Is it OK to go back to old works and revise them?

June 15, 2018

As an artist, you’re constantly plagued with the idea of a work being “finished” and “done”. When is a work done? When should you stop making changes to it? While some artists might say “never”, there’s definitely a point when you’re working on a piece and you’ve got to just stop. When is that point?

When do you stop doing something? Unlike a conventional form of making something, like baking bread, there’s never really a completion point when it comes to artwork. I mean, yeah, there probably is, but where is that point? For some people, it’s when they share their artwork with other people or with the world. For others, it’s when they sign the piece. The hardest part about digital art is also a great part about digital art – there’s no canvas. Because there’s no canvas, that means there’s no physical work, so you really can be making changes ad infinitum.

But when do you call it? I’ve gone through variations of when I’ve “called” my work complete. First it was when I was over the initial hump of work (say, the first 8 hours of sitting down in front of the computer and drawing, and it was “pretty much” complete) and I had gotten bored with it. This was a bit naive as I realized, more recently than I care to admit, that a work I might have found myself to be bored of was actually something that I really enjoyed and came out great after the fact. So I modified my completion state to after letting the work breathe for a bit, coming back to it, letting it sit in its perceived state of “doneness” on the computer for a while before I decide if I truly am done with it.

However, I got to thinking lately. What’s to stop me from going back to old pieces? I mean, technically nothing, but here’s the thought process here. I’ve got a couple of works that I really still love and think are pretty strong, but there are just some small things about them irking me… Small details other people may not even notice. Rather than redrawing the whole thing, why not go back and make these small changes? Is there something wrong with that?

Most of my finished stuff is something I couldn’t quit figure out how to finish the way I wanted and went back to it when I could. As far as I’m concerned it’s done when you think it’s done. Sometimes thats because you’ve nailed what you were going for and it doesn’t need to go any further. Then other time’s it’s because you’re just done with it and need to stop working on it.

– Artist Kenny Demanche

I consider a piece done when I can say to myself, this is the best possible work I can do at this time. There have been a couple paintings I rushed to get finished for an art show, that I know I could “fix” or do better in some parts. In that case, I’ll take the painting to the show but I won’t post it anywhere online for sale. If the painting sells at the show cool, if not I come home and continue working on it to finish it. But I’ve never gone back to something I did years ago to fix it just because I’ve grown as an artist.

– Artist Jackie Cheuvront

I think a project is “done” when it’s no longer possible to change. sold, lost, hanging on a wall miles away if it’s physically impossible to get to it you have no choice but to call it done… I know I did a painting with pieces glued on and throughout the years gravity and moving it had taken its toll, couple months ago I was able to add new pieces and do some touching up to make it a “better” painting. Also my first comic is published and out there but I have plans to change a few things when I see the time is right to do so. So I would say no unless it’s just not physically possible to get to it again.

Artist Jack Fall
My personal thoughts are: no, there’s nothing wrong with that. I think you can go back and make changes. After all, it’s your art, and as long as it doesn’t drastically alter the content, then a few tweaks here and there won’t bother anyone. I think a lot of this would be based on context, however. If you made a work for a client, it would be troublesome to tweak that work once you’ve delivered the final product. If you’re selling (and have sold) a lot of prints or copies of an artwork, it might be troublesome to make changes to your work then, too. If your work has been published, and your change is pretty heavy, showing off a substantially different item in your portfolio might not jive well with visitors and others.

What are your thoughts on going back and making changes to old works? Let me know in the comments below. I’d love to hear what you have to say.

Aimee Cozza is a freelance illustrator out of Southern New Hampshire. She graduated from the New Hampshire Institute of Art in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in illustration. Since then, she has been working in a variety of ways completing various illustrations for clients, friends, and for herself.

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