How do you know when a painting is finished and why does it matter? Not every piece of art will be completed and experimental work doesn’t need to be. But if a painting is for sale or display then it should appear and feel finished.

Sometimes resolving a painting can feel elusive and tricky. In this article, we’ll take a look at how to tell if a painting is finished and prompt questions about your own painting practice.

A blue abstract painting in progress, a woman looks over the painting, reviewing the artwork

Firstly, give your painting a clear intention

Having a goal sounds a bit cold when talking about art. Personally I don’t like the idea of art being so prescriptive that it loses it’s personal touch. But sticking to my intention is important to me or I will keep shifting and changing the desired result. When you want to resolve a painting it’s helpful to know this.

  • What is your intention for the painting?
  • How will you know if you’ve achieved it?

      How do you know if your painting is finished?

      Evaluating proportion, perspective, contrast and harmony

      While you don’t have to work to rules or a formula, if a painting feels unfinished it’s useful to have some key points to refer to. I keep a list of prompts pinned up near my table. It has some basic check ins about value and composition that can help me identify what isn’t working when it’s not obvious.

      • What do you notice first?
      • Does your eye travel around the painting?
      • Is there interest in all areas of the painting?
      • Do you have a good range of values?
      • How are colours working together?
      • Can you identify key elements, repetition, rhythm and are they working?
      • Have you used marks, symbols, shapes and colours that are personal to your work?

      How does the painting make you feel?

      How do you want people to feel when they see your art? This is a key marker for many artists and can be really helpful if working non objectively or very intuitively.

      • What feeling does the painting evoke and does it match your intention?
      • Does it offer something for the viewer to connect with?

      Take a step back

      Through the stages of creating your art it helps to have intention but also perspective. Beyond the creative process it helps to step back and review what you’ve done. You might switch between intuitive painting, pausing and carefully considered mark making and back again. Try this:

      • Take time away and come back with fresh eyes.
      • Turn the painting or view it from a distance.
      • Take photographs and check the values through desaturation.

      Pitfalls and problems

      Knowing when to stop

      Underworking a piece can happen when we start to love something too soon. If the early layers are appealing we might not want to cover them up or risk making a change. But this can lead to a weak painting that lacks depth and interest. Sometimes we have to lose a part we love to make the whole painting work.

      Overworking can happen if you long for perfection, get caught up in the process or just lose sight of what you want to achieve. There might be times when you wish you had just left it alone and stepped away.

      • Step back often and ask yourself what’s working.

      Ignoring your goal

      This can mean having a vague intention or losing interest along the way. Staying on track can be hard if you’re distracted, bored or uncomfortable.

      • Does the intention still fit or do you need to change direction?


      This is a huge subject but when it comes to finishing a painting, expectations matter. Many artists experience what Seth Godin calls the Gap. It’s the recognition that the work we have made does not match the vision we had in our mind. We need more knowledge, practice or skill to achieve our goal.

      This gap might motivate us but it might also lead to creative blocks, self doubt and frustration when making your art.

      • What standards have you set for yourself and are they realistic?
      • What are you telling yourself about the work or yourself during the process?

      External validation and personal satisfaction

      Wanting approval from others is common and it can be hard to trust ourselves. We might want to ask for feedback but this can come with it’s own complications. Others might not know how to offer it, or understand if you want encouragement or something more constructive or technical. At worst, other people’s opinions and comments can be hurtful.

      If you have lost sight of your own work and decide to seek feedback, be discerning in who you share it with, listen to and trust. If necessary be clear about what you’re asking for.

      Finalising your artwork

      Fine tuning

      This stage can be a slow process or done in a few minutes but taking the time to make any final edits can reduce regret later. Review your checklist of questions and make small adjustments as needed.

      Trusting your instincts

      Sometimes our experience means we have honed our instincts about when a painting is finished. It’s not magic, we’ve just become more sensitive to our work. If you feel it’s done, then it probably is.

      Enjoy the process

      I tend to feel my way through my art process, moving back and forth between intuitive work and technical details.

      Using a checklist approach to the technical parts might feel uncomfortable for me when I’m enjoying the flow. I don’t want to overthink it.

      But there is value in the questions and becoming familiar with them can help me to pull a painting together, refine the details and meet my intention for the painting. I have come to enjoy this problem solving part of the process.



      [Image – Photo by Stefan Lehner on Unsplash]


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