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Is Your Painting Finished? 5 Questions to Ask Yourself

September 29, 2010

oil painting of cherriesHow do you know when your painting is finished? With some pieces you just know, but with others you need to make a conscious decision to stop. It can be difficult to figure out when your painting is finished. You often don’t know it was done until you go too far and realized you should have stopped ten minutes earlier!

Here are some questions to ask yourself to help determine if your painting is finished.

1. Is there enough contrast?

A fully realized painting should reflect a full range of contrast between values (light and dark) and hues (vibrant and unsaturated). When looking at values, it can be helpful to squint your eyes. This highlights the contrast between the lightest and darkest areas of your painting. You can also take a picture of your painting and digitally make it a gray-scale image. This gives you the best indication of the range of values. With not enough contrast in value, your painting will appear gray and flat.

Paintings should also have a mix of hue intensity; the brightness of colours. If you’ve used all of your colours straight out of the tube, you may want to think about toning some areas down by tinting the paint with white or a complimentary colour. This will only make the neighbouring hues look that much brighter!

2. Is your subject matter appropriately rendered?

I tried to word this in a way that could apply to any painting, regardless of subject matter. What I mean is, have you executed your painting in a way that reflects your style and aspirations? If you’re going for a realistic style, are there any areas that are clumsy or need more work? If you’re going for a loose, expressive style, are there areas that have become too tightly overworked? Don’t get lazy with what you’re painting and don’t make excuses.

3. Does the composition make sense?

Composition is the arrangement of the formal elements of your painting on the canvas. It can play a big part in the feeling of your piece. Have you considered the way the parts of your painting interact with each other? Even if you do thumbnail sketches, you may need to make changes to a painting’s composition. For example, when the subject matter gets too close to the edge of the canvas, it can create tension. If this isn’t intentional, it can take away from the effect of the painting.

4. Does it convey the right message?

You need to know what it is you’re trying to get across in your work and make sure your painting reflects that. Sometimes this can be hard to figure out all by yourself. A good way to answer this question is to get other people to look at your work. Other people will react to only what they see and feel in your work, not the ideas that are in your head. If you find that people are responding to something you didn’t intend, you may want to re-consider your approach.

5. Could you live with it?

Would you be happy hanging your painting in your house? Try it! Live with it on your wall for a few days. This is a really good way to get a new perspective on your piece. If there was an area bugging you, you may find that you suddenly know how to fix it.

Some paintings come together with almost an audible click. You step back and it’s finished. Others are a struggle every step of the way. With these pieces, it’s incredibly important that you be critical  and evaluate each element of the painting, asking yourself what it brings to the piece. If you don’t feel that sense of completion, don’t panic! Turn on your critical, analytical side and evaluate the painting to determine if it’s finished.

How do you know when a painting is finished?

Disclaimer: Of course, the answers to these questions greatly depend on the style of painting you are doing. While it’s my opinion that most successful paintings have a full range of values, not every painting needs it. It really depends on what you are trying to achieve with your work. Whatever you’re going for, these questions reflect some of the things you should consider along the way.


From → Drawing

  1. Hi Miranda,
    These are good breakpoints. Personally I never thought of any point to check through other than my sixth sense. It’s kind of if I am happy with it then I will stop, otherwise I will continue the work until I feel happy.

    • Hi Rose! Yes, sometimes you just get that feeling that it’s done. I wish I had that feeling every time, though! Sometimes it’s not that easy, haha.

  2. I made a cartoon, titled “The Making of a Painting”, about my knowing when the painting is finished:

  3. Hi Miranda,

    You are absolutely right, hehe. 🙂

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