How to Know When a Drawing is Finished

By Carrie Lewis in Art Business Advice > General Art Advice

I often have trouble deciding when a drawing is finished. Every drawing begins with such lofty goals—I can see it in my mind’s eye—that it’s impossible to meet them. There always seems like something else to do. The end result never meets expectation, so it can be difficult knowing when to sign a drawing and move on.

Is it that way for you?

Do you ultimately “give up” on making the current work better and simply “sign it and move on?”

Some time ago, I wrote about making your own self-critique worksheet, and followed that up with an example of how I do a self-crit. Today I’d like to share tips on determining when a drawing is finished and a few of the key elements I look for in making that decision.

How do you know when a drawing is finished?

Every drawing is different, so knowing when each one is finished is actually a little more complicated than working through a set of basic steps because no two drawings are alike.

But it’s not much more complicated, and once you’ve established the areas that apply to every drawing, it’s much easier to see where you need to add special steps to your basic self-evaluation process.

Let’s take a look at a few basics.

1. Know your goal for the drawing

Most of the time, this is so easy to do I don’t even think about it. I see something that moves me and I want to capture it on paper in whatever style and by whatever method I prefer.

Like this image.

Photograph of sunset streaming through dark clouds

Beyond knowing I want to draw it, there are unique decisions to make. Do I reproduce the photo as is, or would it be better cropped? If I crop it, do I focus on the trees and the light behind them, or would the sky make a better subject?

I could also crop it to focus on the sun and the shadows it casts among the clouds.

The composition determines the colors to use, the values, and possibly the way I layer and blend. Each option also presents a slightly different goal for the drawing, which in turn affects how I determine when the drawing is finished.

If you just want to duplicate the image—and there’s nothing wrong with that—you’ll know you’re finished when your drawing looks as much like the reference photo as you can make it.

But if you choose to alter the drawing in anyway, knowing your goal for the drawing before you begin helps you know when you’ve achieved your goal.

When your drawing meets each of the goals you set at the beginning, it’s finished.

2. Use a self-evaluation process

Beyond meeting personal goals for the artwork, each piece needs to pass your self-evaluation process. It needs to meet overall standards for your art. A drawing that doesn’t quite live up to your standards may be all right in some cases, but you want to create work that upholds the body of work you’ve already created.

This is important in two areas: Your strengths and your weaknesses.

Each drawing should be as strong as possible in whichever areas you excel. Whether it’s color, value, composition, rendering, or color choices, make sure the drawing is the best it can be in the areas you know are your strengths.

In your weak areas, look for ways the drawing might be improved. If you have difficulty drawing strong contrast, look at your drawing in dim light. Does it still look good or are the values a little too vague? Emphasize your lights and your darks if they don’t stand out.

(For more information on setting up your own self-evaluation worksheet, read How to Make A Crit Sheet to Self-evaluate Your Own Artwork.)

3. Does it look good in person and on the computer?

There is no better way to see problems and potential problems in a drawing than by looking at it in a different way. A digital image of a drawing reveals the good parts of the drawing as well as the areas that need a little more work.

Other ways to accomplish the same thing is by holding your art up to a mirror, looking at it from a distance or in dim light (as mentioned above,) or even viewing it upside down.

4. Does it look like the reference photo?

Sometimes I compare digital versions of the reference photo and drawing side by side, but not always. If I’ve made a lot of changes to the drawing, it’s not always helpful to compare the reference image and final drawing.

I made some significant changes to the reference photo for the drawing below, but even though they aren’t an exact match, the drawing met expectations.

Drawing side-by-side with original reference photo

5. You just don’t know what else to do with it

There have been times when I didn’t think a drawing was finished, but did not know what else to do with it. There was just a vague sense of dissatisfaction; as though it wasn’t as good as it could be.

I confess that I’m one of those artists who is never completely satisfied with a drawing. The problem is the vision I have for the drawing before I begin. The standard is set so high at the beginning that it’s next to impossible to achieve. The ideal and the reality are sometimes so different, nothing looks good enough.

"Is it Finished?" Graphic

But I’ve learned over the years that other people don’t view my drawings the same way. They see only the finished product and most of the time, they love it.

Eventually I realized I’m just not a very good judge of my own work. (Maybe you aren’t either.) And that’s exactly what makes the self-evaluation checklist I mentioned earlier so important.

Not every checklist item will work for every drawing—but they WILL give you a solid starting point of what to look for each time.


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