Knowing When to STOP! (and when not to)

I was reminded tonight, while watching a time-lapse painting on youtube by  fellow artist Brandon Schaefer, of a problem I have been having recently, and often have. I suspect its one shared by many who start to explore art in its various forms.

When am I done, when do I stop?

Every now and then I work on a piece and it all seems to come together and I know just when to stop. But sometimes, I just can’t seem to find the finish line. There is always something that needs adjusting, repainting or rethinking.

While watching Brandon do his latest piece I noticed he repainted the water, the sky, the mountains in the background, and other elements multiple times as he progressed. And he has painted many hundreds of paintings and has been posting on youtube for 3 years (or so!). The painting came out great. It was comforting to see.

My latest piece, which I am calling “Big Red” I repainted so many times I lost count. And each time it made me feel so helpless and inadequate. If I was ‘good enough’ and knew what I was doing I surely would have gotten it right from the start! No?

Big Red

So I’ve been thinking about this a bit. I’ve been watching videos and reading and basically absorbing all I can and often the videos you see show the artist getting just the right color, value, composition right from the start. A few adjustments here and there and viola! Done! Books often stress the same. “Get that first mark right and all else follows” or “make every brush stroke count”, “Don’t overwork it” etc.

So its easy to feel like I just don’t know what I’m doing when I paint and repaint something again and again.

If I look back though, and think about some of what I have seen online, I can say that there are some seriously talented artists who’s work I love, and I have seen them work and rework parts or all of a painting many times before getting it right. They may scrape off half a painting and start again, or completely go over something they finished 20 minutes earlier. These are big names, people teaching others how to paint, and producing outstanding stuff.

That doesn’t help me know exactly when to stop however. And can lead to never finishing a painting. I personally usually need a full day away from a painting to know if I like it. I can leave a painting thinking I have to fix or redo some aspect of it, only to find in the morning that I actually like it when I revisit it with fresh eyes. The opposite is also true. At times I think I am done, and the next day know without a doubt I need to make some changes.

I think the biggest thing is to accept that you will never achieve perfection, and that ‘good-enough’ can be OK. Take what didn’t work this time and use that to learn for your next effort. Or note what you struggle with and do some studies or exercises to just work and explore how to do that better. Paintings that I thought were mediocre have been some that others find most appealing. So don’t let perfection keep you from signing your work and putting down the brush.

My ending thoughts for those of you starting out, or struggling with your painting are these:

  • Don’t aim for perfection. Aim for satisfaction. Remember art is expression and everyone will view and react to it differently than you
  • Walk away from your work for an hour, a day, a week when you are frustrated. Often the answer to what you should, and shouldn’t do will present itself with a fresh set of eyes
  • Find someone who can give you an honest, unbiased opinion. This usually is not a family member
  • As you paint the colors you put down will affect every other color on your canvas, so its logical to assume some colors and values will have to be adjusted as you go along
  • You learn by doing, so repainting is just another opportunity to learn
  • Keep old paintings around, and pull them out once in a while to remind yourself just how far you have come
  • Instead of thinking about all the things you think you could improve, look at your work and note all the things that work – and pat yourself on the back for the progress you’re making

Good luck! I’m off to my next piece!

22 thoughts on “Knowing When to STOP! (and when not to)”

  1. Excellent post Tom! Very important points that you touched on. One thing I’ve learned recently is to make sure to reinstate your lights and shadows at least midway in the painting process, if not later as well, because usually as I go on in a painting, my lights and darks start to meld and mush together and I find by reinstating them can help – and to also always be aware if you are painting something in shadow or in the light. Anyways, just thought that might help a bit. Looking forward to seeing more paintings and posts. Keep it up!

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