Sunday Mailbag- When is Enough Enough?

August 2nd, 2015 | Posted in Mailbag

Sunday Mailbag!

Q: I’d like to know how you manage to resist the temptation to add ‘just a bit more’ to an artwork you’ve just done. I have to admit I’ve given in to that a few times and a drawing can get ruined as a consequence.

A: That’s a problem for many artists, especially younger ones. I think it’s because there is always a certain amount of insecurity when you create a piece of art and the temptation to keep tinkering with it is hard to ignore. When to stop is something that every artist has to figure out for themselves. Yes, you absolutely can ruin a piece by overworking it. The trick is to step back and look objectively at your work, trying to separate yourself from any emotional attachment. That works best when you set it aside for a while and concentrate on something else, then come back to it with fresh eyes. You need to coldly examine what you were trying to achieve with the work, and then decide if you have achieved it. The end use is also a factor… endless detail on a piece meant to be printed as a small spot illustration is both a waste of time and something that does not contribute to the effectiveness of the piece as that detail will be lost in the small printed version, and can infact make it muddy and less effective.

It’s harder when you are doing art for art’s sake, and not for a job. Then what you are trying to achieve with the piece is entirely up to you, and one could argue it’s impossible to overwork. That said, there is a “tipping point” where whatever piece you are working on becomes more about the overworked details and no longer about the original subject matter or purpose. For example, say you set out to do a painting of a tiger, and your goal is to create a really menacing, atmospheric image of a tiger about to pounce. Then you go crazy painting every tiny hair and whisker, leaf, branch and piece of dirt in the scene. There would become a point when a first-time viewer would say “wow, look at all that detail” before they say “wow, that tiger looks really scary”. In that case I think you would have missed the goal of your piece because you overworked it.

For professional work, the immediacy of the deadline for a given piece of work usually helps me put the brakes on and say “it’s done”. There is probably always going to be something I would have liked to spend more time rendering or getting more detailed on, but when something is due it’s due and that’s it. Of course, many of the pieces I do, particularly for MAD, are actually about all the dense detail and little background gags, but there still would be a point where it was too much.

Thanks to P. Jones for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!


  1. Paul Jones says:

    Many thanks for your informative and helpful reply.


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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