The challenge of finishing a painting

Alison Back view painting

Finishing a painting is a game of dares. A poking and prodding, staring you in the eyes, challenge. How far will you continue to push, to poke. Walking that very thin line between ruining a months work or stepping up to another level, producing something you didn’t dare imagine was there, hiding all along. What are you capable of really? In the end it’s less about the marks you make and more about how brave you are. Do you settle for a painting that’s good, ticks all the boxes and is totally convincing, or do you take the risk of pushing it further to try and add that flash of transcendence.

Written on my studio wall is a quote by Lucien Freud stating that a painting should ‘Astonish, disturb, seduce, convince’ It’s a challenge to achieve all four. Sometimes it’s the ‘disturb’ that is missing. It all looks very lovely and convincing, but it needs that edginess to make it exciting. When you add something slightly off-kilter it can be hard to have the confidence to leave it in place, far easier to present a less challenging (and possibly more saleable) painting. 

Sometimes when I’m teaching a painting workshop I’ll see a student paint something magnificent, frown at it, before quickly covering it over with more paint. I’ve come to realise it’s because it is unsettling. They’ve painted something more exciting, but it’s challenging and doesn’t look like the easy, safe painting style they usually adopt or perhaps it all came together too quickly and easily (I live for moments like that !) but they think it can’t be good enough or finished because they haven’t worked hard enough over it. I try hard now to catch them and get them to wait before destroying something beautiful - we are our own worst critics sometimes. 

I am getting better and braver as I paint and paint and paint. It is more rewarding for me to paint something exciting and new, to push beyond my boundaries and discover I can make this bold mark, mix this new shade, scrape it back and add yet another layer. I ruin things less now and I recognise when to walk away, when to go slow, when to attack with passion. I tend to work on several paintings at once so that I can give each one space, push them in different directions and take the pressure off. 

I try not to let anything leave the studio that doesn’t excite me. If there’s a niggly feeling in the back of my skull I listen and know deep down the painting is not yet finished, however inconvenient that might be. It might need to wait until I’m ready mentally or have developed or discovered the right skills to do what is needed to complete it. 

Another day brings a different perspective and it’s usually better to wait than to fight an exhausting battle. The next day I can see clearly and it sometimes takes only one or two marks and there it is, the magic.

“What do I ask of a painting? I ask it to astonish, disturb, seduce, convince.”

Lucien Freud