How Do You Know When You’re Finished?


Judean Hills, by Elizabeth Langer

Pablo Picasso is reported to have said, “Woe to you the day it is said that you are finished! To finish a work? To finish a picture? What nonsense! To finish it means to be through with it, to kill it, to rid it of its soul — to give it its final blow; the most unfortunate one for the painter as well as for the picture.”

Hoping that some of our local artists had a brighter outlook, we decided to ask around. How do you know when you are finished?

Before we get to their responses, we wanted to share this poem about finishing by Martha’s Vineyard poet laureate Arnie Reisman:

In the Home of a Poem

This poem is not finished
As long as it sits in an open space
as long as words can be placed and replaced
as long as punctuation can be ordered overnight
as long as I am still alive

Anymore than a house designed
by Frank Lloyd Wright was finished
Once sold, story goes,
the architect demanded his own set of keys
to make surprise visits
to chastise choices of paint
to rearrange furniture
to explain what works on walls
When he died, the house finally breathed
and became a home

Oscar Wilde exercised his commas like small dogs,
taking them out, bringing them in again
A raven cawed more tunefully than a crow
If it hadn’t, its master would have been
simply Ed Poe

So I continue to make my visits of inspection
reupholstering the lines
rearranging to achieve feng shui
until the day
when finally what’s removed is me
Then this poem will receive
a certificate of occupancy

Elizabeth Langer, painter, collage artist, and printmaker
Often I don’t know when a piece is finished. Knowing when to stop is one of the most difficult judgment calls a creative person is called to make. Countless times I have ruined a work by failing to stop. Other times I have looked at a drawing or painting and said to myself, “This is good, but it’s not special; it doesn’t grab me.” I can take a risk by adding a color, some dissonant lines or a bold mark. Sometimes I hit the jackpot and the work sings. Other times (more often), I destroy the piece and I am unable to bring it back. But I always remember the voice in my head: “It’s far better to take a risk and fail than to settle for something that is only good.”

Blue Tuesday, charcoal and pastel, by Elizabeth Langer

Blue Tuesday, charcoal and pastel, by Elizabeth Langer

Posted, right, is a drawing that resulted from this process — a charcoal on gray paper. It was a nice drawing, but nothing special. I have piles of “nice” drawings in my studio, but I wanted to go for something more. So I took a risk. I reached into my pastel box, took out a lemon yellow and a cobalt blue, and without hesitation added a few strokes of color. I knew it was finished. The transformation, “Blue Tuesday,” is the result.

In other instances, I have work that is so bad, it’s headed for the trash bin. There I have nothing to lose. So I play with it. One such piece was a small watercolor landscape. The colors were dull, and the work had no vigor. Out came the pastels. My little landscape, “Judean Hills,” (posted) came alive.

Kate Davis, documentary filmmaker
I feel I can always dig up one more bit in the outtakes, tweak the rhythm of a cut, even when I have decided to “print” a film. But at some point, the stone feels polished enough to wear, so to speak. I call a film finished when the pieces that have been jostled together for months suddenly lock together in a way that feels natural and inevitable. When a viewing feels like a smooth ride with a strong arc from beginning to end. No bumps, no slowdowns, and when the comments from test audiences no longer ring alarm bells, but confirm my intentions. At that fine moment, it feels like the film is telling me to stop tinkering and let it have a life of its own.

Andrew Moore, painter
Some of my paintings can take five months or more to complete. I know a painting is done when there is nothing in it that bothers me. I can actually enjoy looking at it. At this point I hide it from sight for a few months, even a year, and take another look. Usually I find something, some detail, color, or even a whole section that needs reworking. Ultimately, the painting is only done after I varnish it. After the varnish, I know our relationship is over … often this is a great relief!

Justen Ahren, poet
How do I know when a poem is finished?
It completes its own music. That is, the “utterance” sounds, and resolves a necessary music. All the notes ring in harmony at their appropriate interval and proper duration. Some hammer out their rooms, some plink in a cup, each making its own demands on the air.

Jeri Dantzig, fused-glass artist
To me, I feel a piece is finished when the color combinations and arrangements resonate with the palette I was seeking. I tend to go more bold than subtle, but it must respond with my visual and stimulate my color sense as complete.

Heather Goff, multimedia artist, on digital drawing
With my daily-sketch project, parameters were in place by the nature of the task that set a limit on how long I could work on a drawing. As I was committed to doing one a day, and could only work on them at night, the piece had to be finished when I was too tired to draw anymore.

Nicole Galland, novelist
My novel is done when my editor says, “Nicki, c’mon, we’re in page proofs; please stop making changes.”

Wendy Weldon, painter
It varies. It is so wonderful when a painting gives me a stop sign. This is not always the norm for me. My eyes roll over the surface measuring the color, the shapes, the movement, and sometimes I just don’t know what to adjust. Other times, it feels like I could keep painting, and the process will never end. I often rework paintings months and sometimes years later, because I have finally figured out why I am not pleased with the piece.

Arnie Reisman’s poem In The Home of a Poem is from his book “Clara Bow Died for Our Sins” (Summerset Press).

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