Artists : How to know when a painting is done ?

When is a painting is done?

In 19th-century England, Varnishing Day was traditionally the time when artists arrived at an exhibition to put the finishing touches on their works and seal them with a coat of varnish. 

Choosing when to stop altering a piece can be a highly individual decision, as idiosyncratic and personal as style, and there are instances in which a work is never fully done, at least in its creator’s mind.

Often the sense of completion is a purely intuitive one. “I always liken it to a conversation,” says Emilio Perez, whose paintings are similarly made through a process of subtraction, in which he cuts into the canvas to expose layers of color. “And like every conversation, if it’s a good one, it ends in a natural way—I have this very intuitive sense that I’ve finished something. Part of being able to know when you’re finished is not putting too much pressure on yourself,” adds Perez, who was the focus of a solo exhibition at New York’s Galerie Lelong last month. “If you mess it up, you can always make another one.”

Many artists, past and present, male and female, emerging and successful, realists and abstractionists, have found the process of calling their paintings finished quite troublesome. School of Paris artists Alberto Giacometti and Georges Rouault were renowned for never knowing when enough was enough, reworking again and again the same areas until other people (Rouault's dealer, Giacometti's brother) physically took the pieces out of the studio. It is not at all uncommon to see paintings in museums whose dates span years, such as American artist Edwin Dickinson's "Ruin at Daphne" (one of his most renowned works) on which he labored for 10 years (1943-53), probably not every day but off and on. All we see now is the painting that the artist let go in 1953; presumably, all that tinkering helped. The potential for many artists, however, is that they overwork their paintings, making them less clean, less fresh, less spontaneous and more plodding. 

"It takes two people to make a painting: The artist and someone to kill the artist before he ruins it."

Some artists do rely on a second person, not to kill them but to offer a second opinion on the work's quality and completeness. Painter Emily Mason noted that she and her artist husband Wolf Kahn look at each other's work, and Eric Fischl similarly asks his painter wife April Gornik for her opinion. If she sees problems in the picture, there is more to do. 

There may be ways to contain the problem of knowing when the work is done, by planning ahead, such as making preliminary drawings and value sketches, in which the problems of composition, color, light and texture may be worked out in advance. Fischl stated that he works from photographs that are collaged together using the computer program PhotoShop. Artist Daniel Greene noted that he has a "mental checklist" that he imposes on his close-to-finished paintings, including if he has used enough colors, if there are repetitions, highlights and values. 

Yet other artists simply put paintings aside for a period of time, allowing them to look at the works again with fresher eyes some months hence (those who work on more than one painting at a time necessarily allot a certain amount of breathing space between one picture and the next), or find that a deadline, such as producing enough works for a specific exhibition, makes them focus more intently and make faster decisions.

There may be no universal answer to the question of when a painting is completed. But some ways to do so can be :

-        Asking another person, or your arts dealer/advisor for his or her opinions

-        Planning ahead by making preliminary drawings and value sketches

-        Having a mental checklist, and when your artwork fills all of the criterias, then decide it is done.

-        Put the painting aside for a period of time, and come back to it after a couple of months

-        Find a deadline (exhibition, or personal deadline) and decide the work WILL be done at this time.

In response to the question "How do you know when you're finished?" Jackson Pollock once made the reply, "How do you know when you're finished making love?" That, or the less clever (and less orgasmic) "When I'm satisfied," is perhaps the only true answer.

Thanks to Emilio Perez and Ann Landi for their imput