The Art of Practice – Tip #9

Oh, this is a good tip — one I definitely need!

Stop Sooner

Move on, or set it aside as soon as  you notice your nerves have run amok. Relax. Recognize your compulsive, anxious marks and silence them. Stop, drop, and roll forward.


One of my worst habits as an artist — and I know I’m not alone in this — is that I seldom know when to say when. I just don’t know when it’s time to quit.

So often I feel I’ve finished a painting, only to step back from the easel and begin a critical self-evaluation process. “Oh, I really need to darken that shadow,” I might notice, and while the shadow may need work, maybe I shouldn’t do it then and there because that one slight correction can lead to an onslaught of tweaks during which I all but ruin the painting.

Today’s tip also speaks of times when our nerves run amok. These include moments when we’re anxious to finish up a project and start on something new, times when we’re feeling pressured by other obligations, or painting sessions that are disturbed by family conversations, unexpected interruptions, or other distractions. If we can’t give our full attention to our art, maybe it’s best to stop, drop, and roll. We can always come back another day.

For me, it’s often hard to tell if I’m really finished with a painting or not, but a good rule of thumb I’ve learned to follow is to stop shortly before I think the painting is complete. Most of the time, I’m working slowly on oil paintings now, doing only a small area each day, and I usually have several projects going on. That makes it much easier for me to stop and put a painting aside for another time.

Here’s one recent oil painting:

Framed Cove Painting
“Pirate Cove” – Oil on Canvas Panel – Judith Kraus

By the way, for those who don’t know, I re-read my favorite book — Treasure Island — every summer, so I always end up with scenes of pirates, islands, ships, and coves. I don’t do it intentionally. It just happens.

I am calling this painting finished, but is it really? Looking at it now, I’m not sure. I might want to add more detail to the foreground. The colors seem a bit unbalanced — too many darks in the background, too much light in the foreground.

Maybe it’s finished, maybe it’s not, but I’ve stopped working on it — for now, at least. I’ve stopped, dropped, and rolled on to more paintings. I can always come back to Pirate Cove another day.

One reason it may be hard to stop when we should is because art is an investment of time. This is especially true with oil painting or watercolor. It’s more than a matter of simply grabbing a sketchbook and pencil. We have to take a little time to get set-up. We need to gather our supplies, choose our paints, prepare our ground. So, after our preparations, it’s hard to stop, drop, and roll when we’ve been working only a short time. We feel this need to justify the time we’ve spent getting to the easel, I think. It’s too soon to stop, we tell ourselves. So we keep fiddling around with our paints. Soon, we’ve fiddle-faddled ourselves right into a mess.

Another strategy I’ve used — especially during practice painting sessions — is to specify ahead exactly what I plan to do. “Today, I’m going to practice painting different textures,” I might say. “Or I’m going to work on painting the sky using a color other than blue.” I set small objectives with definite stopping points. Then, after my practice session has ended, I can roll on to another canvas.

Since this is a problem many of us face, let’s share a few ideas on how to avoid the “over-tweaking” syndrome. How do you know when it’s time to stop? And what little tricks do you use to stop yourself from overworking a painting?


    1. I think it probably happens to most of us. Yes, working on several projects at once really helps. It’s a challenge to find places for several still-wet oils at once LOL but I really do enjoy having several things going.

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