UART Tip #11: “The Look At Stage” with Lee McVey

Some artists finish their paintings and put them in frames right away. I suggest my students put their paintings in what I call “The Look At Stage.” Sometimes this stage will take a few days to a few weeks, but sometimes even longer.

Have you ever decided a painting was finished, take it off your easel, start framing, only to notice an area that should be improved? This has happened to me many times.  I’ve even experienced finishing the framing and then seeing something, a value, temperature or color that needed adjustment. How frustrating to need to take the work out of the frame and rework the painting at that point.

Over the years, I’ve learned to leave some time for the “look at stage” after taking my painting off the easel to see if an improvement is needed. It’s not easy to be objective about our work. We need some time to see our paintings with fresh eyes, objective eyes.

Repeatedly stepping away from the easel to assess our stroke is helpful. I remind students of this continually in order to facilitate a habit of stepping away. Taking a brief break from the easel is another strategy to see your painting with fresh eyes.

When I am painting, after I’ve blocked in the painting, I continually step away to assess what I’ve done. In the later stages of the painting, I make a mark, step back, make a mark and step back again, over and over. I think it was in John Singer Sargent’s classes that he would have the students work in a room separate from the room with the model. This way, students were required to step back from their work as well as exercise their memory of what they observed.

Putting the finished or almost finished painting in “the look at stage” takes stepping away from the painting much further. I strongly believe we need to gain some objectivity about what we see in our painting in order to declare it is finished.

My painting Autumn Gold is an example of the need for the look at stage. I had created this painting en plein air and then framed it for a show. I received compliments on the painting, but it did not sell. After the show, Autumn Gold was hung behind my easel in my studio. I could see it each time I worked at my easel.

After all this looking, I decided I could make the painting better. I removed it from the frame and added highlights among other adjustments. This took “the look at stage” to a lengthy extreme, but I believe Autumn Gold is a better painting for it. I wrote a blog post about the evolution of this painting which you can read at

Lee McVey

Check out Lee’s paintings at