In my little corner of the world, at the threshold of winter, the tree in my view by the pond is entering another state. It is becoming transparent. It disrobes, dropping its leaves slowly, as if preparing to vanish before my eyes. I’m noticing now that most of what I’m seeing is not the tree at all but what is behind it. I am seeing right through it as it floats before me like a veil. Its gathering ghostliness is cast into the water, silver and violet reflections, thin twigs making tiny lines the color of bones. In September, the tree changed from green to yellow and then in November to crimson-orange, but this time the language of transformation is transparency. The tree is losing its shape and boundaries. This is a whole new stage to represent, unlike any that I’ve seen the last seven months, a tree caught in the act of vanishing. I see that the tree is passing through various states of being and each state has its own character and its own integrity. To me, the steps or stages seem real and particular, in spite of their impermanence, each stage appears as a kind of archetype, like an image on a Tarot card.
Even though I experience my practice of painting as an ongoing process, a life journey that is dynamic and continuous like the processes I study in nature, the finished paintings I produce are by definition fixed. They are objects, products, destinations. For me, finishing is really hard. Part of the challenge might be this tension or paradox between the continuum and the fixed point. Another part of the challenge is that I don’t really know what a finished painting is supposed to look like.
Whenever I try to finish a painting by carefully cleaning up all the parts—removing smudges, perfecting the drawing, spiffing and polishing—as I work, the spirit slowly drains out of it. This approach to finishing leaves me unsatisfied and leads to my either abandoning the painting before it is complete or just stopping and calling it “finished” in spite of my dissatisfaction. I know that Nature is not polished and uniform, all clear, clean and tidy, but raw and variable, messy, ambiguous, and indefinite. And above all, nature is dynamic. It stands to reason that a painting of Nature must somehow include these qualities. What if focusing on details and formal accuracy won’t ever get me there?
So I am searching for some other measure to judge when a work is finished. Perhaps a well-finished painting is one that speaks about the archetypal truth of its subject, something that dwells below the surface details and local colors. What if I just focus on representing the underlying essence of my subject and my relationship to, and feeling about, that essence? In each stage I observe in Nature, I recognize that there is an essence, each stage has a certain quality or character. We say “that tree is bare” or “that tree is turning.” Perhaps the best way to finish a painting is to try to move the subject ever more towards that state. I know when that character is developing in my painting because the image inspires that particular feeling I have when I stand before it in Nature. I know to keep working as long as I can make something more like its essential self. I know I need to stop as the image begins to move away from itself and become something else. Mysteriously, sometimes this process goes on for many days and even weeks as I devote hour after hour to the piece, other times I breathe a painting into being in a few hours, almost effortlessly, and only need the good sense to leave it alone (which is surprisingly difficult sometimes). So perhaps, in this way, my practice of finishing can be guided by Nature herself.