this piece, so I felt like I needed to work with that and then it felt like it was missing something, so I’m working on adding to it now, and I’m pretty sure it’s going to be changing more than I thought it would but I try not to think too hard about these things. And yes, my mind works in run-on sentences because one thing just leads to another and if I didn’t go with it things would get boring.

And I’m sorry, but I still don’t know how I know I’m done. Sometimes I really don’t know, but I have to stop sometime. Usually.