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How To Finish Paintings

How Do You Know When Your Abstract Painting Is Finished?


The question of how to finish abstract paintings and how to know when it’s finished is a pervasive one for artists.

This question is for me the Gordian knot of painting.

Just as with the Gordian knot…you’re not going to untie it by following some set of external rules.

You realize that…there are no rules.

And perhaps the scariest realization is that YOU DECIDE! You’re the author, the artist, the composer of your life.

As an existential psychiatrist I’ve seen this paradoxical Sartrean dictum in play in both clients and artists: “Man is condemned to freedom” (Sartre, 1943).

There’s something about freedom that terrifies us…

And the weight of our decisions makes us want someone else to decide and lead the way.

As if there is a way…

And yet…the truth is…

Being an artist is about not knowing


It’s about starting the painting and not knowing what’s going to emerge.

It’s about allowing the truth of your gesture to express itself.

It’s about responding intuitively and honestly to the mark you just made.

It’s about being frozen by a gnawing self doubt and inner criticism and going ahead anyway…

It’s about allowing yourself to be surprised by what bubbles up from your unconscious and onto the canvas.

It’s about stepping into the ineffable…the mystery…

…and finally trusting yourself.

And it’s about facing and embracing our inalienable freedom and agency every time we paint.

So How Do You Know When Your Painting Is Finished?


I know for me it can be a struggle to know when my painting is finished. The danger zone is when my thinking mind kicks in and starts overtaking intuition…it begins analyzing the painting rather than allowing the painting to tell me what it wants or doesn’t want.

This is a perilous time in the painting…I like to call it “The Dark Night Of The Soul” because it’s the moment of greatest self doubt, overthinking and second guessing.

The question becomes: will I continue to allow myself to stay in the place of ‘not knowing’ as the painting emerges and has the possibility of astonishing me…because it’s not planned out by the strategic mind…or will I revert to methods and techniques that’ve worked before?

Will I trust the gesture of my body to bring my painting in for a landing?

Or will I fall back on my analytical mind and begin questioning and nitpicking the work?

It’s been my experience that while some degree of thinking and deciding what to do with the painting is inevitable…

There’s An Uneasy Truce In The Middle Of The Painting


The uneasy truce is being able to step back and engage the analytical mind whilst holding onto your intuitive impulse and feeling for the painting…

The paradox is…how do I engage my thinking mind without losing the rawness, immediacy and aliveness of the work?


That’s the paradox isn’t it?

Lately I’ve been accepting my work in it’s unfinished, raw state.

My particular bias is that I’d rather the painting be raw, guttural and imperfect rather than overdone. Anything but tired and overworked.

One of the concepts that helps is realizing that the painting can be finished at many different stages and a big part is learning to trust my feelings about the painting


I’ve found it helpful to allow some paintings to be left ‘unfinished’ and then allow others to be taken further. The more I paint the less precious any particular painting becomes and that’s freeing for me.

Sometimes I notice that I love part of the painting and this can be a trap because the fear of ruining it can overtake me. Again, I believe that by having many paintings going at once helps assuage this difficult territory of the fear of ruining it!


One of the most important things I’ve learned about creating is that fear in it’s various incarnations is inherent to the process

Why is fear inherent in creating?

Because creating is about meaning, it’s about expressing your truth and aliveness, and this feels vulnerable.

Brene Brown says that the credit belongs to the one who shows up…that there’s no creation without error, problems, and shortcomings. She says: “If I’m not a little nauseous, I probably didn’t show up”.

So I think we’ve got to be aware of and willing to wrestle with our demons like the warrior Beowulf did with the monster Grendel in one of the longest surviving old epic poems of Old English, Beowulf.

We’ve got to accept that fear in it’s various forms (like self doubt, inner criticism, overthinking, second guessing, procrastination, and so forth) is part of the process at every stage in our lives as artists…and embrace it.

Don’t try to get rid of fear…just show up, embrace it and paint anyway.

Here’s what I’ve found to be helpful in facing the middle of the painting


  • Create many ‘starts’ so no particular painting is precious
  • Imagine each painting as experimental or as an ‘exploratory study’
  • After thinking/analyzing, realize there are an infinity of possibilities…make a decision and decisively go back into the painting with the same intuitive gestural energy of the ‘start’
  • When I’m finishing the painting as above, make a move…or a few moves and leave it alone. Get in and get out
  • Don’t lick the paint! Don’t fuss and noodle. Be decisive
  • Make your moves…but stay open to what happens as you make them…allow the painting to keep telling you what it wants…let yourself be surprised by what happens
  • Allow for an “ugly painting” to emerge…and don’t wipe it out or cover it up
  • Remember that I want the painting to be raw, immediate and alive!


These are some of the tips I have for dealing with the perils of the middle of the painting…and finishing paintings (the whole concept of finishing a painting is a rhetorical question we’ve discussed at length in this blog post “The Dark Night Of The Soul: Finishing Your Abstract Paintings”.)

How do you decide when/how to finish? What helps you in the studio with this predicament?

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences with dealing with the middle of the painting and bringing it in for a landing.

From my studio to yours,


P.S. Want to go deeper? The Artist’s Journey, my signature online course, is OPEN for enrollment. Check it out HERE.

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