The Laws of Nature

Thursday, January 28, 2010

When is My Painting Finished?

Six Crimee by Basquiat, 1982, triptych

Our recent discussion raised an important question about an artist’s process in contrast to that of a craftsman. As Denis Dutton put it: the craftsman knows in advance when he'll be finished. For the artist, that is always a big question. Even when you think you're finished, you may change your mind. (Or, in the case of painting, wish you'd quit half an hour ago.)

I’ve been thinking about this. How can I know when my painting is finished? How can any artist know? My viewpoint has been rather simple: your painting is finished when any changes or additions will diminish the desired effect. But, the artist isn’t always the best judge. Commonly, I overwork my paintings and have to force myself to stop.

I decided to conduct an online search to see how other artists decide when a painting is finished. I only found two sites, so maybe you have more information to add to this discussion. Here’s what I found:

Watercolor artist Caroline Buchanan writes that a painting is finished when it comes into balance. When everything is there for a purpose and working together, and when there is not one thing (stroke, object, color) that is not contributing to the whole. That’s a tall order, but something I want to strive for each time I paint.

By contrast, Jo-Anne Sanborn wrote an article listing a number of specific criteria to help the artist determine when a painting is finished. Here’s the list:

1. Is the underlying abstract (drawing) strong and defined?
2. Are the weights (lights and darks) and colors of the painting balanced in an appropriately asymmetrical fashion?
3. Are the shapes of all negative spaces varied and pleasing?
4. Does the eye have visual paths to follow, keeping interest on the canvas?
5. Can you find any walls or other impediments to the eye that shouldn’t be there?
6. Are transitions to and from various parts of the painting seamless?
7. Will the viewers’ eyes return to the focal point after moving around the canvas?

1. Is a color strategy clearly defined and executed?
2. Do either warm or cool colors predominate, with the other supporting?
3. Is each hue consistent throughout the painting?
4. Is any one color too prominent at the expense of the others?
5. Are there any jarring or popping colors that should be eliminated?

1. Does the technique or style fit the subject matter?
2. Does the color palette support the intended mood?
3. Is the light source consistent?
4. Are the cast shadows consistent with the light source?
5. Is the feeling of the painting consistent across the entire canvas?

1. Are the materials used of good enough quality to stand the test of time?
2. Are the painted forms drawn correctly and visually believable?
3. Is the perspective correct and consistent?
4. Has the paint been applied in a uniform and deliberate fashion?
5. Is the painting attributable to the artist through a definitive signature or style?
6. Is there a final protective coating (appropriate to the work) sealing the painting?

This is a fairly comprehensive list and well-worth considering. How do you determine when your painting is finished?


Carolyn Abrams said...

i'VE always gone with balance and unity but obviously i need to ask myself a few more questions!! great post.

Mark Sheeky said...

Good post! And what a list too. For me it's a simple as "When the plan is complete". I plan the picture, execute the plan, then stop. I hardly ever change anything. In other words I work out when it's finished before I begin. Perhaps my lack of deviation from a plan makes me a secret craftsman :) (see previous discussion)

Sandy Maudlin said...

This is going to be weak, but it's what I do right now. I finish a painting, or so I think. Then I may frame it under glass to sell and or show. Later, if it's not sold, I may decide, even months (or years) later to 'fix' some element that's bothering me, so out of the frame it comes.

Once a painting is no longer in my hands - as in 'sold' - do I consider it actually finished for sure. I have a 7 year old painting that won me some big bucks at a show several years ago, but I know I must make adjustments to one area before I put it back in a frame to sell.

This only happens to a few of the paintings I do. Usually they are done when I'm satisfied that they complete the idea and have some of the emotional content I was hoping for, in the best way I can paint it.

One year it was my main goal to STOP painting before I 'killed' each painting with too much tweaking to perfect it. I've thrown away a LOT of paintings that I ruined by insanely over tweaking them to try to make them perfect. To help me know when a painting's done, I try to remember a quote from Michael J. Fox who says, "I can strive for excellence, but perfection is God's business."

Your 20 minute challenges show me how impt it is to STOP and let it be. Thanks, Kathy.

M said...

I have learned to stop before I go too far in the overkill stage! I usually know I'm finished when there doesn't seem to be anything else I can add. A good rule of thumb for me is hang it on the wall in sight for at least a week and if nothing comes to mind to fix, it's finished. I would like to say I go through a comprehensive checklist but that would be a lie. I think many of the points included in your post are the type of things you think about while you're painting.

hw (hallie) farber said...

When the painting says enough, I stop. From the long list above, I do two things: check the cast shadows, and varnish.

I loved when Prof. Dutton said in your previous blog, "Essentially, artists are people who don't know what they're doing." I thought "Yahoo--I am an artist."

Unknown said...

Hi Carolyn - Me, too!! Thanks :)

Hi Mark - You do plan very carefully, and in a creative way! Making the decisions in advance seems to work very well for you.

Hi Sandy - I, too, am guilty of overworking paintings and am learning to walk away. It's hard. I've enjoyed your and your students' submissions for the Twenty Minute Challenge. It's a great way to get to the heart of the matter and leave it. Thanks!

Hi Margaret - I had the same impression that the checklist is what I'm working on as I paint. I guess the list is good if I accidentally overlook something. Like you and Sandy, I revisit work after I've declared it finished, and sometimes redo it. Thanks!

Hi Hallie - I liked that comment, too. Sure does suit me :)

Unknown said...

This is probably the most common question I see in art blogs, art instruction sites and advice columns.

Katharine, you are the only one who has not only given me two views but specific information for me to calibrate my painting. Thank you!

-Don said...

What a great discussion, Kathy. Thank you for initiating it. I really like Ms. Sanborn's checklist.

Like Mark, I try to have most of my major decisions figured out before I start painting. However, I find myself tweaking my plan as I go - sometimes color, sometimes contrast, sometimes lighting, but rarely composition.

When do I quit? When my gut tells me it's time. At this point I've already gone thru a mental checklist similar to Ms. Sanborn's list - most of it intuitively. But, I try to leave my head out of the final decision and let my gut decide. That's really hard to explain in scientific terms, but it really is what works best for me. Any time I've ignored my gut I've regretted it later.

I almost never revisit a painting once I call it finished. They are each my children and once they've matured I have to let them be who they grew into - warts and all... One advantage to this is I can look back at all of these "children" and see how I've grown as a "parent".

Regrets? Thankfully, just a few...


Four Seasons in a Life said...

Greetings Katharine,

Once again I am late to class to join in on the discussion.

There is no set rule rules for me. One painting 'Howl' took 2.6 years to complete, while my plein air landscapes are done between 5-8 yours and are then considered finished. Of course one needs to remember that plein air paintings are usually smaller than my much larger abstracts.

As I mentioned there are no rules or guidelines, it is a feeling, a gut feeling as best as I can describe it.

Once I consider a painting finished, I do one of two things, sign the back of the canvas or set it aside for several days before signing, in order to allow me to make any changes.

If a painting was accomplished with more confidence, it is usually singed a few days later. If I question my own technical abilities because I lacked the schooling, I will set it aside and try to work out the problems.

Still, it all comes down to 'gut' feelings.

Warmest regards,

Unknown said...

Hi Sheila, I'm glad this post is helpful to you. It's got me thinking, too!

Hi Don - your "gut" is an experienced and informed one! I like the way you plan and execute your work.

Hi Egmont - I'll echo what I wrote to Don, above. Our "gut" instincts are usually backed by experience and knowledge. You take a long time in constructing a painting, longer than I do, but the results are worth it!

Chris Beck said...

I have to side with the artists who go by their gut. While checklists can be helpful, I think about all the amazing art that would have been discarded if the artists had followed a checklist to a T. No Cubism -- since the objects are not drawn correctly; no Monet Water Lilies -- since there isn't a real focal point; I could go on, but I think you get my point. Sometimes art is the result of NOT following the rules.

Unknown said...

Amen to that, Chris!! Thank you.

Ginny Stiles said...

Judi Betts always says..."a painting is NEVER finished. You just have to judge if it is an interesting place to stop." I have to go with her.