This is an age old question that artists keep asking.  It is something that we all must learn and quite frankly experience is the best teacher.  Yes, there are guidelines that we want to follow, but only we as the artist know what we are trying to accomplish with each painting that we create. And don't forget,  artist's are seldom completely happy with their painting so don't let that be the the way you decide. If you do, then you run the risk of overworking the painting and thus ruining it.

     Some questions you can ask yourself are: Is the composition good?  Do the colors harmonize?  Does it flow?  If there is water, is it level?  Is the perspective correct? Am I "reasonably" happy with it?

     That said,  we must always remember that the composition is one of the, if not THE most important factor in the painting.  So,  as we paint we want to be constantly aware of that composition.  Is it apparent?  Does the eye readily FLOW (not jump) to the focal point?  If the eye has to "jump" from one object to another then we need to do some more work on the composition.

     An important aspect that make the focal point stand out are the brush strokes we use.  We have blurred edges, soft edges, and hard crisp edges.  For example, you are painting a portrait of a lady.  She is wearing a flowing scarf that wraps around her body and head.  Toward the edges of the canvas, we want that scarf to have blurred edges, closer in they are clearer, but still soft.  When we get close to the focal point, her face, the edges become very crisp and clear.  It is easy to see her face and the eye of the viewer enjoys the journey of the scarf but quickly zeros in on the face as the object of the painting.  The scarf is the "flow" in the painting taking the eye around and to the face as the final destination.

     We may be working on a painting and find that something is bothering us but we just can't put our finger on what it is.  The best thing to do is just set it aside for a while but somewhere we can see it when we come into the room.  Don't stare at it, move on to another project.  At some point; it may be a day or a month, we will glance over and suddenly say, AHA I see the problem, and wonder why we didn't see it all along!  Even if we feel it is good and we are satisfied, it is a good idea to set it aside for a few days before we take the step of varnishing it.   I can't tell you how many times I was sure it was done and put on the varnish, only to have to sand it down later to fix a mistake I found.  Patience is not one of my virtues, unfortunately.  But slowly, I am learning to be patient and it is paying off.  My paintings are better and I am much happier with them later on, knowing I put the best effort possible into my work.  I hate nothing more that looking at a painting on the wall and seeing what has become a glaring mistake to me.  Save yourself that frustration! Plus, if you work in acrylics, you know how the colors dry darker, unlike oils.  It takes a few days of tweaking the highlights to get it where you want it to be.  So, again, please don't be in a rush to declare a painting finished.  Let it set for awhile and look at it.  You'll be glad you did!

     It is interesting that the painting in the blog "PAINTING FOG AND ATMOSPHERE" is about this very subject.  I posted the painting of the log cabin and thought it was finished.  But later realized that it needed more because my eye was staying glued to the cabin. So it went back on the easel.  I glazed it, then added trees, shrubs and flowers most of them in the foreground and were a dark value.  I also darkened the grass and only then did I realize that I had left the porch out of the shadow!  After doing all of this the painting came to life!  It was REALLY finished!  I have the two photos below so you can see the difference.  I hope this helps you grasp the idea I am trying to convey.  In the first one it looks ok.  But my gut kept saying it needed more, but what?

11 X 14
   See how the eye now moves around the painting instead of staying glued to the cabin?

      Another example is the "HOME TO THE HIGHLANDS" painting with the white horses. I was very proud of it as an entry into the Nature and Wildlife show.  Yet, to my disappointment, it was not accepted.  I knew then that there must be a problem with the composition.  So, I set it aside for a while and looked at it from time to time.  Finally, one day I realized that my eye had to "jump" from horse to horse. It needed more horses! When we have multiples, the best flow comes when we overlap them.  There can be space, but not a lot.  Overlapping makes the eye flow from one to the other easily.  For example, look at the sketch below.

As you can see in this photo, the ducks are all spaced evenly.  This does NOT make for good composition.  It is too boring and  uninteresting!      Now, look at the next sketch.

                   Here, the  birds are overlapping and the overall effect is much more interesting.

     I can give you an example here, both of lack of composition and lack of patience.  I painted a family of ducks I saw walking down the street here in St. Augustine. It is good, but while writing this blog, I realized that I had done EXACTLY what I told you NOT to do!  It will be fixed very soon, needless to say, and I will post the before and after for you to see how much difference it makes!

           This is the "before". I will probably add another duckling in with the two on the left.

"FAMILY OUTING" on St. George Street
"Scenes of St. Augustine"
8 x 10
Acrylic on canvas board
Now it looks so much better!  Can you see the difference, other than just the number of ducks of course!  It just seems to flow better and the eye moves around the painting smoothly. I also corrected  the shadow under the duckling in the front.  The color was slightly off.  It is now easier to see his "strut".

     Well,  getting back to "HOME TO THE HIGHLANDS",  I studied the horses and drew several sketches with the current horses and then added more in.  That helped me decide to add another mare behind the middle horse and add two foals behind them, but in front of the big stallion.  All went well with the mare but when I added the foals, suddenly I didn't like how it looked.  It was just too busy.  I looked at it for a day or so and decided to add a second mare beside the stallion but slightly in front of him.  That was better, but still too busy.  What to do?  I felt the problem was somehow with the foals, so I placed my hand over one at a time and I figured it out!  I needed to remove one of them completely.  When I did so, suddenly the flow was there.  I did change the head position of the mare by the stallion however.  I turned her head more toward the remaining foal and she then fit right in instead looking like she was leaving the others. Just that small detail made all the difference.  It is amazing how that works.  Now, I am "reasonably" happy with my horses and "HOME TO THE HIGHLANDS" will go up on the feature wall with my other paintings.

     I also softened the rocks as they went into the distance.  I decided they were too crisp and took too much attention away from the horses. And, if you look closely at the horses legs, they blend into the grass and almost disappear, that is except for the stallion.  The group as a whole is the focal point, but the stallion stands out as the main focus.  That is because he is sharp, clear, and larger than the others.

      below are of the before and after.  See if you agree with me. (sorry the right photo is dark)

     I hope this explanation helps you decide when your painting is finished. As I said, there is no cut and dried answer, but if you know what to look for and exercise patience, you'll get the hang of it..

                                 Below is a larger photo of the completed painting. Enjoy!!

36 x 24

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