03 June, 2009

The Axe Falleth

Smackdown_2952009___Rey_Mysterio-2.gif image by caseyklahn
Smack Down the Axe

In the comments section of my recent post, Red Tree, a good conversation took place about the role of the artist as self-critic. In the post, I said:
"A thing I do is, after completing a run of artworks, I will spot a couple of dogs in the lot, and axe those. Then, I will look at the remainder, and axe the two or three weakest paintings, as well."

Here is the conversation.

Carolyn L. asks:

"While you are 'axing' what questions do you ask yourself? What do you look for? Do you have a specific set of guidelines you apply? While I am sure the process is not entirely objective, there must be a thought process you pursue. Learning to evaluate one's own work is not easy. It is not a skill directly taught in art class. I would like to hear your take on the subject."

My response:

Good questions, Carolyn.

Sure, the first thought is something subjective. A niggling something that isn't right (usually a compositional problem). Often, the compositional issue has to do with proportion. Some element is too big, or too small.

The big problem is when it's close to okay, and then the struggle starts.

Distance of a day helps. I sit and look at my work a lot. I tape or tack the series on the wall and stare and evaluate. I use mats or tape to frame them. I get the rejects out of the way, although they still reside on the wall somewhere out of the way. A stack of rejects (or 2 or 3 stacks) sit around the studio, and I can refer to those for ideas later.

No guidelines. That's a little too static for me.

I look for strength in a painting.

I don't outright reject a work for technique issues. Some mistakes are okay with me if the point comes across. And, meanwhile, I am on a program to improve my technique! There's a contradiction there for you.

Some very important reasons for rejecting an artwork are if they don't fit the series, or my style direction. In that vein, I will get rid of works that have too many sharp or defined edges, or too much detail, compared to the whole.

Another issue can be dull spots where the paper just packed up too much with pastel.

Another problem can be value comparisons. Bad value progressions - too stark or too similar, are a bad thing.

Maybe a shape of an element isn't right. Too regular; wrong size or direction.

Endless...and people think art is easy!

Diane Wenzel then followed up with this question:

"Casey, your review of critical axing is very useful. But how is it when you begin a series? When you are in the heat of creation, what do you do with your critical hacking voice? If the hacker is asleep, I can see how you might become caught up in one place adding unwanted, useless details."


Well, Diane, it sounds like you are asking two questions. One: how to edit a whole series at the start. The other: do I get caught up in a the process and add superfluous stuff?

Or, perhaps you are asking that if the series is in its infancy, how can I tell which parts belong?

I never choose a series from an idea. The series presents itself based on a successful image that needs to be explored many times. So, the series is already a successful image and hopefully never contrived.

What are the qualities of that first successful image (or two)? These become my criteria. Also, my whole art statement comes into play (color - modern treatment - realism - abstract heavy).

Superfluous stuff? I go down that road often. That's why I have to edit the works after they are done. Interestingly, I will be in the groove and create nice works with new and fresh passages, and all is well then. Other times, I won't even know what I am doing in the studio!


Diane Widler Wenzel said...

I like what you said - a series starts from a successful image that needs to be explored many times. Never from an idea.
The past five days I have been giving a try to this positive process. I am also reacting to a failure. My big dissapointment was doing a painting with the idea of celebrating my husband's and neighbor's volunteer work for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. The River Gallery in Independence, Oregon placed the painting in a corner with bright lead glazed chickens in front of it. The painting looked just sentimental without my artist statement and compainon painting. I do not blame the gallery because a painting should stand on its own. When I work from ideas, there is always a big story behind them. In short they are illustrative. I think illustrations are good but should not be in an exhibit of image paintings.
At the moment I want to do a series of an image.
The first two turned out well. The third is a struggle. I brought out another canvas to relieve my obsessiveness but I had to go and take down an exhibit. I am very hopeful I will bring it together on my third day tomorrow before the next painting. I am going to banish my seriously critical mind set. I plan to have some fun.

Miki Willa said...

About three months ago, I went through all my paintings from the previous year and a half, looking for pieces to cull and reuse the paper. I had a nice pile going. Then people started going through the pile and pulling pieces out they really liked. I was amazed, but my husband remarked that I should not be surprised. What I like or dislike is not always the same as what others do. I may be able to see the little things that don't work for me, but someone else will only see what they really like. This experience was a lesson for me in caution about being the final judge of my work. Interesting topic to discuss.

Casey Klahn said...


I am not presently working on the Rivers, although may do more later. I had to break from them, but have @12 to photograph and post. Your story is very true to the artist's way, huh, Diane? Working in a series is a very challenging thing.

I think your abstract oceans are a series. Very inspirational.

Just re-read TPJ with the interview of Jimmy Wright, and he has to reset after a series before going back. And he's been doing flowers for twenty years! I love what he says in the article, and he is THE MAN in pastels today, IMHO.

Casey Klahn said...


I don't let people take art from my discard pile, as I want to control the quality of my own legacy. Your art is forever, in many ways.

Susan Ogilvie burns hers, and parties while doing it.

Diane Widler Wenzel said...

I Googled Jimmy Wright and read his bio. He has a way of creating an engaging picture of himself in words. He wants to be an artist creating a wall and he includes a saleable icon for the buying public' He defends his way as being happy mix of artist and patron needs. Yet he says he is a mess as a person at the very beginning of his bio. I have experienced the rewards of a long involvement and journey and feel he is trapped by selling his work.
I like simplicity for the strength of emotion that it can communicate.
Thank you for viewing my ocean pictures. They do hold together as a series, the ones I posted but the others were more detailed reality.
I keep the more realistic ones and actually sold one today. It was an older one that I strengthened yesterday.
I am not going to be critical of myself for wavering from a single style at the ocean. At home I should not destroy the more detailed works that do not go together in my series coming from an image of black farm animals with flowers. If others connect with them even if I am not excited about them, the world is enhanced.

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