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Keep working until it’s done

Keep work­ing on a paint­ing until you’re sure it’s fin­ished. Then come back again a few days later and work on it some more if you real­ize it’s not as good as you thought it was.

That seems like a “duh” kind of state­ment, but it’s incon­sis­tent with lots of art book advice. We are told that it takes two to make a paint­ing: an artist to do the work, and some­one else to hit him (or her) on the head before it gets ruined. Fresh­ness and spon­tane­ity above all, we are told. Never over­work the paint.

That advice was a prob­lem for me until I real­ized what a crock it is. My prob­lem isn’t a lack of freshness—it’s that I am so often tempted to stop too soon. I get parts of the paint­ing to look really good and the rest basi­cally not too bad, so I want to stop rather than put in the extra hours needed to get the hard parts exactly right. That whole “fresh­ness” canard is an excuse for laziness—something seen in the work of many a mar­ginal painter of approx­i­mate smears.

If you really want the paint­ing to look like you got every part of it right the first time (i.e., “fresh”), then do what Sar­gent did and con­tin­u­ally scrape off any­thing that didn’t come out exactly right and paint it again. And again. And again, until it is cor­rect in it’s cal­cu­lated appear­ance of per­fect spon­tane­ity. Even if you have to paint it 100 times.

If a look of fresh­ness is not what you’re after (it’s not some­thing I’m all that inter­ested in, myself) then just keep paint­ing until there isn’t any­thing you know how to do that will make it bet­ter.* If you’re not will­ing to keep at it until the dif­fi­cult parts look right, then you’re not seri­ous about painting.


*Or you real­ize that this paint­ing is just a dog and trash it. You should allow your­self to do that only very rarely, however.

Posted in art technique, painting, personal.

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6 Responses

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  1. Gregory Becker says


  2. Daryl Urig says

    I agree that you need to keep work­ing on a paint­ing until noth­ing sticks out to you. I have also over­worked paint­ings and lost the fresh­ness to the paint that I enjoy by over­work­ing a paint­ing. It is very hard to know when to stop.

    • David Rourke says


      I do a agree that you need to watch out for over­work­ing a paint­ing, depend­ing on the kind of effects you are look­ing for. Over-blending, for exam­ple, can dull down color (reduce chroma) lower than you want. My point here is that, for me, there is a greater dan­ger of stop­ping too soon than stop­ping too late.

      Your mileage will vary, of course.

  3. bart johnson says


    That’s a key insight. I think the whole con­cept of over­work­ing is prob­a­bly the sin­gle most dam­ag­ing piece of bad advice given to young painters. It’s a recipe for both lazi­ness and self-infatuated delu­sion. As you point out, Sar­gent him­self wasn’t always able to pull off that kind of pre­ci­sion with­out scrap­ing and repaint­ing. What chance does a young painter have in bring­ing it off? None what­so­ever. The art mag­a­zines are filled to the brim with clearly under­worked and slap­dash paint­ings all play­ing at the idea that they’re being fresh and mas­ter­ful, when all they are is super­fi­cial and imi­ta­tive of a cer­tain kind of fash­ion­able style.

    The real prob­lem is that most paint­ing is under­worked. A paint­ing that is so-called “over­worked” can always be resus­ci­tated through scrap­ing and/or sand­ing down. And push­ing a paint­ing past the point of one’s com­fort zone is nec­es­sary, rather than try­ing to baby it and pre­serv­ing things that one has done well. Real progress only comes from push­ing the paint­ing further—and learn­ing from the struggle.

    I applaud your hon­esty here on your web­site and have long enjoyed vis­it­ing it. I’m very happy to see the clear progress that you keep mak­ing in your work.

    • David Rourke says

      Thanks, Bart.

      Once again, I apol­o­gize that com­ments dis­ap­peared for awhile just after you posted this comment.

      I have seen lots of under­worked paint­ing, although of course it depends on what the artist’s goal is. It would gen­er­ally be bet­ter if fewer painters wor­ried about apply­ing too many strokes to their paintings.

    • Patrick says

      Hello, great opin­ion on over­work­ing a paint­ing. The only prob­lem I have with it is that the paint builds up too much and espe­cially in impor­tant areas like an eyeball.

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