Some Things are Better Left Undone

I know I’m not the only one who tends to “overwork” paintings. Whether it’s in watercolor or oil, I’m constantly tweaking things when I should put down the brush and leave well enough alone. I’ve ruined countless paintings that way.

Today, I may have stumbled upon a solution to the problem. Instead of finishing a painting — at which point I inevitably start tweaking to fix this and that — I should just leave my paintings unfinished and walk away.

Take a look at this. It’s unfinished, but I like it. In fact, this may be one of my favorite oil paintings.

Forest Scene October 2017

Now, I did visit “Foto-Flexer” to add a frame, in hopes of making it appear truly finished. But, framed or not, I like this unfinished painting.

I had planned to do much, much more with it. It was going to have brilliant autumn colors in the leaves — fiery oranges, vivid yellow, splotches of still-green leaves hanging on here and there. What you see is mostly the background “underpainting” I was doing in hopes of creating a “forest-like” effect, a rather misty look with vague images of trees in the background.

Whenever I’m oil painting, I tend to make quite a mess of myself. I had a lot of paint on my hands, so I stepped away to grab a bar of soap and clean up a bit before I continued working. As I stepped away, I glanced back at the easel just to get a better perspective on the composition.

I liked what I saw. I liked it a lot. I smiled, grabbed my camera, and for a moment I thought about how good this painting might look when it was finished. But then I thought again. I thought about trying to add those greens and oranges and yellows. I thought of how awful it would be. Those colors would change the scene entirely. Too much color would spoil the mood I’d somehow managed to create.

Nope. I wouldn’t dare touch this painting again. Absolutely no way was I about to pick up a brush and make another single stroke. For once, I was satisfied with a painting I’d done, never mind that I hadn’t finished it. It had finished itself, and thankfully I recognized that nothing more was needed.

So from now on, I’m going to quit half-way through every painting I do. Some, of course, will be too far from finished, and I’ll have to go back and do more. But I have a suspicion that many of my “half-painted” works will be better left undone.



  1. I have had this same problem – when to stop. I think I just like painting and I want to keep on going beyond all reason. Two things have worked for me. One is as you say, stop earlier in the process and let the painting sit. (I often bring it into my living room and set it against the table the TV sits on – sometimes one can be there for a couple of weeks – letting its impression soak in on me). The other thing I do is, work on more than one thing at a time – that way I can keep painting but not beat one poor piece to death. I love how this painting came out; what an atmosphere of peace it has, almost elegaic, sad but dignified, bowing to the cycle of the year. I feel it’s one of your best works I have seen. Just love it.

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    1. Thank you, Claudia. For me, this painting represents a new approach to oil painting. Honestly, I expected it to be a disaster — just one more learning experience, mostly learning what NOT to do. I was so very surprised when I stepped back and liked so very much about the painting. I liked the color palette. I loved the quiet mood. I’m calling in “Autumn Whispers” because it is quiet and understated, yet it does convey some sense of the changing seasons. I still look at it and sometimes think, “Maybe I should have done more,” but overall I’m happy with it. It’s different from my other paintings, yet it expresses so much of my “art esthetic”. I wonder if this is another step in the direction of finding my own artistic style.

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      1. I think your last line says it all – you made a discovery about your self and your art with this piece (a good one, there are of course many not-so-good ones, too, I have found!). I love your questing spirit and willingness to go outside your assumptions and to trust your eyes and art sense to take you to good places.

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      2. Thanks. I think the most significant thing in this is that I’m developing that “art sense” you speak about. For so long I’ve questioned whether or not I would have really have the ability to “see” with an understanding of whether or not a piece of art “works” for me. It’s a good feeling. For the first time, I’m really beginning to feel like an artist. šŸ™‚

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      3. I know that feeling. It took me years to call myself an artist. Even to myself. I didn’t feel I deserved it. I am proud of my work now even when it goes wrong and I love being and calling myself an artist.

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    1. LOL! I love that quotation. (I will have to visit his website!) and I love your comment. Yeah, I get really messy. My brushes get messy. My clothes get messy. In a weird way, that’s part of the fun of oil painting, isn’t it!

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  2. I have a hard time with this, too, Judith! Perhaps we should all be more like George Innes (sp?)? apparently, he used to go into his customers houses, years after a painting was sold to them and go up to his work and make adjustments! šŸ™‚ Sometimes, what really helps me to decide a painting is done, is when someone else looks at it and says, ‘it’s done’, I suppose I just can’t make that decision by myself!

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    1. LOL, yes, I’ve heard that story. In music, there was a composer — Anton Bruckner — who was the same way. He was never satisfied, never finished with his work. Even after they’d been performed in concert, he would constantly rewrite them, thus there are dozens of different versions of each symphony he wrote. It’s part of that same creative spirit, I suppose, so sometimes it is good to have a more objective eye — and voice — to say “Stop! Enough is enough!”

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