Lessons From Da Vinci | When Is Your Painting Finished?


Mona Lisa (oil on wood, 77 x 53 cm) by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Louvre, Paris, France

“Art is never finished, only abandoned.”

A Da Vinci exhibition I once saw at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland, Ore., reminded me of the struggles artists have deciding when a piece of artwork is finished. The exhibition was filled with models and examples of da Vinci’s creative and scientific ingenuity. Of particular interest to painters were the sections dedicated to Mona Lisa and The Last Supper.

French scientific engineer and photographer of fine art, Pascal Cotte, used a 240-million pixel digital camera, which he invented, to photograph Mona Lisa in the Louvre. He and his team were given unprecedented access to examine her outside the frame without the protective enclosure. Giant high definition images of the painting revealed incredible details that the human eye is incapable of seeing under normal conditions, which unveiled 25 secret revelations about the world’s most famous painting. The exhibition also compares the color as it appears now versus how it appears with the yellowed varnish removed. For more information, visit www.davincithegenius.com.

Art Evaluation: Knowing when you’re finished is possibly the hardest part of the painting process. We know that Mona Lisa always resided with master Leonardo and sustained periodic adjustments by his hand. His attitude towards her and possibly all of his endeavors is summed up in his words: “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”

Questions to Keep Your Painting on Track: The challenge for artists is that, while we often start with a clear purpose in mind, it’s easy to loose sight of that goal and aimlessly wander around, throwing things at the painting, hoping for an exciting conclusion. If you don’t know where you want to go, you won’t know when you’ve arrived. So, ask yourself these questions:

  • Why am I painting this?
  • What do I want to communicate to my audience?

If you find yourself adding strokes to the painting just to be making marks: stop, step back and remind yourself what was your original intent. Before resuming, reevaluate the core elements of the composition. Ask:

  • Is it drawn accurately?
  • Does the linear movement (visual flow) accentuate the focal point? Are the values in proper relationship?
  • Do the color choices have a shared sense of harmony?
  • Have I conveyed the mood and attitude I desired with these choices?
  • What was my concept?
  • Have I communicated it?

Reviewing these questions prevents us from spending hours, days and weeks adding things just because we thought we needed to. If it isn’t clear or you don’t know what to do, do nothing. It is time to move on to the next painting.


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