22 May

After the Creative Process

When is a Painting Finished? Part 1



Talk about the $64 question!  For painters, that question tops the list of things most often wondered about.  How to know when a particular stroke is THE last one and the painting is perfect!  When do you stop, drop the brush and walk away?

Let me introduce you to the “just one more thing” painting approach.  Stop laughing…I know I am not the only one to have fallen victim to this belief.

You know it well.  Belief that one perfect stroke will carry us to the magical pinnacle of the perfect painting.   Only problem is the stroke doesn’t become the last stroke but more akin to the opening of Pandora’s box (and even if you don’t remember the details, you know that particular story didn’t end so well).
We are not the first to have pondered the big question:

“Art is never finished, only abandoned.” ~Leonardo da Vinci

“A painting is never finished, it simply stops in interesting places.” ~Paul Gardner

“A painting is finished when the artist says it is finished.”  ~Rembrandt

Obviously, opinions on this vary widely.
At the risk of giving you one more thing to think about, I’ve decided to place my 2 cents worth squarely on the table.
And I should probably tell you straight up that it doesn’t involve a methodical approach of technical calculations.
Remember who you’re talking to.

I was prompted by a comment that someone had left on a FB post of mine, “I like that you know when to stop on a painting”. Which got me to thinking about how do I decide when a painting is done.  Known for my looser, painterly pieces you should know I have not always painted that way. Leaving mystery and unfinished business as part of a completed work is more “me” than how I used to paint.

Before I get to the “how I decide when to stop on a painting” part, I need to take you back to an earlier epiphany.  We will call it….

Letting go of the idea of perfection. 

Most of what has gotten me in trouble on a painting is trying to get it “just right”.  Which is code for “perfect”.  Not liking the idea of being a perfectionist, I have other words to justify my “need” to do one more thing.  The obvious problem with this is that perfection doesn’t exist in a painting.

Not really.
And especially not how we define it.

Which means that the harder one works at it, the more elusive it becomes.

You might be surprised why. It seems simple.  We’ve narrowed down the problem.  It’s that one little thing.  We’ll just tweak it and then we’re done.
Easy peasy, right?

Except when the tweak is made we find that a new problem has now reared its head.  Just a wee one.  So we “fix” it.  Except, except…now there’s something else that seems a little off.  And on and on it goes until we realize we “lost” the painting about 200 strokes ago and now feel the urge to trash said painting.

We all need a T-shirt that says “The Perfect Painting: Been there, ruined that”

There actually is a reason for this for this widespread phenomenon.  (I know…isn’t that the best news you’ve heard in awhile??)  We aren’t crazy after all!  It really does keep needing ‘just one more thing’ and the reason is…

Everything in the painting is connected. One thing can’t be tweaked or adjusted without it impacting the rest of the painting.

Our paintings are just like a room full of people, each time someone new enters or exits the room, the group shifts a bit. Conversations change, new topics are broached.

When one stroke is added, one value adjusted, one little thing changed..well, you get the picture.  It’s akin to nailing Jello to a tree.  The desire for perfection, like the carrot on the end of the stick, has no happy ending when it comes to painting. Each decision is merely a transition to the next decision.  Which brings us back to the question of when is a painting finished.  Obviously not “when everything is perfect”. (* per Garnder’s quote above, paintings aren’t ever really finished, they simply stop in interesting places.)

Obviously, there are things we see that need adjusting or correcting in a painting as it nears completion but the conversation here is specifically targeted on stopping on a painting while it still feels fresh, still retains the vibrancy and liveliness that you had in at the beginning.

Perfection isn’t the answer for ‘when is the painting finished’.  Each change made in a painting creates a new painting with new choices so perfection is a target that is ever moving and changing.
Sometimes in our searching for answers though one question leads to an even deeper one.
This one definitely does…

Why are we so bent on getting it perfect?

The conversation in my next post!

Meanwhile, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this  🙂

P.S. You can now read the second and third part in this series by clicking here and here.

“Playful Light of France”
12 x 9in oil on museum quality panel

Dreama Tolle Perry Log
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  1. chineaux

    Je connais votre peinture que je trouve belle, généreuse, gaie…….comme vous sans doute? Votre réfléxion sur la finition est exacte. Attention de ne pas s’approcher de la photographie……J’ai 90 ans et je “travaille” encore…Merci et grosses bises pleine de peinture.

  2. Debbie

    You are so right! I started my painting and sent a picture to my daughter, she loved it and said “don’t do anything different to the vase… it’s beautiful.” she loved the vase that I needed to fill with flowers. I have struggled to not fix one thing that id bothering me on the vase, but her voice keeps playing in my mind. So I have not changed it!!

  3. Crystal Heart

    For me a painting is finished when I have achieved BALANCE.
    Balance between form and space. Balance between warm and cool, business and quietness, geometric/man-made lines vs free-flowing natural elements, etc.

    In a recent binge of watching Jonna Jinton’s videos (the beauty of northern sweden) she has video footage of “balancing stones”. It seems impossible to balance a big rock on a tiny one yet it is not so much about the rocks themselves but about our INNER STATE OF BALANCE. One cannot create these towers unless firstly you are still within.

    I think an artist reaches a certain inner level of Completeness first and the knowing that the painting is also complete then arrives. So much of our artistic journey is an inner one. A canvas is not truly blank when we start. It energetically matches our frequency and as such, there is only a certain range of imagery that could be painted on it. (You could not happily paint a skull and crossbones on a canvas because that type of image/energy frequency is not you). You are a high vibration and your subject matter reflects that (as does the high key values you use). I think a painting is finished when we achieve/match a frequency key that we set out to capture.
    Not all art is about “what is added”. Every stroke of paint applied to a surface adds to its density. Sometimes when we are aiming for a high vibration it is what “we leave out” that is more important. Art can sometimes be a subtractive process.

  4. Joan

    I love this post!!! I’ve been trying to figure this “when to stop” mystery out myself. Its very interesting and I love that we are all trying to figure it out – the more its talked about the less weird and and crazy I feel! LOL. Anyway, I recently heard an artist on the “Learn to Paint” podcast talk about it this week and loved that he said just put down the paint brush and walk away. Easier said than done to be sure. To remind myself I have put a sticky note up above my work table that says just that, “Just stop and walk away!” Its helping if I remember to look at the note! LOL. But in all seriousness I believe its a blend of 1. wanting to get it right, mixed with 2. attachment plus 3. painting is just fun! Sorting through the first two is where the real work for our mind lays for it can have its roots in “not good enough” and unpacking that may take a long time. Meanwhile I am looking forward to part 2 of this conversation.
    Joan Margaret Nichols

  5. SHannon blair

    Invisible lines of structure has always pushed me towards perfectIon. Please teach me to go outside those lines of structure.

  6. N

    You are absolutely right! Thanks!

  7. Sherrill taylor

    Can I just take a watercolor class ?
    That’s the only medium I use. Thanks,

  8. I LOVE this post!! Wow! Do I relate!! And I’m REALLY looking forward to August Saturday FB LIVE!!!!!!

  9. Anne Hallcom

    I appreciate this insight and yes, I can recognize myself here 🙂 It reminds of a time when I was shopping with a friend and she saw me browsing through racks of outfits rather too ‘mature’ for my age at that time. She called over to me “Step away from that rack.” Now I tell myself “step away from the painting – NOW” LOL.

  10. Becky Fulton

    I’ve been wanting to comment on this for awhile now. I’m reading all the comments made in the Provence group and I realize that we all admire Dreama’s loose style, palette and alla prime technique. I notice a lot of beginner painters in the group and would encourage them to realize that this knowledge gained is simply a good start on a lifetime path in exploring art/painting. Dreama’s information can be ‘tools’ we add to our toolbox. Finishing a painting in one sitting or in a day, satisfying as it is, leaves out other techniques like ‘dry brush’, ‘glazing’, ‘texturing’ trying different color palettes and much more.
    On a different note, I’ve come back to earlier sketches sometime later and realized I now consider them finished because I now see something special in their ‘undoneness’. This has happened many times. I’ve also gotten to a stuck point, relegated a painting to the basement, come back even years later and I’ve discovered the answer in the interim. I’m about to complete a large portrait commission I’ve been working on for two years. Like running a marathon compared to a sprint. For me, a good balance between working towards my vision of perfection and also allowing things to just ‘be’ leads to positive growth.

  11. Randy Weisbin

    Wonderful insights and responses. Good to know I’m not unusually hung up. I did stop painting for years because of fear of taking the next step on a painting. Taking photos at different stages actually helped me get through that, although, as Dreams says, there IS often regret at losing a fresher stage. But a lot of learning comes from these “mistakes”. We’d never continue learning if we didn’t take the risk to push a little further, and we learn from messing it up as well. All the great artists had the same struggles, so we’re in good company. In this digital age, I’ll admit I’ve posted an earlier stage on my Facebook page a few times so my friends can see my painting before I messed it up (with full disclosure. I’m not trying to sell the piece, so it’s ok). As an art teacher I feel it’s my job to give positive critiques to help students improve their skills. In the process, I try not to instill fear, but it’s a delicate balance.

  12. Sue Taylor

    I was one who said you taught us how to start a painting and when to stop! What has really helped me is going thru the phases of the painting and then saying “Okay, its finished”! I may know it could use another stroke but I’m learning thru eachainting, that gives me permission to stop and not reminding me to make another stroke!

  13. I know! Perfection…my opinion is that a painting should look like a painting and not a photograph. If you want your painting as perfect as a photograph – take a picture and skip the painting! 🙂

  14. Pamela Wedemeyer

    At this exact moment, I am struggling with this very issue. My husband, being a very detailed guy due to a life time of analyzing details, wants it all spelled out. He is intuitive and has a good artistic sense, and I value his critiques and inputs. However, I am always reluctant to go the whole distance. I go for bigger, bolder strokes with the edges blurring…allowing the eye to complete the message. However, I’m never sure when that last stroke is made!! It usually happens when I’m beginning to loose interest! That’s a sure hint for me. I want that t-shirt!!

  15. Vonnie

    This in a wonderful post, Dreama! I think it is the best explanation I’ve ever read on when a painting is finished! Such a difficult question to answer, and your response is right on. We’ve all been there, done that, so we all relate to your post, and it’s so good to have it in writing, right under our noses, so we can reread it when tempted with “just one more stroke”. You are a terrific teacher, we’re so lucky to have you sharing your heart and experience with us so freely. We appreciate you immensely!👩🏻‍🎨💕

  16. Jan Jensen

    I have a larger work right now that I plan to work on once again. I am telling myself that I have to be ok with the fact that no matter what I do to it it will not be the same painting!

  17. Haha. I call this the Dominos Effect. And we–or at least I–want to get it perfect because that’s what we were taught in art for the first 18 years of life. Strive for perfection: Color inside the lines. Straighten the side of the building. Grass is green. Etc.

  18. Pat macri

    Interesting because I have been there and still am…..maybe it has to do with confidence in ones ability. I tend to stop a painting when I am stuck or don’t know what to do next. When time passes and I finally go back to that painting with more confidence I mess it up..this is what is happening now. I am now not going back to old paintings. They were the lesson of that time. Right now I have a painting started last year in the dreama way. I want to say it’s done because I am giving it as a gift. I know it is not…some might say my background is too bright or my edges are too sharp..those are the only things I question. But as you said I don’t want to put a stroke that will make everything off….because on the whole of it …I like it….but it is the other person that makes me doubt…interesting…huh? Maybe writing this down will give me the confidence to say…that’s a wrap😉

  19. Judy Giannettino

    This post was meant for me! And I’m sure many, many more. When I think my painting is really good, I decide just this one tweet will make it better and, you guessed it, NOT! Thank you for your words of wisdom. Maybe this will sink in now!

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