This is a question that is very difficult to answer because only you can know. Most of us at some point have overdone a painting or drawing and regretted it. Drawing and painting something isn’t a job that has an identifiable beginning and end. For some the completion of a painting could take many years, for others just a few hours.
When to Stop?
I think one of the dangers of the never finished painting is the obsessing that can happen in going over areas just to make it more green or more red and somehow it never seems ‘just right’. Sometimes this can happen so much that we sit for hours, don’t go out, neglect to make phone calls until the painting is just how we want it. Then when it isn’t we can feel incredibly frustrated and it can put us in a bad mood, enough not to want to paint again for some time. This chain of events is not much fun because when we are in this state of mind when one area is perfected, another area we are dissatisfied with can take our attention and so the painting is never complete.
Trusting Your Senses
There is an element of just knowing when a painting is done and it is something that you can get used to the more you paint or draw. The finish is not to be confused with gaining perfection, because then it will never be finished! It has to do with being satisfied with that particular piece of art and that anything more might not add to the piece.
The famous artist Pierre Auguste Renoir once said when asked when is a painting finished “When I’ve painted a woman’s bottom so that I want to touch it, then the painting is finished...”
If you are the type of artist that can become obsessive about a piece then one way of combating this is to work on many pieces at the same time. This takes the pressure off working on just one piece and being completely focussed on the problems of the artwork. Working on a few pieces at once allows for a healthy ‘cross fertilisation’ however in practical terms this can be difficult if you work on a large scale due to lack of space. It is worth working on two pieces at a time and noticing if this makes you more relaxed about finishing as your focus is a bit more dispersed on multi pieces of artwork rather than just one.
For some having a second opinion on when a work is finished is important, this does have to be someone trusted who has an understanding of your work. Some famous painters have been known for having to ask their husband or wife when the work is finished. This might be an idea for those of us who tend to overwork artwork and just can’t help but rework areas. It is much easier if you are attending an art class or you are in an art club because you can ask fellow painters what they think.
One way of knowing when a work is finished might be to step away from the artwork by putting it away for a while. When you come back to the piece you will have fresh eyes and a much clearer idea if there is more work to be done and if the artwork is finished.
The state of mind we are in when we paint or draw is very important. For anyone who has experienced being the creative flow, you will find that finishing paintings is effortless. In this state we have an abundance of ideas, we are eager to produce work and create one artwork after the next. However creating art isn’t always like this we can have times when ideas don’t flow, we put things off, if we do work on our artwork nothing is easy and the work seems laboured. At times like this it might be worth stopping and stepping away for a while.
Turning it Upside Down
I have written a blog post on how turning your work upside down can make you see it with a new light. This is because the eyes are just looking at abstract shapes rather than a recognisable object. Sometimes turning a work upside down can reveal areas that might need more work.
Rework or Start Again?
Sometimes starting again is more productive than reworking a piece if you have been trying for some time to get a piece just right and not getting very far. Sometimes there is a thing in art called ‘cutting our loses’ where it is just best to stop and start again or put the artwork away. Most artists have one or two pieces that were very slow to create because they spent time in the drawer for long periods and were worked on intermittently.
All is Not Lost
Sometimes a painting that is overworked to the point where colours lose their freshness and vibrancy. Often there is one area of the painting you are happy with. In situations like this could your artwork be cropped so you had a small painting of just one successful area?
Some mediums allow you to scrap off paint and start again like oils, as long as your support is robust enough it should be able to cope with this. I can remember this is how I learnt one of the painting techniques that I still use today. I was forever lifting off and scraping paint off a canvas or paper because I wanted to start again and noticed the interesting texture that was created. I started then scrapping off paint intentionally just to get this ‘rough’ textured look to my backgrounds.
Try not to treat every artwork like it is a masterpiece, if you are learning which we all are whatever our level of experience then you should expect a few less than perfect pieces. Even if the artwork isn’t your best you probably learnt a great deal from working on it.
Also see ‘Why Perfectionism Could be Stopping You in Art for more advice.