How Do I Decide My Work is Finished?

Over the next few Thursdays I’ll be talking about topics that came out of a discussion I had with The Council of Arty Cleverness. They suggested some blog topics and so I’m running with them. This one was Sharyn’s idea.

When I started Make Something Every Day, I tried so many different kinds of projects. I played around with Artist Trading Cards (ATCs), postcards, tiny shrines, art pieces I worked on and cut down to a smaller size to finish. It was the throw everything at the wall and see what sticks approach to figuring out how I worked. In that process, I’d work on stuff until it was so overworked I rendered it useless. I have a couple of projects I remember very distinctly that happening to. It’s part of the learning process. Learning how far to go before it’s too far. Learning how to work in layers, sometimes carefully and sometimes with abandon. Sometimes I didn’t particularly like the result but it wouldn’t be bad enough to get rid of. I’ve saved SO MANY things just in case.

This is a piece that I made way, way back in 2013. You can read it’s origin story towards the bottom of this post. I never came together like I wanted it to. It just was really lifeless when I stopped working on it so I put it to the side.

Last year when I was just getting into the Get Messy Art Journal community, one of the first seasons I participated in was Season of Lists. And when I needed a cover, this old piece seemed like it might be a great jumping off point. I cut it up and used the top half for my journal cover. (It’s turned sideways. You can see the flower from the upper right of the original on the lower right of my cover.)

Best of all, the bottom half floated around my paper bin for a while and eventually I shipped it to Katie from Punk Projects in a supply swap. This past week, she and I were talking about old projects and I showed her the original piece and she said, “Hey! You sent me part of that! I made something out of it!!”

Katie’s journal she made from my scraps.
Katie’s journal opened up.

So a piece that wasn’t all that interesting in 2013 became two really interesting things since then.

So how does this story relate to knowing when my work is done? It’s all about development. And I really wish I could say that things are done when they hit this stage or have reached this preordained point. That there was a check box system I could use to say, “Project Complete!” Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. It’s about trial and error and learning to sense when things are done or close to done. Which also means that the more experience I gain as an artist, the finish line is constantly shifting a tiny bit further away. That can be frustrating and discouraging. But really, I’m here to learn and to enjoy the long haul process so it’s something I’ve just learned to roll with. While over time it might be a moving target, individual projects can be counted as done to the best of my ability/skill level.

This is also why I have the work wall.

The work wall allows me to live with pieces in progress. I can study them and think about what needs to be added or changed. It just gives me some breathing space to think about, “Is this thing done or not?”

From looking back at my early work this past week I can see how my ability to predict the end point for a work has changed over the past few years. My ability to sense the place where the work is done for me has grown stronger even while sometimes I set the piece to the side to finish later or to just gesso over and start again. Leonardo da Vinci said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” I can see the truth in that as I gain more experience.