Know When to Say When

Winter TreeWhy is it that so often the hardest part of painting is knowing when to stop?

Why do we sometimes keep dabbing at the paper, thinking we need to “fix” this or that?

When I was painting this “Winter Tree” scene, I liked it — a lot — when I first painted the trunk and limbs. Had I quit then and there, I would have been happy.

But the point in painting this tree was to improve my techniques, so quitting wasn’t an option at that point. I wanted to learn to create “wintry leaves” clinging to the branches.

In some places, they actually do look like wintry leaves, but as so often happens, I didn’t know quite when to “say when.” I kept adding more leaves.

Once I’d started adding more leaves, I decided the tree needed more branches, and then I decided that all of the branches probably needed more twigs.

When I tried adding more twigs, I saw immediately that they weren’t turning out the way I wanted. I should have stopped, and I knew it, but instead, I kept adding more twigs, hoping that I’d eventually get them right.

Then there were problems with the masking fluid. I was using it to preserve white that would have the effect of snow on the branches. I had trouble applying it in exactly the right places, though. Some of it went onto the trunk, consequently I had a few ugly bare spots when I removed the masking. I tried to cover them up, and in some places it’s very obvious because the paint colors don’t match exactly.

So what did I do? Why not add a few more twigs and branches, just to even out the color a bit? Hey, it sounded like a good idea. It didn’t work.

I made a couple marks, and at that point I knew I was on the verge of completely ruining the painting. Finally, I did step away and say “That’s enough. It’s done.”

Why is that such a hard step to take?

Tree 2 (2)On my next attempt, I created a more “spring-like” tree, and I do think the branches came out a little better. The trunk looks a bit more realistic, too.

Again, I kept “dabbing” at the leaves, adding “just a little more” here and there. I even had the brush in my hand, about to add a few more lower branches, or extend the leaves a little more.

Whoa! Stop. Cease. Desist. I put down the brush and walked away.

I’ll keep working on branches and twigs, learning more about what brush sizes and techniques produce the effects I want, and I’ll give more thought to masking fluid when I use it. I know I can improve in those areas with more practice.

But will I ever get past that “need to tweak a little more” problem? What is it that drives us to keep adding a little more color, a few more details, a little more…whatever?

How do you know when a painting — or a drawing — is finished? Are there certain guidelines you follow, or do you just go with your gut? I’d love to hear your thoughts about this aspect of painting.








  1. I soooo hear you! Happens to me all the time. The advice I often hear is step away for a while. Maybe overnight when you are tempted to go beyond what you think. Have more than one project going at one time so you aren’t tempted when you really feel like painting. I need to take my own advice. Lol. Your trees have many lovely things about them. I especially love the second.

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    1. Thank you! I’m determined to get my trees right LOL. I’m just going to keep practicing on them. I was pleased with the second one. It’s much better than my usual trees. A lot of it, I think, comes down to choosing the right brush at the right stage. I’m working on that. 🙂

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  2. I love both paintings! I have a masking fluid but had never used it. One day soon. I am also like you when I work….I always add more and more. And before I knew it, I am almost ruining what I did. I attribute it to over excitement. I can’t help being excited most times. That is why now, even with the building excitement, I set my mobile phone to alarm every 15 mins. It reminds me to (1) park my brush and take a look at my project, (2) stand up and stretch my drawing/coloring arm and (3) to drink water. Sometimes, even with the alarm, I continue on adding more. 🙂 🙂 🙂

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    1. What an excellent idea! I’ll have to try setting an alarm and then walking away. I think it’s helpful, too, like Jodi suggests, to have more than one project going at a time, or to work on several paintings in a row. I think once I have my paints open and my brushes out, I just don’t want to quit, so I keep dabbing away. It’s exciting, like you said.

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    2. Every week your stuff gets better and better! I think your trees look so nice! Even the first one that your futz putzed.

      I never know when to quit. There is always something that could be just a little bit better or lot better. I stare at the painting telling myself, don’t cook it! Does that ever stop?

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      1. I’m hoping we can find ways to stop ourselves in time…LOL. I can’t tell you how many paintings I’ve futz-putzed. 😦 You’d think I’d learn to leave them alone if I like them, but, no, I have to keep going. 🙂

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  3. I think anyone that has painted has this happen. When I was taking classes… my instructor would walk over and say why are you doing that… If I couldn’t explain why what I was doing was necessary he would say put your brush down and stop “futz putzing” (not words I ever use… but took this to mean messing it up and wasting time) … when I paint(has been a while)… I ask myself this every time I put the brush to the canvas… (“are you just futz putzing”)

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  4. I step away for a while or there have been many times I wait until the next day. I look at it from a different angle/lighting and decide if I want to continue or the painting is completed. Not easy some times. 😊

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    1. I get caught up in the excitement of painting, and then I don’t want to stop. I guess it would be wiser to start another painting instead of fussing over the one I just finished, right? Yeah. I have to remind myself to do that. 🙂

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  5. For me the sign is when I am adding or “fixing” it when I am doing it because I am being critical rather than in my artist mode. You know that feeling, the one deep inside that says hmm, if only it look this or that. That is a sure sign to stop. For me I can’t have my left (full of order and control) and my right brain (creative and loose) work simultaneously. I’ll access but I want to work from the creative side more than that controlling side. With watercolor as you know, that fiddling can ruin a painting. In pastel you can just wipe out your “fixes” and move on. All in all, I think you have to have these moments in your experience in watercolor, that is part of the journey. Your painting at the end looks far better and you did pull it through but you learned and truthfully it has feeling in it even though it might be over-worked or has been put through the ringer. I have many that turns that way in a heartbeat! all the time. I have to become more sensitive to know when to lay down the brush because it starts to turn into “what if….” and before I know it, I am off and running to fix it and then, well, you know the routine. I think that you have to push it as far as it would go and understand where that fine line is. I think that Aletha Kuschan had told me this on one of my first watercolor challenge blogs. I can find it and refer it to you if you want. I think that is good advice. By the way, I love your landscape and I see so much in your painting….you coming through. Ultimately that is what art is really about, the artist expressing herself. Don’t worry about getting it “right” what is being right really anyway? There is no right or no wrong in expression. Maybe if you let loose and don’t worry about trying to make it look like a tree and etc. but just get in there to “feel” and know the tree, you’ll see that you push past trying to get it “right”. Sorry for the essay… I got carried away. 🙂 and all the quotation marks! I have a weakness for emphasis. Anyway I think that you doing just wonderful and keep on with it. Start thinking and feeling that tree or item that you paint, the watercolor will show you the way.

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    1. Thank you so much, Margaret, for all your thoughts and the encouragement. I’m starting to like my watercolors a little more, and that’s a good thing. I do feel that I’m getting better, and I think I’m gradually finding a little of my own voice and style. Thanks for the reminder about pushing past the “right” because you’re right…there isn’t a “right” or “wrong” in art. I’m going to pay more attention to feelings and trust myself more in the process, and just see what emerges. 🙂

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      1. Yes! That confidence will be your push forward and then opening up a whole field of experience and opportunity, you’ll see. Sometimes it is hard when you are stuck at the mirror and can’t see anything beyond your own nose. lol I can’t help but use analogies, it is part of how I explain myself or look at things. 🙂

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  6. I learned a few years ago that I tend to work quickly and, as such, I end up with more time on my hands than I really need to complete a drawing or sketch but I would fill that vacuum of time by continuing to tinker away at the piece until it was over-worked and pretty much ruined. That was where life drawing class came in handy. Because the poses were timed, I learned how much time I really needed to get a drawing down and that I work best when I have a time limit. Sometimes even with the longer poses I would give myself a reduced time limit so that I did not risk ruining it so I would then do two drawings to everyone else’s one. I try to stick to that principle now too. I set myself a time limit and I generally stick to it. For example, my art journal pages are usually done in about 15 to 20 minutes (not including drying time between stages). Another thing I have found helpful (a pragmatic choice since I rarely have a long stretch of free time) is to break a project down into stages so that I work on a step and then walk away from it for a while to go and attend to something. That ensures I return to each stage with fresh eyes and that I don’t just get bogged down in one thing or stuck in a rut. Not that I don’t sometimes still go badly wrong with my art, of course, but it is rarely because of over-working a piece now.

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    1. Thank you for the helpful suggestions.I seem to have two speeds in art — very fast or very slow LOL. I guess I need to find a better balance. Sometimes I do need to slow down and take a little more time, and other times I need to just finish what I’m working on and be done with it. Setting reasonable time limits would be a very good thing. I do that with gesture drawings and figure drawing. I could try something similar for watercolors 🙂

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  7. I think the latter one looks good to me. I think the first one didn’t really give complete impression of winter. May be you needed to something around the tree symbolizing winter-scape!

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      1. Painting was my favorite activity during growing up years. I gave it up long back. But I can understand how felt! Surely with time and practice it gets better! 🙂

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      2. I started learning to draw last June, then began watercolor painting a couple months ago. It’s all still very new to me, and I’m enjoying it immensely.

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  8. Watercolor is especially hard because if you go too far it’s hard to mask it. Less is more…stop before you think you’re done and look at it tomorrow (of course I don’t always take my own advice…) (K)

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    1. Great advice. I’m at the point, though, where I have no idea yet what I’m trying to say…LOL. I guess that’s why it’s so hard for me to shut up and keep quiet. 🙂 I’ll keep your words in mind. Thank you!

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  9. I’ve not conquered this yet. I like the idea of setting a timer!! Please let us know if you figure out how to conquer this. Maybe we can all get better at it. I like Jodi’s idea of having many going at once too. I think sometimes I keep going because I want to keep painting. Period. And this is my painting so if I wanna keep going…..I keep painting THIS.

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    1. Yeah, I really think having more paper ready and waiting is the best way to resolve the problem for me. I always have more paint…and I just want to keep going. Like when I did all the sky paintings one right after the other. I didn’t have to mess around with tweaking because I was moving on to the next sky. That’s how I’m going to approach things now. Just always have something else I can start playing with.

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