17 December, 2009

Edit Your Own Work

Pink Haze River
9.25" x 13.5"
Casey Klahn

I doubled the quality of my art before I went to my show last September, by throwing out half of it.

This final installment in the How to Paint for the Prize series concerns your own ability to edit your work. Be brutal and hold up only the best works for show. The great American artist Willem de Kooning threw out almost everything he painted early in his career, and made a reputation for himself while doing it. He kept only the few paintings that he felt had merit.

Many of my own feelings on editing were posted here: The Axe Falleth.

I wrote:

"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."

The post continued as a reprint of comments:

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!

In summary:
  • Get distance from your art, by a day or two.
  • Look at them upside down; squint; view through a mirror (okay, I added these).
  • Make sure to focus on unity of thought, so the series doesn't wander or add extra, unnecessary clutter.
  • Don't just look at technique, but rather the emotion or message.

In addition to these things, I will caution against self-criticism. The exercise of editing your art to save the best art is not a self-deprecating one. Neither is it a self-aggrandizing session. Possibly, you can step outside yourself a bit and see your art in new lights, and then you will sit in front of your exhibit of art, and be moved by it.

One telling story. The absolute last choice of my own art for my September show, one that almost got cut, actually was the first one that sold. Maybe I held the axe just right for my cuts.


Marsha Hamby Savage said...

Thanks Casey, I have just found your blog. And the first one I read is right up the alley I am traveling at this moment. Can't wait to read the rest of them.

Lisa McShane said...

This is a good and relevant post. It can be shocking to people, that art is destroyed, but it's part of the process of creating good art. Although I too have had the experience of seeing others love a painting that I almost threw away!

Deborah Paris said...

Great post Casey. One thing which I think is implicit in your remarks is that quantity begets quality. Being productive-doing lots of work- is how we grow and also how we are able to cull the not so good from the good work and still have a strong complete body of work left to show!

Also, that the idea/concept has to be the driving force- technique will always catch up to good ideas.

Katherine van Schoonhoven said...

Thank you for your post! Letting the axe fall is just what I need to do. You continue to provide sound principles for those who pay attention. Congrats on 3 years of blogging. I'm looking forward to what comes next!

Casey Klahn said...

Marsha - pleased to meet you and I am happy to see your artist's blog, too.

Lisa - Funny!

Deborah - I like what you say. Technique will...catch up.

Katherine - Thank you!

Johnnny said...

Hi Casey (and all): I read your entire post but the first line is my favorite. It reminded me of another application of the same thought: there are two ways to have more money - increase your income or decrease your expenses. When trying to brainstorm one great idea, I usually try to come up with as many as reasonably possible, and then axe down from there. (I used to be a lumberjack, before they gave me the axe.) Someday you should have a showing of all your art that didn't make the cuts. Call it Axed Art.

Casey Klahn said...

Thanks for reading, Johnnny. Axed art show - that would be fun, but it would damage my already marginal rep.

Actually, I do have a number of works posted in this blog that later got the axe...I could "curate" that into a post. Good idea!

Johnnny said...

Didn't someone once say: One person's axed art it another person's treasure. Have a great weekend.

Unknown said...

Hi Casey: Great post! Like you, I cull through my work on a regular basis. However, I found a good use for the "axed" watercolors. I cut them into smaller pieces and send them to another artist who makes collages with paper. She's done some amazing work with these scraps, which she reshapes, and sells them. I hate wasting materials if I can avoid it.

Casey Klahn said...

Thanks for reading and commenting, Kathy. Sounds like you found a great outlet for those axed works.

I can also reclaim some of my paper, but some is too choked up with pastel and won't accept cleaning with water.

Yellow said...

I shiver at the idea of destroying my art. Even preliminary sketches and the like. Odd, isn;t it, though I totally respect selecting work discerningly for a show, I have to ask - do you actually bin the work you 'cut' or do you just set it aside, out of view?

Casey Klahn said...

Thanks for reading, Steph!

I have a couple of big cardboard boxes that I stuff them into. Later, I will sort through these discard bins and will have three ways to dispose of them. One is to re-use the ideas, which is to say I'll try the painting again on a fresh sheet. I usually keep these good idea "discards" and try them a couple of times.

Two: I may be able to reclaim the very expensive sanded board by brushing/scrubbing or thinning with water or turpenoid, depending on the brand. I have one really good work by my easel, framed, that came from this method. It is being used to spark more ideas, too.

Three: Trash 'em.

I do have a studio problem, right now, with my habit of pinning or taping failed works on the walls all around the studio. I wonder if these are a phsycic drain on me - I am surrounded with "failures." I need another solution on that.

Lisa McShane said...

I found a way to get rid of my culled pieces yesterday. My daughter, home for the holidays, had friends over. She asked them to help me go through the pile of paintings I didn't want and evaluate them. Once I saw the pieces again and still didn't want to frame them and put them in a show I told them they could choose one or two to keep. I went back to the studio and my daughter reported later that her friends were over the moon thrilled. Could hardly believe their good fortune.

So today 3 young people who can't afford art now have some decent (not great!) paintings, my reject pile was cleaned up for me and what remains will be torn off the stretcher bars and I'll reuse the wood.

I feel good about my editing! The psychic drain is gone, ready for the new year.

Casey Klahn said...

Lucky co-eds!

Susan Hediger-Matteson said...

Thanks for the post. It is always necessary to cull out those ugly ones. They will just sit there and gnaw at you if you don't.

At our figure drawing group, one lady used to use her ugly ones for target practice. When I saw her drawing something I really liked I would tell her "Don't shoot that one."

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