Knowing When It’s Enough

When are you done? When is the art complete? When do you quit? All good questions, and all with similar answers.

This weekend, I was working with ink on watercolor paper. It’s a new technique I’m puzzling out, and the most critical element is knowing when to stop working. It’s incredibly easy to overwork the ink, and once it’s overworked the piece simply looks like a clean-up towel.

Here’s the first step:

Which actually can be left alone. But I wanted to add another layer. The next step promptly overworked it.

So why didn’t I know that? Because I was willing to see what would happen if I tried another layer of ink. So the first reason you don’t quit is curiosity–seeing what will happen if you continue. When the urge to continue is  more interesting or compelling than the need to quit, you push on. If I had been perfectly satisfied with the results, I could have quit.

Another way to know you are finished is when the elements of design you had in mind are all in place. On this paper, I worked  in three stages. When working with ink pieces, it’s important to let one layer dry completely before the next one is started, or the ink will blur. Waiting allows time to make the decision to continue or decide the design is fine the way it is.

In the case of this piece, the black and gray sections were complete, but there was not enough contrast in the overall page. I added the yellow, which was interesting, but still not enough of a contrast. So I added the orange-red over the yellow, allowing both colors to show.

I knew I wasn’t done when the yellow didn’t achieve the purpose of contrast. I knew I was done when the branching edges completed a pleasing design. In other cases, you would continue when you cannot explain how your work is complete.

Ink on watercolor is a fairly tricky medium. You have to balance not being in control as well as controlling color choice and water amount. The medium doesn’t allow erasing, covering with gesso or not clicking “accept” and starting over, as you can with digital work in steps.

It was a mistake to add gold to this page. Not only was the choice in the yellow-green-gold color range, of which there was already too much,  but the eye can’t find a resting place, a catch with everything in one tone. The ink on the upper left looks like a three-legged blowfish sticking out its tongue. The lesson: knowing what you are doing and why. Here I knew why, but the what was a bad choice. Had I given the choice of shimmering ink more thought, I would have realized that I should have stopped after the background was still wet when I applied the second layer.

In this case, the shimmer worked far better.

It was right to choose the shimmer because there was a large, dark center that needed more definition. I left the lower right hand corner (which I love) alone, but did not expect it to carry the entire piece. Adding the shimmer ink gave the middle section texture and made both colors–the blue/gray and the violet, more visible. Knowing how strong (and how much space) the strongest part of a visual piece can carry is a way of knowing when the piece is complete.

These same decision-making questions work for other “should I quit?” questions, too. If one small and excellent part of a relationship can’t carry the rest of it, it may be time to add something to the relationship. But you have to know what and why.

Discovering that art answers are a bigger part of life is one of the reasons I do creative work. Because (you already know what’s coming) it makes meaning out of part of my life.

-Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach who is exploring the relationship between ink, water and paper, along with the rest of her life.