• Karen Thomas

"How do you know when to stop?"

"Every painting that's ruined is preceded by these words ' I'll just do this'" Joseph Zbukvic

This is one of the most common questions I get asked by learners. When people ask me “how do you know when to stop painting?” it tells me that they’re thinking in too much of a micro sense ... they’re focusing too hard on an individual painting rather than the bigger picture of their painting practice.  They become very hard on themselves for overworking a painting - yes, that’s ONE painting - without any idea of the sort of work artists put in to truly answer this question.  Bear with me and I’ll explain.

Every day when we gather our brushes, the reason for painting might be different.  Me?  Most days I’ll turn up at my easel with my ‘work’ head on and know what I need / intend to produce.  As a working artist, I spent a lot of time painting with a disciplined eye, even if I always prefer a ‘loose’ result with the individual paintings.

When I’m in this mode, I’ll spend time planning and giving forethought to my subject - the sort of thing that we all know we should do (I sense eye-rolling there!).  I’ll start with the composition and what represents good design to me, think about the process and what stages the painting needs to be completed in, and a combination of these will set me up for the maximum chance of a successful outcome.  I’ll step back continually while working, and be hyper-observant for the moment when I see the subject come to life.  At that point I’ll stop, have a cup of tea and gaze at the painting from a distance until I know if / what more it needs.  If it's a commission I'm working on, I can also opt to call on the commissioner to assess their preferences.

Four stages of "Patsy"

Other days - and equally importantly - I’ll consciously not do any of this and simply start painting whatever I want to paint.  This is vital to me, as it frees my mind up to allow new things in.  It helps me to surrender my very human need for control, open my creativity and respond fully to spontaneity.  Sometimes I’m really pleased with the result and sometimes I make one heck of a mess!  I’ll often under-describe the subject, take a photo on my phone, then take it to a middle ground, then overwork it.  See how dark I can get it.  Turn it into a night scene even.  I’ll take photos at each stage, and I might even take them into a digital art package and play further, to explore how other options might have looked. 

"Watching The Magic" - as per the painting and with digitally added background. I preferred it without and this gave me the option of leaving it so.

A combination of these ways of working - disciplined and free - continues to inform my own view of when my own paintings are finished.  Which is in itself a moving target. I might develop a liking for them less or more finished next year!  

Teaching - or specifically being asked questions and having to dig deep to clarify my own views does me a lot of good.  For instance, I’d assumed my answer would be some variation on the enigmatic ‘less is more’.  A lot of my early learning was undertaken with a mentor who would often say “let’s see what we can get away with” - referring to how under-described he could make a subject while still making it ‘read’ well.  I’m a long way from this level of abstraction, but it's still something I aspire to on occasion.  

Going back to the original question, answers such as “if you need to ask, it’s time to stop!” sprang to mind initially.  That’s certainly the case on the surface of things; in my art world, my preference would still be to leave room for a viewer to interpret, but it’s not the whole story.

Learning when your painting is complete while you still have brush in hand takes time, practice and a lot of stepping back from your work.  Or better still, training your brain through years of experience to be able to detect the big picture - what the painting will be like at viewing distance - while on top of it still painting!  I hesitate to mention Rolf Harris these days, but that catchphrase, “can ya tell what it is yet?!” was all about that.

It also has a lot to do with your own preferences and how you see the world.  My ‘finished’ will be some abstract interpreter’s ‘overworked’, and a realism-lover's ‘over-simplified’.   

So when that question starts tapping you on the shoulder as you work, I urge you to step back and ask yourself four questions:

  • Is the design harmonious to you?  Not a textbook version of harmonious - yours. Are you feeling it?!

  • Is there anything you want to add to make it so? 

  • Is there anything you wish you'd omitted to make it so?  

  • Does your painting say what you wanted to say about the subject?  

You may not have made those judgements in time to rescue the current painting, but what you reveal to yourself via this process will be solid gold in terms of moving forward.

As always, thanks for reading friends.