On getting “stuck” on progress with an Artwork

I’ve been thinking today of the reasons that make me “abandon” a work of art for a long period of time, or simply what makes me avoid working on it.

I think if I’d be able to identify an abstract, general “structure” for how and why this happens, it would allow me to figure out such problems in the future when I work on art outside a school framework and allow me to be more productive.
The problems I would typically run into are:

  1. Problem identifying the concept of a piece.
  2. Having a clear concept, but not knowing what details to use to execute it.
  3. Not knowing how to execute something, even though I know clearly what it is I want to execute.
  4. Not trusting my skills to carry me through a specific piece
  5. Not having the right state of mind for a piece.

I’ll now discuss each in more detail.

  1. Problem identifying the concept of a piece. I have an idea for a painting, something I like, but I don’t have a definite understanding of what is the concept underlying my inspiration.
    For example, I might have in mind a certain pose that inspires me, but I have no idea what should be the context for it. I recall I once had a sketch of a female archer, stretching an arrow on a bow, her body stretched, mimicking the shape of the bow, looking at her target, but I was unable to figure out what environment such a painting would take place in. The archer is nude, she cannot be part of any kind of normal every-day, civilized environment. Or, even if she is (like, say, part of the ancient Greek Olympics) that changes the concept of the piece from being about the figure and the state of mind it represents to being about a culture and a member of that culture. It pushes back the intensity of that figure and the message it carries with it. So then that brings me to the question – what IS the most important thing for me in such a painting, what is it I want to express? Without knowing the answer to this, I’d stay stuck and the drawing will never get further to the stage of a painting.
    I can now answer that my concept for such a piece would be the state of mind of utter determination and concentration, when there is absolutely nothing that stands in the way of that figure or passes her mind as she is aiming. Her whole body is stretched because her entire body is expressing the one thing she is thinking of. The Target.I believe that the best way to express this would be apart from any daily environment, apart from any particular culture. It needs to be more symbolic and isolated. Like a desert which is rendered semi-out of focus).

    Another variation of this problem is inability to integrate the concept of a piece across the entire painting; for example, being indecisive on what exact pose your figure should have (or how much of its body to show, how to crop the painting and so on), or what background to choose for your figure, or what colors or values to use in different parts. However, it is usually the case, I believe, that you simply don’t know what your concept is (what it is you find most appealing; what is your central motivation for the piece and which are just side things you like here and there).

    To conclude: Problem #1 is failure to identify the concept of a piece. If you don’t know what you want to express you will have a hard time expressing it. (Except for those occasions when the entire concept flows easily and naturally from the artist’s subconscious, but unfortunately not all art works like that – sometimes inspiration comes from glimpses of something, not from a fully integrated idea, such as a specific narrative).

  2. Having a clear concept, but not knowing what details to use to execute it. For example, there is an ancient Greek story I love which I am going to paint some day. It is the story of Atalanta and the golden apples. [Link to the story]. The short version is that Atalanta is a fast runner. The fastest runner in whole of Greece. She was a beautiful woman and highly courted and so, to reduce the amount of suitors she had to face she offered a competition in which, any man who’d be able to beat her in running would have her hand in marriage, while all those who fail will face instant death. Despite the heavy price, many men have tried and died.
    One smart man who was in love with her sought the help of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, who agreed to help him and gave him 3 golden apples. As Atalanta and the young man were racing, he threw the apples on the side of the road, one by one. Atalanta, being a women, found the apples irresistible, run sideways to collect them, which eventually cost her the race. The story ends well because she fell in love with the man for his wits.
    The scene I’d like to paint is the moment when one of the apples is thrown and Atalanta’s eyes and body go after the apple and away from the track, while the man looks at her in cunning, satisfaction and love, while still running. The story has so many elements I love, one of them being a love-story in which a man wins a woman over by outdoing her in her own game and, instead of being a victim to her strengths and tests finds a way to turn it into her defeat. I love how Atalanta finds the apples irresistible and how the motion of her body reflects that.
    This is one of those cases where the entire concept is clear and easy to integrate across the entire canvas, but it is hard to choose the exact details to include in the painting, the exact position of their bodies, the angle of viewing them, how to portray the environment, how to get a reference for this and so on.

  3. Not knowing how to execute something, even though you know clearly what it is you want to execute. For example, say you want to paint a couple dancing in a ballroom, but you don’t know how to use the rules of perspective to create a convincing room, or you don’t know what objects a ballroom would have, or how much light the room should have to create the kind of lightning you have in mind for your couple. In a lot of cases you don’t even know what it is your subconscious is struggling to know – all you know is that you feel like avoiding working on the piece because you’re stuck with it.

  4. Not trusting your skills to carry you through a specific piece. This is the same as #2 but broader. The solution for me was to seek education (and have it), which started with making my art a more social activity and talking about it with other people.

  5. Not having the right state of mind for a piece. If I find a piece very inspirational, I need to have the same mood as the piece have while I’m working on it to carry that message across the entire painting – especially when working on facial expressions, that’s when I need to be at my absolute most dedicated, concentrated state of mind.
    I found that when I have a framework, such as my school, in which I feel more pressure to attend regularly, 9-5 sort of thing, and I am sitting in front of a drawing and I know I have 3 hours to work on it, whether I feel like it or not, I end up (when I like the drawings), getting into the mood of it eventually, even if I didn’t feel it when I just set down to work.

  6.  Expecting something impossible out of myself. Such as, expecting myself to draw something from imagination and do it perfectly, without studying examples from life first. I also knew an artist that thought that unless you are the best in the world and naturally gifted, there is no point making art. I don’t know what other ideas other people have, I only know my demons, but at least I know what they were and I got rid of them. Things become a lot simpler when you don’t expect the impossible out of yourself and the first step is to identify if you have such expectations and if so – what they are.
Lastly, I want to give an advice, to any artist who might happen to read this, which I just thought of while writing this. Writing or talking about your thoughts regarding an artwork you’re stuck with is tremendously helpful. Relying on emotions or intuition as a guide is good, but when you’re stuck is when your subconscious cannot solve the problem on its own and making your thoughts conscious can speed the process of problem solving tremendously. In fact, just writing this little post today has allowed me to turn the archer into a future painting, where before writing this it was sure to stay a sketch in my sketchbook forever. When you write, just write to yourself whatever is going through your mind, likes and dislikes about your piece. What you feel stuck on and what you’re certain you want to keep. What intrigued you to begin with and what supports it in your piece (or what goes against it).

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