How do you know when you are done with a painting? Every artist must deal with this. Starting a painting has its own challenges but finishing takes finesse. Like a hairdresser spinning you around in the chair! Voila! Even the masters struggled with finishing their work. Before you can finish a painting, it helps to clarify what your intention or motive is with the work. What were you trying to say? An outdoor plein air painting may be finished in a matter of hours because you have hit your intention. You may also be freezing, sweating or hungry and just plain tired! But a studio painting may have a different intention. Perhaps you want to create a tighter painting with refined brushwork and the rendering requires accuracy. For me, it’s harder to know when a larger studio painting is finished. It seems to have a slower transition from easel to varnishing.
As a drawing and painting teacher, I have had countless students hold their work 3 feet from my face and ask if they are done. And there it is. They may be done, but the work may not be. Sometimes, we just hit our limit. Our interest in the work is gone. Kaput. Is there a rule? A checklist for when the work is done? Well, yes and no.
Here are a few things I do before I spin that hairdresser chair around and present my painting to the world. These things are concrete, technical aspects – not the emotional, subjective reasons a work may be done.
1. Step back and look at your work at viewing distance of 5-8 feet back depending on size. This will tell you a lot. Look at the piece as a whole. Is it unified? Do you have repeating elements? Is there a focal point?
2. Hold your work upside down to make sure shapes read properly, especially ellipses.
3. Give it a left to right, top to bottom once over ensuring your brushwork is consistent.
4. Squint. Theoretically, you are not supposed to squint when you look at your art, but I find this helps me periodically while I work. Squinting reduces the detail information and allows you to read shapes and values.
5. Look at your painting through your phone or take a picture. Things look different through a new lens or through the glass. Did you catch anything wonky or awkward?
All these things assume that you have a solid composition, pleasing colors and a worthy subject. When all that is done, don’t forget to sign your work and share it with the world!