September 20, 2020

When is a painting finished?

Often people wonder how I know when a painting is finished. It can be hard for an artist to decide. It's easy to overwork a painting and lose the freshness, the raw energy and flow that makes a piece particularly strong.

A few years ago I came up with a system that works for me, the bedroom test! It isn't fail-safe for telling me when to put my brushes down and stop in my studio! But it seems to be spot on for determining if I am satisfied with my painting when I think it is finished.

I work in oils, so I always have numerous paintings ongoing at any one time; while a layer on one is drying, I turn to continue on another. This means there are always a lot of unfinished pieces along with ones near completion, hanging on the viewing wall in my studio at the same time. 

My viewing wall

This can make it hard to assess one painting, when seen surrounded by others. There are many times when I think I've nailed a piece, made the final marks, I'm excited by the result. Still, I always put it through my bedroom assessment test. And more often times than I like, I find the painting is not done to my satisfaction, there's something that's not quite right, some elusive element.

"Out of the Blue", full color  

I, along with many other artists, check the photo of a painting in black and white, or even better, remove the saturation in an editing program. This strips the colors away differently than black and white. But neither is like viewing the actual painting with the colors stripped away. 

"Out of the Blue", color saturation removed
Look really carefully and you'll see that the "light" and "glow" in the painting is quite different in these two photos. The yellows and oranges don't show up as light in the black and white photo (below), yet they do in actual low light. Removing the color saturation comes closer (above), but not like viewing in person in low light.

"Out of the Blue", black and white photo

My work is all about color, and color can have great contrast without much light and dark contrast. I want my painting to work when fully lit and you see all the colors, but also when you are only seeing the design and all the color is stripped away.

I always like to hang a painting in my dining area. A dining room is a great place to enjoy art, and often people like to dim the lights for eating. I want my pieces to be just as strong whether brightly or dimly lit.

I've found that hanging a piece in my bedroom is the perfect way to assess it. For starters, it's not surrounded by all the other pieces I'm working on. Having a series or group being worked on together is great, but I need each to stand on its own.

"Expanding Universe", full color

Second, in the bedroom, I see the piece in all different light levels, artificial light in the evening, flashlight in the night, and the best is the early light at dawn before the sun rises. This is natural light, but the very first light at daybreak only shows the lights and darks, the values in the painting. This is the most important part about the composition, the design of the piece. 

"Expanding Universe", color saturation removed

I suppose the fact that I'm a lousy sleeper helps with my bedroom test! I wake up numerous times in the night and at daybreak. I love to crack my eyes open when there is just the slightest light and look at my painting, all I see at first is the composition, so I can tell instantly if it is a strong one.

"Leap of Faith", full color

Then I shut my eyes and  snooze some more. As the day brightens, I crack my eyes open to take another look. I have found this the best way to assess my paintings. As the light levels change, the painting seems to come alive; I love when I can barely make out the colors, and then when they become more intense as the sun actually rises.

"Leap of Faith", color saturation removed

I think the other reason this assessment works so well is that I am using my subconscious mind. There is something powerful about looking at the piece before I'm fully awake, and then snoozing, and then looking again. Years ago I named this state "shmirling", not awake and not asleep. This is a vital part of my painting process. 

Bedroom test!

If at first glance, I love the piece, I know it is complete. But there are times when I've put a painting in my bedroom that I'm sure is done, and then the early morning light will reveal that it needs more work. This is when I crack my eyes open to take a look and just know something is off. 

I often don't know right away what is bothering me. So I shut my eyes for a bit, drift back to sleep, and then take another look. Most of the time, I can then tell what it is that bugs me. Maybe that intense orange, (I love to use orange), isn't a deep enough value. In full light it stands out strongly, but as to the light and dark design, it is not enough. Many different things reveal themselves, they aren't huge flaws, but just enough to bug me. A couple of shapes are too lined up, or the dark shapes are too similar. More often it is to do with the color values, and I always want my paintings to work even when the colors are stripped away.

Early stage of a new painting

Color saturation removed, orange shapes are lost

So if a piece doesn't pass the bedroom test, it's back to the studio, until I achieve the "grace" I am looking for in my paintings.

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