Struggling with taking art to “finish”

  • Hey guys!
    I have been a member here for a long time, but I have never been on the forums much. I am hoping to change that. I have a problem, but I don’t know exactly how to explain it, so I apologize in advance for the long scattered post ...

    Lately I have been really struggling with finishing work. I have always gotten really hung up in the rendering stage of making illustrations. I will make a sketch and refine it until I am pretty happy with it, but once I have to start adding tone or color, I can’t seem to choose a direction and carry it through to completion and I’m never happy with the result. For example, I will decide I want lines, or no lines, or pencil shading, or I’m going to do the digital equivalent of a grisaille underneath ... or I’m going to block in color and use a liftout technique.

    And to further complicate things, I will start second guessing my style of drawing once I’m painting. I have been wanting to move toward a more stylized and less realistic style of drawing, but I’ll start thinking maybe my faces shouldn’t look like that. Is the nose too realistic? Maybe the eyes are not realistic enough. By the time I am finished I feel like everything is disjointed and I’m totally lost (or all of my characters start looking like aliens to me) and I don’t know how to find my way out. Most of the time I will just go back to my drawing layer and start again. Once I repainted the same sketch every day for a week until I made it look acceptable, but then once I was finished I had no idea how to replicate the process.

    I feel like I have art ADD and I don’t really know what I’m asking for here, but if anybody can relate, or has been through this and has advice on how to focus my work, I would really appreciate it. My portfolio is at if you want to see it.

    There was a time that I had seen everything in the SVS library, but I watched most of the classes in the middle of the night while I was up with a nursing baby, so I have recently started going back through them to try to absorb things I might have missed. If there are any classes you think I should rewatch that might help, I am open to suggestions! Thanks for reading. 🙂 🙂

  • SVS OG

    Your work is beautiful and you definitely know how to draw. Have you done very many master copies? Have you copied your favorite artists? To me I like your owl and mermaid pieces. They are less digital looking. Your watercolor is beautiful in terms of painting style, have you tried replicating that digitally? They always say not to worry too much about style, it will come naturally over time. Maybe stressing out is stressing you out, if that makes sense?

  • @holleywilliamson said in Struggling with taking art to “finish”:

    Your work is beautiful and you definitely know how to draw. Have you done very many master copies? Have you copied your favorite artists? To me I like your owl and mermaid pieces. They are less digital looking. Your watercolor is beautiful in terms of painting style, have you tried replicating that digitally? They always say not to worry too much about style, it will come naturally over time. Maybe stressing out is stressing you out, if that makes sense?

    Thank you! I have done some master studies, but not recently. That’s a good suggestion. I have not had good luck replicating watercolor digitally, but there was a time I thought I would print my digital lines on watercolor paper and then paint them. I never really gave it a fair shot, but I actually find watercolors to be kind of liberating because the watercolor does what it is going to do and you have to put it down and not mess with it, unlike digital painting where you can fuss with it endlessly. If I can, I will. And you are 100% right that I am stressing myself out. 😂

  • I am in the same boat. Your portfolio is beautiful. I think part of my problem is that I only have a few hours a day and sometimes they are very broken up because of my kids. I feel like once I get momentum it is time to go do something else. I have thought about trying to find a solid block of time that I can commit to. Maybe you have the same problem, of always having mom brain on?

  • I think your work looks really good, but I do agree that I there seems to be a conflict in the style you want to use. There was an earlier thread about finding your own style by @robgale which I would read through if you haven't already, and the best advice I can give is to keep exploring until you find a style you are happy with or allow it to find you. As Holley said, try do some master studies and sketch other peoples work to see what worked in their designs and see whether it would work for you.

    If you find yourself forgetting your process then I would make notes as you create, I often try and make my layers in photoshop like a step by step process so I don't get lost myself. You can then compare your process with others who do a similar style to see if you can refine your process so that you can feel comfortable in creating your artwork.

    I would also recommend that you mix both your picture book work and your middle grade work on your portfolio into one place as there doesn't seem to be a big reason to have them separated and it will also flesh out the work more. Oh and add your website to your svs profile so people can see the work you do when you post 🙂

  • @gary-wilkinson thank you so much for your suggestions! Great tips and I will check out that thread. I’m also glad you mentioned the portfolio organization because I have been conflicted over that for a long time.

  • @mandy-forte Thank you! It’s definitely related to mom brain and I have the same problem with not having extended periods of focus. I used to get 3 hours a day while my youngest was napping, but he doesn’t take naps anymore. 😭

  • @kristin-wauson I feel your pain! When you were describing what you're struggling with, I felt like you were in my head.

    For what it's worth, I'd like to share my experience of doing Inktober, because I think it was really helpful for me to see something about "finishing" that I hadn't seen before.

    The great thing about inktober is that it forces you to work within limits, to move forward and move on when the limit is reached.

    There were many days where I was really not happy with a drawing, but I promised myself I would do one every day and it would go out every day, even if I thought it sucked.

    If I wasn't totally happy with a drawing, it was painful, but instead of continuing to tweak it, I would ask myself what could I do on the next one that would make it better? How could I tweak my process next time to make it better? I didn't have all the time in the world to do it, so I had to just choose one or two things.

    Choosing those one or two things and having the daily time limit made the drawing more like a kind of game. In games there are very specific rules and limits, and it's done when those limits or goals are reached. Games are fun BECAUSE of the limits.

    I'm not saying of course that art is just a game, and I think there is a time and place for wrestling with and struggling with it until you come out the other side.

    But sometimes it's helpful to just let go and play to move forward.

    You'll figure it out though, no matter what if you just keep showing up, that's the most important part!

  • @robgale thanks to much for weighing in and thank you for sharing your inktober experience. In my case, Inktober enabled me to spend a whole month of not coloring any sketches. 😂 But I totally see what you are saying. We take this stuff so seriously and it’s easy to forget that sometimes allowing yourself to play and experiment and fail is where the real learning happens. And we get frustrated when we can’t make it look the way we want on the first or second or even 5th try.

    Babies don’t just get up and know how to walk. They have to wobble and fall and wobble and fall and get up and try again. If they don’t fall down, they never learn. If you don’t experiment and try all the different ways of making art, you won’t ever figure out what works best for you.

  • I completely understand where you're coming from as I'm also having this horrible predicament at the moment too, it's so frustrating isn't it? I can draw and draw and draw ideas, but when it comes to colouring them digitally my mind just goes blank and I sieze up. Do you feel as though your problem is self doubt? Like you think the piece will be rubbish when you finish it? Or that you're worried you won't like it when it's done? That's how I feel anyway.
    The thing that has kind of helped me at the moment is to stop reading/watching/listening/looking at other art and illustration as it seems to cloud my mind too much at times, so by stepping back a bit from it all, it allows me to think for myself as an illustrator and just try doing things my own way. I'm not sure if you read/watch etc a lot of illustration podcasts/articles/videos etc, but if you do then maybe that would help?
    Or when you start working on a final piece, just tell yourself that no one needs to see this if you don't want them too, you're experimenting and this doesn't have to be a fantastic work of art. Maybe that would help to take the pressure off?
    I hope you start to feel better about it soon though, it is horrible but I think nearly every illustrator and artist goes through it so you're not alone and you WILL power through it 🙂 like everyone has already said, just keep going and you'll soon get into the swing of it all!
    Best of luck 🙂

  • @kristin-wauson I hear you on the flip side as well, especially if color and finishing and all that good stuff is outside of your comfort zone, Inktober can be kind of a way to avoid working on that for a month! 😬

  • SVS OG

    Another way of thinking about all of this is that you maybe you are making a mistake in assuming that the process of feeling indecisive and uncertain about the end results of your work is bad. It's certainly frustrating (been there myself) but maybe that IS your process. Maybe your brain needs to fuss and fidget in order to turn out good work, and rather than trying to fix it and work in a more linear way, you will just need to find a way to live with and accept the constant circling around and changing direction and doubting. I suggest that based on two things -- first, I read Norman Rockwell's autobiography and he talks about one painting that he changed almost daily, every night feeling satisfied with it and every morning hating it! He did finally finish it and was able to move on to another work but it happened to him frequently and may be the hazard of a creative mind. Secondly, I looked at your site and the end results of your work look great so even if you feel ADD while you are working, you are turning out really good stuff!

  • @hannahmccaffery I don’t know that self doubt is my problem so much as I feel like everything I paint looks like dog crap. 😂 The self doubt definitely comes as a result. I do watch too many youtube videos and listen to too many podcasts for sure and at some point I think we can get really caught up in feeling like we’re going to be able to watch someone or listen to someone give us the answer, and the answer is just that we need to make more work. I’m assuming that’s what it is at least. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Good luck to you too!

  • @demotlj Oh gosh, I hope that’s not the case because I don’t think I can keep it up. 😂 It probably is part of my process to some extent. When I used to paint in oils I always had to start a painting, get frustrated, scribble over the whole thing with my brush and then wipe it off and start over. It was only after I had gotten out the frustration of the failed attempt that I could have any success. But there has to be some sort of a recipe I can come up with that will give me more consistent results with fewer failed attempts. I had no idea Norman Rockwell had that struggle. I’ll have to check out that autobiography. Thank you so much for your thoughts and for the compliment 🙂 🙂 I appreciate it.

  • I struggle with getting to finish, too 🙂 (though less these days than before).

    Things that seemed to help:

    -learning and applying the lessons on composition. Part of my problem was that I was never quite happy with a piece when it was close to final. As soon as I started following some rules of composition, My art tended to hold together better in later stages.

    -Writing down my process. I forget it all the time, too. Making digital art can be... intricate.

    -Values first. If Value's the cake, colou's only the icing. Icing-less cake is still cake, but cake-less icing is just gross. If it works in black and white, it'll work with colour.

    -Do more art. The more you take pieces to finish (or even close to finish) the more you'll be comfortable with a process that gets the painting from point A to B. Start a draw 100 project. Or a webcomic. But draw more things.

    Good luck 😀 Art is friggin' hard.

  • @art-of-b Thank you for this! I think the answer that nobody wants to be told is just “make more work,” but you’re right. And funny you mention composition. I just started rewatching the SVS composition class. Are there any other resources that helped you with composition? Whatever you are doing seems to be working! I just spent some time on your website and reading your comics. I have always wanted to make comics. They are fantastic!

  • @demotlj This is a great reminder. I think to some extent, every time we artists are pushing into new territory, as we learn and become more discerning in our eye, if we're honest with ourselves, we're going to hit this point where we have to struggle. Maybe it's all just part of the process, and it's mostly a matter of learning how to abide and come out the other side alive! Thank you for your thoughts.

  • @art-of-b Great thoughts! It does seem true that often time we struggle with our work because of something we neglected early on. I know that's certainly true for me.

  • @kristin-wauson

    Thanks very much 🙂

    I haven't found too many other resources on composition. The SVS class is pretty comprehensive. Use that checklist that's int he downloads and make sure (MAKE SURE) to friggin' thumbnail.

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