Finishing a painting in one session

I’ve been doing some small daily paintings, but struggle with completing them in one session. I’ve been using smaller boards (6"x6") but when the paint is still wet, it becomes hard to add finishing touches (like highlights, darker lines) without it becoming muddled.

Do you revisit your small painting later, after it’s dried some? Or do you have other methods to keep it from looking overworked? I’m curious to see how much time others spend finishing up a casual daily piece.

I know for “daily paintings,” the idea is to finish in one session; but it’s more important to me to produce something I can live with than to strictly adhere to an arbitrary rule of how long it “should” take. My time varies. Six by six-inch paintings of a simple subject are easier to finish in one session than larger or more complex works. Even on larger paintings, I don’t like spending too more than 2-3 days.

I think it partly depends on the goal for a piece: is it to be a quick study or exercise, is it to be merely “good enough” to sell, or is it to be your best effort regardless of the time? Whenever I get impatient or concerned that I’m not working fast enough, I remember item #5 from this post by my mentor, Don Hatfield. “…we want quick fixes, instant results, short cuts, recipes. These are all enemies of great art…Most of us cannot hang with a work until it is right. The mark of a great artist is how long he or she can hang with a painting and keep improving it–bringing it closer to one’s initial vision or inspiration.” Even Craig Nelson, a master of quick paintings, jokingly says, “There are no bad paintings, only unfinished paintings”–which implies that any painting can be re-worked until it is better. If an area gets too muddy or confused, scraping is an option–that leaves a ghost image that can then be repainted with more authority.

Try gently laying on those final highlights with a palette knife–much easier to keep from mushing them into wet paint below.


Some of my paintings need to dry a little overnight to add highlights if I feel the oils will be muddied. I would rather wait a day than be impatient. Others are finished in one session with highlights placed very lightly…a ‘whisper sweep’ with a soft brush. I like to use synthetic brushes as these don’t disturb the oils like hog bristles. Two words can save a painting from becoming muddled…" Walk away"!


Hi Meg,
some of my thoughts on this:

  1. See Carol’s great Art Bytes on DPW and how SHE does a painting in one go.
  2. Use Acrylics or fast drying Alcyd Oil Colors
  3. I also tried Watermixable Oils and think they’re drying a bit quicker

I paint in Acrylics with a retarding painting medium and usually finish my 8 x 8 daily paintings in 1-3 hours in one session.

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I Paint mostly with a painting knife. The painting is done in one session. I can go into two days to add some details. It is difficult to add more than three layers of oil .

Hi Connie,

You are absolutely correct. Art does not adhere to some strict set of rules or formulas for performance as might apply to an Olympic gymnastics competition. Simply follow and develop your own consciousness and proceed regardless of who may attempt to define you. In our art there can only exist integrity and quality, all else is superfluous.


I would love to finish a painting in one session, but usually it is not the case for me. I think the time doesnt matter but the end result does. If the creative time for a painting is rule bound, we may not be exploring our skills to our fullest potential for that painting.Striking a fine balance between finishing it in haste and over working it may lead to a contented painting that may come anywhere near to our visualization for that subject.

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I interpret daily painting to mean “painting daily” rather than doing a painting a day. Even though I paint on 6 x 6 inch panels, I’d find it difficult to finish a painting in one day. Often, I start a landscape painting on location, where I capture the composition, light and shadow patterns, colors, values, etc. Then, I add details and highlights later in my studio.

I think the end result is more important than a self-imposed time limit.

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Sometimes I can finish a small picture in one session, but not always. A “session” for me is max 3 hours; I get tired and make mistakes if I try to go for longer. Pastels don’t have to dry, of course. I’ve been back on oils as well recently, and making myself work more quickly, to try and cure my finicky fiddling habits, With both media, I usually have to do a bit more on the picture the following day…but not too much or for too long, especially on these small-format pieces.

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This is a good discussion for me as I tend to push to finish when I should walk away for a while. One trick I’m using some of the time is to work on several paintings at one time. I start one, realize I’ve reached a pause point and then start another. I have had up to 5 in the wings at one time… sometimes in different medium as I work in oils and pastels. If I stagger the beginning dates, it means that normally my finish dates are also staggered. It also means I can work on a commission, take a break, and then work on something for me, or something for this site.


Wow, Dietmar…1-3 hours to finish a painting? I take about 6 hours for a 6 X 8 painting…I guess that is a reflection of my relative inexperience because I always look at your paintings and admire them. Your technique and your vision for the painting must match up fairly well.

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Hi Terri-Anne… thanks for your compliments :blush:
2 hours is the average painting time. It takes up to one hour to find, install, sketch or steal :smirk: the idea of the painting. Technique is a good point to mention. It all sums up in experience, technique, discipline and the most important of all: a lot of fun!
I also use a reduced palette of primary colors. (Cadmium red, Phtalo or WinsorBlue, Cadmium Yellow plus Titanium and Mixing Whites) Less colors means less mixing time (for me). I like to work on “real” canvas instead of boards or paper. On both of the latter I (personally) need more treatment and more brushstrokes.

No, there are definitely bad paintings that no amount of time or reworking will save. For the most part rules are nonsense especially with regard to art so I would just paint and not be overly concerned about the name of the site, a contrived concept or anything other than making art.

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