One mistake many beginners (and even professionals) make is knowing when a painting is finished. On the one hand, knowing when to quit can mean saving yourself from overworking an otherwise fresh, vibrant painting. In the movie "Six Degrees of Separation," Donald Sutherland plays an art dealer. One day he asks the first grade teacher how all her students paint like Matisse. She answers, "I know when to take their paintings away." Sometimes we all need to stop ourselves while it is still art and before it becomes a muddy mess.
On the other hand, stopping when a painting is almost finished can be equally disastrous. Leaving out the essential darks (even when you think they're already established) can leave a painting feeling weak and unfinished.
I was painting toward a show deadline on this piece, and got it to the "almost finished" stage, but not completely finished. I knew it wasn't quite there yet, but I was under the gun. As it turned out, the deadline came and went, and the painting was still unfinished. I entered another in its place.
Almost the exact time a year later, I found myself painting for another show deadline and decided to pull this one out and finish it up. That's right, it has sat unfinished in my studio for an entire year! Sometimes that's how long it takes before I know exactly how to take it to its final state. I finished this last night. I started by experimenting with a dark dark along the shoreline in one spot, and liked the result. So last weekend I completed those darks along the shoreline, as well as the darks in the far background, softened areas, made some colors richer, and finally refined the figures just a touch.
I like Donna Zagotta's quote on when a painting's done: "You know it's finished when you love it!" I think this one's finished now, because I finally love it.
Do you have a painting you're struggling to finish? Or one you think might be finished but you're not sure? Set it aside and wait until you can see clearly how to take it to its final state. Or ask a friend. I often turn to my critique group (who offered some advice on the darks), or my dad. Another pair of eyes can often help you know when a painting is finished.
I am an artist and art instructor working in water media. Just knowing I can watch colors run together makes it worth getting out of bed every morning! Helping students capture the same excitement is equally rewarding.