A Painter’s Guide to Being Done


A Summer Dance (pastel) by Richard McKinley

During every workshop I teach, I am reminded of how differently we see our own paintings. As I circulate from student to student, I often comment on how well an area looks, only to see it drastically altered on my next visit. I felt they were done, they felt there was more to do. This reinforces the notion of artistic individuality. It is at the core of what makes us the artists we are; otherwise, every painting would look alike. How boring would that be?

Conversely, this may also indicate that the painter is not seeing the development of the painting and is merely making marks to be making marks. When we first form the notion of a painting, we form a preconceived idea of what it will look like. This guides our choices and acts as an internal road map for the painting’s journey. If we don’t step back from time to time and look objectively at the painting, we will plow ahead to a preconceived destination, oblivious of the painting’s development. This is analogous to continuing to move chess pieces around a board after the opponent has conceded the match.

I like to show slides of pastel paintings at most workshops. It allows me to share years of personal development. There is one painting, A Summer Dance [pictured above], that I always tell a story about. It is the moment I confronted my preconceived painting notions. Many years ago, on a gallery trip to Santa Fe, N.M., I was fortunate to connect with a few painting friends for a late afternoon plein air excursion on the outskirts of town. Among them was master pastelist Albert Handell. After a couple of hours of painting, I heard footsteps approaching behind me. It was Albert. He patiently waited for me to pause and inquired if I had time to come over and see his painting. We were the only ones left at the site. He was getting ready to pack up for the day and wanted to share his painting with me. I placed my pastel stick back into the palette, turned around, and began to walk in the direction of his easel. Approximately 25 feet from my easel, Albert stopped and turned around to glace back at my painting, “I think you are done; What do you think Richard?” As I looked at the painting, I thought, it looks pretty good. Who am I to disagree with Albert Handell? “Yes, I agree, I think I am done”, I stated. “Yes”, Albert said, “now come look at my painting.” After looking at his work, which was beautiful, I walked back to my easel and quietly picked up a pastel stick and began making marks. After a few minutes, I heard a thundering voice from behind me, “If you think you are done, why are you still painting?” As he repeated the comment, laughter ensued. There I was guilty of what I noticed in students. I was making marks to be making marks because I believed I wasn’t done, even though I was pleased. I still go too far and make too many marks, but the memory of A Summer Dance makes me listen more closely for the painting’s whisper: Put the pastel stick down and step back from the easel.


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6 thoughts on “A Painter’s Guide to Being Done

  1. Mary Ann Pals

    What artist was it (John Singer Sargent, perhaps?) who said: "Every artist needs a friend with a club who will hit them over the head when they’re finished with a painting and drag them away before they ruin it." That quote came to mind when I read your little story here.

  2. steve bennett

    I love this article. It makes me think of babies. We think we are going to have a blond my wife is blond and I am fair haired… We get a red head. Our painting do take on a life of their own. Your article points to this very important fact. Even with all our planning and thinking, and its OK!


  3. Willo Balfrey

    What a great article – you had to have been standing at my easel while I kept painting..even when you said it looked great! I have continued painting so often and taken the scene much further than I originally wanted to go and of course wishing I hadn’t. I will keep this story in mind while evaluating my piece either plein air or in the studio.

    Willo Balfrey

  4. Jennifer Robin

    last week when I was out painting my instructor Joan Hoffmann gave me a compliment I will always cherish. "You have a way of making a beautiful painting even more beautiful" she said. "I don’t have to worry too much about you overworking your pieces. Even when they look good you seem to be able to add more to it without spoiling it." Now, I know this isn’t always true, in fact there are many times when I know I should have stopped sooner. But stopping before you feel satisfied can also mean you will miss out on creating something really great. I find my own inner guide always has an a sense of what I want to do in the moment. So I ruin a painting? So what. I can always paint another.

  5. Patricia Romeo

    Richard, once again, excellent advice! Advice that I will hopefully employ since I am one who overworks my paintings, as you know. I can easily see how you could continue to work on this painting, but you left much of the lower half the underpainting which adds to the beauty of the piece. Bravo!

    I hope you are well and that you have enjoyed your summer.