The 5 Stages of Making a Painting

While I think it’s nearly impossible to answer to the question “How long does it take to make a painting”, I do believe there are five definite stages every painting goes through as I’m making it. Not every painting or drawing spends equal time at each stage, and some never get all the way through. I divide it as follows:

Stage 1. Anything is Possible
Stage 2. So Far So Good
Stage 3. The Ugly Stage
Stage 4. Don’t Mess It Up
Stage 5. Are We There Yet?

1. Anything is Possible
The very first step is simultaneously stimulating and intimidating. That moment you overcome the fear of a blank canvas, your hesitation to make that first mark, and start translating the image in your mind into paint. At this stage, anything and everything is possible, and it’s up to you to decide which steps to take. It’s about narrowing down the options, choosing from all the possibilities, and stepping boldly onto the path even though you’re not entirely sure where it’ll lead.

2: So Far So Good
Once you’ve made a start (whether it’s by blocking-in colours as I like to do or working on establishing shapes or whichever of the approaches for creating a painting you prefer) you quickly get a feel for whether the foundation for the painting you’ve in your mind’s eye has been laid, or not. So far so good… though exactly how far this is varies for each of us.

3: The Ugly Stage
At some point, nearly every painting takes a turn for the worst, you doubt what you’ve done, and wonder whether it will turn out okay or if you’ve ruined it. Accept it, keep going, and don’t give up yet. It can be ever so tempting to throw your brushes down in despair at the mess you’ve made, but it’s only by continuing, pushing on and through this, that you develop your artistic skills and persistence. I might not do it until tomorrow when I’ve a little emotional distance from it, but I’ve learnt that “doing something dramatic” can lead to a better and unexpected result (though there’s no guarantee).

4: Don’t Mess It Up
For me, this is the most stressful stage of a painting’s creation. Where lots of things are working well,but there’s still some way to go to bring all aspects of the painting to the same level. The potential for ruining it looms overhead, intimidating me into hesitation. I start second-guessing myself, my colours, the brushwork, and can end up desperately trying to preserve “the good bits” while “fixing the rest”. The solution is to either stop completely (which if you do every time means you’ll never finish a painting!) or to be bold. Trust in your ability, in what you’ve learnt and your experience, that you’re not a one-trick pony, and keep going. Don’t try to protect bits, but try to paint  as if there were no “good bits” to protect.

5: Are We There Yet?
Deciding whether a painting is finished or not can be tricky, but it’s always better to stop too early than too late. Come back to it tomorrow with fresh eyes and decide if you still think it needs that tweak. I try (note: try, I don’t always succeed) to stop when I find myself fiddling, thinking “I’ll just quickly” or “this little bit” and to continue only if I’ve something definite, decisive in mind. If you’re uncertain, it’s time to stop and put down the brush for now. Sometimes it’s very obvious when I get back to a painting what needs to be done, sometimes it’s still not clear, and on rare occasions I can’t think what I thought might still need doing and like it as it already is.

5 Stages of Making a Painting
The 5 Stages of Making a Painting: This painting was to be one in my sheep series, an early spring-inspired landscape background with some large sheep dominating the composition. I started with some pink-red as a ground, roughly brushed in something for the sky, and deciding where the sheep will go and how big they’ll be on the 100x100cm canvas. So far so good…

Further Reading:
That “What Have I Done?” Moment in a Painting
Step-by-Step Photos: “The W.I. Committee” Sheep Painting in Progress
•  Flower Frustration & Resolution (Hopefully)

2 Replies to “The 5 Stages of Making a Painting”

    1. These are indeed also stages in a painting’s creation, but writing this I was thinking of “brush in hand putting paint onto surface” stages only.

Leave a Reply