Episode 35 – How to Know When Your Artwork is Done

How to know when your artwork is done.

How to Know When Your Artwork is Done

Ernest Hemingway said, “There is nothing to writing. All you have to do is sit down at the typewriter and bleed.”

I completely agree with Hemingway. And I think that being a visual artist is much the same thing. And many times, knowing when our painting is done can be the most painful part of the creation. Today I’m going to talk about how to know when your artwork is done.

Much of this audio was taken from a Youtube video that I created on the same subject, because I realized how important the topic is and that you might benefit from it as well in the podcast world, in case you didn’t catch it on the video. But I did add some additional thoughts at the end that came to me as I was getting ready to produce this. So it definitely sounds like it came from two recordings, and that’s why. I hope that you find it useful.

Today I want to talk about a question I get often, which is, “How do I know when my artwork is done?”. Now most of you know I’m a painter, so I’m going to use painting as an example.

Keep in mind that this advice can be helpful to all visual artists.

You need to approach the solution from both a strategic and tactical perspective. When I say, "strategic," I mean that you need to have an idea of what your concept of "finished" is in order to get there. So for me for example that a painting is done when there’s nothing left to fix or take out. Speaking for both abstract and representational work, your painting is done when there’s nothing left to remove. Meaning that everything that’s in is serving a purpose. It is serving the composition, it’s moving your eye around the canvas. The colors and values are working together. Nothing needs to be fixed, to that end. So, you want to make sure that of the things that you’re keeping, there’s nothing left to correct to make all of the parts work in harmony with the overall goal of the painting, which is to move your eye in a certain way to bring the viewer’s attention to the main subject and the focal point of your piece.

I would add to this that it’s important to give all of the areas of the painting your attention, so that if something is left unfinished, it’s done so intentionally. In other words, it doesn’t look like you forgot about it. Now, I have paintings where some of the background, for instance, or some of the clothing might be purposefully left sketchy, and if I’m going to leave it that way when the painting is finished, and have some areas in focus, and some areas that are a bit sketchy and out of focus, I want to make sure that the viewer looks at that, and registers that it was done for a purpose, even if they don’t consciously register it. It works with the other elements of the painting to move your eye around and give you a focal point that’s very clear.

Everything should contribute to your intended focal point, and movement of the viewer’s eye through the piece.
So in the spirit of finishing all of the areas of your painting to the degree that you intend to, I find it really helpful, as much as I’m able to, to become fascinated with each of the different areas of my painting. The background. The foreground. I’m talking about areas that aren’t necessarily the focal point of the piece. Especially if this is a portrait, it may not be the face or the hands.

Those of you that know my paintings know that I’m obsessed with painting heads, hands, and feet. So if it’s not one of those, I need to make sure that I’m consciously addressing the rest of the painting, and everything that serves the focal point of that piece. And this is going to be the background, it’s going to be the clothing, it might be the chair the sitting on, or the setting.
I’ve had models that I’ve posed outside, and one in particular I can think of was posing in a colonnade, and I photographed her standing with lights and shadows all around her that turned out to be very significant to the painting. And so it was important that I showed that I gave attention to those areas.

Again, attention to the degree that it serves your painting, and it serves your concept for that piece. So if it’s going to be sketchy, you’re going to leave it sketchy, but make sure that it doesn’t look forgotten.
Give all areas of the painting attention, finishing them as much as you intend them to be finished.

Turning to the subject of tactics. What I mean about tactics is, the steps that you’re going to take, the actions and the methods you’re going to use to make sure that you achieve your strategy of finishing the painting when there’s nothing left to take out, and making sure that everything is fixed that needs fixing. There’s a number of tactics I can suggest to help you with this

If you’re working “on top” of your canvas, and you are within six inches of that painting the entire time you’re painting, you’re probably going to hate it the next day, when you’ve walked away and come back. Or at least, find that unless some miracle happens, there’s something about it that really needs adjustment. So make a regular habit of stepping back away from that painting.
This doesn’t just mean breaks, it means LOOK at your work from at least six feet away.

Even if you’re going to complete it all in one day, take those breaks. They’re really important to giving you a fresh view of that painting.

Another way to get that fresh view is to turn the painting upside down. This is going to help you look at it in terms of it being an abstract, and a bunch of shapes, values, light, form, shadow. You’re going to start seeing the lines better, the leading lines. The ones that lead you in and out of the painting, and around and through the painting. When you turn it upside down and stop thinking, “That’s a head, those are eyes, there’s the hands,” etcetera. So get in the habit of turning the painting upside down from time to time.

Sometimes you might want to work on the painting upside down, if you’re working from reference that can be flipped over. Meaning you’re not working from life, because I think your model would probably take objection to you standing her on her head… or him… If you’re not working from a laptop or tablet that can’t be flipped around—if the image is going to continually right itself, like it does on a phone, take a snap of that painting. Take an actual picture of the painting, and you print it out, so that you can flip it over, if you’re going to work for a prolonged period, with the painting upside down.

If you’re just going to check it and make mental notes, that works, but you’re going to want to probably write down those areas that you feel were causing you problems. Because once the painting is righted, it may become difficult, or more difficult, for you to actually see those areas that jumped out at you when you weren’t looking at recognizable objects. As soon as the face becomes a recognizable face again, and the eyes are eyes as opposed to shapes, you may overlook those items, too. Now your viewer might overlook them as well, but once you finish that painting and you’ve had some time to step away from it, if you don’t address those pieces while you’re working, then the chances are that when you’re done, even sometimes when you have it on the wall—I’ve heard other artists say, and I have as well—that your eye goes right to an area that you suddenly realize is “off,” and that’s all you’re going to see when you look at it on the wall. And you’re internally cringing, even when people are standing in front of it, and maybe complimenting you on it. So, they might love that painting, and that is awesome, but the object and the ultimate goal is that when you look at it, you don’t have any reservations that that painting is the best that you could produce at that time. So try turning it upside down.

You might also want to try the trick of looking at it in a mirror. This one is pretty effective, and can be a little jarring, because a lot of times, we’re used to looking at a certain object a certain way. So once you start looking at your painting for a long time in one viewpoint, meaning what you see when you look right at it through your eyes, if you flip it around in a mirror, or you take a photograph if you have the production capacity and you want to reverse the photograph and then print it out or look at it on screen, you’re going to get that slight shift. The longer you’ve been looking at it with it being in front of you not reversed, the more of a shift you will see when you flip it around.

Try to pick out those things that are universally wrong: a value that’s not jiving, that’s jumping out at you, some colors that might be jarring to you that you couldn’t quite pick out when you were looking at it straight-on without being reversed. Look for those kinds of things. Colors that might need adjusting to be in harmony with each other. Values that might need adjustment in order to properly model the forms that you’re working on. And color temperature. Is your color temperature “off” and fighting with the volume of the piece? Do you have a warm where there should be a cool, and so it’s flattening out your composition in a way that was not intended. These are all things that can be helped by looking at the painting upside down, from a distance, and in a mirror.

Are the VALUES correct?
Are the COLORS serving the painting?
Is the TEMPERATURE of the colors correct?

Tactic 4: TAKE A PHOTO
Similar to looking in a mirror, simply taking a photograph and looking at the painting from a photographic perspective is going to, to some degree, flatten out your piece and give you a different perspective—one that I find, often shows me things that are wrong with the painting that I don’t necessarily see until I take that photo. And I can vouch for this, in that there have been a number of times I have thought, “This painting is done.” And done to the point that I want to share it with somebody. My mom is also a painter, and so she is often the first person I’ll want to share that painting with as a first audience. So I’ll grab my phone and take a photo, and I’ll be about to hit “SEND” when my eye catches something, and something jumps out at me. And I realize I’ve got to put it back on the easel and make the adjustment because I didn’t see that thing until I took the photo, and then I went, “Oh crap, why didn’t I see that before?”. So getting in a habit of when you take your regular breaks, occasionally taking a photo of that painting—even if you just look at it on your phone and then delete it—is going to inform you about things that may need adjustment that you didn’t see before you took the photograph.

Even if this is the only tactic you use, taking periodic photos during the process of making a painting will be a tremendous help in seeing what is not working.

And finally, the tactic of taking a break. And I mean a long one. I don’t know about you, but when I’m in the middle of a painting, I get so enthralled with the process that I don’t want to stop. I just want to keep going until I feel like it’s done, or it’s almost done for that day. But it’s imporant to learn not to overwork the painting, even in each session. So I set up some ideas ahead of time to help me determine when it’s time to be done for the day and give that painting a rest. Because for the most part, I don’t finish a painting in a single session.

The things that I put in place to help me know that that painting session is over are:
I set a timeframe in my head for myself. You can set a timer if you’re good at forgetting about time when you’re painting (I do that sometimes). For me, I’ve gotten used to painting in three- to four-hour blocks. So much so that kind of a little timer goes off in my head, and in the back of my mind it just goes, “DING!” after about four hours, max, where I feel, “I need to step back, and I’m done for now.” And I just kind of stop and I put my stuff down.

But if you’re not going to be able to stop and be aware of the time—many of us forget time when we paint, and it’s a wonderful thing—you can set a timer on your phone to go off after a certain amount of time that you feel is reasonable. For me that would be the four hour mark. If I haven’t stopped myself after three hours, I figure I can go until about four and then I’d better stop for the day. If I’m on a roll and I’m not ready to stop painting yet, but that painting needs a break, I do have the tactic of having multiple paintings set up at once in my studio. I’ve always got three easels going, and each one has a painting on it that’s in a different state of completion. I can literally turn my back on a painting and switch to another piece, and it gives me that fresh perspective and gives the painting I’m working on a rest.

If I’m working on more than one painting at a time, preverably at least three, so that I can jump around if I need to, I like to give each painting about a week’s rest in between sessions. Now, you may not have that luxury, you may be on a deadline, or you may just not want it to dry that much in between sessions. That’s just how I work, and it works well for me. But trying to space apart those painting sessions at least a day apart, if not more, is going to give you the perspective that you need, in order to have as few surprises as possible when you finish the painting, and you take that final photograph and look at it. You really don’t want that to be an “Oh crap” moment. You want to be able to look at that piece with confidence, and think, there’s nothing left here to be taken out, and I’ve said what I needed to say.”

Here are some additional thoughts that occurred to me in the last couple of days. One of them is when you take a break from your painting, I highly recommend removing it from the easel and putting it in another room. A room where you can actually see it on a regular basis, and in different kinds of lighting. So maybe you want to move it to the dinging room for a day, and then move it to the livingroom for a day. And just live with it for as long as you can between sessions. Or if you think that it’s done and you’re planning to ship it out to someone, or put it in front of an audience, try to give yourself as long of a rest period before you do that as you can. Until you either feel comforatable with it—it’s done—or you see something that you feel needs attention.

Now, this is one of the ways that I avoid two potential problems. One of them is to overwork the piece. Your best, most spontaneous piece is going to be the one that you touch the least. The one that you’re as efficient as possible making your marks and letting them be. People ask how to make bold, fresh brushwork, and this is definitely one of the key elements. It is:

Not going over the same ground over and over again.

For me, when I’m finished with a session and I think the painting might be done, or at least is definitely done for that day, I put it in another room. And then I see how long I can live with it before I’m drawn back to it, thinking, “Oh boy, I really have to fix that one thing.” And more often than not, I’m bringing it back into my studio and putting it back up on the easel, even if it’s just for a quick touch up of something that I didn’t see while it was at the easel at the distance I was standing from it most often—again, hoping I was taking those breaks and backing up—and in different lighting. And with fresh eyes.

So, last night I did that with a piece, and sure enough, before it was on the mantel for an hour, I grabbed it and ran it right back into the studio to adjust an edge that was dropping off too dramatically against a lighter background.

So different people have different periods in the process of their painting that they favor. And for me, the end process is exhilarating, but it can also be excruciating, because I keep seeing things that I need to fix, and I just—I’m at risk of overworking the piece, and I feel like the painting just won’t let me go. It’s like “The Godfather”, in that scene where Al Pacino says, “Every time I think I’m out, they pull me back in.” So for me, that’s the end of a painting.

Now it’s important that when you’re either high on the feeling that you’ve done a great job and the painting’s done, you can’t wait to share it, or, you’re exhausted and you just don’t want to look at it anymore, that you don’t ship it out to an audience prematurely before you’ve given it that break. Sometimes we’re afraid to look at our finished paintings. We’re so tired, emotionally or mentally just from trying to get that likeness if it’s a portrait, or paint what we envision this painting to be, that we just don’t want to look at it anymore. We just want to get rid of it. That’s natural, but it’s important to do it right. And when I say, “do it right”, I’m begging you to just give yourself some space. Put it away, or preferably put it somewhere that is not in your studio where you can monkey with it but where you can see it. And that will give you both—you’ll have a break, and you’ll also have the chance to wait until you’re rested and objectively look at it from a distance for a while and determine what really needs to be fixed and what you’re going to leave alone because you like the spontaneity of the brushwork or you feel you’ve captured the likeness, and the overall feel of the painting trumps getting something sometimes even exactly perfect. Something might be slightly off, but when you look at that, you’ve really captured the person. And you have to make those ultimate decisions on what works for you, but it’s important to give yourself that opportunity to make those choices.

One last thought on this is, if you’re doing a painting on commission, your painting is done when your client says it’s done. Now I’m assuming you’ve brought it to the point where you’ve removed any major technical objections that you might have. So you’ve given it your private rest periods where no one else has seen it, and you’ve turned it upside down, and you’ve stepped away, and you’ve maybe looked at it in a mirror. If you wait to share it with your client until after you are sure the major sticking points are fixed, and you can live with it after maybe a few slight adjustments, or maybe it’s done and you’re just not sure, that’s the time it’s safe to share it with a client. Because more often than not, especially if it’s a portrait, I’ve found my client says, “It’s done, I love it!”, and they want it right away, and they are happy.

I know for myself, I am capable of monkeying with a painting for years. I have paintings that are self portraits that have lived with me for years, because I haven’t sold them because they’re self portraits and I’ve chosen to keep them, that have ended up back on my easel—after ten years sometimes. And so, if your client’s happy, if they say, “Oh my gosh, that’s my sister, mother, brother,” whoever—“my dog”, whoever they’ve hired you to paint—let it go.
And if you want to try again, pull up the reference photo you used to make that portrait, or one of the other photos of the same person, and make another one.

So those are my thoughts on how you can tell if your painting is done. Now it’s important to note that when I say your client will tell you when it’s done, I’m saying it in the light of you leaning towards wanting to hold onto the painting too long, and not feeling it’s finished or good enough. If you’ve a painting that you feel is completed, and your best work on that piece, and your client refuses to accept it as finished, we’re getting into an entirely different conversation, and a different future podcast. I will tell you briefly that as you move toward selling your art on commission, your best bet will be learning how to screen potential clients and hopefully reroute the ones for whom your art is not a good fit. Or, to put it bluntly, the ones who may never be satisfied with the work you do no matter what you do. Yes, it is okay, and sometimes necessary to gently fire your clients. It’s better, however, to be able to screen them out before you do the work. It’s also vital that you remember, when these clients pop up—and they do—that it’s not a reflection on your ability as an artist. I urge you to just think of them as not a good match for you, your time, or your effort. I will talk about how to ferret these clients out and lovingly send them on their way in a future episode.

I hope that this has given you some insights that you can use. Drop me a line and let me know, and I’ll see you on another episode.

Until next time—go make something.