How to Know When Your Drawing is Finished: Don’t Ruin it!

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Kevin Hayler: Professional Wildlife artist, author, and traveler.

Most artists don’t know when to stop. It’s hardly surprising, there’s so much going on. Making art is a mixture of dreams, expectations, obsessions, excitement, fear, pointless perfectionism, and the list goes on. This post will attempt to teach you how to know when your drawing is finished.

Your art is finished when your corrections make things worse. The real finishing point for a drawing, or a painting, occurs sometime before you decide to quit. You only recognize the moment after you’ve missed it. 

I’ll use my experiences of drawing for a living these past 20+ years and explain how I decide when my drawing is finished. Hopefully, it’ll reassure you that we all suffer from the same anxieties; amateurs and professionals alike.

Let’s start

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A Work of Art is Never Finished

It’s almost impossible to choose the final stroke, I can stare at one of my supposedly finished drawings and always find fault. Nothing is finished until it’s over-finished.

We know we should stop while the going is good but we can’t resist the urge to add just one more stroke. Does it make a difference? Very rarely.

Our rational selves tell us when to stop, while our emotional selves are still too attached to say goodbye. You’re pulled in both ways. It’s a huge investment in time and a very personal one. In my experience drawing is always a challenge, it doesn’t come easily, and it’s a struggle.

Add to that the solitary nature of the work, and it’s easy to see how a drawing becomes too precious to let go.

“An artist never finishes a painting. He just gives up”

Leonardo Da Vinci

How to Be Productive and Get Your Drawing Done

Have you ever gotten so lost in your own work and become so focused, that you can’t see the wood for the trees? 

Staring at a piece of work for extended periods is like being hypnotized. You develop a different head-space. Time flies and the world exists only at the end of your fingertips, background noise is a distant echo, and your coffee goes cold.

You concentrate on one thing for so long that you drift away from where you were. Then, when you finally look at what you’ve done, you see something isn’t right, but what the hell is it? Your tunnel vision makes you go blind. It’s very frustrating.

We’ve all been there

Try These 5 Ways to View Your Art From Another Perspective:

  1. Step Back: You have to step back and look at your art from a distance to see the picture as a whole. 
  2. Take a Break: The best way to work efficiently is to work in short bursts of up to 20 mins of intense concentration. Then step back, evaluate your progress, and put the kettle on.  Switch off for 5 minutes before starting again
  3. View in a mirror: Viewing your artwork in a mirror can help you see it from a different perspective, revealing any issues with symmetry, balance, or composition that you might have missed.
  4. Flip your artwork horizontally: By flipping your artwork horizontally, you can spot any inconsistencies or imperfections that might not be apparent when viewing it in its original orientation.
  5. View in black and white: If you’re working in color converting your reference to black and white can make it easier to identify any issues with contrast and tonal balance.

Even when we do everything by the book, there are still times when our eyes and brain shut down, and having a tea break is not enough. Sometimes you have to put your work away for a day or two and come back to it with fresh eyes.

The return visit is amazing. As soon as you inspect your work anew, you can see what needs to be fixed immediately. How could you have possibly missed it?  

Read this related post: 32 Drawing Mistakes and Bad Habits Artists Must Avoid

Overcoming Perfectionism and The Fear of Finishing

The curse of perfectionism. I suffer from this one and it’s the number one reason I can’t leave my drawings alone. It doesn’t seem to matter how many times I tell myself to let things go, I go back and try to perfect what I’ve done. 

I take it far too far. I will even waste time trying to contrive perfect imperfections. 

I lack confidence in my ability to sketch freely, I’m so used to drawing insane detail that I no longer trust my hand and arm to draw loose lines. I go over and over the same hatching trying to produce the perfect random look!

I thought that this drawing ‘flaw’ was my problem until I read recently that John Singer Sargent, also reworked his brush strokes to make them livelier. It’s reassuring to know that even the greats had to work at their spontaneity!

Painting of Rosina, a favorite model of John Singer Sargent.
A Painting of Rosina by John Singer Sargent

The trouble is, I know that perfectionists are never happy. Embracing our imperfections and lowering our expectations is the only way we can hope to release ourselves. Easier said than done. That’s like asking someone to change their character.

Perfectionism and failure are closely linked. Why do perfectionists strive for the impossible if it’s not the fear of underachieving and letting ourselves down? We are our own worse critics and failure is staring at us in the face, right up to the final signature. 

Failure is a self-inflicted wound. In truth, very few of my drawings really fail. Some are not as successful as others, but who’s judging? No one, only me.

I’ve attempted to address my perfectionism by changing my style and approach away from detail towards adding atmosphere and movement. It’s a hard transition to make, it involves a different mindset. Hopefully, now that I’m not making art just to sell, my style will loosen up.

I wrote these posts about style:

The fear of failure can be so overwhelming that it can prevent you from ever making a start, in a strange way it’s better to put a project off indefinitely than to try and risk failure.

And just in case you are wondering what the old masters can teach us, Leonardo couldn’t solve the problem either, he worked on the Mona Lisa for 14 years!

Another warped fear that delays me from finishing my work occurs when I have completed 95% of a drawing and put it away to finish it off later. Sometimes I don’t get around to it.

In a perverse way, refusing to finish is a way of not accepting defeat. I know the work could be better and at some point, adding the finishing touches would bring it to life. I kid myself, of course, it stays hidden for years.

Do you need help as a beginner? It’s worth checking these courses on Proko

Drawing exercises for beginners by Steven Zapata on Proko
Secrets of shading by Steven Zapata on Proko
proportions-value-and-light on Proko

The Indicators of a Finished Drawing

Achieving Visual Balance, Harmony, and Perspective

Ensuring that your drawing, or painting, maintains a coherent balance and visual harmony throughout is an ongoing process. It involves many micro-adjustments as the work progresses. It’s easier to tweak the work as you go than to go back and rescue it later on. 

A well-balanced composition draws the viewer’s eye effortlessly through, and into, the image. I like to check that everything I draw is placed in the best position, at the most interesting angle, using the right tonal values.

Most importantly, the drawing must be in proportion and to scale with its surroundings.

Everything must come together seamlessly. I strive for realism so it’s essential to get everything right.

  • Is the focal point perfect?
  • Is the sparkle in the eye the whitest part of the drawing?
  • Does the background recede? 

I’m making assessments all the time using different criteria to gauge what needs to be done before I declare the job finished. 

Having a natural eye for composition really helps. Otherwise, you should use the rule of thirds to place elements strategically. 

Read these posts for further help:

If things don’t work as you expect, try introducing depth-of-field bokeh effects as if you were a photographer. Blur both the foreground and the background to force the eye to your focal point.

Painters will have to consider color balance, harmonies, and how groups of different colors with similar tonal values sit together.

I try to identify areas of improvement such as:

  • Where contrast could work better
  • Where do the shadows lie, are they all lying in the same direction?
  • I look at where detail can be added or removed
  • Are the lead lines natural? 
  • Is everything to scale?
  • Do the vanishing points work? 
  • Are the angles correctly drawn? 
  • Is the foreground darker with bolder lines? 
  • Is the background light enough to create sufficient depth? 

There are so many things to consider before I can call the work done.

You’ll find these drawing tips useful:

Seeking Constructive Feedback Before Committing 

Asking for opinions and feedback before your art is declared finished must be done with caution. 

Family and close friends are seldom neutral judges. They conflate their feelings for you with the work you’re presenting. They’re more likely to appreciate your work and be less critical.

The general public is a mixed bag too. Just because one critic is louder or more opinionated than another, doesn’t mean they speak for everyone. It’s hard to find the right person with useful insight.

These related posts will help:

When you find someone who appreciates how you work, has enough distance from the work, and is capable of offering constructive criticism, listen to him/her. You’ll find out if you’ve missed something important and then you can apply the finishing touches.

I’ve printed many drawings too soon, only to regret my haste when it became apparent that people could see something in the final drawing that I couldn’t. If I’d spent more time getting honest feedback before going to print, I could’ve saved time and money.

The Drawing is Finished When:

  • The drawing is getting worse
  • I’m overworking it and ruining the paper
  • When I run out of ideas
  • When I have reached a deadline and can’t justify the extra time
  • When I finally decide to sign it
  • When I lose interest and itch to start something new

Go and check out the range of courses on Domestika and Proko. Find the best on my online courses page. You’ll be surprised at the quality and the prices!

domestika course bundle

How to Know When a Drawing is Finished: Final Thoughts

If you can’t figure out when to call a drawing finished, don’t worry. you’re not alone. It’s a lifelong battle and has more to do with temperament than anything to do with your art skills.

Accept your procrastination for what it is, the desire to push yourself forward and do the best you can. It’s perfectly normal.

Declaring your drawing finished is a judgment call that only you can make. There are no rules to guide you, only shared experiences. Your art is unique to you, and you have to trust yourself to make the right decisions.

If I have one piece of advice that works, it’s to put your art away for a period of time before framing it or getting it scanned. It’s only time that can remove you from the creative process and enable you to judge your own artwork objectively.

If you like the way I draw and want to try things for yourself, this is my basic kit

When you are ready to sell your art check out my guide to get started. It’ll surprise you in this digital age.

Selling art made simple digital guide for starting a small art business

If You Want to Sell Your Art

Check this out!

Psst…it’s only $12.99!

Before you disappear check out these posts in case you’ve missed something important:

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How to know when your drawing is finished. A pin for pinterest
The artist and Author Kevin Hayler

Hi, I’m Kevin Hayler
I’ve been selling my wildlife art and traveling the world for over 20 years, and if that sounds too good to be true, I’ve done it all without social media, art school, or galleries!
I can show you how to do it. You’ll find a wealth of info on my site, about selling art, drawing tips, lifestyle, reviews, travel, my portfolio, and more. Enjoy

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