There are two camps of creatives when it comes to refining an artwork: the over-workers and the under-workers.
Over-workers are typically perfectionists seeking their ever elusive “perfect.” They persist with a creation until they actively destroy the lovely, intuitive qualities that enhanced their artwork.
Under-workers don’t work enough on their creations. They will put one layer of paint on the canvas and call it quits or write a novel but claim it needs only one draft. They limit the quality of their products by not working on them long enough.
There is an underlying problem, fear, or obstacle at the heart of both of these creative leanings: what if I don’t have the requisite skill to finish my creation? What if I’m not good enough?
I’m currently an examiner for the IBO: essentially it’s college level study for high school students seeking advanced rigor and high quality academic investigation. I’m grading IBO student artwork, which comes from all over the world. I’m reading artist statements, research workbooks (sketchbooks) and viewing hundreds of artworks by students of all skill levels. It’s reminded me of an ever present discussion with my students: how do we decide when our artwork is finished?
Countless students claim they complete an artwork and bring it to class for our studio critique, only to be told by more than one teacher and their peers that their artwork wasn’t finished. I saw the same physical response in those students over and over: hunkered down, rounded shoulders, eye avoidance and a downward glance. There was always a frown that crossed their face showing in their forehead, eyes and mouth. It was as if being told their artwork wasn’t finished made them a failure. We’d work as a community to “say it ain’t so” and help each student see it was actually a call to action: because, in fact, we believe in you and know this artwork is capable of even more.
Being told an artwork isn’t yet resolved means people see even greater potential in your artwork. (Now that’s a compliment!)
I see this in my students of all ages and in myself. We always have at least one artwork that leaves us feeling nervous when we ask for feedback. And then we feel personally rejected or a failure when our work isn’t finished or “right” (whatever that means) the first time. This perception only acknowledges one small piece of the creative process, while ignoring another very important, integral element of creative process: refinement.
All of these definitions relate to today’s discussion. When refining an artwork we must seek to remove unwanted elements from our creation. We must also clarify our technical choices and ideas through making small changes to our artwork. But, what does cultural elegance in behavior or manner have to do with our creativity?
Meet Julie. This week she met up with her weekly artist group to share her work and get feedback. Julie was confident that with all of her planning that went into the work, the painting was finished. In fact, she worked so hard on it she keeps hearing in her head, “I’m over it!” Besides, she has a new idea in mind getting her all excited for a new project. But when it was her turn to present and she proudly announced it was complete, she got crickets.
That’s when it starts to hurt.
Her friend Ruth told her she loved the concept and color, but wondered if some additional texture would round the work out. Beth noticed some of her values should be more exaggerated. And as Julie listened to this constructive, useful criticism, she instead heard:
“You aren’t good enough.”
“You aren’t refined. How can we call your work elegant when you can’t even finish it?”
The word refinement is cursed by its third definition that suggests our work should be cultured, elegant, with sophistication and polish. None of these are inherently bad traits, what IS concerning is when we speak of a refined person we never talk about the work and education that took place to get them there. And that leaves many artists feeling like their creations, upon initial reveal to the world, should be perfect and polished.
By showing work as Julie did, and then discovering her work could use additional refinement, Julie had to show what a “refined” person hides: her stops and starts to find her best work. It’s as if Julie has lost her polish or finesse, and thus her artwork is less worthy.
What are the qualities of a refined artwork?
This is ambiguous and can often be an intuitive experience. While today we will ground refinement in practical strategies for you to apply to your creativity, it’s important to still acknowledge the role intuition plays in our creative process.
Ultimately, I describe a refined or resolved artwork as a creation where no further alterations or changes to the work will enhance the final product. There is a point in every artwork where adding more starts to detract from the finished work. So, how do we know if our creation needs additional refinement?
Here are three strategies to guide your creative process:
- Find peers to conduct group critiques,
- Take time away from your creation, and
- Create situations that allow for new ways to interpret and view your creation.
(1) Find peers to conduct group critiques
Peer feedback is SO important for your work. We can look at something for so long or be so emotionally invested in an artwork that we don’t spot the errors or the missing pieces to our creative puzzle. Find or create a local artist meet-up or, seek out a community via social media to share your art and garner feedback. Listen very carefully to advice that offends or angers you: there is often a truth hidden in that anger that will help you grow as an artist.
(2) Take time away from your creation
Give yourself physical and mental space from your artwork. Your mind needs to rest to fully process all of the information and reflection that comes from being creative. Put your artwork away somewhere so you don’t look at it or keep thinking about it for at least two days. In fact, it can be really good to take several weeks or even a month away from your creation but be sure you know yourself: don’t leave it so long that you never return to your artwork. Taking this break gives you fresh eyes when you return to your artwork.
(3) Create situations that allow for new ways to interpret and view your creation
Create a situation, or change your environment to help your artist eyes see things with fresh perspective. For visual artists, this means turning your painting sideways or upside down and even working on them that way. Another way to is take a photograph of your artwork and look at it in the photograph to consider steps for refinement. For all you writers out there, perhaps you should read and refine your draft reading the whole thing backwards to the first page. Different points of view and perspective afford us fresh insight in our art.
Do you recognize the full potential of your creativity?
I still remember when a professor in university told me I murder my paintings. (I’m an over-worker, by the by). I knew I was overworking my paintings, but it wasn’t until she said that to me I fully understood that working “too hard” on something could actually hurt my success. I now understand that part of my creative process involves stopping before it feels finished and following the above steps.
Because each artwork is unique, each creation has it’s own journey through creative process. Because each artist is unique, there are endless variations of what creative process can look like. What is important to note is the details of your process: how can you use it to grow as a creative?
If you make that commitment to yourself, your fears about refinement will begin to fade. It’s not that your work is bad, you realize, it’s that someone can see even MORE potential in your art than you did. How awesome is that?!
BE COURAGEOUSLY CREATIVE: Are you an under-worker or an over-worker? I want to know! Tell me about how you cope with your creative leaning in the comments below.
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