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Self-Discipline and Inspiration: How to Finish a Commissioned Painting

A painting starts in the mind. It must. From there, the complicated, elusive, grinding process of getting your vision onto a canvas begins. Gathering one’s visual data, be it from life, sketches, field work, collected props, or reference photos, you reference all these to try to convey what started in your mind, your heart. And then begins the days, weeks, months of getting that “vision” onto a two--dimensional surface. Beginning a painting is easy. It’s like giving birth- the joy! The elation! The surprise of what comes out! It's raising that child, though, that “will take ALL the love you can give.” Finishing a painting is much like that: hard work. It will drain you of everything you’ve got.

Starting a painting is so much fun. Approaching that canvas with all that hope, all that expectation! Paint flying everywhere! Big, sloppy “block-ins.” You are painting fast and with abandon, using big, fat brushes! You are wiping away large swaths of miscalculated areas and slapping them down in another place on the canvas. Nothing feels impossible! Hope runs high!

And then, one must finish. There is such a huge leap from that furious beginning, to the finish of a commissioned portrait. Unlike art we do on our own, we cannot simply abandon the project or throw it off in a corner and wait for “inspiration” to raise up again. This is a commission, and we must finish it within a certain reasonable timeframe. Sometimes, the creative process is reduced to a crawl. Sometimes the so-called “inspiration” evaporates all together. Doubt creeps in, wrapping its icy fingers around your brushes.

What does a professional portrait artist do?

You just show up. You show up every day at your easel, even though doing so often causes you to overwork an area because you are not sure how to move forward. At last, total self-discipline must take over. You vow not to return to the area you keep overworking, taping a piece of paper over it to keep your brushes away if necessary. You tell yourself that you are not allowed to touch that area again until you’ve addressed and painted the carpet, then that window frame. Section by section you work, almost mechanically. People are often surprised that artists often wrestle with the mechanical drudgery of their art, but it is a very real component of any art piece.

At last, the whole painting is “finished.” It is completed by sheer force of will. I let it dry, and THEN, and then… and then the “magic” can begin! I sit with my painting for a day, sometimes two, doing nothing but glancing over at it throughout the day, staring. My eye returns to passages in the painting, either to caress or to be rebuffed. It is then, when my eye keeps returning to an area, that I step forward with my brush. I must be completely alone for this final step with no interruptions or distractions. Some areas get darkened with transparent glazes. Some areas receive a “whitewash.” Some areas get re-painted. It all begins to deepen, to sparkle, to come alive in this last effort, and when my brush hovers above the image, unable to touch down, no longer yearning for the canvas, it is “finished.”

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