How do you know when a painting is finished?

How do you know when a painting is finished?

The most frequently asked question I hear from students is this:

“How do I know when to stop painting… how do I know when it’s finished?

This is a question I’ve really considered over the past 15 years and I believe I have found the simplest answer: When the going gets good, pronounce the TOC and walk away! Let me explain….

Like you, I’ve experienced a life with highs and lows, good times and bad. One of these lower points had lead me into a counselling group for parenting a “troubled” teen. Addictive behaviour I learned, can be a result of the body’s chemistry: a stimulus that gets the brain excited is causing the body to release endorphins and dopamine which feels great!

Unfortunately, when the body isn’t producing the chemicals needed for that rush, our“addictive centres” in our brains, can cause us to remember the stimulus that created it the last time and renders us powerless at the need to regain that wonderful feeling. I am so grateful to report that it all turned out well for me and my family but the parallels I began to draw from that experience lead me to the perfect answer to my students’ question - How do I know when my painting is finished?


1. Excited to begin… we have an idea, supplies and the time to do it!

2. Frustrated. A bit of frustration starts to creep in because things may not be moving along as quickly as we had envisioned or maybe the project is a bit more tedious that we had planned - whatever the case may be the feeling is hard to avoid because of our expectations.

3. Self-doubting. A feeling of self-doubt generally washes over us leaving us experience a bit of defeat or perhaps questioning if this idea was really as good as once thought?

4. Hopeful. Because we are creative and have proven to ourselves over and over again that we are capable, our hopeful nature kicks in and we push through the “ugly” stages of the art and move towards something that is starting to “take shape”.

5. Here we go… Excitement starts to come back because we recognize that we “have got this” - the painting is beginning to really come together, the speed picks up, the doubt is gone, the endorphins and dopamine are starting to flood the brain, the painting is nearly finished (You can feel it!)….



This my fellow artists and friends, is where the answer to the above question truly lies. Addictive behaviour is ruling this roost and because life can be full of contrast, we have a tough decision to make. Because we are IN THE FLOW at this point, our brains, bodies and paintings are all one and it feels fantastic. Chemicals have us craving more of this rush! Who would ever want this feeling to end?


Who would ever want this feeling to end? No one. And that is why we need to call it! Time of Completion, (TOC)…check your watch, pronounce it finished. At least for now. Because of free will, we get to the choose the death of the rush. The first way is to recognize that the painting is done and cut ourself off, walk away and come down from the high. To keep painting in attempt to prolong that feeling? Well that is what produces the second choice, really. When we keep going out of addictive obligation, we inevitably kill the rush by realizing we should have stopped 10mins earlier. The art is now not looking as great as it once did and the buzz is killed anyway.


So that is my long answer and believe me I wish there was another way. No one wants to end that sweet rush of chemicals that floods our brains making us feel as like we finally get life and can accomplish anything. Yet in the very nature of the problem lies the solution. Because that feeling is addictive, we know that we can can make more art and must! My simple solution is to always have multiple pieces on the go, so that when we hear that little voice that tell us how we must be near the end because we love it (so far), we can, with purpose, walk away and start giving another painting some love. The time and distance away from our first painting creates the necessary new lens, (drug-free!), for really seeing the painting and its completion.


The real question is not, how do you know when a painting is finished but rather, do you have the strength to walk away when it is?

Compulsively creative always,

Back to blog