“Art is never finished, just abandoned.”
Leonardo da Vinci said that, and he was right. But understanding Leonardo’s genius gives us little comfort when we’re wrestling with a work of art that seems to be nearing completion, but is doing everything it can to avoid getting there.
A friend posted on Facebook: “I need help from other artists! With out a deadline, how do you quit polishing, refining, building up, editing and changing what you are working on? I feel like I am in the creative surf. Every time I think I'm almost out another wave of ideas crashes down. If there is no such thing as perfect, where do you stop? Help!”
Help, indeed. We obsess about everything, we artists, at every stage of any creative work. We get even pickier the closer a project gets to being “finished.” Too often this stage is also where our initial vision clouds to gray, and we enter a place where the artist in us is obliged to become an administrator. With creativity waning, and self-criticism mounting, we are forced to make some very uncomfortable executive decisions.
It’s the antithesis of creativity, this finishing business, and it requires immediate answers to at least a million questions, give or take a dozen: Does this thing look right? Is it balanced? Do I need to add/remove/change more color/shadow/texture/notes/words? What if I put an extra leaf here, a touch of yellow there, another movement, an extra stanza, or maybe a few thousand sequins on top? Is it finished, or am I just tired of looking at it? If I add feathers now, will it be done, or will I be starting out on a completely different project?
It’s not that artists don't know how to make decisions. When we are deep in creative mode, our brains resemble something more of a high-intensity munitions factory than a quiet studio. Information and ideas emerge spontaneously, rapidfire, fully automatic. Options are sorted, selected and rejected subconsciously at blinding speed.
Then we enter executive mode, where decisions are made consciously - something that many artists aren't particularly good at (which of course is why we are artists, and not executives). After spending time and energy on our composition, fatigue and frustration wear away at our patience and enthusiasm. Soon we realize that the thing in front of us is only a poor reflection of the idea that started us on this creative journey. Not only is it not perfect – it’s barely satisfactory. Do we try in vain to fix it, or give up in defeat?
Hopefully, we will come to a place in the process where the work satisfies, or at least pleases us on some level, and we know that we are through with it… or this portion of it… for the moment, at least. Most of the time, though, we have to come to grips with reality, face up to our creative and technical shortcomings, and decide with what to do with a nearly, but not quite, finished piece of art. We must
A) Decide it’s close enough to justify the effort we’ve invested, and allow our viewing audience to pass final judgment,
B) Abandon the work and start over,
C) Continue along a futile path of creation until the project meets our elusive ideal (little chance of that), or collapses under a heap of unnecessary pigment, or
D) Realize that there is probably still something missing that needs our attention, but we don't know for sure what it is. Yet.
Unless you’re the type who learns from their mistakes, option B tends to repeat itself. You waste a lot of time and materials, and you wind up getting nowhere. C can easily turn into a long, drawn-out version of B.
If you picked A or D, you’re finished – especially if there is a deadline involved.
Sure, every work of art can do with improvement. That doesn't mean you need to improve it, and certainly not today. So stick a price tag on it, and set it out in the gallery. Chances are someone else will think it’s not only finished, but fabulous.
Even if you’re not ready to let go, it might still be a good idea to forget about this piece of work for a while, and start in on another one. If your new project takes you to the same creative dead-end, set it aside as well, and start yet another. Sooner or later you're bound to be happy with the way something turns out.
This approach can lead to an incredible amount of new work, in a very short period of time. Who cares if your studio is filling up with half-finished junk? You always stay busy, and the chances of ruining instead of finishing your work fall to near zero.
If you simply HAVE TO meddle with a piece that is all but 'finished', stop the process anyway, and pretend it’s done. Wait a month or two. Or six. Write it on the calendar, a half a year from now: "I can go back and mess with my masterpiece today." With any luck, that piece won't even be around anymore. Somebody bought it weeks ago.