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When to quit painting before this happens.

Before this happens:

Or before this happens:

Knowing when to quit a painting can be like diffusing a bomb. One wrong move and the whole thing blows up before your eyes! I can’t tell you how many times I stood on the precipice of the end of a painting only to fall off the edge in the blink of an eye. One of the hardest lessons I’m still trying to learn is when to call it quits on a work in progress. Seems the “just a couple more strokes” fairy has taken up squatter’s rights on my shoulder.

Here are a few thoughts on how to ignore that pesky fairy and stay off the edge of that cliff.

I try to keep the old adage “20% underdone is better than 2% overworked “ running through my mind. Quit way early rather than late. A viewer’s imagination can finish a painting way more times than you can. Leave some room for this to happen.

Try using the patented Donna Macdonald ‘egg salad sandwich’ method. An egg salad sandwich is made up of three parts. Two parts bread and one part filling. The first slice of bread is the base for the painting. The egg salad filling is the guts of the work. The last slice of bread is the end of the painting. The part where the train can come off the tracks.

Slice one: A thinking slice.

This is the part where you do all the deciding and directional stuff. Choosing what and why you’re going to paint. Size, substrate, style, method, mood, composition, colour scheme - more drawing? More painting? Tight, loose, colourist, totalistic? All this is done at the beginning, in the thinking section. Work all of this out in whatever method you need, but do it first. Be it on a sketchbook, on paper, in your camera on photoshop, a chalkboard, napkin. Heck, you can even use a brown paper bag as Toulouse-Lautrec did. Just make sure to get as many kinks as you can work out before you hit the canvas or paper!

The egg salad part:

Now the eggy part is a different kettle of fish. It’s the ‘mush’ harder to describe part. Lots are going on and it’s hard to tell what’s in there but it sure is yummy. All the egg ingredients mixed together are the same - as all you know and have learned, just put into a bag and mushed up. Now put your first slice of bread into action. All that work you did, composition, colour theory etc, should be on your canvas. Now your left brain must take a leave of absence. No more thinking. Just painting. Paint fairly fast. Fast enough to keep the left brain chasing the creative right. Listen to your inner voice. Let the Muse come in and play. Feel where you’re going. When you feel you have exhausted all of that stop. Take a small break and come back with a fresh eye and jump back in.

Take as many breaks as you need but when you go back in, don’t tap it lightly. You need to hit it with a mallet. Remember this is the egg stage. If you feel you need to just tweak a few things then you have moved on to the second bread stage.

The second piece of bread: More thinky, less stinky

This is the crucial part of the story. This is where the bomb goes off, the toilet water rises then spills over the edge. The one wrong stick and all the marbles fall “KerPlunk!” It’s all over. In this last stage, it is important to ask a lot of questions. What more do I need to say? What’s missing? Turn the painting upside down. Look at it in the mirror. Anything glaring or obvious. Are spaces too big? Too small? Too warm? Too cool. Too busy? Is there a resting area? Is this saying what I wanted to say? When you go to fix these things then take a more conservative approach. Less arty more thinky. Take your time. Move slow. Like defusing the bomb, do not go fast, because cutting the wrong wire could cause a disaster. No move is made without a question and an answer. So ask a lot of questions and don’t make a mark on your painting till you have an answer. If you can’t find an answer, seek out help. This is where I rally the troops. I call in reinforcements. I get a fresh set of eyes to have a look. I seek out the help of Jean Geddes or Julie Hamilton. Someone who will give you an honest critique. Am I done?

It’s like cooking. Meal prep, Slicing and dicing, having everything ready. Is the thinking part. Then the cooking stage is creative. At the end is a thinking part, a small taste, perhaps just a pinch more pepper and salt to taste.

A few more thoughts:

If you’re unsure if you’re done, you may need to put the painting away for a day. I have left some for weeks, even months, before I have come to a resolution to end a painting. If you’re not sure if you’re close to done, try moving the painting to another room. A fresh view can sometimes make all the difference.

Try putting your painting in a tester frame. Nothing says “I’m done” like seeing a painting in a frame. Even in a bad frame a painting can look finished once it’s in.

Once I have determined the painting is done I have a rule. I sign it. Once I have signed a painting I’m not allowed to go back in. I can’t tell you how many times this has prevented me from going back in, once again, and noodling the work to death.

I hope this aids in getting you to stop putzing away near the end of your painting and having the guts to quit while you’re ahead.

Keep those brushes swinging!

Your friend in art,



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