How do I know the piece is finished?

Learning to listen to the inner voice giving me directions while I work isn’t as weird as it sounds. Okay, yeah it probably is.

This question comes from Lynda. I’ve known Lynda for a while now and this isn’t the first time she’s asked this question. It’s as signature for her as David Letterman’s Top Ten lists. I like the idea of a go-to question. It’s an interesting thing to ask a question over and over again and really listen to different people’s answers. To add to your own body of knowledge by mining other’s experiences. And I think asking a question over and over again keeps it top of mind for us too. We can experiment with our own response, changing as needed and testing our experiences against other folk’s experiences. And this question about how do I know when a piece is finished is a good one.

At the end of this post I talk about when I wrote on this same topic about six years ago. I think it’s interesting to read these two posts together. You can see I’m still just out here stabbing in the dark trying to figure out how this art practice thing works. I’m still hoping the magic will show up if I keep showing up. The previous post was before my first gallery show and so that work is on my work wall in one picture. Seeing how I was trying to solve those problems is wild. I am struck by how glad I am to be documenting this journey for myself. I hope it is in some way useful for you too.

Where I struggle

When I first started out, I had no idea where the upper limit was. I overworked things right and left. I experimented a lot with alcohol inks because they were new on the crafting/art scene and I learned you can’t cover that shit up with ANYTHING. So I often had a lot of acrylic paint with alcohol ink bleeding through. Nasty. One of my first hard lessons was to ditch the alcohol inks. Knowing when a tool isn’t the right one for you is a good lesson to learn. Because when a tool isn’t working, I think it’s easy to miss when to stop in the process of trying to force the tool to perform in a way it’s not designed to.

I have often struggled with being precious about sections of my work. I work on a piece for a while and love the way something looks and I don’t want to cover it up or abandon it. This is a hard lesson to learn/unlearn. I can’t be precious about anything during the process. Sometimes I have to be willing to kill my loves. And I absolutely hate this process! HATE IT! I don’t always do it. But I rarely regret it when I do. Knowing when to keep going is a fantastic skill. It’s some sort of weird intuition practice for knowing when to stop.

closeup of “Honey”

Because I get precious, I think I stop too soon sometimes. I won’t push past the discomfort to something deeper and more meaningful. I end up with more surface work both figuratively and literally. Stopping too soon is as bad or maybe even worse than not stopping soon enough.

I always think about this quote:

Art is never finished, only abandoned.

Leonardo da Vinci

Abandonment happens

Abandoning a project used to give me big feels. I don’t like leaving things undone. It feels like failure. But sometimes abandoning the thing is perfect because it’s taught me what I needed to learn so I actually don’t need to keep going. My best example of this are the early pieces I made for the Ground series. You can see some of the early work from this series here. I abandoned some of those pieces because they were dead ends. But they set me up for some of the most successful things I think I’ve ever made.

closeup of “I pledge allegiance to me


I keep coming back to trusting myself. Listening to the inner voice saying, “More, more, more!” until it says, “Less, less, less…stop!” It’s learning to slow down and listen to that voice. I always want to go fast! Because I want things done now! I want 20 minutes to create a masterpiece and then move on to the next project. But I’m learning to trust that sometimes I have to pause and listen. And worse than that, sometimes I have to put projects aside to marinate. This is something I have to continually practice because it doesn’t come naturally to me at all.

And even trusting the voice and listening doesn’t mean I’ll always produce successful work. Sometimes when I pay close attention to my inner voice and do things when I should, I still produce unsuccessful work. Because that’s just how this works.

A NEW! and UPDATED! blog post for 2023

I wrote about this very topic in 2017. I’d already written about half of this post when I decided to search for the da Vinci quote and sure enough there it was in a post I wrote a few years ago exactly on this topic. (I was fairly convinced it was a Picasso quote when I started looking for it though.) I’m interested that many of the things I touch on in that post are still relevant. I still use the work wall in the same way. And I’m still in too big a hurry. Not sure I’ll ever change that completely. And also still feel like that quote is relevant. I guess in some things I’m consistent.

What about you? Do you know when your work is finished? Do you have a question you ask over and over? I’m anxious to hear what’s on your mind about this topic. Catch me up by email or on socials.

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