Deciding When Artwork is Finished

Deciding When Artwork is Finished

Have you ever had difficulty deciding when artwork is finished? You’re not alone. Even artists who have been drawing for years can sometimes be uncertain.

Even I sometimes struggle knowing when to call a piece finished and when there’s more to do.

The reader who asked today’s question also wants to know the same thing. Here’s his question.

Hi Carrie,

Do you basically have to trust your gut instinct as to when to call a piece finished? I recently completed a portrait, but because I was 90% happy with the face I stopped for fear of ruining it.


Thank you, Dave, for asking such an insightful question. Sometimes, finishing is more difficult than starting. It isn’t always easy!

Deciding When Artwork is Finished

I spent many years as a portrait artist. The guidelines are a bit different for commissioned work than for myself, so let me break this post into two sections.

Commissioned Work

Commission work always comes with a due date. It was impossible to work on a portrait forever.

So doing commission work is a mix of doing the most (and best) work you can do in the time allowed. More than once, I knew there was more I could do on a portrait, but I needed to deliver it. That’s especially true with oil portraits, which need time to dry.

But even with colored pencils, it’s not always possible to put as much work into a piece as I prefer. There have been some pieces that I’ve never been happy with, but the clients liked them, so I sent them on.

Sasha, Colored Pencil portrait on gray paper.

So for commission work, the delivery date is often the final decider on when a piece is finished! Do the absolute best you can, and if the client approves the work, it’s finished.

Work for Myself

I definitely have more difficulty calling a piece finished on work I’m doing for myself. Part of the reason is that it’s always on view and it’s oh-so easy to see things I could improve. Leaving them alone and working on something new is a challenge!

So, I have a few guidelines to keep me on track.

My Own Skill Limitations

Sometimes, a piece doesn’t look quite finished, but I don’t know what else to do with it. I may not have the skill to do what I think I need to do, or I may just not know what else to do.

That happened with this piece, but mostly because I was drawing something I’ve never drawn before (fire) using products I wasn’t that familiar with (Brush & Pencil products.) I learned a lot and I was content with the results, but it’s been a few weeks since I finished it, and I’m already seeing ways to make it better.

Or draw a better, more realistic campfire the next time.

Campfire, 6×4 Colored Pencil on Clairefontaine Pastelmat

When I reach the limits of my skills, I research the skill I think I need. If I find some suggestions I can use, then I try them.

If I don’t find any suggestions, then I let the piece sit for a day or two, and review it again. Sometimes, an idea of my own comes to mind. Sometimes, the piece no longer looks unfinished or like it needs anything else. In that case, I sign it and move on.

Expectations & Satisfaction

Sometimes, a piece meets my expectations. This doesn’t happen very often because my expectations are usually so high, but it’s great when it does.

Another good feeling is when I look at a piece and I actually like it! That doesn’t happen very often, either, but it does happen.

In both cases, I sign the piece and move on to a new piece.

As difficult as the piece below was, I was thrilled with the results when I finished it. And you know what? I still like it!

Cumbre Vieja de La Palma – The Early Days, 4×6 Colored Pencil on Clairefontaine Pastelmat

Rest & Review

Most of the time, I start feeling like a piece is nearing completion before it’s complete. When that happens, I do what I can do with it, then it aside for a day or two, or maybe for a weekend.

After that, I review it, looking for things I could make better or details I can add. If I find things to change, then I change them.

If I don’t find anything to change, then I consider the piece finished.

So Are There Any Real Guidelines for Deciding When Artwork is Finished?


I’ve found a few methods that work for me, but they may not work for you.

A lot of it comes down to personal experience. The more pieces you finish, the more easily you’ll recognize a finished piece when you see one.

But to be honest, I almost always find something I could have improved upon when I look at my finished artwork, no matter how good it is.

The secret is to keep learning and improving.

And keep making art.

Got a question? Ask Carrie!

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