Monday, February 18, 2019

When is a Painting Finished?

Ruji asks: "I was wondering do you have any advice for someone who can't seem to make their art look finished? Seemingly no matter how much time, effort, or detail I put into an image I can never seem to make my art, from gesture to final, look done. I'm unfortunately self-trained and this is a huge problem that has vexed me for the past 11 years that I can't seem to find an answer for by myself, no matter how much I study the fundamentals."

Left: Mary Cassatt, detail (link to full image)
Right: Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, detail (link to full image)
It's impossible to give you a personal answer, since I don't know anything about you, your art, or what your goals are. So let me address the broader question of finish.

Finish is a very subjective quality in a painting. One artist may want to make the painting appear like an illusion of reality. To that artist, a painting is finished when the illusion betrays no visible brushstrokes. Another artist, wishing to preserve the energy and dynamics of the surface, may regard a work as finished with a lot of loose brushstrokes preserved.

But both of those qualities are superficial. Finish is more than facture. What really matters in making a work finished is whether your inner conception is fully realized. Does it communicate the feeling you wanted? Is it convincing, disturbing, exciting, restful, or compelling?

If not—if it's sort of ordinary looking—it may be that your problem is not how the painting was finished, but how it was started. Maybe you need to spend more time in the early stages sketching and planning the work, getting the reference lined up, and knowing exactly where you're headed. The resulting painting may still take some struggle to be born, but hopefully with that preliminary work accomplished, the final painting will come together and it will tell you when it's done.

Charcoal study by Sargent for "Heaven" mural
in the Boston Public Library.
Efficient, concise, and a means to an end.
You also mentioned that you can never seem to make your gesture sketches look finished, either. That seems like a contradiction in terms. Isn't a sketch unfinished by definition? We owe this predicament to our contemporary art culture, which makes a fetish of the sketch, and elevates preliminary studies as completed works worthy of exhibition. We've all seen those drawings from contemporary ateliers that are very laborious, but deliberately leave a foot or an arm in the linear construct stage, which strikes me the same as a carpenter leaving the clapboards off one side of the house.

If you're doing a preliminary study, move fast, capture the essentials, and leave it. Like the study by Sargent above, a study should be a means to an end, not an end in itself.

There's nothing wrong with exhibiting your sketches, but I would caution against being overly conscious of making "sketchy" gestures, and instead focus on capturing as much truth of nature as you can in the time available and let the strokes land where they may.


Rich said...

Great juxtaposition!
On a first glance, Ingres' painting, in comparison with Mary Cassatt's, may look more finished.
In a double sense of the word "finish" also means "polish".
Ingres' piece definitely looks more polished. Bur Cassatt's to me doesn't look unfinished ,in spite of the lack of polish.

Unknown said...

Just a couple weeks ago I introduced my students to Rembrandt and Ingres. While not a perfect comparison my goal was to start a discussion of visual language or "technical narrative" to quote Vince Desiderio's philosophy.

Where on the spectrum of transcending versus celebrating the medium do we fall as artists? You could debate either all day and I still can't decide if I love Rembrandt's gusto or Ingres' eccentricity more.

Roberto Quintana said...

Maybe the question should be: ‘When is a painting Over-Worked?”
For me, the painting is finished when the client’s deadline is reached and I’ve run out of time to make it better. If it’s not a commissioned piece, I can noodle it to death until I either sell it or totally over-work it and have to put it away in my ‘Shed-of-Shame’.
It’s really dangerous keeping old paintings lying around, screaming at me to “Fix-Me, Fix-Me, Fix-Me!”
Signing a painting helps, but it doesn’t always work.
Your advice: “to spend more time in the early stages sketching and planning the work”
is right on, because the more time I spend trying to get all the devils out of the work, the more I lament not paying more attention to the preliminary sketches and layout.
However…There are times when I am documenting a painting and working with it’s image on the computer, that I see things totally fresh, and I’ll catch a glaring detail missed, or even see a solution that is totally unexpected and unplanned for, something about the painting itself, as a whole, and not necessarily about the subject of the painting. Sometimes the best advice is to just ‘Put the brushes DOWN!... Step Away from the Painting! …and no one will be hurt!’ -RQ

Timothy Bollenbaugh said...

Excellent answer! Personally, it's a familiar dilemma which forces me to define and choose what single effect or statement to make. My inclination itself is a loose sketch—that is all of my hopes and ideals that don't belong together on the same page. After weeding that patch, what I end up with something clearly experienced upon viewing. I weed it by doing a lot of sketches and thought...and experience, recognizing a familiar dead-end coming up, or else a clear path developing.
Any embellishment has to stay well within the statement.
When I can do this, it works.

Timothy Bollenbaugh said...


A commenter named Brueggert: "There is a seeming inevitability about 'final products', and we are tempted to think they were conceived all at once, in full."

A good point, and a frequent one: recognize the quality of unplanned when it transpires.

Morgan said...

When it's accurate to your original idea as to why you painted it. It's like going into a war without a clear mission as to what "winning" is. If you start painting and have no idea as to some kind of a goal, you will never know when to stop. Sometimes it's as simple as looking to some master of the past and using that as a goal. But I find, when I have defined ahead of time what I want to say in a painting, it's very intuitive as to when I should stop.

Dianne Mize said...

James, this is the most comprehensive answer I've ever heard to the question, "When is a painting finished?" I may steal it, though I promise to give credit.

Unknown said...

James, recently I was watching Aaron Blaise on YouTube and your name came up. In essence, Aaron mentioned how much he admires you. The wisdom conveyed in your views about, "When is a painting finished?", is one reason why you deserve that praise. I cannot think of a more perfect response to this age-old question.

d-vallejo said...

Nicely conceived and written.

scottT said...

Yes, good answer. I once read from another painter wiser than I to not be in such a hurry at the early stages, and spend more time planning. I myself was feeling unsatisfied with my outdoor sketch painting not looking as "finished" as some other artist's work. I decided to put more time into composing. I suspect a strong value plan and solid composition goes further to give the impression of a finished work than simply slicker surface quality and more detail.

Timothy Bollenbaugh said...

Somewhere amongst Jame's posts is a post about an accomplished and very polished painter (name?) who suffered a mild (?) stroke which partially impaired his right side. He had to stay in the studio more using reference work, learn to use his left arm and hand, which forced him to make the boldest most basic statement, and give lessons. As a result, his paintings were far more realistic, refined (!), and his lessons focused more on his increased sensitivity to mass shapes, composition, and statement.

I don't know whether or not this addresses the original question, but certainly the subject in general.

Anybody recall this post? I'd like to find it again.

Awana73 said...

Some great points here. I especially like "does it convey the message you were trying to say". That's probably the best way to know if it's finished. Not starting well as also a big downfall.

Keith Patton said...

Here's how I'm defining finish, for me: when the drawing is accurate but simple (not just the contour of the subject, but the drawing of the planes), and the values are correct. Even though my painting's are getting brushier, I'm still aiming for a simplified but accurate drawing (that is, shapes are simplified, but proportions are still accurate).

The Cassatt painting has less smooth rendering and less "details." But the shapes are drawn accurately but simplified. They're not vague sloppy amorphous blobs (except in spots that actually ARE vague). Likewise, the values are all correct, from the big planes to the small dark accents between fingers or accents in highlights. So it still looks finished, even if it's brushier and simpler.

Peter Drubetskoy said...

I agree with the main thrust of this post but I was surprised to read the somewhat annoyed reference to the "fetish of the sketch". Am I wrong to find sketches a lot of time more stimulating and worthy of admiration than a bunch of "finished" works? I don't think so. There is a lot to enjoy in completely convincing visuals done in a few swift brush strokes, in economy of means, in bravura. I get my kicks out of a splotch of paint that magically resolves into a face without going to the trouble of faithfully transcribing light and shadow a la photograph. Deliberate sketchiness can also be a stylistic choice. I actually like those deliberately unfinished atelier drawings - they create a tension and a meta-level of appreciation where the drawing, again, instead of trying to be a photo-like reproduction becomes a self-aware piece about its own creation and technique (although I agree that it can be tiring if reproduced mechanically too many times.)