Monday morning art school: how do I know I’m finished?

Dawn Wind, Twin Lights, 9X12, oil on archival canvasboard, $869 includes shipping and handling in the continental US.

“I know it’s not done, but it’s where I stop because I’m afraid I’ll mess up what I have,” a student messaged me. She was painting in a plein air event where ‘unfinished’ and ‘overdone’ were both errors.

“I think you won’t mess it up, and you can always scrape back to this level if you do,” I replied. She was painting in oils, which have the advantage of a partial undo. In fact, that can be the resolution of many problems, because the average of your errors, revealed by scraping back, is often the right answer.

Apple Blossom Time, 9×12, oil on canvasboard, $869 includes shipping and handling in the continental US.

For most of us, figuring out when a piece is finished is an almost-intuitive process that varies from one piece to another. My answer is, “I’m done when I’m sick of working on it,” but that isn’t particularly helpful advice. There are, of course, some objective factors guiding me:

Intention: I often start with a specific idea for a piece. I’ll never realize that 100%, because the human mind has its own ideas. However, I want to know that I’ve at least made my point.

Composition: I’m a bear about understanding the composition from the very beginning. If I haven’t done that, no technique at the end can save the painting. That said, there may be adjustments needed to strengthen my original idea-darks restated, or brushwork softened or made more precise.

Bracken Fern, 9X12, oil on canvasboard, $869 framed includes shipping in continental US.

Technique: Have I built up my paint level to a satisfying conclusion? Is my brushwork fluid? Are there places of rest? Are there passages that just need more energy?

Emotional impact: This is a question that’s best asked in the design phase, but if I finish and it’s just meh, I might need to ask why. If it’s that I have no emotional connection with the work, I will scrape it out. However, sometimes the emotional impact of a piece is dampened by overworking passages, and that is something I can put right. In oils or pastels, I can scrape or brush out the offending passage. In watercolor the solution is usually to start again. The second version of a watercolor is often much looser than the first. (That’s one of many reasons to paint the subject in grisaille before you jump to color.)

My energy levels: I’m not superhuman. That feeling of exhaustion can be the signal that it’s time to quit before I do something stupid. Or, it just might mean I have to come back another day.

Feedback: I rarely ask for feedback, and then only from a very small cadre of fellow painters. However, you may feel you need critique. In the context of a class, that’s important: you should be open to new ideas. At a painting event, you run the risk of chasing back and forth trying to incorporate everyone’s comments into your work. That’s a sure-fire way to wreck a painting.

Church & Maine, 22X30, Cooper Dragonette, Oil on Panel, 2023. This is a great example of a highly-detailed, highly-finished painting that is nevertheless not overdone. (Courtesy of the artist.)

Personal Style: I’m usually a moderately-loose painter. That influences when I consider a work finished. You may be much more detailed and polished. While the technique remains the same, the endpoint differs. A person who is making a highly-detailed painting like Cooper Dragonette‘s fabulous painting of downtown Belfast, above, will take much more time getting the details right.

Deadlines: In some cases, I’m working against external factors like customer-dictated deadlines. I have always found that such deadlines sharpen my focus, but others may find them horrifying.

Endless revisions: Almost every artist has, at one time or another, had a painting in the studio that won’t leave. I’ve had a few of these, upon which I dabbled until flummoxed, only to pull them out again in six months to dabble again. For me, this never ends well; I might as well have tossed them at the beginning.

Ultimately, the decision about when we’re finished is highly individual. It involves technical assessment, emotional connection, and our own unique creative process. As we gain experience and refine skills (which we should do throughout our lives) that endpoint changes.

My 2024 workshops:

Monday Morning Art School: five compositional no-nos

There’s more to composition than just avoiding these no-nos, but respecting the bounding box is a good place to start. Treat the edges as if they’re an important part of your composition.

Don’t cut off the corners

This can sometimes be difficult when running an S-curve to the corner of the page, but will make a painting feel boxed in. If you absolutely can’t avoid it, bring the contrast in that corner way down.

Don’t let a line exit through a corner

That’s a variation on the same problem—the energy in the line slams against the corner and is trapped. The viewer’s eye follows with the same effect. Again, if you absolutely can’t avoid it, bring the contrast way down.

Don’t run an unbroken parallel line with the sides of your painting

Nobody told Renaissance painters this, but even Caravaggio gave it up as he matured. An edge at the bottom, an unbroken horizon line, etc., just creates a box-within-a-box. Unless you have a op-art reason for doing it, it results in dead space within your canvas. And it’s a wasted opportunity to use angles beautifully, as Francis Cadell did with his still lives.

Don’t put a focal point on the edge of your painting

Focal points are an invitation for the viewer’s eye to linger, to be drawn in. A focal point at an edge is an invitation for them to just leave.

Avoid shapes just skimming the edge of your canvas

Either bring it in comfortably inside the picture frame, or let the object extend past it. And don’t scrunch trees trying to avoid hitting the edge; that robs them of their majesty. It’s better to start over.

Monday Morning Art School: most rules of painting are written in sand, not stone

The Logging Truck, oil on archival canvasboard, 16X20, $2029.00 framed includes shipping and handling in continental US.
The Logging Truck, oil on archival canvasboard, 16X20, $2029.00 framed includes shipping and handling in continental US.

Rules are meant to be learned—and then, after mastery, some can be broken.

A few weeks ago, my plein air class was working on Knox Street in Thomaston. Eric Jacobsen was painting in his own yard nearby. A student asked me the secret to painting bigger canvases. “Bigger brushes,” I told him. “Walk over there and see how Eric’s doing it.” I know Eric’s a generous soul and wouldn’t begrudge him the peek over his shoulder.

It turns out that Eric was limning in big, fat, audacious peonies with a delicate #8 brush. “It thinks like a big brush,” he explained. Even as I smiled at his infectious humor, I understood his point. He wasn’t making sweet little marks with it, but sweeping gestures.

Spring Allee, 14X18, oil on canvas, available.

Most plein air painters create a plan before they start. Depending on the complexity of the painting, this sketch can be either simple or quite detailed; however, it lays out the composition as a series of values. Ken DeWaard, on the other hand, starts with a series of charcoal hash marks across his canvas. Natalia Andreeva is another painter who omits the sketch stage. She believes it makes for fresher work.

Everyone ‘knows’ that watercolor is painted light-to-dark, but I’ve watched Poppy Balser paint in a wall of black spruces and then wash the sky right over it, giving the whole composition a trembling northern glow.

Dark-to-light is one of the principle rules for oil painting, and for good reason; it is very difficult to make corrections over tints in alla prima painting, even when you’ve carefully wiped out your mistake. It’s a rule I often break. Having laid in my darks, I sometimes place the mosaic of lightest lights against it to see how the composition reads. I can do this because I work from a careful sketch. Ken DeWaard has jokingly called my technique ‘paint-by-numbers’.

My set-up for a large plein air painting. Note my sketchbook at my feet, and that I jumped from the darkest darks to capture the clouds before they left.

I teach a protocol that takes students through design, preparation, and execution. I tell my students that what I’m teaching are the most accepted practices in painting, but they’re not the only way to do things—people have broken painting rules since the beginning of time.

Sometimes that ends very badly, as with the canvases of Albert Pinkham Ryder. He was an inveterate tinkerer, working canvases for a decade or longer, applying sequential layers of paint, resin and varnish. He paid no attention to the drying speeds of his materials, and tossed in things like candle wax, asphalt, and non-siccative oils. These weird techniques gave his paintings unparalleled luminosity that dazzled his contemporaries. Sadly, the results were unstable. His paintings darkened, cracked, and sometimes completely disintegrated.

Ryder ignored two fundamental rules of painting: fat over lean, and don’t add weird stuff to your paints. (The latter isn’t really a painting rule but plain common sense.) But, aside from the fundamentals, other rules can be broken, or at least modified. They’re meant to give the artist a good working method and a way of seeing quickly. If, as an artist develops, a particular step becomes a hindrance, it makes sense to get rid of it. But that’s only appropriate after mastering the process in the first place.