When to Stop?

December 30, 2020

The drawing that began my ongoing lesson in listening to creative intuition and "knowing when to stop."

“Son, you’ve got to know when to stop.” It was the exasperated voice of my junior high art teacher, Mr. Lawrence, firmly but kindly chastising me for nearly overworking a drawing to death. Although the memory is almost 40 years old, it still plays vividly in my head when I can’t seem to back away from a painting once and for all.

I heard Mr. L.’s voice again today—repeatedly—as I kept working and re-working a painting that I should have declared done long ago, seeming to make it worse with every mark.

Knowing when to stop is an eternal challenge for artists. There is no finite allotment of brushstrokes, no buzzer to signal the end of the “create” cycle. The power to declare our finish line is essentially all ours.

Considering I paint mostly maximalist abstracts, I suppose I could belabor a painting forever and still justify it as a work in progress. But to avoid such an interminable fate and actually finish a painting occasionally, I’m learning to listen to my intuition.

In fact, my ongoing lesson in creative intuition likely began that long ago day in Mr. L.’s class. After he uttered the memorable headline that made me stop torturing my drawing, he segued into instruction about artistic subtlety. He said I actually didn’t have to render every single board in the building I was drawing; that a few well-placed lines and shadows would allude visually to all of them without crowding the page. In my recollection, I think he even said something about “artistic judgment.”

When I finally put down the pencil, I picked up an eraser and began applying his advice retroactively to portions of my drawing. Today, my tools were steel wool and water as I subtracted some of the needless excess from my newest painting. In both cases, I think the final piece might have been stronger had I listened to intuition earlier. But, hey, I’m still learning here.

The drawing that elicited Mr. L.’s wise advice all those decades ago hangs on the Inspiration Wall in my studio. It’s of a ramshackle building that had been a one-room schoolhouse in the 19th and early-20th centuries. As a fundraiser every year, my school’s art students created drawings of local scenes, some of which would be selected for a calendar highlighting notable sights of our rural county. Despite the overworking, my drawing of the long-shuttered schoolhouse was the August image in the following year’s calendar—my first published artwork. Thanks, Mr. L.