What to do when you don’t know what to do next - in your painting

“Burning Bright” oil on 24” x 36” panel. Available at Principle Gallery, Alexandria, VA

There comes a point in every painting when you don’t know what to do next. You feel your painting isn’t finished, not by a long shot, but, you don’t know exactly what it needs in order for it to be complete. The answer is often within the painting itself and if you listen carefully it will tell you what it needs.

Unfortunately, many artists try to solve this riddle by searcing for the answer in their reference material, scouring every detail in hopes of finding “the thing” that’s missing. But, as much as the reference has to say it often lies because what works in a small study, a drawing or a photo won’t necessarily work in a painting.

I’ve watched students struggle because they’ve fallen in love with some detail in their reference and yet, when they add it to their painting it doesn’t work. At this point it’s critical to stop looking at your reference and start looking at your painting.

If you need to see it with a fresh eye, then step back, step WAY back, take a break, use a mirror and look at it over your shoulder or, my personal favorite, turn it upside down. Then ask yourself the following -

What do you think your painting needs in order for it to be better?
What is working?
What isn’t working and how can you improve it?
Is there a design problem?
Is there a drawing problem?
Are the values working?
Does one area seem divorced from everything else?
Is there a focal point and if so is anything distracting from that?
Have you divided your canvas into equal quadrants?
Have you created any visual lines cutting your painting into sections?
Do you have any convergent lines that are a distraction?
Do you have a hierarchy of shapes?

Look at each section and ask those questions, often something will reveal itself.

Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t have the answer right away, it may take some time. Remember, many of the world’s best artists spent years working on some of their paintings. The answer is in there, I promise, you just have to listen and trust that you can find it. I believe in you.


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