4 Tips for Finishing a Painting When You’re Feeling Stuck

Ingrid Christensen
Nov 4, 2019 5:01PM
Shai Azoulay
Tantra Painter, 2017
Kers Gallery

Dentists know when a filling is finished, and builders know when a house is built. Painters, in contrast, struggle to know when their canvases are complete. They often rework pieces for unreasonable stretches of time. Amateurs and experts alike suffer from this indecision.

Art history is ripe with painters whose canvases were perennially in progress. Edgar Degas was notorious for reworking paintings that had already been exhibited. He was even known to request works back from buyers in order to make revisions. Mona Lisa (ca. 1503–09), which measures just 30 by 21 inches, took Leonardo da Vinci several years to complete.

Such protracted working methods are sometimes appropriate. They can generate paintings imbued with the gravity and power that a swift approach might not produce. In other cases, however, putting endless hours into a painting may simply indicate a desperate struggle. It may mean that a painter is trying one method after another in the hopes of creating a coherent work of art, or reaching some unrealistic ideal.

Grappling endlessly with a problematic painting can be frustrating and dispiriting, sucking the joy out of artmaking.

If finishing a painting is a struggle, the following suggestions might help you resolve your work and rediscover some ease and joy in the studio.

Stop when you’ve said what you wanted to say

Before you begin a painting, make a clear decision about the concept that you’d like to explore. Whether your work is representational or abstract, it’s helpful to start an artwork with an organizing idea.

If you’re painting flowers, your idea might be to show the uniqueness of each bloom in a bouquet. You won’t have achieved your goal—and finished the painting—until you’ve used small brushes to depict the veins and eccentric angles of individual petals and leaves.

Conversely, you might decide to show the dazzling color harmonies of the bouquet as a whole. This goal could be realized by applying rich color with big brushes and avoiding detail entirely. When the colors sing, your work might be complete. If you find yourself veering into extraneous detail, refer back to your initial, broad concept and stop any unnecessary tinkering.

Look at the painting with fresh eyes

To get you a fresh perspective on your painting, you may need to take a break from it. Instead of forcing yourself to resolve the work, put your painting on the backburner for a few days or even weeks. You’ll gain some necessary distance and will be able to see the canvas more objectively. When you return to the painting, you might discover that it’s not as flawed as you thought. Areas that were a source of frustration might not bother you after a cooling-off period, and you’ll often have a new idea for how to complete the piece.

Another way to see the work anew is to enlist simple technology. Looking at your painting in a mirror can help you see errors in composition and proportion. Along with doubling your viewing distance, mirrors also reverse images. These effects will expose underlying problems with the painting’s structure.

Similarly, examining the painting upside down, or in a photograph, can also be useful for gaining a fresh perspective.

Check in with your composition and colors

At their core, paintings are arrangements of colors in various shapes and sizes on a canvas. If you’re finding it hard to complete a work, stop and consider the big shapes that lie beneath the smaller details that you’ve painted on top.

Squint at your artwork and examine what remains of your initial composition. Even if you started your painting with interesting, richly colored shapes, you might find that they’ve transformed as you’ve worked.

People are natural pattern-makers and it’s common for artists to nudge the varied forms on their canvases into repetitive similarity. Trees in a landscape may become homogeneous in height and color, and clouds might be placed at regular intervals across a painted sky. Focal objects have an uncanny way of drifting towards the center of the canvas. These unconscious tendencies result in works that can seem lazy and unplanned, and correcting them may require drastic measures.

To fix such a problem, block-in the original shapes of your composition. Working with a big brush and conviction, paint over the parts of the painting that feel too symmetrical or pattern-like. Focus on using clean, decisive color, and don’t worry about small details. When you’ve strengthened your composition, you’ll find it easier to move forward and finish the piece.

Evaluate the surface quality of your painting

Individual artists tend to have their own ideas about what the surface of a painting should look like. For some, the optimal surface is sculptural, laden with impasto paint and visible brush strokes. Other painters consider a smooth, featureless finish to be ideal. When a work feels incomplete, ask yourself if the problem lies in the surface, not the composition itself.

If you’re an artist whose ideal painting is thick and crusty, a smooth canvas will never feel finished. Addressing this mismatch by layering on more paint may help you finish your work.

One of the hardest parts of being an artist is that there are no rules. You put marks on canvas and then react to and revise those marks, guided by intuition and experience. A work can be called “finished” at any point in this process.

It takes courage to call a painting finished and signal that you’ve done all that you can with it; the painting will stand as the embodiment of your ideas and painting skills at the moment of completion. Yet finishing a painting can also be liberating: It creates space for new ideas and experiments to begin.

Ingrid Christensen