The Artist’s Life: How Do You Know When You’re Done?

When I use my intuition to inform my approach to the canvas, it doesn’t always guarantee that I will like the results of a particular work. Many times I sense something not quite right in a work that creates a feeling of dissatisfaction, and I know that it just isn’t done. Other times I finish a work with a great deal of satisfaction—that is, until I go back to the studio the next day, or view the piece in a different setting from my work space.

So how do you know when a work of art is done? Is there a definitive rule, or a particular number of elements needed? Is there a checklist of factors that will ensure the piece is ready for display? Sometimes I wish these things were true!

Crystal Neubauer artwork
Phase 1 of “Hands of the Dreamer” by Crystal Neubauer

The fact is, even a perfectly rendered painting with masterful brush strokes can fall flat if there is no heart and soul factored into the equation, leaving the viewer feeling unmoved. And a work that has been passionately rendered can create a dizzying sense of confusion if there is no place to rest the eye, or has nary a sense of balance. Here are some tips that will help you know when a work is done:

1. Walk away and give the piece some time.

Though I have not found a formula that will guarantee a positive outcome, I have learned to trust my eye and my inner artist to tell me when to leave well enough alone and walk away for a while.

I was so intrigued by an image of a set of hands trimmed from an antique photograph that I couldn’t wait to create a collage around it. I chose a 12″ x 24″ panel to work on and set about gathering the materials that would complement the image and set a mysterious mood. My excitement continued to build as I glued my scraps down, but as I stepped back from the finished work, it did not read as done. I then took other measures I thought would correct the balance, harmony, and tone, but each time I stepped back I felt less satisfied with the work.

Crystal Neubauer artwork
Phase 2 of the piece.

I finally decided I needed to let it go, and put the canvas in a closet where it sat for an entire year. One day, out of the blue, an idea popped into my head. In the midst of a very busy week I stopped everything and pulled the collage out of storage. I added a little white encaustic wax and some pigmented paint stick, and just like that, I knew it was done!

2. Change your perspective.

I don’t always go to such drastic lengths when I am not happy with a work of art, leaving it sitting for months at a time. Sometimes all I need is a change of perspective.

The simple act of picking up a collage from my worktable and placing it on a clean white background often lets me know if it’s done. This gives me the ability to see the work as if it were hanging on a wall in a gallery, without the mess of papers, ink, and glue surrounding it.

Other times I gain fresh perspective by looking at the work from a different angle, upside down, from the side, or even photographing it with my cell phone and looking at it on the screen. Viewing the work in a different way can inform my decisions about what is lacking in balance, or whether the piece is missing a focal point.

Crystal Neubauer artwork
Phase 3 of the piece.

3. Challenge your thinking.

When I feel particularly strong emotions toward my work that are different from how other people react to it, I know the problem might be my own thoughts. If I am not mindful of what is happening inside of me during my studio sessions, certain life events or encounters with people may creep in and be reflected in my thoughts toward my work. I may be tuning in to my inner critic, who tends to run rampant with negativity and can find nothing good to say. We all have those days where it seems the clouds are hanging over our head, ready to rain. When I catch my thoughts spiraling in that direction I might need a nap or a walk in the park to clear my head before I return to the studio, lest I ruin a perfectly good work of art.

4. Accept that not every work will be display worthy.

In some cases the best thing to do is accept that no matter how attached I am to an element in the work, sometimes the whole of it is just not working. Not everything I do is going to be a hit. Sometimes the harder I try to force something to work, the worse it gets. This usually happens when I don’t follow one of the measures above, and I push and push until there is nothing I can do to save the piece. All is not lost at this point—I can still tear the collage into pieces and use it in other works, or completely cover it in paint or encaustic wax and use it for drawing exercises. At the very least, I can say I gained experience and had fun in the process, and some days that really is enough.

The finished piece.
The finished piece, “Hands of the Dreamer.”

In each blog I will share the work of one artist whose work inspires me and challenges me to grow.

This month I’d like to introduce you to my friend and former studio-mate, Rebecca Stahr. Rebecca is a professional mixed-media artist working primarily with encaustic wax. I connect with Rebecca’s art on so many levels: her use of found materials, the way she works through personal issues of chronic pain when crafting her work, her exploration of faith as a frequent subject matter, and the tactile surfaces she creates with her torch.

"Chattering Thoughts" by Rebecca Stahr
“Chattering Thoughts” by Rebecca Stahr, 24″ x 24″, encaustic mixed media.

I think Rebecca beautifully illustrates the point of my last post about becoming gifted at a particular craft through practice. I have watched Rebecca take on the art of encaustic painting with sheer determination, spending hours of time in her studio practicing techniques with no intended outcome other than mastering the craft. The hours spent are paying off with a recent solo show and an Internet radio interview with an internationally recognized gallery owner and art coach. You can view more of Rebecca’s work and read her bio at

About Crystal Neubauer

Crystal Neubauer

From obtaining gallery representation to writing the book The Art of Expressive Collage: Techniques for Creating with Paper and Glue (North Light Books) to teaching workshops nationwide and opening my studio, learning to tune in to the voice within has led me on a journey of learning “I can.” Join me for an “I can” experience of your own as you learn to tune in to the creative flow while identifying the negative messages and fears that stop you. Find my work on my website, and more about the process, techniques, and my life on the blog.


Crystal Neubauer

About Crystal Neubauer

Gallery represented artist. Author of The Art Of Expressive Collage; Techniques With Paper and Glue. Blogger. National workshop instructor.


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