When Enough Is Enough | Why More Isn’t Always Better in a Painting

That AT&T commercial, in which an adorable little girl excitedly proclaims “We want more,” has reminded me of one of the most frequently asked questions I get from painters: How do you know when your painting is done?


For my plein air pastel, Morning Reflections (12×18), I anticipated and planned on doing a lot more reeds and grasses along the shoreline. At a certain point, I stood back and took a break from painting and asked myself, “Would another mark of pastel make the painting better?” The answer was “No,” and the game was over.


Is it Done Yet? Knowing when to stop and call a painting finished is, without a doubt, one of the most mysterious of painting dilemmas, and one that has plagued artists throughout time. The basic human propensity to believe that “more is better,” when left unchecked, can prove detrimental, causing us to continue making marks well after the concept/purpose of a painting has been achieved. We may want more, but is it good for the painting? Here a few things that are key for learning how to determine when enough-is-enough in respect to a painting:

  • Develop technical confidence through practice. The more assured you are with the products you are using, the easier it is to focus on the artistic possibilities of the painting.
  • Make sure you understand the concept/purpose of the painting before ever putting pigment to surface. This can lead to a more intuitive reaction at the easel. There is a story attributed to Monet that his gardener saw him one day just sitting and observing his garden. He stopped and addressed Monet, “Today you rest, monsieur?” “No, I am working,” replied Monet. The next day at exactly the same spot and time, the gardener again saw Monet, but this time he was at his easel busily painting. “Today you work, monsieur,” he asked. “No, today I am resting,” retorted Monet.
  • Take breaks from the easel to get a fresh perspective. Get into the habit of stepping a few feet back, and then closing/resting your eyes for a few moments. Place a signature on the painting at a point when you feel good about it. Put black pH-neutral masking tape around the painting edges to create a new viewing perspective. Anything that makes you pause and reassess can prove very helpful in pointing out that less may be more.

A student once shared, “Painting is like playing a game of chess. First, you learn the rules of the game and how the individual pieces move. Then, you form a strategy, anticipating the moves required to win. If you don’t pay attention and stay present after every counter-move, you may find yourself continuing to move the chess pieces around the board well after the game has been won. It serves no purpose.”

Is it done yet? There is always something more that could be done. The key is learning to know whether it should be done.




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