How to Know When a Painting is Finished

By Diane Griffiths in Art Business Advice > General Art Advice

Being creative is scary.

I often feel conflicted between pursuing my freedom of expression as I paint a landscape, versus accurately capturing what I see in the landscape I’m painting.

For as much of the painting as I can, I don’t try to control my process. I use creative techniques and play about with different mediums and tools. It’s a process of trust and I’m open to suggestions from the painting itself.

This part of the painting happens organically. I only feel part responsible for the outcome—and it takes some of the pressure off.

Landscape painting before it's finished

Then I get past the middle point, and I know I need to pull it all together. I need to finish it. And that’s when it gets scary again. I’m back to a battle between freedom and detail. I don’t want to overwork the painting, but I want to do enough!

So how do you know a painting is finished?

When getting towards the end of a painting I typically have elements which I absolutely love, but then there are other elements which I’m not sure about. At times, I try to push through and fix those elements and end up with an overworked painting.

I can tell, because I often take photos of my painting progress. I hate it when I look back at a previous version of a painting and think—ah, right there, I should have stopped!

The paintings that I’m most proud of are the ones where I did stop! It’s actually that simple. I had an inspiration for a painting, I painted it, and then walked away.

But while I’m painting, that is always on my mind—is it finished yet?

3 questions to ask before finishing a painting:

I often finish a painting but won’t publish it until a couple of weeks later. I go through what I affectionately call the faffing stage. The faffing stage typically includes 3 steps:

1. Do all the elements of a painting work together?

I’m not a photo realistic artist, but I do want the painting to flow, so I check things like the light source, shadows and how the colours sit from distance to foreground. This is the technical element of ensuring a painting works.

Landscape painting that is closer to being done, but not quite finished yet

2. Is there some element of wow-factor in the painting?

Some people call this the x-factor—but I’m not a huge fan of this wording – it suggests something extremely difficult to achieve, something that you can’t put your finger on.

I ask myself would I stop and look at this painting if I saw it in a gallery?

Is there something which grabs the eye?

It can range from the subject, to the composition, the sky, the foreground, the colour contrast or mix—but it has to be something which makes it pop. This is difficult because it isn’t formulaic, it’s different for each painting. But I want there to be a feature with “wow-factor” in every finished piece.

3. Finally—does it look great at a distance AND up close?

What makes the painting really work for me, that final bit of magic, is actually amusingly boring. I need it to look great at a distance as well as being able to admire the detail close-up. It has to work both ways.

I actually struggle with the distance view more than the detail. It’s hard to get the distance from your painting. For a quick win I have a reducing mirror but it doesn’t quite give me the space I need to analyse it fully.

So I find taking photos and viewing them on my computer is a great trick—it puts my painting in a completely different environment and I can make a decision on how the overall image works with less emotion than when it is in front of me with the paint still wet.

If I’m happy with my answers to all three questions, then my painting is finished.

Finished painting of a Cornwall landscape with ocean and sunset

Special thanks to Diane Griffiths for sharing her process! If you’d like to see more of Diane’s Cornish landscape paintings, please visit www.handonart.com.

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