Is it really finished?
Knowing when to declare "I'm done now!" is hard.
Hard? Yes, it's hard.
It's easy to see uncolored areas that you missed with your Copic Markers or colored pencils. But sometimes you're left staring at your project thinking
"I've colored everything and yet for some reason it doesn't feel finished!"
Finished is what we're talking about today. The iffy zone where you feel as if everything has been done to the best of your ability. The colors feel right, the depth feels correct, and the project as a whole feels complete.
Notice the word feel there? That's why this is hard.
Beginners have an especially tough time deciding when to call art done. Many overwork their projects (as I discussed here) but far more students quit too early leaving things looking half-finished.
It's a hard call to make because it's based on feelings.
Crafters are used to instructions, "do this and this and then you're done!" But art is touchy-feely and full of gray zones with no rules.
And here's where you're expecting me to swoop in with a handy solution, right?
Except now I'm about to break your heart: the decision never gets easier. After years of experience, I still have a tough time telling when enough is enough.
Not kidding. I struggle with the call far more than you'd think.
God invented framing under glass so that I'd stop fiddling with my art.
Today, let's take a look at some of the methods professional artists use to help see their projects clearly, to better decide when they're done.
These aren't precise techniques that will give you a definite answer. Instead, we're changing the way you approach the finish line which may help you make better choices.
But First, it's not about time!
I notice this a lot with beginning marker students.
"Awww, man! I've spent 2 hours on this! That's longer than I've ever spent on anything and it's a lot longer than you demonstrated! Now you're telling me it needs at least three more coats?"
Oh, grasshopper! You can spend all the time in the world on it and still not be done.
Time has no correlation to quality. Some of us work fast, some of us work slow.
If time was the key, we could all be rock stars who play pro football, perform brain surgery, and model swimsuits on the weekend.
Time isn't magic. Time isn't learning. Time is just time.
Here's the other way many beginners decide to be done:
They exhaust the paper.
They re-blend with Copics until the paper can't absorb any more ink. Or they burnish the heck out of the paper with colored pencils, getting to the point where further layers simply won't stick. They stop coloring when the paper simply can't take any more.
Maxing-out the paper says you used a lot of product. It doesn't mean it looks good.
It's a frustrating position to be in. You're still lacking in depth or dimension, maybe the blends are off or the values are wimpy. And yet you're powerless to do anything because the paper is exhausted.
You're done but not finished.
You didn't make the decision, you let the paper make the decision for you.
Waiting until the paper cries "uncle!" is no way to make art.
So what's the solution?
How do artists decide when they're done?
It's a tricky call and every artist develops their own method through trial and error. These methods all have one thing in common: finding the ability to see your art clearly and without emotion.
Once you see the art, you can better judge the art.
So here are five methods I use.
And relax, none of them involve choirs of angels announcing "Hallelujah, ye are done!"
Because I don't know about you, but my studio is really small. I don't have room in here for a chorus line of dancing deities.
1. Stand Back
The most underrated coloring tool you own is your rolling office chair.
A lot of colorers crab-in on their coloring, crowding the paper, hovering their nose inches away from the project.
I don't blame you, you're doing detail work and getting closer increases your control and accuracy.
But you can't tell diddly-squat about how it looks from two inches away.
Viewers look at your projects at an arm's distance.
We're talking at least 24 inches from your card to their eyeball. The distance only increases as your projects get bigger. Ideal distance for framed art viewing is usually 3 feet away!
Roll your chair back.
Stand up and give yourself some space.
This is why so many oil and acrylic painters prefer standing easels and long handled paint brushes. They make better art by working at viewing distance.
Evaluate your project from two to three feet away before you decide that you're done.
You can't make the call until YOU see what WE see.
2. Squint (Yes, really!)
I'm going to get crows feet early but that's okay. Crinkle lines around the eyes are the sign of a good artist!
Everything looks fuzzy when you squint. This eliminates small details.
You don't focus on the smoothness of the blends; you aren't worried about streaks or smears or technique flaws.
Instead what you see in the squint is hue and value.
These are the things you must get correct before you end the project!
- Do your darks look dark enough?
- Have you laid down enough color to insure that no area looks washed out.
- Are your highlights balanced 50/50 with the darks areas?
- Do your objects feel dimensional and rounded?
- Is there a good balance of color temperature around the image?
You can't be done until you've answered yes to all of those questions. And you can't focus on this stuff until you tune out all the distractions!
Squinting helps. I do it multiple times throughout the project but I start squinting harder and more often as I get to the end of the project.
Reading the squint is a great way to help decide that you might be done.
3. Evaluate With Fresh Eyes
Fresh eyes? Is that a thing?
Right after a marathon 4 hour coloring session is NOT the time to decide if you're done.
You're too close to the project.
You're still emotionally invested.
You aren't thinking straight.
I wrote about the importance of thinking time in my 3 Secret Steps to Great Coloring article here and it's so incredibly important that I'll mention it again.
A waiting period is very wise.
All of my projects go into a flat-file drawer for two days.
It's important not to peek during the sequester time.
Out of sight means out of mind.
Tucking the project away erases much of the emotional baggage and clears away all the obsessive thoughts that run through my head as I color.
That resting time resets my brain.
Then when I finally pull the project back out, I pay attention to my first thoughts.
"Dang, that's pretty good" or "Whoa, fix that leaf on the left now!"
Both are valuable insights that you won't hear clearly from your brain during the coloring process.
Give it a rest for a few days. You'll feel better and with fresh eyes, you'll see more accurately.
4. Critique Partners
One of the things I miss most about illustration is bouncing ideas off other artists and art directors.
"Hey, I like that texture" is incredibly helpful!
So is "Uhm, Amy? What in the heck is that???"
Good ideas and good art flourish with feedback.
Find yourself a critique partner, a colorer who wants to grow and improve as much as you do. Share your projects and encourage each other.
But here's the catch: be sure to leave room in every critique for improvement suggestions.
Sunshine, rainbows, and "Wow!" feel good but constructive criticism is far more important. You also need to hear "the texture on the farmer's shirt is distracting and steals the focus from his face."
And don't use your spouse as your sounding board! "Does this cardinal look happy?" is the same as "do these pants make me look fat?" How do they answer that without making YOU unhappy?
Plus, your husband or wife doesn't care about coloring the same way you do. They can't give you the kind of feedback that you'll get from someone who knows the intricacies of coloring.
A critique partner will have fresher eyes than you'll ever have. They may love you but they won't always love your work. Find someone to be honest with you and look at your project through their eyes.
I stumbled upon this last tip when I started this website, so this one's relatively new to me!
For years, I'd flip my project upside down to see if it still felt accurate and balanced.
According to all my art teachers, if you flip the clown painting upside down, it won't look like a clown anymore. Instead you'll see random shapes and supposedly, that helps you check the composition.
But it always looked like an upside-down clown to me.
Other artists use the mirror method. Holding your project up to a mirror is supposed to reveal imbalances, flaws, and imperfections.
And again, it never really worked for me.
I can mentally flip things back, far too easily.
Then I started photographing projects for the blog here and noticed that I had a strange detachment to my projects when I view them electronically.
Suddenly, it looked like someone else's work. And when it's someone else's art, you can edit the heck out of it without any remorse!
I can't tell you how many times I've interrupted the scanning process to fix something. As my image scans, my computer gives me a thumbnail view and I almost always spot something that needs improvement from the tiny thumbnail preview.
I do the same thing after opening a project in Photoshop. I thought it looked good in real life but the Photoshop view has me running back to fix the original.
The screen is especially good at revealing areas where you have too much tooth showing through, where the marker blends are choppy, or where the color is undeveloped.
In television, they say the camera "adds ten pounds" but it also takes a wrecking ball to what you thought was pretty good art.
That's a good thing! You can't fix it if you can't see it!
I now encourage my students to take cell phone snapshots in class so that they can evaluate their progress with unemotional detachment.
It works. I don't know why, but it works.
So there you go!
5 ways to evaluate your projects with a keen eye.
Because seeing your project accurately will help you decide if it's really finished or not.
1. Stand back for a viewer's perspective.
2. Squint for a fuzzy view.
3. Use fresh eyes for mental clarity
4. Find an honest critique partner and grow together!
5. Go digital to edit with detachment and candor.
There are no red flags, no angel on your shoulder, no referees that will make the finished decision for you.
But using these tips should get you in a better mental state so that you can decide for yourself.
Deciding to be done is a normal part of creating art. Let's try to make it as painless as possible!
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