I find that no matter how much time I’ve spent on a piece, or how meticulous I’ve been, there’s always a part of it I feel I can still work on. When I look at one of my portraits, I always see something I could refine, something I could do better. So how do I decide when something is finished? When do I put the pencil or brush down, and step away from my work?
It’s a tricky question, and I have a feeling every artist has struggled with it at one time or another. Sometimes it’s easy, and you put that last stroke in and just know you’re finished. Even then, I still struggle with going back and adding a black line here, or a whisker there.
More often, I find myself agonizing over the tiny details, attempting to get them just right. This was really evident when I was working on an extra-large elephant portrait. I knew I was getting close to finishing, and figured one or two days more of work would just about do it. But how to know when I was actually done?
The first step is always to simply let your piece be for a while. Step away from it, leave it a day or two, and then come back to it. Chances are, those parts that you were struggling with will come a lot easier with fresh eyes. Or you might look at the piece and realize you’re actually satisfied with it, and that the piece is finished. Either way, being able to take some time away is a great plan. Unfortunately sometimes deadlines get in the way of this strategy, but if you can do it, you should!
I also find if I’m going back to the same place over and over, with no real change in the drawing, it’s a good sign that it’s probably time to stop. I just finished a portrait tonight with a lot of white fur, and when I was just constantly going over the white parts again and again to try and get them to stand out, I realized I was probably finished.
Another thing to watch out for when you’re finishing up: there are times when I just can’t stop working on a part of a portrait, trying to get it just right. At a certain point, though, I find the more I try and get it ‘perfect’, the more off it gets. When I reach this point, I have to force myself to step away and stop fiddling, or I’ll ruin the portrait. I started falling into this trap with the elephant portrait. Every little adjustment I made teetered on the brink of making things worse. So I stopped, put my pencils away, and when I looked at the portrait the next day I was thrilled with it.
Those are some of my thoughts on finishing portraits. Every artist probably has their own system and I’d love to hear your thoughts, so if you have anything to add, please let me know!