Many visual artists have no particular trouble starting pieces but lots of trouble finishing them. Why is finishing a work of art problematic for so many artists? In this series we’ll look at twelve reasons. Here’s reason number five:

Reason 5. Difficulty knowing if and when your work of art is complete.

A minimalist, Zen-influenced painting might be done after just a few strokes. A narrative painting might have a cast of dozens of characters and require countless strokes. Is the former less complete than the latter because it is minimalist and so much of the canvas remains white and bare? No, of course not. Each must be considered complete according to its own criteria for completion, its own aesthetics and its own lights. But how confusing this can become! We look at our work-in-progress and simply can’t tell if it is “done already” or “needs more work.”

Many artists have the deep, visceral feeling that their work is done early on in the process and their continued work on it actually weakens the effect. How odd! Because “completion” is necessarily a subjective assessment and not an objective assessment, and because we may experience multiple, contradictory feelings of the above sort, we must ultimately “simply” make a decision, one that is more like a guess and a surrendering than a calculation or a foregone conclusion. If we do not regularly surrender in this way and announce that a given work is done, then it isn’t and never will be. It will always remain unfinished. An artist’s central task is to engage in this special poignant surrendering—as uncertain as he may still feel as he makes his decision.

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