“Art is never finished, only abandoned.”
— Leonardo da Vinci
That quote probably goes through my head a dozen times a day, especially when I’m in the middle of a project. You get bored, you get sick of looking at the thing you’ve been working on for god knows how long, you run out of time, you forget where you left off…there are a multitude of reasons that you might walk away from a piece of art, a film, a story, a song, or whatever creative endeavor has been feeding on your soul like some invisible, soul-sucking vampire that thrives on souls. But there’s another old adage:
“You got to know when to hold’em, know when to fold ‘em,
Know when to walk away and know when to run.”
— Kenny Rogers
Like many ambitious or wayward young people (take your pick) I entered college almost exactly three months after I graduated high school. I enrolled in a state university with the ambition of becoming an illustrator and ultimately a production designer in the film industry. After two semesters of repeating the same curriculum I’d just had for four years in public school, and having the opportunity to take about one unit of art course for every four units of non-art-related courses, I folded my hand and dropped out. I took my tuition grants and bought a bunch of art books, then buckled down and actually learned to draw. I’m not condemning higher education (I’m married to a doctor, after all), I’m just saying it didn’t work for me. Possibly my expectations were misguided — I really wanted to focus on art. Or possibly, it’s because in the short time I was actually enrolled in college, I didn’t come across one art instructor in those lower division classes that I felt was helping me achieve any of my artistic goals. At the age of 19, I made a very difficult decision to go against everything that had been drilled into me since I entered the public school system and I walked away (ran away, really!) from my extended education with the newly adopted goal of becoming a professional comic book artist! But that’s a story for another day, what I want to tell you about is the one instructor in my life that taught me a single damn thing about art, and it wasn’t how to draw.
His name is Rock Newcomb (couldn’t find a dedicated website for him, so this is the best I could do). He used to teach at Troy High School in Fullerton, California, where I went to school my senior year. Mr. Newcomb (‘the Nuke’ as the kids called him affectionately) is an amazing artist (check out that link) and had a character unlike any other I encountered in fourteen years of schoolin’. He had a way of giving you just the right amount of shit that you were inspired to work harder and be better — if you gave a shit about art, anyway. He didn’t teach it, so much as he facilitated it. He’d give you free range to explore and create but there were always boundaries, and when you hit them, it was like hitting an electric fence. After one year with the Nuke, he didn’t teach me a single worthwhile thing about drawing or painting, but what he taught me was a lesson I’d never forget and I have to say that I probably wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today if it hadn’t been for him.
Each semester we had a certain number of pieces to complete and they had to coincide with specific subject matter that Mr. Newcomb had determined would be beneficial to our artistic development. The subjects weren’t necessarily interesting, but I learned that if I positioned a good argument to him, Newcomb would give me the latitude to stretch my creative wings. For instance, we had to do a portrait; he let me paint a human skull that was the centerpiece of a surreal anti-toxic waste campaign poster. We had to do a piece depicting wildlife; he let me paint a dragon inspired by one of Roger Dean’s ASIA covers. There was a give and take to Mr. Newcomb’s approach to teaching, and it encouraged me to solve my artistic challenges creatively. However, the one thing the Nuke wouldn’t let me do was finish a piece of artwork.
Working an hour each day in class doesn’t get you very far very fast, so boredom could set in quickly on the work. After a couple weeks, I’d finish an assignment and I’d turn it in to Mr. Newcomb. He’d look at it for about thirty seconds and he’d offer no constructive criticism. He’d simply say, “You’re about half-way done.” Demoralized, I’d return to work on this piece of art that I had no idea what to do with and I’d just keep working on it wherever it seemed like I could make a little progress. A week later, I’d turn it in and Newcomb would say, “You’re about a third of the way there.” What???
I fumed. “Look, just because my favorite class is Art does’t mean I’m an idiot — I can do the math, and a week ago I was further along than I am now? That doesn’t make any sense!”
He’d just smile. It was a terrible smile that said, I don’t have to explain anything to you because I’m the one in charge here, and then he’d say, “Yep.”
Eventually, after I was completely exhausted, fed up, bored and sick to death with the assignment, he’d accept the final piece and give me an A- on it. But then the next assignment would go exactly the same way. After a while, I got wise to what he was doing. He wasn’t teaching me how to draw or paint, but he was teaching me a valuable lesson. At first, I thought it was patience, but that wasn’t it. He was teaching me how to finish a piece of art.
Mr. da Vinci, in his famous quote, summed up the angst of every artist. It’s so hard to know when you’re done, when to put the brush down, when to write ‘The End’. You’re bored and you’re sick of it, or you’re lost and can’t see the forest for the trees anymore. More often than not, though, what the project needs is just a little bit more, that last ten percent, the final polish that will make it great. Whether it’s a painting, a film, a game design or a piece of dramatic fiction, you can always take it a little further and make it a little better, but it takes an incredible amount of stamina to get there. Eventually, though, you have to finish. You can’t work at something forever, especially if it’s got a commercial application with a deadline. Every project must come to a end, sooner or later. But knowing when to hold on and keep pushing, or when you’re actually finished and when to walk away from it — that’s the art.
And if I ever actually figure out how to do it, I promise to disclose the secret in an entry on this blog!