In the film Tin Cup, Kevin Costner played a washed up golf pro who had always had potential, but never quite made it. Throughout the film, through his attempt to return to the glory days we see time and again his dogged personality getting in the way, until ultimately in the final scene he just won’t let a shot go, and throws the game in an attempt to pull off one glorious shot.

From a story point of view, we’re engaged with his hubris and are on an emotional journey with the character. But as a metaphorical example to apply to art, this is a great example (to my mind at least) of what not to do.

…in other words, you need to know when to quit.

In the film, Tin Cup doggedly tries to make this final shot, ignoring the advice of his friends. If he’d listened and stepped back when it wasn’t working, he would have been able to refocus and perhaps achieve his goal, instead of getting sidetracked by a single idea along the way.

From an artistic point of view, the comparison is knowing when an illustration just isn’t working. You try flipping the canvas, it still reads, but it doesn’t have the ‘wow’ factor. You can’t see it, can’t put your finger on it, but you know that you’re not connecting with the piece. You’re lacking that excitement that often comes when a painting just ‘clicks’. The colour comps have become more of a muddy soup, because you’re preoccupied trying to work out what it is about your composition that’s grating.

It’s hard. You’re invested in the drawing. You like the lineart, but something is bugging you.

Listen To Your Heart

Oh yeah, I made a Roxette reference.

Even if you can’t understand why, you need to listen to that voice. Not to the doubt; this isn’t just about the self doubt that creeps into every artist’s mind. Don’t just listen to your self doubt, but really listen to what you feel about the piece. Try to understand why it’s not working, and start plotting solutions. Does it communicate what you had originally intended? Did you have a particularly strong story or message to begin with? These could be minor tweaks, or, in many cases, radical redraws.

Don’t be afraid of the  radical redraw. It has never been easier in a digital workflow to preserve your ‘work so far’ and experiment with further ideas. If your gut is telling you it’s a bit dull, 8-10 hours of detailed painting isn’t going to rescue it. In fact, it’s more than likely to compound the issue. Pause at this early stage, and take a step back to just explore a few more ideas. You never know; exploring the alternatives may lead to confirmation of the idea you had originally, or could lead to a much stronger idea and composition.

I’m not advocating simply giving up when a painting gets tough, or when you get to the inevitable ‘turgid middle phase’; but you should have the confidence and conviction to stick to your goal of producing something great which might mean stepping away and reassessing when you know that something is bugging you.

It’s a tough but necessary skill to know when to step back and reassess, rather than ploughing head-long into polishing a mediocre painting.