I've always assumed that great painters, writers, musicians, composers, and other artists created their masterpieces on their first try, without revisions. I'm not sure why I thought this, but I never imagined that Beethoven, Dostoevsky, or Picasso even owned erasers. Then a couple of years ago I went to the Indianapolis Museum of Art to see a Henri Matisse exhibit. I walked through the rooms filled with exquisitely vivid paintings, cut outs, portraits, and drawings. As I am with all of my favorite artists, I was transported to a different place as I absorbed the elegant work. Then something completely unexpected happened. We were given a glimpse into Matisse's artistic process, which involved...revision! On display was his famous 1935 Oil on canvas painting, Large Reclining Nude:
Next to this painting, on a wide, white wall, hung two long rows of black and white drafts of this painting. Matisse had documented his process through photographs over a five-month period. He would pin paper to the canvas to make alterations. Here are just a few of the many photos I saw that day:
It was admittedly an astonishing experience to see evidence of revision from one the world's most illustrious artists. This did gave me a sense of comfort in my own work, as I am certainly one to make many changes with pieces I am composing, arranging, or playing. In some ways I have even felt as though my need of constant revision somehow devalued the final product. Since it didn't appear in front of me like a bright shining ruby on the first try, could it really be a product of true artistry?
Thankfully, with my discovery that day at the IMA, I know that self-editing can be a viable and necessary tool. This makes me wonder how many works Matisse never developed all the way to the “final draft” stage, and maybe weren't even released?! I'll have to do more research.