Knowing When to Stop: The Axeman Cometh

I’ve spent a lot of years in the world of words – writer, writing instructor, editor, and oh, yes, reader.  I’m familiar with William Faulkner’s famous advice to writers that they must sometimes “kill your darlings,” those phrases you are particularly fond of which are really not all that good.

This kind of murderous idea is a little shocking, I suppose, but I laughed out loud when I recently came across another murderous idea advanced by American Impressionist William Merritt Chase.

“It takes two to paint. One to paint, the other to stand by with an axe to kill him before he spoils it.” 

Chase is perhaps best known for his often idyllic scenes of idle leisure that suggest no sign of murderous intent.  But his point is well-taken and describes a problem inherent in almost any creative endeavor I can think of – knowing when to stop.  Closely related to another problem for an artist – wondering later if you stopped too soon.

It’s a dilemma.

Hemingway said he rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms 39 times.  The interviewer asked what the problem was and Hemingway said, “Getting the words right.”  I wonder if Michaelangelo or Picasso or David Hockney would say something similar about a particular painting.  “Getting the paint right.”

I’ve certainly had the experience of finishing a painting only to find myself awake at 3:00 a.m. with questions and new ideas for the painting.  Out of bed and lights on so I could look at it one more time, perhaps even graced by a shot of inspiration before I headed back to bed to dream sweet dreams of what I’d do with it in the morning.

A couple of times it worked.  Other times it turned out to be like the “inspiration” of a writer awake in the middle of the night who penned the immortal words, “All the tears fall in my ears.”

I started a painting a couple of weeks ago in a new format for me – I abandoned my 20 x 24 canvases for a 15 x 30 just to “see how it would feel.”  So far, I’ve “finished” it twice and then reworked it after one of those nagging 3:00 a.m. calls.  I think now it’s really finished.

Perhaps it’s true that an artist never finishes a painting, she just stops.  Either that or we get a glimpse of the guy with the axe waiting to make sure we don’t ruin it.

Here’s the new one…as yet untitled…

IMG_2179

 

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