When is a painting finished?

As an abstract artist I get asked this question a lot and it’s something I’ve never really sat down and thought about it before. However as I have become more confident in my practise, I thought I’d investigate this question a little further.

I imagine the reason I’m asked this question so much is because of my style of landscape artwork. For a fine artist who paints very literal scenes, the end result is an image of a landscape, with its foreground, it’s background and its focus. Their finished painting is stunning, and once it looks like the scene that stretches out in front of them, then it is on it’s way to being complete.

Every artist is different, but for me a painting is complete when it ticks a few boxes in my head:

  1. The painting needs layers
  2. The painting must have balance & strong composition
  3. The painting evokes a strong feeling

The painting needs layers

This is something that over the years I’ve learnt to explore and feel more confident with.

Every time I approach the same canvas I create a NEW painting on top. A painting that feels complete after 1 or 2 layers is not a finished painting. It will lack the depth and the interesting tones of colour that I always want my work to have.

This is something I have become braver with. If you look back at my earlier works there is a lot of texture, but not as many layers of paint. I would add paint to smaller sections of the canvas and leave areas that I loved, regardless of how many layers of paint it had taken to get there. I think this showed my lack of confidence as an artist, and my timid approach to these larger canvases.

Nowadays if I come back to a painting and there are only one or two sections I like, the WHOLE canvas is getting re-painted. It’s a bold move, but one I tend not to think about too much. I want it to be intuitive. If one section feels done then I’ve played it too safe, the painting needs another layer. I will continue to add layers until something clicks. Sometimes it can take 4 layers, (4 sessions of working on the painting), or it can take over 10. This is why some paintings can take 2 weeks to complete, while others take months.

The painting must have balance

In my eyes a good abstract painting has balance. It is so important. I don’t mean that the painting is symmetrical, far from it. It just needs to be read as one strong visual.

Every section of the painting must have interest. I don’t mean that every area has a bold mark or strong colour, as this could be a little bit of a headache, and would make a chaotic painting! I mean that even in the calmer areas of the canvas, the colours are thought about and merge into one another beautifully. For me, it is also vital that my work has these areas of calm. The softer sections balance the painting out, and emphasise the stronger anchoring points.

The composition of a panting needs depth, drama and quietness. I tend not to think about this when I am working as naturally my eye is drawn to how I want my paintings to be balanced.

Evoking a feeling

As mad as it sounds, if I find myself getting completely lost in a painting then its nearly there. I have my music on, paint brushes in hand and suddenly I’ll have this burst of energy that almost takes over. I honestly can’t describe it and it does make me sound a little crazy when I even try!

It can be that final half an hour before a piece is finished. Painting becomes a completely intuitive process. There’s nothing really in my head, it just kind of comes out. I don’t really think about colour, I just tend to know what I want and I won’t stop until I get it on the canvas.

I find it quite a mad stage, and sometimes if a painting has taken months I long for this feeling. However it only happens when the painting is ready and I can’t try to force it. It’s an addictive feeling as it just feels so exhilarating. After half an hour or so of crazy feelings and painting completely instinctively, something clicks and the painting is complete. I just know it’s finished.

So for me, that is when a painting is finished. Once all three of the above boxes have been ticked in my head.

I guess that the most important stage is that final step. Both balancing a painting and adding the layers is all part of the process, but when the painting stirs something within me then I know its complete.

In the earlier stages of my career I never used to get this feeling and on reflection it is because I never pushed myself out of my comfort zone. Once I began to be bolder and braver, the paintings began to push me and begin to have a mind of their own!

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