How do you know when a painting is finished?

My students see the evolution of my work. I’m a slow painter and paintings hang on my studio walls for weeks, so my students see the work from the original charcoal drawing to the final brush stoke. Some of them notice the process; others don’t. Some ask questions and all of them seem interested in my answers. But the other day one of the boys asked, “So? How do you know when it’s done?”

I love their questions. They force me to be more reflective about my own paintings, so I can be more intentional about transferring my own learning to their projects. When this delightful young man asked how I would know when my painting was done, I said, “When none of the colours jump out at me; when the colours are in equal balance. But I know for a fact that my rules of colour are different from other artists and from people who look at my work.”

“You see, my dad was seriously colour-blind. One day, he went shopping for a new car and came home bragging about the new station wagon he’d just bought. We were all pretty excited of course – at least until we had a look at it. It was bright neon orange! “I got a great deal on it,” he said proudly.” None of us had the heart to tell him why that salesman was undoubtedly bragging to his family that he’d finally unloaded that awful orange wagon. But, needless to say, we all came to love it despite its colour and, whenever we’re together, my sister and two brothers still tell stories about that ugly orange wagon dragging all 6 of us to the cabin every weekend.

Detail of The orange cat

Two of my three sons have inherited my dad’s colour-blindness so, to me, colour is an objective thing and colour balance can only be discerned by the viewer. In fact, the use of colour is what makes the ‘voice’ of each visual artist unique. And I think I’m a slow painter because that pace allows me to disappear into the process, to engage in a real dialogue with the colours. In a world where the private gallery system wants us to pop paintings out at an alarming rate, I go against the current and paint slowly. Not because I can’t paint fast, but because I’ve created a process for myself that allows me to spend the time to really see the colours live beside one another as the canvas fills. During that time I can observe the evolution of their relationships, and I can feel the tensions and releases between them. Being involved with a work of art for many hours makes me feel as though the whole world is contained in that one canvas. It’s a simpler version of the world, where everything exists in a state of respect for what surrounds it, and where I can exist as part of the process.

Detail of The orange cat

I have no idea how other people see it. But, to be honest, that’s not relevant. The only way for an artist to get to where she is going is to follow the path that her work is tracing for her, and to make abstraction of the outside world when it comes to painting decisions. One painting at a time is how an artist moves forward, each piece paving the way for the next work.

But, strangely, as soon as the painting is finished it doesn’t belong to me anymore. As much as I live in them while I’m painting, once done, my mind has moved on to the next project and the art has become part of a larger world that is out of my control. As Katie Ohe once told me, “All an artist can do is believe in what he does.”

My painting is finished when it feels right to me.

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