How can you tell when a painting is finished?


When do you know that the painting you’re working on is complete?

I was asked this question recently, and I remembered asking the same thing of my oil painting teacher. She replied a little wryly with a paraphrase of a quote attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci:

“A painting is never finished, only abandoned.”

At the time, I found this an immensely dissatisfying answer. It was the teacher’s equivalent of a parental, “Because I said so.”  

In some ways I wished it was like doing a puzzle: You place that final brush-stroke, step back and breathe in the satisfaction of now being able to see the image in its entirety. How convenient and systematic.

There are some styles of painting where this would probably apply; where there are strongly graphic elements that are more or less ‘coloured in’. ‘Paint-by-Numbers’ kits spring to mind here, and I can honestly see its appeal.

Perhaps what I really wanted to know is, “When is it best to abandon a painting?”

As I worked on the second, larger painting - based on my smaller study - of sun touched leaves, this was what I wrestled with.

From the outset, I knew that I didn’t want to simply replicate the smaller study. I wanted to make use of the larger surface area to loosen up and play around with some movement in my brushwork. As much as I like the smaller painting, it is quite static, and the background could’ve been more ‘fuzzy’.


I made a few more adjustments to the composition, and proceeded as before.

I was breaking-in my never-before-used Size 12 Filbert brush and wondering if anyone would ever use that name for a boy… I liked the soft edges I was getting for my background shapes.


The colours started going down and I was pretty chuffed with how it was all coming together. It had its awkward areas, but it was early days; with some breathing space, I’d work out how to fix them later.

After the first painting session, I left it looking like this.

In the second session I added the background, stood back and thought, ‘This has lost something… It’s beginning to tighten up too much, and all the movement is gone.’ There didn’t seem to be any light dancing about the place anymore.

At that point, I got white paint on a brand new pair of jeans and figured it was time to down tools and regroup.

After reviewing these process images of the painting, I decided to back-track a bit and return some of the lighter areas to the background. (The photo on the above right is the start of that process).

This took a lot of courage (if I do say so), because I really was taking a step down a new path. I was winging it, and there was a chance I could make the entire painting look laboured and over-worked. I was beginning to realise that, depending on my choices, a painting could conceivably NEVER be finished.

Unfortunately for you readers, this is where I stopped taking photos. (Whoever said women are great multi-taskers has never met me.)

You will just have to imagine me pacing my lounge as I repeatedly stepped back and then approached the painting. There was angst, then hope, then confusion, some grumbling and a lot of exasperation. Mostly from my family who were growing sick of me walking in front of the TV.

After turning my back on it for a few hours, I took as objective a look as was possible, and wrote a list of what needed to be done before I could safely feel it was ‘finished enough’.


Curiously, this ‘home stretch’ is not a bad place to be. Having a list is a bit like having a ‘paint-by-numbers’ system of my own creation to follow. I sometimes deviate from it, and sometimes completing one task makes me aware of another area that needs attention. But after that I can always go back to my list.

Then, when everything is ticked off my list, I sign off with that final brush-stroke, take one last step back and breathe in the satisfaction of knowing it might not actually be ‘finished’ but it is now safe for me to abandon.

– Which I suppose is the painter's equivalent of a kid realising that their parents' response of, “Because I said so” - is actually a legitimate answer.


'Sun Lit' – 12 x 18" | 30 x 40cm oil painting on gesso-board  –  [SOLD]

So what do you think? Is it finished, under-done or over-worked?


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