“Is A Painting Ever Done?” by Pamela Beck

How does an artist know when a work is done? There are many ways to keep this ball in the air. Sometimes a final signature is added only when a painting is sold rather than completed. Join Pamela Beck in her newest installment of ArtDart as she comments on “Is a Painting Ever Done?”

ARTdart: There are as many ways to think about art as there are to create it. Join Pamela Beck in her column, ARTdart, as she explores and considers the different perspectives that define the art world.

Recently, an artist friend told me that he loves to shop online. “I make a decision; I click a button; I’m asked if my selection is final; and then I get to say ‘yes’.”

Following this announcement, he pumped his clenched fist triumphantly in the air before my blank expression. He then realized that I wasn’t quite sure where victory fit into his recent purchase of a Chicago Cubs Crystal Freezer Mug from Amazon.com, so he added, “I love that moment of satisfaction when I get to confirm that my action is complete and done. It’s not a feeling I have very much when I paint.”

My friend had better put his credit card under lock and key because, from what others artists have told me, many a good painting has been ruined by sentences that begin with “It’s almost done but needs a little more …..”

Knowing when a painting is finished can be challenging for artists. As difficult as that can be to understand for the task-driven among us, an artist will often overwork, overanalyze or even destroy paintings that to others appear not only done, but perfect. The artist’s self-questioning can take on the obsessive zeal of an eyebrow-plucker who winds up hairless after return trips to the mirror.

But it’s not an uncommon state of mind for an artist:

When something is finished, that means it’s dead, doesn’t it? I believe in everlastingness. I never finish a painting – I just stop working on it for a while.
Arshile Gorky

The Artist and His Mother (ca. 1926-1936) by Arshile Gorky
The Artist and His Mother (ca. 1926-1936) by Arshile Gorky

How does an artist know when a work is done? There are many ways to keep this ball in the air. Sometimes a final signature is added only when a painting is sold rather than completed. This leaves the door open for the artist to continually return to a painting before it leaves the nest; at which point the artist may declare it finally “done.” But even after a painting has been sold, artists often wish they could get back into that canvas and give it a little tweak.

Some artists never feel their paintings are finished. Although they usually want and/or need to sell their work, they’re also quite content to keep their paintings around to dip back into. They feel that later on, something might come to them that enhances the work or better expresses their intentions. Or perhaps, for whatever personal reasons, the artist isn’t ready to let go of it.

No painting stops with itself, is complete of itself. It is a continuation of previous paintings and is renewed in successive ones…
Clyfford Still

Clyfford Still, 1957-D No. 1, 1957, oil on canvas, 113 x 159 in
Clyfford Still, 1957-D No. 1, 1957, oil on canvas, 113 x 159 in

Often you can see specific “periods” in artists’ work—where it’s clear that personally compelling ideas and techniques are being explored in one painting after another. Even for the viewer, let alone for the artist, it can feel like these paintings are extensions of the same themes, as the artist explores his/her own reactions. At these times in particular, the distinction between where one painting ends and another begins can become blurry.

Pablo Picasso, Ma Jolie, oil on canvas, 39 3:8 x 25 3:4, Acquired through the Lille P. Bliss Bequest, collection Modern Museum of Art 176.1945
Pablo Picasso, Ma Jolie, oil on canvas, 39 3:8 x 25 3:4, Acquired through the Lille P. Bliss Bequest, collection Modern Museum of Art 176.1945

Pablo Picasso, Accordionist, 1911, oil on canvas, 51 1:4 x 35 1:4 in. (130 x 89.5 cm.) Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
Pablo Picasso, Accordionist, 1911, oil on canvas, 51 1:4 x 35 1:4 in. (130 x 89.5 cm.) Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

To this point, I knew a painter who, in the midst of what subsequently became a series, didn’t want to sell her work until she “got it out of her system.” She needed to refer back to those she’d just painted to see how she should proceed with her new ones. She was able to let go of her work, consider it done, and sell it, once she felt she’d answered the questions her work posed; at which point she wanted to move on to a new approach to keep her curiosity fresh.

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

Shopping online may just have to do for those painters who yearn for the satisfaction derived from a singular act of unequivocal completion. But there are other painters who have come up with their own fail proof solutions to determine when to finally put that paintbrush down:

I never think I have finished a nude until I think I could pinch it.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Seated Nude, 1913, oil on canvas, private collection
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Seated Nude, 1913, oil on canvas, private collection

Pamela Beck
Pamela Beck

Pamela co-owned Pannonia Galleries in NYC. There she was also an art appraiser, private art dealer, art fair exhibitor and catalogued paintings at Sotheby’s. Perhaps it’s not surprising that she is also a psychotherapist. She has a keen interest in the arts and supporting Sarasota’s future as a lively, diverse and forward thinking city for young and old.Pamela is a member of The Fine Arts Society of Sarasota, Curatorial & Acquisitions Committee & Acquisitions Committee and Institute for the Ages Volunteer.

15 thoughts on ““Is A Painting Ever Done?” by Pamela Beck”

  1. I like the Clyfford Still quote, that seems the most accurate. The question is a good one, because it leads to sorting the difference between ideas and the objects they are contained in. One, is an ever flowing continuum, the other, a concrete example of those ideas plus technique and material, made at a certain point in time. Measuring the positives and negatives between ideas and their manifestations is a helpful practice for artists and through them, for society generally. Sometimes we are captives of the structures we invent because our ideas have moved on and yet we are obliged to maintaining the status quo of our inventions. Sometimes though, those inventions, especially if they were made with profound ideas and talent, become touchstones for generations to learn from. I mean, look at how influential, from the educative point of view, are Cezanne’s works of Mont Sainte Victoire.

    The question, ” How long did it take you to paint that?” Received a good answer from my father Syd Solomon, “All my life.” This too goes toward the idea that a painting is a moment in a continuum. Matisse said we only do four paintings in our life-time, meaning that we do variations of only a few modes repeated in a variety of ways dependent upon our skill, idea pools, age and material abundance.

    It’s interesting now with so many works being highly conceived before they are made and then “fabricated” in a factory like process.. thinking of Jeff Koons.. How can you apply your question to that kind of artist/ process? Certainly that artist, is not working things out as he goes.

    1. You raise so many interesting points.

      I like the Clifford Still quote, too. It reflects the artistic sensibility familiar to me: that creative people are always working on their ideas, knowingly or not.

      I’m a big fan of “not-knowing” and the unconscious. Comfort with the unknown can be a rich part of artists’ transition from ideas to “objects they are contained in,” as you describe it. And then “measuring the positives and negatives between ideas and their manifestations,” I believe, furthers self awareness, which makes the creative experience that much more meaningful.

      Regarding your last question- I would imagine it’s easier for Koons to know when his work is technically done, exactly because it is a “fabrication” made in his factory-like studio by many assistants according to his specifications.

      But I know you’re touching on a meatier topic. I agree that he’s probably “not working things out as he goes” {because of the above}. But I don’t think that necessarily means he’s not working things out. I’d like to talk with Koons to understand how he describes his creative process.

      Thanks so much for your comments. Much to think about….

        1. The not-knowing now, can turn into a knowing, in the future… so that’s good reason to respect it, now.

      1. It seems to me that, in these days of highly fabricated works, that the creative part is working on the ideas before the fabrication. There certainly has to be an awful lot of forethought, including drawings, computer renderings, tech drawings , etc..and then, even experiments with the craft and technical stuff before a balloon doggie can be made. I met the guy that painted Koons’s dogs. They had to build a one million dollar painting lab which was as dust free as anything ever made on the planet, to be able to spray the 14 coats of lacquer to get those finishes. If they had a problem it was said they had to strip the whole thing down to the aluminum and start over. So craft figures in hugely… yet, it sits more in the realm of illustration than process. The process part lies more in the pre-fabrication part, coming up with the idea, scale, and in these days especially with Koons and the like, with the effect such a spectacle is planned to cause. Art like this today wants to compete with the motion picture industry and its creative part is more in it’s calculation of effect. It’s on a completely different scale than those who make paintings without assistants. This discrepancy mirrors the discrepancy of wealth in the world. Koons made a lot of money on Wall Street first and then was able to fund his projects. What is reassuring, is that a painting made by an artist without assistants, if it contains greatness can be as influential as a train car hanging from a the ceiling of a museum or any other spectacle-like work. It may not get the same number of views, but within the realm of thought, it can compete, as thoughts simply exist in the mind which levels playing field. “Is this important to me or not?” Sometimes we find the meaningful things in the smallest and most modest of vehicles. It could be said that a work of art is done only when it enters the mind of the viewer.

  2. Darling the painter knows just like a writer know when you have nothing to add is done

    1. Sometimes I have that “done” feeling when I write. But usually it’s tempting to go back and tweak it a bit more.

  3. The whole idea of “finishing” a creative work and having it exist on its own in a moment of time is a fascinating one. For me, it challenges the concepts of free flowing organic expression, human intuition and unrestricted artistic exploration. In the most radical sense an art work is in constant metamorphosis from the moment it leaves the artist’s studio due to nature’s impact on it over time. Works indoors fade, chip, and crack and outdoors works rust, split and wear away. Does one still consider these works FINISHED? Has their identities changed? Are they still as valuable? A good, thought provoking piece and enjoyable to read. Thanks!!

    1. Thanks for the interesting ideas.

      What do you call something once it’s been restored?? {Particularly if a work has substantial restoration.}

      Following your line of thought… we have to give a lot more credit to restorers than we generally do. They’re like the stunt people of the art world- the kudos only go to the star.

  4. I do not remember who said that ….”but the painting tells you when it is finished”
    very true for me ….I look at the painting and suddenly it is done the painting said that.
    interesting article never ending discussion on this subject ….thank you

  5. Gauguin was unambiguous. He said quite simply, “Never finish a painting”. I tell my students, “When you start wondering whether its done its usually done” or more simply, “Stop before you think it is finished.” I would also say that it is, in itself, a major key to and sign of mastery to know when to stop … and to not know when to stop is a sign that one should either learn when to stop or perhaps try another hobby..Apropos this, Elaine De Kooning said. “A painting to me is primarily a verb, not a noun…, an event first and only secondarily an image.” Its much easier to know when an event is over. then to know when an image is “complete” . We can’t really say what “complete” is… its an elusive concept.To me incomplete is complete.

    1. To add more layers to the complete/incomplete question: artists may say that a piece is done, but then go back into it five, ten, etc. years later and change it. So a different painting is born out of the first one, which at one point was considered complete.

      I agree that “complete” can be an elusive concept which speaks to what Elaine de Kooning said- “a painting..is primarily a verb…,” a description which, I think, characterizes the creative process so well.

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment.

  6. This begs the question is any thing ever done? This shows to me that a painting like a photograph just captures a moment in time which goes to show that art like life it is all about the journey and not the destination………..

    1. Is anything ever done, you ask? Well, there’s this year’s tax return. But as for a life approach, I like the idea of being present in the “journey” more than focusing on the destination. Although it has to be admitted, when an artist has completed a work he/she is satisfied with, that’s a very wonderful feeling, however long it lasts

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