A question you need to be asking yourself with every painting is "how far can I push this?" From my growing contact with beginner artists, I see a similar problem over and over: incomplete artwork. Whether it's caused my impatience or self-doubt, it's likely that you're not 'finishing' your paintings. This week I'll explore the topic of personal limitations, and do so with a personal story.
My Big Portfolio Reveal
This experience happened early during my second year at SCAD. I had been painting digitally for the better part of a year, and had a very favorable impression of my own work (read: I was delusional). With nine or ten pieces finished, I was ready to share my work with the world. As a regular on the ConceptArt.org forum, this meant that it was time to create a thread in the Finally Finished section. So I uploaded my pieces, hit 'post', and sat back with a giant grin. Surely it couldn't be more than a day or so before my work impressed art directors the world over, and job offers would fill my inbox. As it turns out, I was a bit off base. Instead of job offers, what I got was an extremely frank portfolio review from one of the artists at Massive Black.
The Hard Truth
It's important to stress the fact that this portfolio review was extremely articulate. He addressed the portfolio as a whole, and also critiqued individual paintings. To summarize, he told me that none of the work was finished. That's not entirely true - he circled the forearm of one of my characters and said 'that's the only bit of finished work in your whole portfolio'. There was nothing mean-spirited about his wording. He clearly stated two pieces of evidence: 1) Your work is not finished. 2) You're clearly capable of better art, but your impatience is limiting your potential.
My Initial Reaction
I was crushed. I took it as a personal attack. Sure, I'd been in classroom critiques before - but this was different. This was my entire portfolio. To have it slashed to pieces was akin to having my sense of identity dragged through the mud. I was ashamed, embarrassed, and hurt. For a few weeks I lingered in a haze of self-pity and doubt. I didn't understand what an amazing gift he gave me. When I finally pulled myself out of the funk, however, it permanently altered my painting career.
The Long-Term Outcome
He was right. There's no getting around the facts: my work was not polished, and I was rushing. Once I was able to begin taking his advice (and stop feeling sorry for myself), everything changed. I pulled out old paintings and began to add layers of polish. Surface detail, textures, an emphasis on lighting... more, and more, and more. The results were awesome. By forcing myself to push further past the 'finish line' that I was self-imposing, my work took on new richness. I'd never seen my own potential because I was in such a rush to begin the next painting. In the years since then I've been extremely careful when labeling artwork 'finished'. Recently I've been making a habit of revisiting pieces after a month or so. With fresh eyes it's easier to see the problems, and I frequently add touch-ups to existing pieces in my portfolio.
Most importantly, this tough portfolio review alerted me to a personal weakness: impatience. Since it's part of my character, it won't go away. Instead, I have addressed it like any other technical aspect of painting - targeted improvement. Over time I've learned to slow down and polish my work.
How Far Can You Push?
Patience is a personal weakness for me, but I'm certainly not alone. I challenge you to push your boundaries. Take a piece of 'finished' work and spend another entire work day on it. Force yourself to add details, make refinements, and generally improve the work. I'll warn you: this will not feel natural. Leaving your comfort zone never does. Regardless, it's worth the struggle. By taking this challenge seriously, you'll push your work to new heights and see your own unharnessed potential. So put on some good music, and get to it!