Still Life with Two Walking Sticks
28" x 45"
Gouache on museum board
When my high school art teacher died in 1981 I felt somewhat lost. He had always been a person who understood my paintings and when he died I felt panicky. I was not sure how to evaluate my own work and know when it was successful or for that matter when it was finished. That was 31 years ago. May I share some thoughts about how to determine when you should stop working on a piece of artwork and how to critique your own work?
The American painter Albert Pinkham Ryder had the extremely bad habit of overworking his paintings. He often worked on the same painting for years on and off and painted over things that should have been left alone. He could not stop trying to improve his work. His motive was good but the practice was bad. (He also was a horrible technician and used paints for his paintings that were not at all permanent. As a result his work is deteriorating at a faster pace than it should be.) Knowing when to stop working on a piece of artwork is crucial.
As you come to the end of a painting or drawing, it helps to give some time away from it to see if it is really finished. Try not looking at it for a couple of weeks and often when you do this you'll see your work with fresh eyes. Don't ever analyze work immediately after finishing it. Often an artist is tired and needs time to recuperate. I once burned a half-finished painting. I look at the photo now I had taken of it before I destroyed it and it was actually coming along nicely. Being exhausted I was too critical and my reasoning was off. I made a big mistake. I should have "mothballed" (putting it away—out of sight) it for a while and then looked at it when I was rested up.
Another tip is that you can look at artwork in a fresh way by turning it upside-down. You see the artwork more abstractly and you can also see color, contrast, and composition easier. You can also look at your work in a mirror. I have a mirror directly behind my easel and I often turn around and look at the painting in the mirror. This is a great way to see if the drawing is incorrect in any way.
I make a list of things I need to do to finish a painting and go down the list and check off those necessary adjustments. It is a list made by looking at the painting from about ten feet away and looking carefully and thoughtfully.
If you know anyone who has a good eye ask them to look at your work. My wife is not an artist but she can tell me when something does not read clearly. She might say,"What is that shape over there?" or, "That spot over there doesn't seem right." Her hunches have been invaluable.
As you continue on as an artist it gets easier to make these decisions. I have come to the point where I can readily see what needs to be fixed and it is more of a gut feeling than a rational decision many times. I sense when something is not correct. You will grow into that ability too.
In conclusion, listen to your intuition. If you are not happy with any piece of artwork (no matter how many others like it) then you should do what is necessary to make it right. No amount of persuasion has ever stopped me when I sensed something needed to be fixed. To learn more about Daniel K. Tennant, visit