Dear Artist,

Yesterday, Rich Woy of Ocala, Florida asked, “How do you know when a painting is overworked? Are there boundaries or clues? Is this judgment left to the artist or the critic?”

Thanks, Rich. Good question. Funnily, at dinner last night a subscriber happened to mention that I habitually overworked the word “overworked.” I had to explain myself.

For sure, it’s a term among artists. “Too many notes,” said the Emperor-composer Joseph II to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Similar thing comes up in painting. Too many strokes. Having said that, you have to know that tight photo-realism is not necessarily overworked. A close-up look at evolved realism can show understated brushwork and strokes in appropriate places. Overworked mainly applies to expressive, impressionist and broad-treatment works where freshness and surface quality are denied.

Overworking takes place when you lose control. As you fail in facility and freshness, you try to save the day with fiddle and fuss. The passage looks laboured.

Overworking happens when you’re overtired, distracted, suffering from desire deficit, and particularly when you’re not paying enough attention to reference material or personal creative vision. More crudely, it happens when you don’t know what you’re doing. The clue comes when you see you’ve gone too far. Work doesn’t look as good as it might. “A painting,” says Harley Brown, “is always finished before the artist thinks it is.”

While the general public may not be so sensitive to overworking, and sophisticated critics may be looking at other criteria, to the actively creative eye, overworking is easily spotted and often spoils the look of otherwise fine work. Artists have ruses, however. The bad areas can sometimes be obfuscated by nearby passages of bravura or other visual distractions, but smoke and mirrors doesn’t always hide the true measure of the artist. The main antidote is to scrape off and start over.

The overwork boundary often lies in the grey zone between the intuitive mode and controlled rendering. The fine art is in watching yourself in the act of intuiting. As Ted Smuskiewicz says, “You learn to leave your strokes alone.”

Best regards,


PS: “Great is the art of beginning, but greater is the art of ending.” (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)

Esoterica: The most powerful antidote to overworking is a habitual, timely pause. Work periods need to be laced with both brief and long ones. Lean back, stand back, walk around, move the work to another easel. In my much-celebrated case of Attention Deficit Disorder, long pauses are difficult, so I work on more than one at a time. As Quebec plein air painter Sylvio Gagnon says, “The best way to finish a painting is to start a new one.” In any case, you need to neutralize indecision. “When you’ve just done it, you’re not sure. But when you’ve sat with it for a couple of hours and you don’t want to do anything more to it, that’s a great feeling.” (Damien Hirst)


Finding the balance
by Jill Charuk, Vancouver, BC, Canada


“Show off”
oil painting
by Jill Charuk

This is a tough one. I don’t like to overwork something as it is nice to keep it fresh. Yet at times I keep hearing you say PMII: “Put More Into It”! This is a tricky balance. I believe that a time away from a painting, in the “middle” stage is best. It is much like an argument, walk away and give it a few minutes before you say something you might regret.


“High country”
oil painting
by John Pryce

The problem of overworking is one of the hardest things to overcome. It reminds me of what American painter William Merritt Chase once said: “It takes two to paint. One to paint, the other to stand by with an axe to kill him before he spoils it.” I feel the best way to describe my goal for a painting is to strive for “eloquence,” just as a good speaker gets to the point and keeps the audience’s interest without rambling on. If my memory serves me correctly, Winston Churchill rose to speak to a large audience of Ivy League college students. Expecting a typical speech they were surprised when he simply said: “Never give up, never, ever, ever, ever give up.” The message was clear and I am sure that the “Eloquence” of this short speech will remain with those students for the rest of their lives.


The problem of underworking
by Jamie Grossman, NY, USA


“Angela in open studio”
oil painting
by Jamie Grossman

I find that many paintings, especially many plein air works, suffer from underworking! It seems some artists call it done while still in the underpainting stage. Although an artist has to be careful not to overwork a piece, we must be equally careful to finish what we have started. Those final strokes are often what brings the painting together. The extra 10 or 20 minutes can make the difference between a hurried, sloppy-looking painting that misses the mark, and a carefully developed work that brings a scene to life.




Perfection is the enemy of the good
by Cyndie Katz, New Boston, NH, USA


original painting
by Cyndie Katz

My family often tells me to stop painting before I think I’ve finished and they insist that I wreck things that are good when I try to make them better. But it’s so hard for me to stop fiddling. To train myself, I’ve started photographing works as soon as I think I’ve finished and then again after I’ve reworked them. Guess what? I often destroy the freshness for the sake of accuracy. My first teacher told me, “Perfection is the enemy of the good…” It’s taken me years to prove to myself that he’s absolutely right.


Series painting
by John Ferrie, Vancouver, BC, Canada


“Fallen Angel IV”
acrylic painting
by John Ferrie

When an artist’s work is deemed “overworked” I always think that is when they have lost focus. So many people paint the way they think things should look. Artists need to see the ‘through-line” in what they are communicating. The age old “less is more” and “never sell yourself short” are just clichés from people who claim to know better. I always approach a painting by thinking my work through. I paint the background first and paint the piece to the foreground. It is a fine line to decide when a painting is finished and adding more and making it gaudy. This is also why I recommend artists paint in a series. Like writing an essay, nobody gets it perfect in the first draft.


Student overworking
by Jane Schlosberg, Halifax, NS, Canada

It’s important not to overuse the word “overwork” with newly-hatched painters. Students need to explore and explore and explore. This will, of course, lead to that labored, or overworked, appearance. It seems to me to be a necessary step in the process for most people as they are learning. You cannot make an assured brushstroke without knowledge and practice. I have many students who are so concerned about overworking that they try to fake assurance when they have very little knowledge. And this worry keeps them from the “Look, look again, look some more” study that they need.

This being said, it’s also worth noting that these students could just do a number of studies of the same subject and probably profit more than reworking over the same painting. It’s more difficult to convince people of that though.


Touching up
by Olinda Everett, Matlock, Derbyshire, UK

I paint as an extension of doing and being. A few weeks ago I found a watercolour started last year and decided to get this piece of paper out of the way by just quickly adding a couple of dark tones that seemed to be missing. I stuck it up on the fridge to remind myself that I should not go months without picking up brushes. It was a fridge painting, that’s all. My daughter yesterday saw it and today it is a living room painting: it is so dynamic and fresh she said — underworked?!


by Becky McMahon, Surrey, BC, Canada


“Bamboo Window II” (segment)
original painting
by Becky McMahon

Since I am painting in a style that requires me to get it right the first time, it is very easy to overwork a piece. When my brush touches the rice paper the paint or ink goes right through it and that stroke cannot be reworked or removed. I can paint over it but I risk losing the lovely loose effect of my painting. I keep hoping I have learned to leave my painting alone and not ‘fix’ it but every now and then I get so involved in painting that I end up putting that last fatal brush stoke and then curse myself. All I can do is start again. Why do I keep painting in this style? I love the freedom and flow of the brush dancing on the paper. When it does go right it is a wonderful feeling. As an experiment I tried to keep painting over and over on the same piece to see if I could make something good out of a bad piece. It didn’t work but I did find out how much paint rice paper can absorb, far more than I expected. So I learn a little more every day.


The wisdom of working several
by Helen Zapata, Phoenix, AZ, USA


“Fan Dancer”
oil painting
by Helen Zapata

For me it’s best for me to have several paintings underway at one time. If I am working with only one piece, when I reach the point where I need to think about it, or let passages dry before continuing, then I tend to grow impatient and foolhardy. I start making bad decisions. I overwork the painting when it really needs to be left alone. Shuffling several paintings around on different easels gives me plenty of opportunity to keep my brushes happily busy, while at the same time I’m giving the work the space it needs before continuing on.




Pensive painting
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada


“Clover point, Victoria”
acrylic painting
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki

I overwork a painting when I get into the fatal cycle of cowardice and poor anger management. It all happens in my head and if I knew how not to fall into this trap ever again I would write a book. This thing attacks me periodically and it seems to get triggered by some unfortunate event.

I start a painting too timidly and half distracted, from some reason believing that the painting will find its way as I go along if I just work patiently. What really happens is that I work pensively instead of patiently. The painting starts unfolding happily, like a child frolicking through a meadow. At some point, hours later, I realize that the thing is going nowhere, the child is now hungry and scared and it’s getting dark. The poor painting is begging for help. That’s where the anger takes its turn and I start “fixing it” and at the same time slapping myself for being so foolish. Needless to say that the brushstrokes are by now dry and bumpy and all in wrong places, soft edges are lost, compositional errors are laughing back at me. My husband starts talking very softly and tiptoeing around the house except on an occasion when he asks — “Why did you spoil it, I loved the way it looked yesterday.”

If there wasn’t just a delicious passage in it, it would be chucked away, but in truth I have been able to salvage such paintings in the past and some even ended with awards and sales. My experience is that simplifying and strengthening the composition usually works well even if the surface quality is not fresh any more. When the composition is beyond help, it becomes a reusable stretcher. There is a landscape with a lovely deer and a mess of the background waiting for me in the studio.


Overworking in jazz and painting
by Warren Criswell, Benton, AR, USA


“White Cup No.4”
warercolour by Warren Criswell

On the radio a few weeks ago there was an interview with the jazz bassist Marcus Miller. Miller said that there are three levels of musical skill. The first is knowing the tools of music, the second is technique — when a musician becomes an expert at using the tools. (In painting as in playing, this is where the overworking comes in.) “Level three is when you play as if you never studied a note,” Miller says, “but you can express yourself as simply as when you’re talking.” At that stage overworking or underworking no longer have much meaning.

I always think my work is best when I’m painting as if I don’t know how to paint. But the paradox is that you can’t do that until you have learned how to paint.


Pursuing success
by Luke Couillard, Mission, BC, Canada


“She Writes Language In The Book Of Trees”
oil painting
by Hugh O’Donnell (2004)

I came across a quote from the artist Hugh O’Donnell which went like this: “Your creation never completely succeeds. And there’s a kind of addiction that goes with that because the artist is continuously struggling and failing and struggling again. But it’s always a better richer kind of failure.”

I came across this in Bill Moyer’s book Genesis. I was struck by it because it matches my experience as a calligrapher. I never do completely succeed but I think my failures are better.


Time to contemplate
by Mary Moquin, Sandwich, MA, USA


oil painting
by Mary Moquin

I have been overworked lately, but thankfully, not my paintings. Stopping before overworking may be a good idea, but, stopping prematurely isn’t. I don’t believe that overworking is necessarily a by-product of working too long on a piece. It’s working too long without a clear concept or direction.

I know artists that keep persistently beating a canvas to death trying to fix it and overworking it in the process. When at a loss, put the overworked painting aside, somewhere that you can glance at it now and then. One day it will call you, when you’re not so invested in it, and you’ll know what it needs and you can start a fresh painting right over the previous one. Perhaps some of the history of the previous will show through adding a new dimension of beauty, but the new marks will be fresh, because you are fresh. I have resuscitated many a painting this way.


Experience completes an abstract
by Dennis Marshall

If I am painting a landscape I usually know when to quit because I have an idea as to where I am going. Of course I leave open my options and remain flexible. It is when I am painting an abstract — that is when things can really become interesting, regarding if a painting is completed. The question is when to stop working. It is easy to fall in love with one particular section of a painting. Sometimes you have to destroy that section in order for the whole painting to work. Bringing an abstract painting to completion is one of the unknowns that depends on experience and intuition. It helps to take some time away from the painting either by taking it off the easel or just looking at it and then go back to it later on.

Sometimes the painting tells you what it needs. Years ago when I started to paint, I asked the artist that I was studying with what was the secret of art. His answer was one word, patience. So besides experience and intuition perhaps patience is another aspect of knowing when a painting is completed.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Overworked



From: Rick Rotante — May 14, 2008

Robert – I could not have said it better. In fact, I could not have said it better. Adding only- overworking is recognizable only after the piece is overworked. Only then do you realize you should have stopped an hour ago..

From: Leza Macdonald — May 15, 2008

Wrote that one on the wall of the studio “A painting,” says Harley Brown, “is always finished before the artist thinks it is.” Ouch! I am so guilty of that. Thank you for those words of wisdom!

From: Katherine Tyrrell — May 16, 2008

Overworking can come from overworking. Knowing when to take a break from painting/work/the rest of your life is really important to avoid becoming overtired and to maintaining a fresh eye and the ability to see what you are producing – and when “less is more”.

From: Tomas Belsky — May 16, 2008

I once saw a Matisse black on white figure that was so thick with overwork that it startled me. The work is a masterpiece for the “suffering” it revealed (Cezanne). The work grows, takes on a life and destiny of its own — that’s where philosophy begins and superficialities are supplanted — check out Albert Pinkham Ryder.

From: Brad Greek — May 16, 2008

As a regular plein air painter I’m finding that the weather, ever changing light source, the time and the painting itself will determine the end of a painting. Whether I spend an hour or three on the painting there are many surprises that I’ll find in the piece after taking it home and hanging it in view for observation over the next few days. Thinking, when I left the site, that I’ll need to do more to it when I get home. But after looking at it for awhile, it changes, usually for the better. As if the elements knew when to stop me in the field, what to leave out, what to put in. At the time of creating I was enveloped into the painting and going at it with intuitive abandon. At home it made sense. Amazing!!

From: Jane Brenner — May 16, 2008

I am reminded of a quotation often quoted by my teacher: the master’s hand is where he has not touched.

From: Karen Martin Sampson — May 16, 2008

I agree with Katherine Tyrrell that it is important to know when you are getting tired. I have always had a limited reserve of daily energy and have come to recognize that moment when I should walk away from a painting for that day. I lose that almost unconscious momentum that comes with the joy of painting and begin to make mistakes, try too hard, and start going back over areas to “fix” them. That momentum might last an hour or a whole day, but I have to “obey” the signals or pay the price of a frustratingly messed up piece.

From: Val Norberry — May 16, 2008

Overworking brushstrokes, and “niggling” sound similar. Webster defines niggling as “petty, bothersome, tiring, in a bothersome way”. To niggle is to spend too much effort on minor details. To constantly find fault in a petty way.

As, I think, the young Shirley Temple put it: “Oh bother” (or was that Scarlett O’Hara?).

From: Marnie Crowe — May 16, 2008

Regarding your “overworked” message to your subscribers. I’ve often referred to this type of activity as “too many bows”. This can apply to art work, garden design, house decoration or even one’s manner of dress. There is a definite line that should be crossed before it becomes “too much”.

From: Betty Covington — May 16, 2008

What a great great email this is and many thanks for such great information…

From: Kris Love — May 16, 2008

This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes: “Experience is that marvelous thing that enables you to recognize a mistake when you make it again.” (Franklin P. Jones) With acrylics, if you’re quick enough to recognize that “one stroke too much”, you can immediately wipe it off with a damp paper towel. Sometimes I even play “what if”: Do I like this color? Nope. (wipe off) Do I like this stroke? Nope. (wipe off) Am I playing instead of planning? Yes. (wipe off, clean brushes, go to bed)

From: Joyce Barker 5-17-08 — May 17, 2008

I’ve really enjoyed reading the comments on overworking. I don’t have that tendency as much as in my earlier painting years. In fact, critics (mostly friends) say ” how about a little more dark here or lighter there”. It turns out they’re usually right. I paint once a week with a number of other artists. That helps keep me aware of my progress. I think I’ve finally learned to paint what I see. I love to make art, even though it’s an ongoing learning process.

From: Joan Crawford Barnes — May 21, 2008

Amen to all of the above! This was a very good article on “overworking” – one that all artists can relate. I agree with Kathryn and Karen on knowing when you are tired and stopping at this point and resting. It is amazing what a period of rest will do to reignite your creativity.






Mother and child in Krankenhaus, Somalia

oil painting
by Ulrich Lamsfuß, Berlin, Germany


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