How to tell if a painting is finished

As I write this, I’m tucked in bed surrounded by eight paintings that span my artistic career up to this point.  An old college experiment that I still love, perhaps to spite the fact that my professor told me it wasn’t my strongest work.  A piece from my thesis exhibition next to a slightly stronger one from my Medford studio.  On a wall of its own is my largest knitted canvas yet, hung over my paint splattered desk.

And then there are the two newbies, the latest layer still drying on their surfaces.  One of them has me mostly convinced, despite being a dark painting that disappears beneath the glare of the overhead light.  But I’m still suspicious of the other one and as I write, I eye it across the room, flitting glances from under furrowed brows.

Both of these paintings have had long lives already, lives that capture much of my creative process.  Only a week ago, I thought I had ruined the painting that is currently seducing me.  I had been working on it for months, layering upon layering.  I knew I was getting close, at least 70% done, but it still niggled at me.  So I ignored it for a while, letting it fade into the back of my studio while I paid attention to my other works.  Then, finally, I decided it was time to deal with this piece and I promptly ruined it.

studioWhat had been a light lavender affair, filled with specks of yellow and orange and a lovely gray sweep, was suddenly a dark mess of broiling marks.  We fought to a standoff, me and this damn canvas board.  I tried some purple squares, and they did…. something.  Not quite horrendous, not quite a resolve.  Then I dripped some dark purple and I knew.  I knew the piece was ruined.  Before leaving the studio that night, I threw some vibrant orange paint because if it was going to look awful it might as well look really, really awful.

I was angry, I was annoyed, and then by the time I went back into the studio I was resigned.  “Time to start again,” I thought.  I can’t tell you how many times thats happened: a piece that felt nearly finished suddenly reverted back to being only 20% done.  In fact, this is exactly what happened to the other newbie, the one still making me suspicious.  It was finished once before, and last time I thought it was done it lived in the back of my studio for over two years.  I didn’t want to hang it anywhere, I didn’t want to put it in any shows, so it just sat until I finally realized it needed a little more effort.

I resolved to ignore the offending work, to look at something, anything else.  But I felt it behind me, demanding to be seen.  And so I turned, I squinted, and I decided.  A layer of alizarin crimson fading length wise to phalto blue, a texture of thick black paint fading out height wise.  It did something, something good, but I was so convinced that I had ruined the painting that I turned my back on it again.  This time it let me.

The next time I went into the studio, I couldn’t think of anything to add.  And this, this is the turning point.  This is how I can tell if a painting is done, or at least almost done.  You see, I usually have an endless supply of ideas: that corner needs more yellow, that cerulean needs to be outlined with phalto blue, that area is becoming too even and needs to be broken by a large shape.  Even if I don’t know the answer, I know that something needs to be done to the piece, so I keep working on others until I realize what the piece is demanding.

But at some point, the painting quiets down.  It stops sparking ideas and demanding attention and I realize that I can’t think of anything to add.  I leave it in the studio for a few sessions, just in case, and then I take the leap.  I remove the painting from the studio and see if it can stand alone in a none work room, usually my bedroom.  Then I live around the painting for a few days: glancing past it as I walk to the shower in the morning, squinting at it as I tuck myself into bed at night.  Every once in a while, I realize that there is one last thing.  One remaining demand to be answered, and the painting goes back to the studio.

Most of the time, I slowly stop squinting at the piece and start to just look at it.  All of the separate marks meld together and become a synchronous unit.  In short, after a few days of suspicion, the works stops being a Piece and starts being a Painting and that’s when I know it’s done.

Interested in joining the Hearth community?

Sign-up for our weekly email with event info, project updates, and news about our members.

Interested in joining the Hearth community?

Sign-up for our weekly email with event info, project updates, and news about our members.