I am the absolute queen of overworking a painting. I get the first layer down, really loving it, then I start adding some more and before I know it the painting is a busy mess and that beautiful first layer is completely lost. When you add too much to an abstract, the painting ends up losing focus. When a painting really stands out, it's usually because the artist has focused on one special feature. It could be a stroke of constrasting colour, a bold shape, a few marks that stand out, or showcasing a simple colour palette.
But why is it so hard to know when to stop? Why is keeping it simple one of the hardest things to do? During my 100 Days Project (which really turned into more of a 50 days project) one of the things I started to focus on was making simple paintings. The paper was only about 7 x 10 inches, so there really wasn't room to go crazy. And when I did get carried away, it always looked overworked and boring.
If this is something you struggle with too, I've put together a few tips to help you slow down, know when to stop and keep it simple.
Work on mulitple pieces at once
This is the best advice I ever got. If you're working on many pieces at once (I sometimes work on 4 or 5 at the same time) you're less likely to get too obsessed with one painting. Taking some time away, even if it's just a few minutes, can help you gain a new perspective.
Pick your colour palette first
Decide on a colour palette before you start painting and you'll be less likely to throw in colours on a whim that don't work. Some people have a great instict for colour and can work intuitively. But if you're like me and you sometimes toss a 'what-was-i-thinking' colour into the mix, planning your colour scheme first can be really beneficial.
Look for special moments
While you're working, be on the lookout for special moments in your painting. If something catches your eye and you love it, work on preserving that spot. Make the rest of the painting more subdued to help the eye focus on the interesting stuff.
Take some time off
This helps me especially if I'm working on a big canvas. If I find myself standing there not sure what to do next, I step away for a couple days. Keep the painting where you can see it everyday and eventually you'll figure out what needs to be done.
It can always be saved
If you try your best and you still end up taking it too far, rest assured that it can always be saved. Everything can be painted over and mistakes can be covered up. If it's already too late, let everything dry and then go back in with some big swatches of a single colour to simplify. When all else fails, grab some gesso and start with a clean slate!