This is the million dollar question! I have taken many art courses and every instructor has a different answer. Some will say that it is done when you have all the elements of the painting functioning together. Others will say that a painting is done when it meets your personal goals or speaks to you. Still others will say it is done when it conveys the message you initially intended it to convey. I am of the “the painting is done when it has nothing more to say” category. Vague but it involves trusting your own unique process. My mother taught me that lesson. Here’s how that went.
I was about to discard a test sheet of colors that I had drawn on when she saw it and told me how much pleasure the painting gave her. She inquired why I was about to throw it out. I kid you not I actually said: “Because I had fun doing it, it’s not a real painting”. Whoa! That statement deserves an entire other blog on its own but what her statement taught me is that works of art are sometimes works in progress. I had not evolved enough in my own artistic evolution to see things in an abstract fashion. She did. I have now gicleed that painting many times over and it is my best seller.
At times, we discard our works of art too soon. My newest way of dealing with the frustration of not knowing if a painting is completed or if I want to discard it is to ask myself two questions. The first is, if I want to throw it out, I ask myself if I have I learnt or tried anything new to improve it. I call this method the “I have nothing to lose method”.
I rarely throw anything out. Since I work with acrylics I can always modify things, but I do leave the painting alone for a while. I flip it over and every morning I look at it again but in an upside down mirror. Doing that seems to scramble my brain somewhat and often I can see the compositional or design flaw that is niggling at me.
The second question is my magic formula. It is called the What if principle. It relates to the first question. What if involves taking risks and being willing to let go of your painting. Failure is often more indicative of our artistic demeanor than success. However, in my estimation, there is no failure in a painting if you have learnt something of value.
If all else fails, I find that if you work with many paintings at the same time, it keeps your thinking process fresh. I remember one floral I created taking me 12 years to finish as I just kept working it bit by bit until one day, I saw the flaw, corrected it, and it was completed in one day. Slow learner I guess! Every time I look at that painting it makes me laugh and reminds me to be patient with myself and the process. I am now known to resurrect a water-color with only shades of brown on it to splendid color.
So after this long polemic text, I guess my advice is be patient and never say die until you have literally worked your painting to death. Don’t forget, you can always make bookmarkers out of the sections!