When is a painting finished?


In my little corner of the world, at the threshold of winter, the tree in my view by the pond is entering another state. It is becoming transparent. It disrobes, dropping its leaves slowly, as if preparing to vanish before my eyes. I’m noticing now that most of what I’m seeing is not the tree at all but what is behind it. I am seeing right through it as it floats before me like a veil. Its gathering ghostliness is cast into the water, silver and violet reflections, thin twigs making tiny lines the color of bones. In September, the tree changed from green to yellow and then in November to crimson-orange, but this time the language of transformation is transparency. The tree is losing its shape and boundaries. This is a whole new stage to represent, unlike any that I’ve seen the last seven months, a tree caught in the act of vanishing. I see that the tree is passing through various states of being and each state has its own character and its own integrity. To me, the steps or stages seem real and particular, in spite of their impermanence, each stage appears as a kind of archetype, like an image on a Tarot card.

Even though I experience my practice of painting as an ongoing process, a life journey that is dynamic and continuous like the processes I study in nature, the finished paintings I produce are by definition fixed. They are objects, products, destinations. For me, finishing is really hard. Part of the challenge might be this tension or paradox between the continuum and the fixed point. Another part of the challenge is that I don’t really know what a finished painting is supposed to look like.

Whenever I try to finish a painting by carefully cleaning up all the parts—removing smudges, perfecting the drawing, spiffing and polishing—as I work, the spirit slowly drains out of it. This approach to finishing leaves me unsatisfied and leads to my either abandoning the painting before it is complete or just stopping and calling it “finished” in spite of my dissatisfaction. I know that Nature is not polished and uniform, all clear, clean and tidy, but raw and variable, messy, ambiguous, and indefinite. And above all, nature is dynamic. It stands to reason that a painting of Nature must somehow include these qualities. What if focusing on details and formal accuracy won’t ever get me there?

So I am searching for some other measure to judge when a work is finished. Perhaps a well-finished painting is one that speaks about the archetypal truth of its subject, something that dwells below the surface details and local colors. What if I just focus on representing the underlying essence of my subject and my relationship to, and feeling about, that essence? In each stage I observe in Nature, I recognize that there is an essence, each stage has a certain quality or character. We say “that tree is bare” or “that tree is turning.” Perhaps the best way to finish a painting is to try to move the subject ever more towards that state. I know when that character is developing in my painting because the image inspires that particular feeling I have when I stand before it in Nature. I know to keep working as long as I can make something more like its essential self. I know I need to stop as the image begins to move away from itself and become something else. Mysteriously, sometimes this process goes on for many days and even weeks as I devote hour after hour to the piece, other times I breathe a painting into being in a few hours, almost effortlessly, and only need the good sense to leave it alone (which is surprisingly difficult sometimes). So perhaps, in this way, my practice of finishing can be guided by Nature herself.


8 thoughts on “When is a painting finished?

  1. Interesting meditation on trying to come up with criteria for the subjective sense of when a picture is done.Whether there are tried and true techniques “cleaning it up” or more intuitive approaches,I.e.coming close to the underlying archetype or image sought after or effect striven for.As your student,I am inclined to go with the intuitive,as it suits my personality of restless and impatient.But who knows what is right or whether there is such a thing.Another interesting,yet unanswerable question dependent on the criteria one uses.Maybe the best possible solution is one that uses multiple criterion.Technique and intuition.My sense is that that is what most of us do anyway.Just a hunch.


  2. I face this situation very often, and sometimes ”overdo” the painting beyond repair. But then it is
    far too late to retrace one’s steps !
    The situation does not change for realistic or abstract work, and I suspect this is linked to my level of
    concentration and focus as against distractions and other ‘business’ that tries to infiltrate my mind
    during the process of painting; maybe breathing exercise and meditation will help.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Beautifully written and insightful. I wonder if you could somehow incorporate your words into your paintings. Maybe not on the canvas itself, but perhaps in a poem or prose poem that accompanies a painting. Certainly your recent descriptions of the pond, the changing light and color, the trees in the process of turning, seeing through to what’s behind, these are images that speak to me and add a dimension to the beauty of the images; so if that is true for me, maybe it is true for others? Maybe we who cherish your work would also cherish having the record of your experience in committing to the work? I know that “when is it finished” was your starting title, but your description of the experience while you are seeing, while you are painting, is so powerful!

    I have a parallel experience with writing songs– it is hard to know when a song is done. Of course, a song is sung over and over again, and it may change with the performance, and certainly with the performers, in ways that don’t apply to a painting once it is complete. But, at least for me, the lyrics usually are fixed as a of a certain point where I say “It’s done,” and that point can be very hard to find. Some songs sit in a notebook for a year, or a decade, or even a couple of decades, before they call out to me, and then maybe they get a second chance at completion.


  4. Hi Adam, I am so enjoying reading your posts. This one has me reflecting on time passing, coming to know a place intimately by looking and seeing repeatedly, and how, , life is messy and paintings or lives that are too “cleaned up”, lose their beauty and vitality. Love, Dorothy


  5. You write as eloquently as you paint, and that’s quite something. Once again, thank you for allowing me to experience your painting process through your eyes .


  6. Hi Adam,I love your posts, let’s plan a time to get together in January, would love to see your new work and catch up. For now have a splendid solstice/Christmas/and all.Hugs,Satri From: Adam Wolpert Painting To: spencak@yahoo.com Sent: Tuesday, December 8, 2015 9:07 AM Subject: [New post] When is a painting finished? #yiv9814289551 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv9814289551 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv9814289551 a.yiv9814289551primaryactionlink:link, #yiv9814289551 a.yiv9814289551primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv9814289551 a.yiv9814289551primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv9814289551 a.yiv9814289551primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv9814289551 WordPress.com | Adam Wolpert posted: “In my little corner of the world, at the threshold of winter, the tree in my view by the pond is entering another state. It is becoming transparent. It disrobes, dropping its leaves slowly, as if preparing to vanish before my eyes. I’m noticing now that” | |


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