Margaret was dying for a chance to showcase her quilts. Deep down she knew they were some of her best work, but she kept finding a whole bunch of nothing when she looked for art competitions. Textile competitions seemed to be on the wane. On a day when she almost had given up her search, Margaret found a hugely prestigious competition. Her favorite art quilter was judging the competition. There was no question. She must enter.
The competition called for artists to respond to a prompt so Margaret jumped in full force. Materials would run out and she’d run all over town to find matching thread. She bought the remaining favorite fabric off of the bolt from the store to ensure she didn’t run out.
Of course, opportunities like these are when we all get busy.
All of a sudden Margaret’s job picked up. She had a major merger to deal with and on top of it, someone decided to get sick to chaperone her son’s soccer trip and she had no choice but to jump in and chaperone herself. Despite this, friends and family continued to push her and help her stick to it. It meant some late nights, but she wanted her art quilt to win!
After all of the hours she put in, she only had 3 days left to enter her work in the competition. She looked at it, eyes fatigued from quilting late into the light under her measly little lamp. She had been staring at it for so long she knew she needed a break. But, she only had 2 more days to finalize her work. Was it finished?
Have you ever written a word so much or stared at a word for so long that it loses it meaning? You know, that feeling where you thought you knew how to spell a word but were now not so sure? Margaret was feeling that now. How could she possibly know if her work was ready for show?
How do we know when our creative project is complete?
I’m not sure I’m the best person to answer this question. In fact my professor at university told me I “murder my paintings.” Yup. Word for word.
I knew what she meant when she told me that, but I didn’t know how to solve my problem. I wanted SO badly to make quality artwork that I’d keep at it, long after I should have let the work go. You could see the work tighten as I continued to tweak each little detail, until it was completely stiff and even uncomfortable to view. I was less comfortable with my intuitive self and wanted everything structured and “perfect.” (Oh, the woes of perfectionism. Perfectionism is never a compliment, don’t take it as one!)
It wasn’t until I found out I might lose my vision one day that I painted for the pure pleasure of it. This was well after college was complete. I painted, because I knew I may not be able to in my future and I loved doing it. Those works, well, not a single piece of them felt tight. And it was while doing those paintings, which had no clear end to them, that I really began to consider my answer to that question. It means trusting in your intuition. Because this formula isn’t one that has the same arithmetic each time.
Leonardo da Vinci is credited with saying, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” Contemporary artist Mica Hendricks now lets her daughter finish some of her works. And author Ernest Hemingway rewrote the last page to A Farewell to Arms 39 times before he was satisfied.
Everyone has different strategies to reflect on their art and decide if it’s finished. But no matter the medium, there are similarities to the process.
The most important elements to finishing a work seem to include these qualities:
(1) Taking time away from your work.
(2) Feedback and support from respected peers.
(3) Small acts of refinement.
(4) The desire to constantly refine, even when you’ve decided a creation is complete.
(5) Experiencing some kind of intuitive voice saying it’s time to stop, only sometimes gifting you with a feeling of satisfaction.
My most basic strategy has become: at what point will adding more start to “murder” my painting? That’s when I know I need to put my paintbrush down. Somedays I think it’s still not soon enough.
In the end Margaret knew that night she needed to go to sleep. She was too tired to make a good decision. She went to bed and to work the next day without looking at her piece. Margaret knew even a wee bit of space may give her the fresh eyes she needed. She called a good artist friend during her lunch break and they planned to have dinner together and talk over the quilt. Together they’d know.
BE COURAGEOUSLY CREATIVE: What is your formula for deciding when and if your creative project is complete? I want to know! Tell me about it in the comments below.
Listen to today’s post instead:
Join the Artist Strong Community
Meet wonderful, like-minded creatives and unleash your inner artist. Access free online workshops, share in behind the scenes stories from practicing creatives, and uncover strategies to enhance your artist practice.