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.

5 thoughts on “Knowing When It’s Enough

  1. When are you done? For me, you could have left it there Quinn. I went off in to la-la land thinking about teaching – you can always do more but at some stage you have to recognise you’ve done enough, go home, go out, have your own life because that helps make you a good teacher. So . . . all that flashed through my mind before the next sentence!
    On Saturday I posted something I’d been mucking around with and asked for opinions – my gut instinct to add more, some detailing in black, seems to be the consensus.
    I loved your playing/experiementing . . . don’t have any inks . . . have to go to the day-job today. One day, I’ll say I’m done with that too. My life was way too full and interesting when I wasn’t working – a pity I didn’t get paid!

    • I love it when a reader’s mind goes scampering off in search of an answer. And I often think I try to cram too much into a class, instead of teaching fewer topics and and going deeper. Always a puzzle.

  2. Look how much fun you had experimenting! I think we overlook that aspect of playing and trying out different things – that it can be FUN! We often are trying to ‘create’ some finished project, so we are less willing to just throw caution to the wind and see what happens. I spent the weekend playing too, and I felt so happy and content. Now why don’t I just play in the studio more often?

    • We as suspicious of play. Those Puritans who arrived here and made us who we are frowned on play. Yet play teaches us skills we need, gives us permission to use up time in unstructured ways, and often results in brilliant inventions. We should all play much more!

  3. This is an issue we face in designing computer software! Here it is:
    Most people who use computers have learned to “save your work”. This is a little oddity of computers — if you’re writing on paper there’s no separate step to “save” it; the act of writing brings the document into being and “by default” (so to speak) it exists.

    Computer operating systems store your work in what’s called a “file system”. It’s up to the file system to put your work somewhere and retrieve it again intact. Sometimes you make the request, sometimes the computer itself does. Originally file systems would only respond to requests; that’s why your work was lost if you didn’t remember to “save”. But modern file systems (not the ones you get — yet — with Macintosh or Windows) do something different; they remember everything. Every minute change made by you and by the computer.

    What this means is that every document you create on a computer becomes in a sense a “movie” of its own creation. You could theoretically be writing a book and replay that moment on page 325 where you changed a comma to a semicolon, changed it back, then backspaced out the whole sentence and started over.

    And here’s the issue: most changes are insignificant and you won’t care about them. But some you will care about. Identifying those changes so they’re easy for you to find and retrieve is, shall we say, an “interesting problem.

    (If you use a Macintosh, by the way, you can see one attempt. In the latest version of Apple’s Pages application your work is constantly stored and there is no “save’. Instead there’s “Save a version”, which makes a second “edition” of your document, with (if you choose) a different name.)

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