As luxurious as it is to have all the time in the world to work on a painting, it often proves to not be the case. Whether the light changed while we were plein air painting, life commitments interfered, or inspiration was lost, we often aren’t able to bring our paintings to completion while motivated. Sometimes this can prove to be a good thing, taking us away from the compulsion to keep adding marks for the sake of adding marks when, with evaluation, we find it nearly complete, if not done. For those other times when considerable work is left undone, it may prove hard, if not nearly impossible, to find that initial inspiration again. When confronted with this situation, I have found a few useful tools for picking up where an unfinished painting was abandoned.
First, remind yourself of the theme of the painting. Why did you start it in the first place? This is an invaluable key throughout the whole of the painting process. It keeps us on track, stopping us from straying too far from our intention, and lets us know when we are done. If you don’t know where you are going, how will you know when you have arrived?
Second, honor your mood. How we feel emotionally has a profound effect on our paintings. Some days we are up and others down. If you began a painting in a serious mood, trying to pick up where you left off while in a giddy mood can prove disastrous. Remind yourself of how you felt when you started the painting and try to work on it again when in that mood.
Third, associate a type of music to the painting, or remind yourself of what you were listening to when initially painting. The tempo of the music can prove very helpful in getting you back into the mood of the painting.
Fourth, revisit the subject matter of the painting. If it is a location near you, go back and spend some time, even if the time of day or year is different. If you’re using photographic reference, leaf through other images from the scene as a reminder of the day.
Finally, associate another artist’s work to the painting that you find exciting or wish to emulate. Spend some time reviewing a book or magazine with these images. This is not for the purpose of copying but for the inspiration and permission someone else’s work can offer. If they can approach it that way, or leave it that way, so can you.
All of these tips play on our senses and often rekindle the initial motivation we had for the unfinished painting. If, after employing these tips, the painting is still not speaking to you, it’s best to put it aside, rather than forcing the process. Just like a good game of chess requires concentration and strategy, so too does painting. We plan our moves in advance. When the rhythm is broken, it takes some effort to get back in the game.