How To Know When A Painting Is Finished

Quite simply, this quote completely summed it up for me:  “a painting is never finished, it’s just stopped in an interesting place,” from The Artist’s Way. Julia Cameron talks about how nothing is every finished, at some point we just stop and move onto the next thing, we let it go.

With me, knowing when something is done is hard, I’m sure it’s similar for many artists, and some never accept that anything is finished and work on pieces for years and years. So, if it’s a question of how much time, effort and materials you put in until you’ve finally done enough and can let it go, then you have to find out that line for yourself. For me, it’s easy to say “ok, I have three hours to do this impressionistic landscape and that’s it, no changes.” Some works are easy to let go and feel “finished.”

Recently though, I encountered one of those pieces that you just can’t seem to get right, it was a self-portrait. I have a trouble painting or drawing any portraits in general because it activates my inner critic more than other subject matters. But this one, I did the first draft and left it leaning against the wall for months, in the back of my mind always knowing I needed to complete it, but how? So one day, I just went for it, just tried adding things, like a red/brown pen color over the graphite. It looked better, but still unfinished and then my critic kicked in: “one eye is bigger than the other and the nose isn’t even centered over the mouth, there’s just not enough in this piece to really lift off to viewers….” So I was stuck again. So how would I know when it was finished?

Two nights later, a large decorated vase with tall sticks fell over in the night, shattering, all right in front of my portrait. Being the person I am, I found the crime scene interesting and started taking photographs. After uploading, I found the pictures surprising because of the context my portrait was now sitting in. All of a sudden, because a big, broken glass vase was at its feet, and maybe because I took my picture from an angle, the environment around my self-portrait gave the look on my face a whole new expression- strong, almost vindictive, as though it had caused the accident, with a knowing smile. And now, as I look at it, I look calm, strong, able to stand on my own.

Seeing these expressions made me feel like my self-portrait was done, it had enough strength and vitality to live on its own. It was the first time I realized, that what keeps me from feeling like a piece is finished is when I feel like it doesn’t have enough strength and purpose in it to survive in the world. Like all mothers, I’ll spend time watching it, fixing it, building it, worrying about it, but one day I’ll have to let it go, let it be finished. And sometimes, when YOU can’t hear it, the piece will tell you. And, like mothers, when a child tells you “stop, I’ve grown up, you can let me go,” there’s still one more thing I want to give it before I send it out into the world to fight for itself. You’ll have to stay posted on the end result.

But think, what will it take until you can let go of an art piece your working on? Until you feel that it is brave enough to stand alone (or with its other parts if its a diptych, etc.). Try to finish up those unfinished pieces so that you can make room for new ones.


About drunk with magic

Bonjour! Je m’appelle Maya Joy. I am a recent graduate from the University of California: Santa Cruz. I currently reside in San Francisco, California, where I work, study and create collections of art works (among other things). I have great interest in writing, painting, drawing, reading, dancing, physics, Eastern thought, photography and more! If you have any questions feel free to email me at:
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