The Art of Restraint: How to Know an Illustration is Finished

The art of completing an illustration< can be likened to knowing when it's time to leave a party. You don't want to leave too early for fear of missing the good stuff — but then again, you don't want to stay too late and have the host start cleaning up to signal that it's time to go. With an illustration, you don't want to quit before you've reached the pinnacle of your work — but then, if you continue too long, you risk an overworked and lifeless piece of art.

So how do you know when it’s time to declare an illustration finished?

How do you know if a piece is done?

Illustrations via CakeSpy

Ultimately, this is a decision that is totally up to you. However, there are some tips that can help you determine the best time to call a piece of art complete. Here are several tricks for helping you determine when your illustration is finished.

Is it done?

Adorable illustrations that still need color

Practically speaking, does the illustration meet the basic standards of doneness? Have you inked in everything over your pencil lines? Have you colored in each element that needs tinting? Though it might seem obvious, these are basic things that should be complete before an illustration can be deemed done.

Have you made your point?

Girl hugging an adorable sprinkled pop tart

The point of an illustration is to, well, illustrate an idea. Have you done that? If so, you’ve done the hard part — everything else is just accentuating your work, like whipped cream on a sundae. For instance, the above illustration is not unfinished, it’s an act of restraint, with key elements colored in to create  a contrast for the viewer and bring emphasis to certain parts of the composition.

Are you scanning the piece and saying “what else?”

Have you ever tried to trim your own hair, and by going back and forth to “even things out” ended up with a crew cut? It is possible to take it too far by adding too many details. If you catch yourself scanning the work for different things to add, it might be a sign that the piece is done.


Drawing exercises with cupcakes and bacon!

These tricks can help you hone the art of knowing when it’s time to stop.

Try stopping at 90%

See how it feels to stop just short of doneness. Sometimes, just like eating a meal, it takes a few minutes to realize you’re full; likewise with art, sometimes you have to pause and be mindful to truly determine doneness. What could happen if you stopped when a piece is 90% done? It might be more finished than you realize.

Make like Goldilocks

Underdone? Overdone? Or just right? This exercise will help you learn the difference. Make the same simple drawing three times. In one, make it consciously “underdone,” while aiming to make another consciously “overdone.” Try and see if this reveals any secrets as to where you added too much, or where you need more or when you need to pull back, and try to make the third drawing with these observations in mind.

If you think you might be done

Inspect an illustration from a distance to determine doneness

Sometimes, you’re not quite sure if you need to add more. Here are some methods for handling this situation.

Step back, figuratively.

Take a breather. Walk around the block, make yourself a snack, do anything to distance yourself from the art for a few minutes. When you come back to it, you might be surprised by how clearly you “see” what it needs or doesn’t need.

Step back, literally.

In art school, we were taught this trick: Put a piece across the room and look at it. Even though you can’t see it clearly, you can sometimes get a nice perspective on how the overall piece looks. Sometimes when you are literally too close, you stop seeing the big picture. By looking at it from a distance, sometimes you can see where an illustration could use more contrast, more movement, and so on.

Scan the piece of art.

Scan the piece of art, not visually but literally, on a scanner. By scanning the piece of art at the point you think it might be done, you preserve it as is. You can then continue to work on the original, but if you decide what you add is too much, you still have the scan of the earlier version.

What indicators do you rely on to know when a piece is done?

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