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Are We Done Yet? How to Know When a Painting\Drawing is Finished

Updated on March 27, 2012
Dbro profile image

I am Diane Brown (dbro), an artist and illustrator living in Texas. I enjoy all phases of the creative process. Enjoy and comment!

This hub will be an exploration of a question that plagues artists frequently: how does one know when a painting (or drawing, or sculpture, etc.) is finished? This can be a tougher question that it might appear. As artists, we all want our work to look fresh and spontaneous, while still giving an impression of completeness and wholeness. Many artists will succumb to the temptation to do "just one more thing" to their lovely, fresh painting and end up overworking the piece to the point it has lost whatever spark it might have originally had.

How and why does this happen? As artists we are "chasers of perfection," however we define that perfection to be. This does not only apply to artists who work in a realistic vein. Artists who work in abstract or impressionistic styles also strive for their "perfect painting." The "just one more thing" syndrome with the accompanying assumption that this "one more thing" will make the piece "perfect" has quashed the life out of many promising works. Many artists also mistakenly think adding more and more detail will solve or hide underlying problems with the work's structure or composition.

The following process will help an artist decide when their work is finished while it is still fresh and vibrant.

New Tricks - Pretty in Pink, 11 x 14 (Watercolor) -    I could have done much more to define the background around the dog.  I'm glad I didn't!
New Tricks - Pretty in Pink, 11 x 14 (Watercolor) - I could have done much more to define the background around the dog. I'm glad I didn't!

The Seventy-five Percent Rule

An artist completes a work of art in a series of steps (sketch or plan, block-in, working from big shapes to small shapes). Consider bringing this process of refinement to where the work feels about 75% finished. At that point go immediately to finish completely the center of interest. One way to draw the viewer to the center of interest in your painting or drawing is for that area to be the most detailed.

Immediately stop work at that point and step back to study your painting or drawing.

Tomato Trio, 5 x 7"  (Watercolor)  This is a very simple, small painting.  I wanted very little detail - mostly just areas of color and light to define the subject.
Tomato Trio, 5 x 7" (Watercolor) This is a very simple, small painting. I wanted very little detail - mostly just areas of color and light to define the subject.

Questions to Ask

The following questions may prove helpful in determining if a painting is finished.

• Is the center of interest defined?

• Are any other areas competing with the focal point?

• Are the values correct?

• Are the (color) temperatures correct?

• Is the drawing correct? Is the perspective right? Are the proportions accurate?

Make Changes

If the answer to any of the above questions dissatisfies you, make changes or corrections as needed.

Move It!

Take your painting/drawing out of your workspace. Put the painting away for a day or two. Don't let yourself "play around" with the work - don't "fiddle." Look at the painting again after this one or two day break and fix any glaring problems by asking yourself the same questions as done earlier. Do this whole process ONLY ONCE!

Sign It!

Once you've satisfied yourself that the painting or drawing is finished, sign it and move on to the next subject. Be ruthless! Once it's done it's done. Overworking is a pitfall all artists must work to avoid. We all hope for our work to look fresh and lively, not tedious, muddy, or confusing. Employing the "Seventy-five Percent Rule" will help an artist learn to stop before he or she does too much.

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    • WE5 profile image

      WE5 5 years ago

      Great Hub!

      A question all of us face on every project we undertake...be it a drawing, a painting, a song or simply any undertaking. When is it finished? For me it's when I'm about to 'fix' something...again. This is usually a mistake. Like yourself, I have been working on cutting it short and being ruthless. Then I sign it. Game over.

      Incidentally, a song is never finished...but that is a discussion for another day!

    • Dbro profile image
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      Dbro 5 years ago from Texas, USA

      Thanks for your comments WE5! Knowing when to quit is the most exquisite gift! Who was it who said, "Brevity is the soul of wit."? So true! I like the notion of a song never being finished - I guess the same could be true of a painting as long as it keeps having an impact on its viewers....Thanks again for your thought-provoking comments!

    • WE5 profile image

      WE5 5 years ago

      Dbro,

      You're quite welcome. I look forward to reading more from you.

    • profile image

      Donna 5 years ago

      You have a really good writing voice for this format. Enjoy!

    • Robie Benve profile image

      Robie Benve 5 years ago from Ohio

      Very nice and helpful hub! I like the suggestion to focus on the point of interest: is it finished, is it the most detailed. I need to do that more myself. :)

    • Dbro profile image
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      Dbro 5 years ago from Texas, USA

      Thanks, Robie! We all need to remind ourselves of certain things when we create, don't we? I am a dyed-in-the-wool "fusser," so I really have to take myself in hand and force myself to leave well enough alone! Thanks for your comments!

    • Zabbella profile image

      Zabbella 5 years ago from NJ-USA

      Great article! I especially like the part t where you step away from your work for a bit.. to look at it again later with a fresh outlook.

    • Dbro profile image
      Author

      Dbro 5 years ago from Texas, USA

      Thanks for your comment Zabbella. I agree that this is one of the best pieces of advice in figuring out if a work is finished. Sometimes we get so focused on our work, we lose sight of what our goals were in creating the work in the first place. Looking at the piece with "fresh eyes" can do wonders!

    • epbooks profile image

      Elizabeth Parker 4 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      Great advice. It's difficult to "finish" a project so walking is a great idea. I also like the part about signing it...as if you are signing off on your own work. It seals the deal of completion.

    • Dbro profile image
      Author

      Dbro 4 years ago from Texas, USA

      Thanks, epbooks! I really do think finishing a project is the hardest part. I have a real tendency to try to "fix" things that really don't need fixing at all. I use all of these techniques on almost all of my paintings and they really do seem to help.

      I do have a hard and fast rule that once I sign a piece I will not go back and alter the painting in any way. This can be difficult, but I enforce it strictly. This may be the only thing that keeps my paintings from staying in my studio forever!

    • epbooks profile image

      Elizabeth Parker 4 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      I know what you mean. I've gone back and edited my books or changed a word or two zillions of times. I've now learned that I should just leave it alone. Easier said than done though!!

    • Dbro profile image
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      Dbro 4 years ago from Texas, USA

      Exactly! Really if the structure and composition are right (words we both use in our creative worlds), that's all that matters. Everything else, while nice, won't save a piece that has larger problems.

    • epbooks profile image

      Elizabeth Parker 4 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      So true!

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