A Checklist for Determining When Your Painting is FInished

Check list. By Daniel Kulinski/Moment/Getty Images

It is rare that an artist knows precisely when a painting is finished. Artists throughout the ages have reiterated the elusiveness of knowing when a painting has reached that point, as the following quotes from Art Quotes reveal:

"Art is never finished, only abandoned."   Leonardo da Vinci

"Put your energy into 'finishing' - and you're missing your next great painting."  J.R. Baldini

"I always work out of uncertainty, but when a painting's finished it becomes a fixed idea, apparently a final statement.  In time though, uncertainty returns …your thought process goes on."   Georg Baselitz

"The painting is finished when the idea has disappeared." Georges Braque

See When Is a Painting Finished? for more about this subject.

Establishing a checklist can help.  Following are some questions and suggestions to guide you in making your own checklist:

  • Does your painting use the elements of art in a way that contributes to the intent of the painting? 
  • Do the colors help convey the mood that you are after in the painting?
  • Does your painting make intelligent use of the principles of art and design?
  • Is the composition strong? Did you choose the right format for this painting?
  • Is your painting balanced?  Does it have both unity and variety? Is it harmonious?
  • Is there a range of tonal values?  Have your brought out your lightest lights and darkest darks?
  • If painting representationally, is your drawing accurate?
  • Have you taken time away from the painting to reassess it? Put the painting away for awhile and look at it later. This is especially true if you're bored with it. You may have renewed inspiration when you return to it or you may, in fact, decide that it's done. 
  • Conversely, hang your painting up someplace where you're seeing it often but not constantly.  You might see it in a new way at some point.
  • Remember to continually look at the painting from a distance during the painting process. Also turn it upside down and different orientations, or hold it up to a mirror, to see it with fresh eyes. See Tricks of the Trade: 3 Tips to Help You Paint What You See that also help you critique your painting.
  • Unhappy with the painting?  Sometimes I've done something bold like paint completely over previously carefully worked parts, achieving greater clarity and a stronger painting.
  • We often think as artists that we have to do everything alone.  We don't.  Ask someone whose opinion you respect. "Does anything bother you about this painting?  Is there anything glaring?  Do you have any suggestions?"  A fresh eye and different perspective can identify just the thing that you have been struggling with and offer solutions you might not have thought of yourself.  My family has proven indispensable in this regard.
  • Have you achieved your intent? If you've achieved your intent, you're done. Don't fuss over the details.
  • When satisfied that you are indeed finished, make sure to sign and date the painting. Most people like to see the signature on the front of the painting, but it's not a requirement. At the very least make sure to sign, date, and copyright the painting in indelible marker or paint on the back.
  • And lastly, make sure to photograph the painting and keep the image and information about it for your records.  Certainly do this before letting it out of your hands, whether to a gallery, juried show, or customer. Sometimes artists finish things at the last minute and this step gets postponed. Speaking from experience, you're better off if you can take care of it before you have to track the painting down later!