How Do You Know When You’re Done with a Painting?

"Bubbling Up" Oil on canvas 6" x 6" © 2009 Marilyn Fenn

“Bubbling Up”
Oil on canvas
6″ x 6″
© 2009 Marilyn Fenn

I was in a class several years ago in which another student complained about painting abstractly, because she didn’t know where to stop.  She said when she worked representationally, at least she knew when she was done — for her, it was when the painting looked like the thing she was representing.   Of course, it’s not as simple as that for many representational painters, but often it seems when one is just starting to draw and paint, success is measured by how close one’s piece gets to looking like the object or scene one is depicting.

It’s so different when you give up representation.   The answer to the question, “how do you know when you’re done?” becomes more elusive.

Is it when you achieved what you set out to achieve or perhaps when you discovered something you didn’t know you were looking for?

For me, it’s a bit of both — I like to keep my goals pretty loose, so that I can explore an area of the process of painting that fascinates me (like color), and still discover something new in that process.

Sometimes — in a glorious moment — a piece just comes together.  Everything seems to work — the colors sing, the composition works, the texture and brushstrokes are interesting and well integrated.  One more stroke and you could really lose it.

At other times, there’s something not quite right that keeps nagging until you figure out how to make it work.  I had a wonderful moment yesterday when I reworked a small painting from earlier this year that never really sparkled, and suddenly, I got it right!  Oh, the thrill!

Sometimes though, I lose interest in a piece before I feel I am done…and then it may languish in my studio until I regain interest and work on it some more, possibly finishing it…or it may just be added to the stack of unfinished pieces.

What about you?  How do you know when your piece is finished?

3 Responses to How Do You Know When You’re Done with a Painting?

  • Lisa Kairos says:

    Oh, great post! I think I may post on this subject myself, and then send people over here. Thanks for commenting on my blog- it's great to have discovered yours, too.

  • Marilyn says:

    Thanks, Lisa! I’m finding lots of good posts on your blog, too. So happy to have found you! I look forward to reading what you have to say on this subject. 🙂

  • DJ says:

    Just found your blog, so thanks for giving me something to chew on…

    My immediate answer is, that I too, wait for that moment of completeness in composition…balance…appropriate rhythms…color harmony…and interest.

    Abstraction can be much more difficult to undertake than realism, since the subject does not "carry" the painting. The artist must create that subject, and convey it without a predetermined visual map for immediate identification by the audience.

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Colour expresses something in itself. One can’t do without it; one must make use of it. What looks beautiful, really beautiful — is also right.

— Vincent van Gogh
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Comments on My Paintings
  • Awesome! The colors are gorgeous, and overall painting reads as an aerial but maintains that abstractness you are so good at.
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