Watercolor Expressions: Knowing when to stop

Mexico Dreams, 7×10 watercolor (hot press)

Arguably an ability that ranks high on the list of life skills to master, it is also a valued skill to develop as an artist.

Although the inspiration to start a painting can be a challenge, the wisdom to know when it’s time to put down the brush may be even more elusive. Many of my paintings have been cast in a dull patina of excess fiddling. At the other extreme, lackluster efforts have been rescued by a few additional brushstrokes or slight color adjustment. The problem for the amateur (me) is learning to judge proximity to either pole, to make more calculated decisions about when to rest and when to push on.

If my experience is any indication, I’d guess that beginners err on the side of doing too much, desperate to fully manifest the kernel of a good idea. Masters almost certainly know when enough is enough, when to move on. Not every painting is meant to be saved.

My decision to let this painting rest has been an acute struggle. I see flaws – things I’d like to fix or explore further – and bits I’d like to preserve in a better painting. I also know that the risk of ruining this particular work is far greater than the likelihood of additional improvement. I’ve already edged into destructive territory. Perhaps my willingness to stop here is a small step towards mastery.

Addendum (day after original post): “Oops, I did it again,” to quote Britney Spears. I said I’d stop, but I didn’t. Hear me out though!

As promised, I stopped to let the painting rest. Then I looked at it. And kept looking. I’d already determined it would never be a great painting. Still, there was apparently more to learn. So, before burning it in a ritual fire, I began again with nothing to lose but time.

Ironically (considering the orignal post content), I think the painting is improved in a number of ways. Under no illusions it’s now a great painting, with areas that are evidently a little worse for the wear, I nevertheless prefer it.

What then is the lesson here?

Perhaps knowing when to resume is as important as knowing when to stop. Especially for a beginner, squeezing every last drop of learning from each creative experience may ultimately be more valuable than the final outcome.

Sometimes growth may require a step or two back before finding the right stride forward.

The before and after images are below. Which do you prefer?


2 thoughts on “Watercolor Expressions: Knowing when to stop

  1. first, the easy part: i prefer the second painting. there is an openess to the water flow that seems absent in the original. in fact, the entire right side of the revised painting suggests an energetic open-heartedness to the universe, to possibilities. and after all, we’re all about abiding in the possibilities–future, of course, but past as well–in the present moment. what i mean with respect to this painting is that you became aware apparenlty of an unexpressed possibility in the work that you originally decided was ‘finished.’ and this is capacity to revise even the past–our past–is evidence that we can choose never to be completely mired in our past traumas, hurts, poor decisions, etc., because we can re-model what that original experience was all about in light of our further growth. you can see that in these paintings: the first seems more self-contained–perhaps self-reliant–whereas the second invites new energy, the inspection of new community. lovely.



    • Thank you for allowing me to see these paintings through your lens. For me, it was as important for me to navigate what it meant to be ‘finished’ with this painting, as it was to recreate the (past) image more to my liking. I agree that the past is more fluid than we sometimes think. It’s not that an event didn’t happen in a particular way, but our recollection of it, the layers of meaning we might put upon past events are infinitely malleable.


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