Reaching the End | When is a Painting Finished?

In last week’s post, I discussed the similarities between painting and driving an automobile. In conclusion, I noted the importance of mapping out an objective for the adventuresome journey of painting. Without some destination, or purpose for the trip, we’ll never know when we have arrived at the finish line. But it seems that most of us—even when we have mapped out a destination—still find it hard to know when to put down the pastel stick and stop working. In fact, the most commonly asked question in one of my workshops (besides “What is in your palette?”) is “How do you know when you are done?”

The underlying causes may be rooted in a lack of self-confidence, the ability to see with objectivity, or the alluring idea that something more might make the painting better. Depending on individual personalities, these can be tough to address. But there are some good practices that can help:

  • Revisit successful paintings. One method I use is to occasionally revisit older paintings that were successful, before continuing to make adjustments to a current painting. Since most of us continue to strive for better, we can loose perspective as to just how strong our current works are without a glace backwards from time to time.
  • Take breaks. Once, during a demonstration, I likened painting to a game of chess; I have a strategy and am always anticipating the next move in response to my opponent. After a short amount of time, someone in the audience pointed out that I may have been continuing to move the pieces around the game board after my opponent had conceded and I had won the game. This lack of being present with the painting and seeing it with objectivity can be helped by disciplining ourselves to take frequent breaks from the action of applying pigment to surface. When I work in studio, I set my digital monitor, which provides reference material, to go to screensaver after approximately 15 minutes. When I glance at it and see the reference is asleep, I know it is time to take a few steps back from the easel and look at the painting objectively.
  • Change your viewpoint. During this break, I also use a handheld mirror to glace back over my shoulder at the painting to see it in reverse. I also hold the mirror up to my forehead and tilt it to an appropriate angle to see the painting upside down. These viewpoint changes allow the painting to be seen with greater objectivity. Mistakes will stand out and often I realize that more detail will not strengthen the overall appearance of the painting.
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I stepped back, saw that more wouldn’t make it better, and decided it was time to sign it and start a new painting.

Many adventurous souls suffer from the allure of “doing more.” The thought that the grass might just be greener on the other side of the hill keeps us at the easel, making adjustments and additions, hoping for artistic perfection. After traversing a couple of these painting mountains, I have found that it is often better to end the journey and start afresh on another painting. At the end of a painting day, I always regret doing more versus less. There is a little voice we all need to keep in the back of our heads that whispers, “Put the pastel stick down and step back from the easel.” And sometimes it should shout!

Photo courtesy of Kathy Detrano.

 

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