a journal of observations, obsessions and inspirations

musings on the artist's life

Posted in: Creativity

“Finish” isn’t a word in an artist’s dictionary

Attention to detail can turn into paralyzing perfectionism in nothing flat. The former is a wonderful characteristic to have, while the latter prevents me from completing work — and moving on to something new. I’m hardly alone in this; most artists have this problem. It’s the nothing-is-ever-quite-good-enough reaction that comes from turning your insides out and putting them on canvas or paper or some other tangible thing, held up for the world to judge. And it’s almost impossible to separate that judging of one’s work from one’s self.

But at some point, the work has to be finished, or we have to at least call it “finished.” I learned this invaluable lesson, simple though it may sound, while working on my first solo gallery show. There were to be something like 38 or 40 pieces in the show, almost all of them new, and I worked like mad over about 8 months to make it happen. So one of the things I learned was that the show was far too ambitious. Okay — noted. But as we got closer to the opening, I began to find that a work became “finished” when it went up on the wall. I’m not talking about something blatantly un-finished, or a lack of pride in the finished aspect of the work, but about the distinction between “finished” and “perfect” — which was often a fine line only visible to me.

To be sure, the artist is the one who must, absolutely must, be willing to pursue the detail as far as it can be taken. That’s our job, our craft, in furtherance of our vision. But without the push to get finished pieces on the gallery walls, I would have put this piece aside to mull it over for later… that piece I would have rejected for not being perfect enough. And by having to risk putting less-than-perfect (in my mind) pieces out there to be seen and commented on, I became a better artist. I learned to let go, learned that the work was finished at that particular point in time. If I found, as I did with a small handful of works, that I was still unsatisfied with what the piece said, then I can pursue that in another incarnation. Perhaps it will be a “version II” of the same work. Perhaps it will take the idea of the work and move in a different direction.

In the world of “self-taught,” there are no failures, no mistakes — only images that don’t work as well as others at a given time. Semantics? maybe. This was an experiment in shooting still-life, one that was unsatisfying for that purpose… but resulted in good images to play with in terms of computer manipulation. The original crisply focused black and white photograph has been softened, cropped, textured, and airbrushed in Photoshop, providing a few chapters’ worth of learning along the way. 

unfinished work along the way towards finish

“Finishing the Hat” is what Georges sings in Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece about art and artists, SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE. In frustration, he pursues his vision, celebrating his innovative attention to detail and his artistic drive at the expense of living a “normal” life, giving up his chance for love. The work is everything. His life is the cost. Not all artists are psychotic loners, starving in a garret. But many “suffer” from a compulsion to do the work, and can fall victim to the only comforts available in a lonely life — it cannot be coincidence that many artists and writers are addictive personalities and deal with the fallout from depression, alcoholism, or madness. Perhaps it’s the cost of tapping into an emotional core, to be able to present the world as others have not seen it before.

I seesaw in my ability to let go of a work or to get mired in the quicksand of endless detail. Sometimes, though, you just have to move on.