13 ways to make a painting that works - tips and ideas to check your most recent painting against to make sure it's all hanging together beautifully. Includes free downloadable checklist to keep by your easel!

I’ve been finishing an unusual amount of paintings recently.  And because each time it forces me to really look at what I’ve done and be very clear in myself that it works both as a whole and as parts that are in conversation with each other, I like to think I’m getting a bit better at it. 😉

In my experience, the two most important things to check when you’re painting are values and composition; values {as I’m sure you know} being the darks and lights of the painting, and composition covering several of the points I’ve included below.

It occurred to me that it might be quite handy to have a ready list of things to check when deciding if a painting works and is complete, so I made one. And you can download it free below!

Naturally this is my way and your art and experience may require only some of these, especially if your work intentionally flouts certain rules or traditions in art. Generally speaking though, I find these to be helpful guidelines.

So here’s what I check when I think a painting might be finished.


The best ways I know to check values are to:

1: Squint – this will immediately make the range of values and their distribution very clear, and show what might need more balancing or more contrast.

2: Use a black and white filter in an app or a program like Picmonkey. If you have a smartphone you can just snap a photo and run it through an app; sometimes I upload it to Instagram and choose one of the black and white filters without actually sharing it, for a quick look.

Close up and far away

The painting needs to feel good both up close – all those little details and delicious textures – and from across the room. When you stand way back, what immediately sticks out? What’s jarring? Don’t ignore it because you want to be finished like ‘some of us’ are apt to do… {and by some of us I mean me}.

Upside down

I find turning the painting upside down never fails to give me instant information about anything that’s not sitting right. Again, standing way back helps with this.

Different sizes & odd numbers

Depending on the nature of your painting, you might want to check that any objects are unevenly spaced and in odd numbers. Less of a rule than a guideline, this can nevertheless make a huge difference to a painting. Balance doesn’t {have to} mean everything matching.

Negative space

Negative space is just as important as what’s taking up the positive space on your canvas. Try shifting your gaze to see it as if it were the positive space; are the shapes interesting or awkward? Do they hold their own without taking all the attention?

Tight vs loose

The eye wants to be interested and stimulated, and contrast is a great way to do this. Are there tighter, neater areas that sit well against the looser, more abstracted areas? {This obviously only applies if your painting isn’t about realism.}


A painting doesn’t have to tell an obvious, explicit story, but the eyes {and heart, I believe} need a narrative of some kind, even if we don’t know exactly what it is. What is the painting saying? If it’s purely decorative, is it offering that effectively? Can the viewer wander around in the painting and feel things?


I like to try to leave enough room for open endedness; parts of the painting that don’t ‘make sense’ but still work with the painting as a whole. I want my art to suggest or hint at things, not to tell the viewer exactly what they should be seeing. That may not be true for you of course. It depends on what you’re saying with your art.


For me, it’s important that the eye can flow around the canvas in any direction and not be confronted by awkwardness or jarring. While that is to a degree in the eye of the beholder, you can tell, especially with practice, when your eye is snagging on something that isn’t sitting quite right in the context of the painting. It’s not that all elements must be the same, or even the same style, but they must live together with a degree of harmony. Intentional awkwardness is hard {for me anyway!} to incorporate successfully.

Check your edges

So important and so easy to forget! The edges of your canvas are ready made boundaries for the work and as such play a part in the painting. If you paint an object in the centre, with no relationship to the lines that constitute the edges, it can float awkwardly in the space with no context. Allow things to wander off the edge, and make sure that anything that does is doing so gracefully. 🙂

Quick look in passing

I put my paintings where I’ll pass them often, and when I do I allow a glimpse as I pass. This can cause things to jump out, and I can then decide whether that was an intentional part of the painting or something I hadn’t noticed would happen.

Quiet space for the eye to rest

I want to say this is SO important, but of course some paintings are built differently. Again, this is a general guideline; the eye needs somewhere to rest from the ‘action’ going on in the painting. If the entire thing is busy, it can be exhausting to look at. If this is what the artist intends that’s one thing, but usually it’s far more effective for a painting to have quiet patches with not much going on.


The way I see it, this has two parts:

1. When I look at a painting I see all its parts, all the different marks, shapes, colours and angles, as being in conversation with each other. Does that conversation have the feeling I was aiming for? It’s not about making all the elements alike, but is this type of mark, or this colour or arrangement echoed in some way anywhere else on the canvas? Or is it talking to itself like an awkward weirdo in the corner?

2. Then there is the interaction between viewer and painting. In my work, I’m aiming for the conversation to be complete in itself {to hang together} and also provoking; all the elements work together, but they also offer a hint at something more. Can the viewer bring their own stories, biases and thought processes to the painting and not feel it’s already all been done for them?

13 ways to make a painting that works checklist

Overall, I think a lot of this is intuitive and as we develop our skills much of this becomes quick and unnecessary to articulate. But I still find that checking in against some or all of these points can help me bring a painting to a place where it feels complete and hangs together in a satisfying way.

Try some of these out on your most recently completed painting {even if you know it’s finished}. Is it helpful? How do you check your paintings? Anything I’ve missed here? Please share your experiences in the comments!