Why You Should Forget the ‘Finished’ Piece

I thought I would write this blog as it is another theme I have picked up on in my teaching experience, the obsession over the final piece.  I think we all like the idea of working towards a finished developed piece of artwork and there is nothing wrong with this.  It is just sometimes as beginners it might be better to approach smaller chunks at a time by doing several small things like sketching, drawing exercises and colour mixing, rather than being fixed to the idea that we have to complete final pieces and to perfection because this may not be realistic.

I used to start my Beginners Drawing course with several different drawing warm ups, these are short exercises that are designed to improve each area of drawing.  They are not finished pieces in any shape or form nor meant to be but they are very good activities to do daily or weekly to improve.  I feel that beginners are better off and will see more progress by working on these types of exercises rather than final pieces.  It is of course always satisfying to work towards a more developed piece but not at the expense of these regular, short exercises.  I found that some learners didn’t value short exercises or ‘drawing for drawing’s sake’ they wanted to get on with final pieces.

A drawing exercise - to 'draw' with paint and a brush.
A drawing exercise – to ‘draw’ with paint and a brush.

The other issue that cropped up with these learners was not understanding the concept of a warm up, that you ‘warm up’ before you get into more developed drawing and painting and why you would need to.  There is an argument that warm ups are not necessary, but there many benefits of them.  I once thought they were a waste of time myself but if you try drawing and painting with and without the warm up you might notice a subtle difference.  There is a free feel to the way you draw and paint if you have ‘warmed up’ that is however only if you approach the warm up as just that.

A drawing warm up can be as simple as doodles or marks on a page
A drawing warm up can be as simple as doodles or marks on a page

In my teaching experience I will always remember one particular learner who  didn’t like a speed drawing exercise and gave up sitting still, pencil down and not participating.  I understand that the concept of speed drawing is difficult to many but if it is approached as just a fun way to warm up then it need not be threatening. I am not a fan of the speed drawing exercise myself, I’ve always been someone who likes to take a lot of time over things but there is value in it.  Speed drawing is one way of speeding up and forcing you to loosen up in your drawing style.    It isn’t unusual that learners dislike the warm up’s but I have noticed that it is often the learners who don’t understand that a drawing can be just a few lines who feel that everything they do has to be ‘finished’ and often their work is overworked and lacks a certain freshness.

One way around this I have found is to introduce learners and students to the drawings and unfinished works of artists.  When we go to galleries we get this very unrealistic idea that an artist just picked up a paintbrush and completed a finished masterpiece.  When in fact there was months of preliminary sketches, drawing and unfinished studies and experiments.

The importance of experiments or 'try outs' in the sketchpads
The importance of experiments or ‘try outs’ in the sketchpads

I can understand the wanting to get on with the finished developed work but there is also value in taking time out for just sketching, trying out a medium, doodle, play etc.  Why not?  Does there have to be a final piece every time?  I think when we consider this a ‘waste of time’ we miss a valuable lesson.  All these short activities give us skills for the final piece.  I see it as a bit like football, players practice catching, running, dribbling etc. and then in the match they use all these skills. See my post  4 Drawing Exercises that Improve Drawing for some ideas on short drawing exercises.

A familiar problem for artists which most beginners experience is the overworking of the final piece.  One way to combat this might be to work on several pieces which you don’t necessary consider to be the final piece.  This way you have more options and could work on several at a time and develop the more promising aspects. Something strange happens when we don’t consider in our head a piece of artwork as having to be ‘finished’.  It takes the pressure off, a bit like when we do our best work in sketchpads but as soon as the clean white canvas comes out we get nervous and can’t produce the same expressive work.

One area where an obsession with things being and looking ‘finished’ can be particularly tricky is watercolour.  Other media like oil and acrylic can be painted over so if you overwork you could still apply fresh paint but watercolour can very quickly become overworked. There is a fine line between making look something look complete and muddied, overworked and stale looking.

Knowing when to stop is particularly hard with watercolour
Knowing when to stop is particularly hard with watercolour

The word ‘finished’ is a difficult word to apply to artwork because it can mean many things to different artists. When is something ever really finished?  The artist is always striving for better, that is why they continue.  If you are searching for perfection with a ‘finished piece’ then it could be along time before you are finished!

Timescales for finishing artworks vary enormously between artists, some can produce developed pieces in 10 minutes, others will take a lifetime.  Don’t feel that you have to finish your piece at the same time as others… unless of course you have a deadline!

Many artists don’t like their final pieces and prefer the sketches so not thinking of your work as ‘finished pieces’ might be a better attitude.   What does ‘finished’ mean anyway, there cannot be a clear way of defining whether the work is ‘finished’ because it is so subjective.  It might help to not think of  ‘finishing’ a painting but to work on several stages of development.

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