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TOD 1027 | When to decide to quit on a painting.

Piece of paper with "TOD 10:27" on it.

As we all have experienced, paintings have a life-cycle.

That beginning part where you’re all excited about what you’ve chosen to paint. The part where you draw it up and you happy and confident with your sketch. It looks like things are going swimmingly well.

You begin to lay in your colours and you’re thinking ‘Bob’s your uncle, I’ve got this’.

Then from out of the left, gently, a breeze of hesitation wafts by. The wind starts to shift. A heavy gust of ‘What am I doing?’ blows” over from the north.

Before you realize, waves are crashing all around you. ‘Oh my Lord, I thought I was doing so well and now I’m just muddled in mire and confusion. What am I doing? What’s going on? How do I save this painting?’

Sound the warning bells! 'AROOOGA AROOOGA’ - sirens are wailing.

‘Man the life boats! Women and children first! Just as you’re about to bail, things start to come together. A little bit of this and a little bit of that. Well this isn’t so bad. Oh wait, I quite like this. By the end it’s a pat on the back. I did it ! I did it! I survived! ‘Look at this wonderful painting!’

Ahhh the painting lifecycle... Ahhh, but there are times that this isn’t the case. Rarely there are times when paintings can go really well from start to finish and you don’t have a problem... I wish, too far and too few! But... there are other times like in the scenario above where the painting hits the alarm bell stage. The sirens ring, and you man the life boats. And then there is this...

Many years ago I was painting in a workshop in the wonderful, booming metropolis of Laguna Beach, California. I was set up atop of a tall bluff in a public park, painting the ocean scene below. My drawing went beamingly well and the painting started off fairly good. But alas, those north winds began to blow and things started to come off the rails. The instructor (the great Ken Auster) came by and helped right my ship, nudged the rudder, adjusted the sails and said ‘Keep going. You’re doing all right’. About half an hour later he came by once again, and had to right my ship for a second time - it had gone drastically off course. Lo and behold, not more than 20 minutes later, he came by a third time to correct it.

Well, at this point I’m not sure that there was anything that you could have done to save this. I asked him desperately - ‘What do YOU do when your painting gets so bad you don’t know what to do!’ He looked down at my bag, grabbed my sketchbook tore out a small piece of paper, took my pencil, and wrote down ‘TOD 10:27’, slapped it on the painting and walked away. As he left I thought WTF? What does that mean ?...And as he made his way to the next student, he turned back and said “time of death - 10:27. It’s over, I’m calling it.’

Just like the paramedics who desperately try to save a life by pumping, doing CPR and resuscitation on someone. Pumping and pumping and pumping, the other paramedic finally says “Joe it’s over, I’m calling it... TOD 10:27’. One paramedic calls it out otherwise the other paramedic will just keep working. At some point you need to be the paramedic who calls the time of death on your own painting. It’s over. It’s done. It needs to be wiped off the canvas or it needs to hit the trash bin. It’s just the way it goes sometimes. Don’t be afraid to wipe off paintings.

Never be afraid to wipe off a bad painting. It’s just paint after all. Fresh starts are always better than bad end results, so get out your rag when you have to and wipe the painting off. Don’t get married to a painting. Keep a bit of distance between you and your painting. At the same time as you do not want to get overly attached to your painting, remember, you’ve gotta go through a little bit of a fight before you get to that thing where it might be TOD time. You’ve gotta be willing to battle a little bit to see if you can rectify the painting first but also, don’t flog a dead horse. Dead horses ain’t gonna get you anywhere.

How do you know this is happening and when is it time to let go? One never knows. It’s just one of those things you need to go through, and the more you do the more you will recognize the signs.

Like the artist Robert Wood says, ‘Painting is like a haircut. As you’re getting your hair done, you don’t leave in the middle. Even if you think ‘Oh I don’t like what’s going on here - I’m not sure I like what’s happening on my head, you have to tough it through to the end of the haircut. Painting can be like that too. Sometimes you need to tough it through or at least get closer before you can decide a TOD call.

Below is the gallery of horrors.

Oil painting of bushes in the fall.

This 8x10 should have been wiped off before it began. Why I still have it is beyond me.

Oil landscape painting of a cloud in the distance.

No middle ground, bad foreground, and worse this was “30x36”. TOD was about 15 minutes in...

Framed landscape painting.

I framed this hoping it would bring it back to life. That’s like digging up a body and giving it CPR...

Blue oil figure painting of a woman.

How one spends and hour looking at this garish colour and not seeing how bad it is is utterly baffling. Keep those brushes swinging.

Your friend on art,


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OMG! How you made me laugh! Those examples at the bottom were the cherry on the pie! Thank you so much for that. I really needed it this month as I have had a few "deaths" in the studio recently.

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