I make lots and lots of ‘starts’ when painting. I love having lots of in-progress pieces around my studio and having lots of options as to what to work with on any given day. I have worked like this for a while but I find that it particularly suits my main mediums of oil painting and my more recent venture into cold wax and oil.


Well loved and used tools – brushes and embossing tools for mark making


I usually have at least three but as many as six or eight medium to large (for me pieces) started and in various stages. Smaller pieces are scattered everywhere and are usually started by just throwing on a layer of leftover paint at the end of the day. Layers are added abstractly until I figure out where each piece is going and then the subsequent layers become increasingly more considered and edited until a piece goes from ‘what am I doing?’ to ‘this feels done!’.

A few weeks ago I decided to really make a dent in some of these works in progress and was dismayed to find that I have over 50 unfinished pieces knocking around my studio! Now a few works in progress for me is freeing but there comes a point when too many is a huge weight and probably not that conducive to making progress and growing through my practice. So time to get working!


Lots of little works in progress – very abstract first layers


Most of these pieces are relatively small – ranging from around 8 x 6 inches to 16 x 16. The temptation is to think that they will come together more quickly but the truth is smaller pieces often take as long as the larger ones and many of these were started months and months ago. I don’t have a deadline in mind – I am just going to work on them each week until they are done.

The rule I set for myself for February was that I could not begin any new works for that whole month and I am proud to say I stuck to this and as a consequence 6 pieces were finished. This is actually a huge amount for me! I am not as prolific as most but I work hard and I love what I do.


My colour palette these past few weeks – lots of mossy green and grey-blue


Now that we are into March, I will be embarking on new work but I am going to also dedicate one studio day a week to continuing finishing works in progress in order to clear more studio and headspace. It is all too easy to begin new pieces – finishing them is harder so I am making this my mission alongside the new work and creating a balance between exploration, process and completion.


A piece that lay untouched for months where I could not decide whether it was finished or not. It wasn’t


Each one of these small pieces felt like the biggest struggle to progress in many ways. Not in terms of process (because I can never fall out of love of the painting process, as frustrating as it can sometimes be). But more in terms of working on creating successful compositions on a smaller scale.


The wip above and what it became – Gillian Lee Smith ‘Space to breathe’ – Oil and cold wax on board, 9 x 12 inches (2019)


My default is to try and work in the same way as I do on my larger paintings. Lots of layers of overlapping bigger and smaller shapes, hard and soft edges and more and more detailed mark making in the upper layers. All combine to create the compositions that for me, work both from a distance but have enough intricate mark making and detail to be interesting when seen up close to.


Another previously abandoned work in progress at the muddy, chaotic stage


When trying to do this on smaller works everything just gets so muddled and muddied. It is only after many failed and messy layers that I begin to realise that they only come together when I start to edit and simplify. Unfortunately (or interestingly) this appears to be a lesson that I need to learn and relearn with every single piece! Perhaps someday I remember and not stubbornly insist on going down the difficult and unworkable route in the first instance.


And this piece became … Gillian Lee Smith ‘The hidden town’ – Oil and cold wax on board, 16 x 16 inches (2019)


This above piece is one of my favourites. One that I started many months ago and it had lain untouched for almost as long. Incidentally, I am from a town call Haddington – the name was the hidden town’ in old days – as you did not see it until you were almost upon it. Hence the inspiration for the title of this piece. It went through some awful stages but I am truly delighted with how it came out. With each piece, I am strengthening my voice. Even if I stubbornly veer off the path I find my way back to what I love eventually. But what I love is that I don’t feel I am doing the same thing over and over. With each piece, I am exploring and experimenting and discovering something new.


Gillian Lee Smith – ‘Longing to feel lost’ Oil and cold wax on board, 10 x 14 inches (2019)


I adore the colour palette of the above three pieces – you can see they were all finished very close to each other with the autumn rich greens, red oxides and ochres. The piece feels fresher and more in line with the unseasonably warm weather we experienced in the past couple of weeks.


Gillian Lee Smith – ‘Behind the walls’ Oil and cold wax on board, 8 x 12 inches (2019)


I am delighted that in the past couple of weeks I have finished four of the small pieces. Just a small dent in the many WIP’s but I do have a few more that are so close to being completed and it is progress indeed.

This coming week I am embarking sketches and studies for a new progression in my ongoing work. This almost feels like a brand new body of work but it is very much connected to what I have been creating these past few years. But just with a new, fresh perspective. It may even see me returning to a long-neglected subject matter too.

So I am interested to hear – what do you love more? Starting works (and perhaps abandoning them) or bringing works to a conclusion? Could you take up the challenge of only working on WIP’s for a while to clear the way for new work? I am so glad I did and can’t wait to get more finished!

Click here to opt out of Google Analytics.