When Do You Stop? When Is A Drawing Finished

September 25, 2017
A full spread sketch in the largest Hahnemühle Nostalgie sketchbook. I used a Bienfang Magenta watercolor brush pen to start and did the comb, wattles, and area around the eye. A little different approach for me because I usually start with the eye. Then I decided to paint some of the features, add color to the background, and also add some stenciling detail to the background.

I think the number one question I get from students is: “When do I know my drawing is finished?”

Most people aren’t going to like the answer.

You’ll know after you’ve taken a ton of sketches past the point of no return.

Here’s the thing, you’re asking a question that involves choices both stylistic choices and choices about your goals and intention. Additionally if you’ve only been sketching a short while you won’t know what things look like until you actually do whatever it is that you are thinking about doing and then replay that in your mind against what you membered before.

In my last post I suggested you scan an image and change it in Photoshop. I don’t do that often.

But sometimes what I will do if I wonder whether or not I want to put in a background or go a different direction is photograph the sketch. Just a quick photograph. I don’t even set up any lights! I just want to have a reference of what I had so I can to jog my memory after I go forward. You could do this as well. It’s quick and simple. Take the photo and then  go ahead and make the changes you wanted to make. Afterwards you can judge the two versions side by side. This will speed up your decision process in the future.

Basically you need to do a lot of sketches to get a sense of what you want to do stylistically.

And you need to do an equal amount of tonnage of sketches to carry out the various intentions you have when you sit down to sketch.

And sometimes the reality is that your style choices and your intention change during the very process of sketching. You continue sketching for other reasons, other goals, entirely—like the fun of it.

Here’s something I wrote to one of my students when she asked, “What are the clues to knowing when you’re done with your sketch?”

When do you stop? that’s so funny. Last night I did a piece and I know exactly when I lost the likeness but it was so darn fun working with the paint (and passing the time with vertigo) that I kept going.

So sometimes the answer to when to stop doesn’t matter.

But the REAL answer, the answer that helps you improve, is that you have to “break” a lot of drawings/paintings by going too far in order to learn where your particular stopping point is.

Somedays you’ll learn something about your color choice. Some days you’ll learn something about your line or brush work. Somedays you’ll learn a little bit about everything—a gestalt day.

Originally I intended to stick with a brush pen sketch, using a black brush pen and a magenta brush pen (for the comb and wattles). This is what the sketch looked like before I colored the background and certain features.

And even on days when you don’t think you’ve learned anything you’ll learn that you need to fight the impulse to stop because there is some sort of fear/hesitation/resistance that is keeping you from going on and seeing what comes next.

Check in with your goals. What were your goals when you started the painting? If it was a likeness then you keep working until you get as much of a likeness as you’re going to get. If it was to work out a paint blending issue or color choice you keep working until that goal is met. (And realize that the likeness may or may not still be there.)

All the while you keep in mind that you may come out of this whole process with NOTHING SHOWABLE, nothing like what you’d hoped, but you come out with better understanding and skill for the next time.

And over time the question changes from “When do I stop,” to “How much further can I go before I break this?” And when you get to that point you become fearless because you absolutely love that sense of balance between what you see in your mind’s eye and what you are on the verge of getting on your page—or what you have as a goal, but haven’t yet envisioned and see instead something new and wonderful appearing before you.

The clues are goal dependent. If the goal is to reach a likeness then the stopping point clues might include (but are not limited to): Have I met my goal, is it a likeness? Are my angles right? Can I fix them? Are my proportions right? Can I fix them? Is there volume and mass? Is there contrast? Can the color be pushed, changed, corrected, etc.? Is my negative space interesting? How does part A support part B and how can I intensify that? (An example of what “part A” and “part B” might be is perhaps what you do with the non-facial elements in a portrait as you design it in your head—so the background features, colors, shapes, brushstrokes, values, etc., become part B and the face is part A. Do they support each other?)

“When do I stop” is actually something the internal critic wants you to ask yourself to instill doubt in yourself.

Try asking, “What else can I do to this to reach my goals?”

That shifts to the experimental mind and pushes you into discovery without fear of going past some boundary of acceptableness. And your internal critic can’t stand that and has to shut up.

Then you are in the land of exploration where it’s not about the finished piece but about the learning and understanding.

After you spend enough time there (and that varies not only from person to person, but materials, papers, all sorts of variables constantly change up what is “enough time”) you will work on a piece with your goals in mind and you’ll know “For now, this is enough.”

You will stop, and then you will do another sketch immediately to try out the other options or strategies you were coming up with, or to push more, or to push less, i.e., put into action immediately what you just learned by doing the first sketch.

There’s a reason I’m always going on about working in series.

I hope you’ll keep your goals and your intentions in mind as you work through these choices.

Why Did I Keep Going After I Reached My Goal of a Brush Pen Sketch?

In the example shown here I kept going after I had the magenta and black brush pen portrait on the page because I believed there was more to explore. I believed that if I worked with bringing some of the features up with color (such as the eye and the head) I would intensify the effect of the eye and the expression. Sure I liked it in the “black and white” sketch, but I thought I could do something to make it richer and I was willing to risk the whole sketch. 

Another thing that pushed me forward was that I believed by some additional painting I could intensify the sense of negative space as a component of design in the sketch. I thought that made it worth the risk.

My final reason for continuing on was not only did I think the changes would help the negative space, but the changes that I started to view as new goals meant that I could get out the stencils and play with additional texturizing of the background. (There is a tone on tone pattern stenciled into the pink background.)

Most of the time for me in sketching, play trumps avoiding risk.

Really, what’s the worst that can happen? I’d have to do another sketch? 

p.s. I’m sorry if I’ve used this sketch before. I thought I had, and it’s not easy to check in the new blog format. (I have to revamp how I organize things). But this is such an ideal sketch to illustrate this point that I jumped right in.  









    • Diane
    • September 25, 2017

    Well put!

    1. Reply

      Thanks Diane.

    • Paul
    • September 25, 2017

    Sound advice as usual, thank you Roz!

    1. Reply

      Thanks Paul!

    • sandra
    • September 25, 2017

    another timely and well-put instruction you have just shared!…some of it made me really smile, esp the comment ‘how much farther can I go before i break this’…. loved that…learn by doing..I have drawn my dog probably 1400 times.. really…and still am learning secrets.. shouldnt my sketches all be perfect by now?..nnnaaaaawwwww…..thanks for such continuing great words…love your words and work…

    1. Reply

      Thanks Sandra, I’m glad that you have a great model to sketch from.

    • Tina Koyama
    • September 25, 2017

    Much wisdom here! After sketching for 6 years, I think I am finally getting so that, more often than not, I stop just BEFORE the point when I would have gone too far. But not always, of course. But it’s good to know that my timing is improving.

    – Tina

    1. Reply

      I tend to keep pushing and pushing especially when I’m working with gouache and other certain media that have some opacity so I can work to bring something back. I like that play.

  1. Reply

    Always thinhgs to keep in mind. The more you draw, the better we can improve our drawings.

    1. Reply

      Thanks right

  2. Reply

    I found it very interesting that you usually start with the eye. I’ve just (re)discovered your blog, so you may have discussed this somewhere, but I couldn’t find it. When I first started drawing a few years ago, I did a face drawing series. I always found it much easier to start with the eyes, although all of the “how to’s” I read seemed to start with a contour of the head. I’m drawing birds at the moment – maybe I’ll go back to starting with the eyes. Do you have any posts that walk through this kind of progression?

    1. Reply

      I’m pretty sure I have discussed it elsewhere because it’s my typical mode of starting. But I’m not sure which posts this may have been in (there are over 2100 posts so it’s hard to remember them all).

      Here’s a post which lists a lot of tips and links to other drawing tip posts
      That might be helpful to you.

      In my drawing demos people can see me do this. In my drawing classes I teach this method (starting with the eye) as well as the more traditional method of working from the outside in. I’ll be teaching my Drawing Practice: Drawing Live Subjects in Public again in 2018 and would love to have you in class if you still have questions. You can read about the class here

      In the meantime what I would ask you to think about is how is your spatial awareness and proportion in your sketching? The main reason for starting from the outside in is to refine and address proportion issues. So if you are having trouble with that it might be best to start from the outside in. If on the other hand you find you are easily able to judge distances and hold your proportions as you work out from the “center” so to speak, then it really doesn’t matter which you do, and I know plenty of traditional artists who work eye out.

      The main reason I start with the eyes and work out is that I’m a portrait painter, it doesn’t matter if it’s an animal or bird or person. And since I sketch from live subjects you never know when the subject is going to leave so I start with what is most important to me. If they go, but I have the eyes, I’m OK with that. Hope that helps.

  3. Reply

    Thank you so much for your comprehensive answer, Roz. I find it easier to judge distances with things that are close together, so it seems easier to me to start with the eyes. Also, if I misjudge and parts of the outside of the head end up outside the page, that’s OK! It was encouraging to hear that many artists start from the eyes. I do think they are the most important, so it’s nice to have them done before the subject wanders off. I agree – the drawing still seems complete somehow! I’ll check out all the posts you recommend; I’m sure I’ll learn many things.

    1. Reply

      Main thing is to keep working to find which is the best way for you, one which gives you scope to improve and not get in a rut, and once which you enjoy. It’s always nice to be able to come at things from more that one approach too.

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