The painter leans back in towards the canvas, taking in breath as her hand arcs into position, her head tilted slightly to one side as it usually is.
But she pauses.
Her hand slowly drops and her head straightens. Her eyes flicker across the canvas. She breathes out deeply as her shoulders relax. Taking a short step back, she nods gently then turns and
How does an artist decide their masterpiece is finished, that the previous brushstroke should be the final one?
When is an artwork complete?
This question is most obvious and philosophical for visual art, but is equally intriguing for stories and songs: whilst they are consumed in linear fashion, the process of transforming a melody into a piece of music, or a plot line into a novel, is anything but formulaic.
Ernest Hemingway would finish writing half way through a sentence rather than let punctuation determine when he should call it a night.
The next day a slightly different version of himself would sit down to finish the sentence off, having benefitted from it swirling around in his unconscious mind for the intervening period.
“I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.”
——— Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
This famous habit has inspired generations of creative minds across the arts. The final song in the Fleet Foxes album Helplessness Blues ends with the musical equivalent of an unfinished Hemingway sentence. The first song on their next album six years later opened with that missing note, finishing one sentence whilst starting another.
It has been said that the essence of music lies in the gaps between the notes (although such gaps tend to be of shorter duration than six years). Across the arts, space of different forms is left by the artist, allowing each observer to form their own interpretations and experience the art in their own unique way. This space and its qualities are closely intertwined with the question of when a piece is considered finished.
A good friend of mine, a writer, has been honing his craft on short stories of late. The skill lies in trimming down the text after creating the story: to leave enough in to set the scene, to develop the characters, to create some imagery and engross the reader; but to do so with few words, leaving space for the reader to use their own imagination to fill in the gaps.
In this case the brushstrokes are the delete key. Reductive rather than additive but with the same importance of deciding when to step back from the keyboard/canvas.
Is unfinished work really unfinished, or is it just unpublished?
It is difficult to decide when to push the button and publish creative work. This moment represents an abrupt separation: a long period of careful nurturing terminated with a single click or keystroke.
But the feeling of it being unfinished and vulnerable to criticism is perhaps an inherent and necessary quality of a piece of art – the ‘unfinishedness’ is the space gifted to the observer.
This space facilitates a special form of communication between artist and audience – one that can span continents and centuries.
“It is a most wonderful comfort to sit alone beneath a lamp, book spread before you, and commune with someone from the past whom you have never met.”
——— Kenko, Essays In Idleness
This interaction is enriched by the gaps the creator has left for the consumer, providing freedom for the artwork to be experienced through the changing lens of each individual – allowing them to project their thoughts and feelings and reach their own conclusions.
Instead of representing ‘unfinishedness’, we might instead consider these gaps, imperfections and empty spaces as open ended questions — with infinite possibilities for when, where and how they will be answered.