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how do you know when a painting is done?


i had a fabulous time talking with the lovely tamara laporte of willowing the other day for our upcoming life book interview. and one of the things we chatted about was, “how do you know when a painting is finished?”

and i thought about this painting. i titled it BE STILL MY HEART because it took so many layers and layers to create and get to the heart of it all. 

this is the painting that i finished for a local group show titled 44 Presidents. i was assigned to paint a representation of US president andrew johnson. i knew that the painting didn’t have to look anything like the president, but even still, the process stunted my creative flow so much so that i wrote this post on ways of getting unstuck.

well, now i can share the entire process with you in photos from start to finish…

even the background went through a ton of different changes. after i’d covered up the white space, i decided to go red, white, and blue…figuring that the final piece would have nothing to do with a US president. 

i came to this character and felt like it really had nothing to do with what i was supposed to be painting AND the only things i liked about it were that it was in my style and included feathers (which i’d been seeing and collecting everywhere and needed to include in a painting). 

otherwise, i felt the painting had no reflection of me. 

so, i covered most of the character up and went back to something i’m comfortable with and created an owl-inspiration. 

yet, this felt so staged and unauthentic. the only thing i still adored were the feathers around the head.

so, of course i painted over it. and i used colors that were completely not president-like. 

i started to have fun with it again and adored creating the colorful layers.

but when it came time to add characters again, i froze.

i’d just finished my piece MIND SPRING, and from that i got the abraham lincoln-style hat. i had two little birds going, so i figured…this will be cute. it’s going in a big gallery exhibit, people have to like it…so it should be cute.

and it did look cute. 

i completely finished this painting and knew i could just call it quits. but not only did it not resonate with my heart, i saw that i’d been trying too hard to project something i thoug
ht others would like (which never works for me). 

so i ended up feeling like i never wanted to see that painting again.

so i covered up the bird on the right. and in that new layer of paint i saw this giant bird. 

it had been night time and the painting was just laying in the dark on my kitchen floor. i’d thought what i saw  was a hawk, since i’d been observing lots of hawks in my backyard. i grabbed an oil pastel and sketched in the outline, wings and beak.

it felt right. even though my mind asked, “what on earth are you doing?”

but the next morning, the rest of the painting fell into place. i couldn’t stop painting it until this eagle was done. and it’s pretty amazing to me, that after all of those layers, this bird became an eagle. 

while i look at this painting and wonder where it came from, i know it’s the one that is meant to be in the group exhibit. i’m delighted my those hanging stars…i even added glitter to them! and somehow, that eagle resonates with me. i can feel it in my belly and in my heart. 

that’s how i know when a painting is finished. 

i know i can keep working on something and covering things up again and again. but if it resonates, that’s when I know i’m on the right track. and i make certain to step back when i’m at a point where i think it’s complete and ask myself if there’s anything more i can add or give to the piece. i know i can create a better painting. so i will take what i’ve learned from this one and apply it to the next.

i’ve learned that if i overwork something, the painting not only loses it’s initial spark, but i stop having fun with it. and for me, there’s no point in that.

do you have a way of telling when a painting is done? i’d love to know.

have a wonderful and inspired weekend!



ps. i’m so excited for HOW TO CREATE WHIMSICAL ANIMALS to begin! this is going to be an INCREDIBLE class. i’ll have more sneak peeks of projects we’ll be working on together next week.



  1. Great post Juliette! I laughed, cried, and horrayed! through your process of this particular painting, lol. I have been there, too. It's hard to say when I know a painting is done. It sort of tells ME when it's done. Then justifies itself with why it's finished. If there's good conversation going on between us, I call it a day. Odd, but that's how I know.Thanks again for this awesome post!

  2. I love your painting. It reminds me of the portraits from the 1700's. How do I know when a painting is finished? Just by looking I guess. My mind shifts late in the painting. I look for things that aren't working or I dont like and make changes. It's like I'm editing the painting. Then when I get a good feeling of the overall look, I know I'm done.

  3. this painting totally had that moment of telling me when it's done and justifying itself 🙂 it had the eagle, the red, white and blue and the stars…what more could i want in an american president painting done by me…love hearing your thoughts, alisa.


  4. that's a huge compliment, lynda. i love thinking that this is what the president would have looked like in a 1700's portrait painting, had he been a bird.

    so nice to hear how you feel it's finished…

    enjoy the weekend!

  5. I love the finished piece and the in-between stages with the little birds. It's all beautiful! This topic reminds me of a quote from Da Vinci: “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” Sometimes I feel like this with my art! I almost just can't put any more into it. It's like I just have to get away from it. It is just time to cut the cord I guess at that point 🙂 Probably not the best way to say it, but I just get a feeling it is done. And, I'm usually relieved!

  6. That’s exactly how I often feel with my paintings, but especially this one. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to get more of a, “ah. Now that’s what I’ve been trying to get to.” I love it when that happens.

    Have a lovely weekend!

  7. a stately eagle indeed… for me to know that a painting is done when is when the elements are balanced and in tune with each other to a point they need no more refinement. Or when I stop asking myself “what else does this need?” =)

  8. So many layers, and the final piece so different from where you started. I love it, and it's whimsical nature, and you are so generous to show all the steps you took.
    There comes a point where I just feel inside that a painting is done, and I stand it up somewhere where I will see it by surprise the next day or so. Almost always when I do, my mind says, yes that's right, it's finished. Confirmation!

  9. Love seeing the transition Juliette – the final piece yes, is the one – but your thought process throughout is great to read especially for someone who is still “frightened” to cover up everything and begin again. It teaches me that its okay to do that….something beautiful will transpire in the end. I can't wait for your next class – canvases are all gessoed ready to go and new sketch pad purchased. Marilyn

  10. Unfortunately, I don't paint as freely as you do. I know when they are done when every detail is as true to life as I can get them. I really want to be more free… more “painterly”… I don't want to be hung up on realism… but that is always where I find myself. My paintings are beautiful… everyone likes them and I do too… but it's not what I want to do. How do I let go?

  11. I am still not sure sometimes when I am done with a painting. SOmetimes I go overboard and do more than I should, after I should have been finished. Do you ever do that?

  12. i often go overboard. but i now know it's one of those things i do, especially on pieces that are done and just need to be moved on from, so i'm aware of it and whenever i get that urge to mess something up just because it's not completely expressing what i need to say or it just seems silly or doesn't seem good enough…that's when i let it aside and keep my paints away so i don't over do it 🙂 i now try to make sure i have some open space too…because my tendency is to add details and color to every inch of the canvas 🙂

    enjoy the weekend!

  13. great question. i suppose i'm lucky in that i was raised without much of being told what is right and what is wrong, especially when it came to creative expression. i find that i'm the most fulfilled and gain the most healing when i'm painting what's authentic to me. i often get this thing in my head that says something doesn't look like it does in real life or that people will see a painting and think it's ugly or silly. but if i don't express what I need to express, i feel like i'm not doing myself justice. i find it's best to share the beauty that's inside and deep in your heart, even if you're the only one to see it. if you already know that what you're painting isn't what you want to do…you're halfway there. i always find it helps to notice what i do like and try that in my work. or keep a secret set of canvases and sketchbooks just for you, filled with what you do want to do, until you're ready to let go of them to the rest of the world.

  14. so excited to hear your canvases are all ready to go. how fun! i can't wait! i always find that all the layers add so much more depth to what was already there.

    can't wait to paint together in HOW TO CREATE WHIMSICAL ANIMALS! have a lovely weekend!

  15. i love setting a piece aside and looking at it the next morning. it so gives me a different point of view.

    have a lovely weekend!

  16. love hearing a bit about your process! thanks!

  17. For the short time I've started creating, the paintings sort of told me when they're finished, much like Alisa Steady above said.

    The last time I felt stuck was creating the last bit of background for my 18×24″ painting “Hope”. The painting was coming along nicely, with me having a vision first, then it further developed as I tried putting it down on canvas, until I got to almost the end. I had no idea what to do. I went away, I tried a few things, I willed for it to be finished. But all did not work, until something really popped out of the blue and I knew that it was it!

  18. I too have a hard time deciding when a paint is finished. I usually walk away and look at my painting later. What I like to do the most is hang my paint in my guess bathroom ,so every time i go to the bathroom I have to look at my painting and see if is missing something. The best advice I received is to walk away when I'm getting frustrated, but i do let my heart tell me when a paint is completed.

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