Education Forum

How and When To Finish A Painting: A Checklist for Students 

By Margaret A. Saul 

Originally appeared in The Botanical Artist – Volume 12, Issue 3


Some say it is intuitive, but many teachers have come to realize that students can learn to fine-tune their paintings through a step-bystep approach such as that used effectively at the Brookside Gardens School of Botanical Art & Illustration in Maryland. I would like to share this with other teachers and budding botanical art students who may find it useful. 

I use this approach to explain to students how to proceed past the stage when the creative energy that initially motivated them begins to wane. After many hours diligently working, students often to begin to doubt if their painting will meet their initial expectations. This is when you advise them to stop, step back and take a break. On returning to work, students should follow a fine-tuning process to achieve a confident sense of closure. 

To begin: Once the painting has thoroughly dried, use removable tape to adhere it to a well-lit neutral vertical surface at eye level. If you are not chasing a deadline, put it away for a few days out of sight. To further your disengagement, tidy your work area and attend to tasks that have lapsed, or consider that next painting. A break from constant up-close encounters with your art will see you better able to make an objective appraisal. When ready to review, follow the steps listed. 

Fine-tuning the Color Composition 

Focal point: This is the main point of interest or entry point that also works as an effective visual resting place to return to after exploring other parts of the picture. Has this focal point that seemed so effective in preparatory work maintained its effectiveness? Could further definition of surface textures and structural details in this area be enhanced? Are colors sufficiently prominent or could color dimension (value contrast and color intensity) be enhanced to create a greater sense of prominence in this area? 

Color dimension: Manipulate color to enhance the perception of depth. (Color dimension is also influenced by surrounding color). Is there a logical progression of color dimension in the picture? Adjust by applying subtle transparent tints of relevant color or by lifting out color. ‘Prominence’ is created by major value contrast, juxtaposed complementary color and bright or saturated colors. ‘Recession’ is created by minimal value contrast and dulled or unsaturated color (preferably by mixing its complementary). 

Unified color: Whether overall color is subtle or obvious, unifying color creates beauty in a botanical painting. Is there interesting color across the elements within your painting? Consider if flower or fruit color could be legitimately, subtly applied across appropriate surfaces by lightly glazing (or fine dry-brushing) stems, reflective surfaces and/or subtle color-changes in leaves or shadows. 

Check Again for Botanical Accuracy 

Stems: When refining, take care that stems against white backgrounds do not become darker than initially intended. Check that diameters of stems are correct – particularly stems like those of tulips. Are subtle adjustments required to maintain the natural line of a stem after it reappears from behind a leaf? 

Leaf/stem attachment: Ensure you have correctly interpreted the three-dimensionality of these often-complex structures. With a magnifier check leaf attachment; refer to fresh material or to your original reference drawings and photographs. 

Leaves: Be aware that leaf shape is a key element used for describing a species. Ensure that foreshortened leaves in particular are not overemphasized. Refer to original sketches to check subtleties in venation, margins, tips and bases. Check three-quarter views that see a leaf (or petal) twist and partially obstruct its rear margin. Is the line of the rear margin correctly interpreted as well as any subtle intersecting of surface planes? Over-emphasis of venation patterns can change the character of a leaf. 

Hairs: The structure of any hairs present can only be fully appreciated if first viewed under a magnifier. Check general angle of growth, shape, length, thickness and color. Be aware that pale hairs appear dark against a pale background and light against a dark background. 


Fine brush corrections: Untidy edges in a work presented as a detailed painting can be an instant turn off. Check all edges with a magnifier, particularly naked edges set against a white background. Only dampen in and around “missed” areas inside an edge before delicately applying color with the tip of a moist brush. The color should disperse back away from the edge into the main color so as not to leave any trace of a correction. 

Pencil lines: Unless a vital part of the finished art these should be carefully erased while viewing edges under a magnifier. 

Finalizing the Process 

When to stop: Consider if further embellishment of surface detailing would ultimately illuminate the ephemeral nature of your subject. Add further detail primarily within the focal point but only to clarify a feature (without it looking overworked) or if it can truly enhance movement through the composition. Avoid cloggy paint applications at all costs. An elusive ephemeral quality is acheivable when working with the intrinsic transparency of watercolor. Over-obvious excessive detail may cause it to vanish. 

Final appraisal: Having methodically worked through the checklist, return your painting to the wall. If not satisfied, calmly revisit the checklist to see if the problem lies in the lack of ‘finish’ or the placement of the primary structural elements of the composition. Usually the latter cannot be adjusted at this late stage, in which case realize it has been a valuable and absorbing creative experience – and go for a brisk walk!  

  • Image caption: Margaret with students at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, Richmond, VA, in February, 2006. Photo by: Patricia Wittman