It’s gawky and somewhat incoherent, and it’s one of my favorite paintings. I painted it years ago. I had set the blue and white, China creamer on the steps in front of the house, filled it with clover flowers from the yard, and painted it quickly in raking light. It was an impulsive thing to do and involved painting skills I did not possess. (There’s no interior differentiation of light in the shadow, for instance, little sense of space or dimension.) I worked quickly, put in everything I knew how to put there and stopped painting when I ran out of ideas. (No doubt the light had changed dramatically as well.)
I wouldn’t change anything about it. I wouldn’t sell it either. And since I doubt that people will ever be clamoring to buy it, the not selling isn’t really an especially remarkable gesture.
I note that artists are often asking if they should continue working on something or whether they should leave it alone. And on the whole, I have to say, that if you’re asking the question you should keep working. The very fact that you’re asking the question demonstrates that you’re aware of defects in the work that you don’t know how to fix (or are reluctant to fix) but you’re seeking a kind of societal absolution from having to go forward. Isn’t it good enough as it is?
It’s true that there’s a kind of beauty that is spontaneous even when unfinished — or especially because of its being unfinished — something that is poetically evocative because it leaves much to the imagination. However, if you are always hoping to get lucky with happy accidents you never really learn the deliberate skills that can bring something to refinement.
One way of learning skill and to compensate for the disappointment that’s intrinsic to this problem is to redo the same thing several times. Essentially, you take Degas’s advice. When the fear consists in worrying that you’ll screw the picture up, then simply make several of them and spread the risk around among them. One of them ought to turn out decent enough.
You practice the riff just as a musician practices music. You don’t have to do it exactly the same way each time. It can be a theme and variations like Monet haystacks. But the point is that you set yourself a goal and then strive to meet it, rather than setting yourself no goal and hoping that somehow you’ll accidentally fall into a successful painting. As with other things in life, if you have no goal (none, at all) how will you know if you have succeeded? And even if you don’t know what you want, you do at least know of artists whose work you admire, who set some kind of standard into your mind of what good art looks like. You can emulate something even if your own goals are hazy. These exemplars might be as varied as Matisse or Andrew Wyeth, but you do have goals. The question is can you dare to seek your real goals?
If the real goals are too hard, you have to break them down into some sort of constituent parts. Maybe you work on drawing one day, on color some other occasion –on composition, on tonality, or texture, or proportion — or whatever — whenever. You can proceed in baby steps.
That said, I don’t know what goals I had when I painted the still life above. I’m not sure I did have any that were specific, that I could articulate, nor even ones that I could locate in the works of artists I admire. In that instance I ran out of time and happened afterwards to feel a mother’s love for my imperfect off-spring. But in other works, I set myself goals (they are somewhat shadowy but they still exist). The goals do not inhibit spontaneity. Quite the contrary they make it possible. And I work very deliberately toward accurate drawing, deliberate color effects, and I often find that a path toward invention opens up precisely because I am reaching for something high.
Art is expression but it can be discipline too. I’m not talking about the (to my thinking) empty discipline of the punitive plaster cast school of art — the one that says that you have to do a hundred pictures of noses from plaster casts before you can dare to portray even a turnip from nature. I’m not talking about the false discipline of someone who sets artificial obstacles in his own path so that he can afterwards declaim about how many hours he spent perfecting a dry looking painting.
Instead I’m trying to evoke a living kind of discipline, one established in longing, the sort of situation in which you find that you love something very much, enough to strive to get it right.
So these two ideals can sit comfortably side by side. There are times when the first few strokes catch the thing in a way that painting further would only ruin. And there are also kinds of achievement that only arise from persistent work, which will never be got on the cheap. It’s good to leave yourself open to both options: to be willing to work hard and to be ready to recognize the (rare) instance of inspiration when the thing seems to paint itself. And you have to be honest enough with yourself to admit that there’s a huge world of difference between these two kinds of art.
I don’t know how many times I’ve drawn the blue compotier, but I love drawing it and it’s blue corridors hypnotize me every time I look at it anew.