The Painting Curve is Not a Curve

Larry’s Painting Curve

My first painting teacher, Larry Robinson, described The Painting Curve to us this way: you start with a blank canvas, you rapidly develop an underpainting that you like, you add some basic composition and then you reach a plateau. The plateau comes because you don’t want to lose any of the potential by committing to a specific execution. But you press on, because the painting isn’t finished, and you inevitably slide down into a muddy middle, where you hate the thing. But you push and push and finally you come out on the other side and you ‘birth’ the painting. In Larry’s version (scroll down) you see the curve may continue forever upward after that.

I think Larry’s Painting Curve is a useful way of setting students’ expectations that they’re going to have to go through a dark period of doubt while they’re working on something that they will eventually be happy to have made. But for me, in abstract expression, I’ve found that the Painting Curve is trickier than that.

You Can’t Tell If It’s Good Until You’ve Had Time Away

The first thing I noticed is that it’s really hard to tell whether what you’ve been staring at and modifying for the last half-hour or hour is good. Not objectively good, whatever that means. But good to you.

To tell whether you like the thing that your eyes are too full of, you have to back off of it for a while, breathe some fresh air, stare at the horizon, answer an email, maybe eat a meal or take a nap. Then come back and let the painting surprise you. And, surprised, you ask yourself: Was it a nice surprise?

If you’re like most people, you don’t do this backing off thing each time you make a brushstroke. You might paint for hours before you get a chance to look away.

How Happy Would I Be With This Painting Tomorrow Morning If I Stopped Now?

So, the thing that Larry should be graphing with his Painting Curve is not ‘How Happy Am I With This Painting?’ but ‘How Happy Would I Be With This Painting Tomorrow Morning If I Stopped Now?’

And that’s where this becomes really tricky. As my best painting pal and inspiration Misho Lalov says, ‘The trick with abstract painting is knowing when to stop.’ So true. Haven’t we all stood there looking at a painting that is one brush stroke past perfect?

Painting Past the Perfect Painting

For me, there are two competing factors that dictate how fast and reckless I am: On one hand, I want to keep my momentum, stay fluid, keep myself in a zone of moderate risk–where there is potential of a big reward with the execution of a single impulse. And on the other hand, I don’t want to have a closet or garage full of crappy paintings that I ruined because I didn’t know when to stop. So many times, I’ve paused and reflected, ‘I really like that’. And then, ‘but the playlist is great, and coffee/alcohol/nicotine fatigue hasn’t set in yet, and I’m doing good so far, so why not just keep going?’ …Without realizing that, perhaps, I’m continuing on because I like the feeling of what I’m doing, rather than acting on a friendly creative impulse.

Let’s Get Analytical

But, you say, Dave, you were already being analytical. Okay, fair enough. But now I’m going to draw a graph that represents how I feel about the painting curve. Keep in mind, it’s not always like this.

First few days

Short-term painting curve

In the short-term painting curve, you have a place where you have some quick epiphanies and easy wins. In the graph above, the greens represent your ‘best yet’ moments. Moments when you consider whether you should stop. Even though it’s green, you wouldn’t want to stop at ‘a’, because the painting isn’t finished probably. At ‘b’, it might be finished, but you might have nagging doubts that you could have done more. Still, if you’re time-boxed and painting a diptych for your office, you could call this a win and quit.

The orange-y points are times when it’s better than it has been (and better than it’s going to be), but not ‘best yet’. Stopping at an orange point is something you really want to avoid, because you’ll always look at the painting and remember that it was once in a better state.

If you press on past the two-hour mark, you might get to ‘c’ and feel very good because you got past the plateau of ‘b’ and through the dark valley and out the other side. Your good feeling might even spur you on to get to ‘d’, even though it’s maybe two more days and the painting only gets a little better.

Getting onto weeks

long-term painting curve

When you work on a painting for a longer time, those moments when you get to ‘best yet’ are fewer and further between. You might spend a week or more breaking down and rebuilding the thing.

When you go through longer periods of a painting, you can have days when you like it and days when you don’t. I took perhaps three weeks with this one, and was making smaller changes to it each time I visited it. I released at a time where I felt I had reached the best point I had seen in a week.

final landscape

A Strategy for Quitting

For some time, I used to take a picture of my painting every time I took a break. I was interested to identify the moment when I went too far. I still do that sometimes, but generally it makes me hesitate too much.

When I’m looking at a painting, having been away for at least a few hours, if I feel like it’s reached a ‘best yet’ point, I calculate that I could spend half as much time as I’ve already spent on it (in total) to push it just a little higher. How high it will go I can never predict, but I know that in order to make progress I have to break something a little, and feel the slack in the line before it becomes taut again.

Cutting Your Losses

If I try to push through a period of diminishing returns (that is, I keep trying but can’t push the painting back up to a ‘best yet’), then sometimes I just paint a gray wash over it and put it back on a pile that I’ll start over again later. If I do this one in ten times, it makes me feel freer to release, and to spend more time in the early generative period rather than getting lost at sea in those long swells where the painting stays at a low point for so long.