(and the Art of Finishing)
Knowing when to quit working on a piece of art is hard. Knowing when a thing is finished…and stopping before you go too far, before you do too much and end up squeezing the life out of it…that’s the trick.
Sometimes, a lot of times in my case, it can be hard to tell just where that stopping point is.
One sign that something you’re working on is nearing the finish line may be when the changes you’re making become so increasingly minimal that they have no significant effect on the work. You could go on making changes, making changes, making changes – practically forever it almost seems. Eventually, though, you must just STOP!
This is complicated by the fact, however, that it’s often some crucial little thing that brings a piece all together. The single brush stroke, the patch of dark color, the angle of a line – small things that have big effects. And these big little things can be hard to see before you make them.
Some little thing might just be THE thing that’s needed, THE thing that brings it all into focus. There might be some final little thing remaining out there that’s just not recognized by you yet, that’s hidden in your mind and needing to be put onto on your canvas. Well, that’s what makes it so hard to really know when you’re done…the thought lurking in your head that maybe you haven’t yet found that last, truly finishing touch.
Therein lies the quandary; do you ever really know when you’ve reached the “right” stopping point? Is there such a thing? I’m not sure. If there is, I’ve missed it plenty of times – gone too far seeking perfection and ended up overworking something, screwing up a perfectly good painting that could be enjoyable despite its imperfections. In the end, at some point one must simply decide to quit making changes in hopes of “improving” even if it means the ultimate key tweak has not been made. At some point, you must accept the imperfections you still see. And be OK with that. Be OK with the knowledge that “this is a far as I can take it…someone else might be able to take it farther, but this is my limit on this one.”
Once I’ve let it go and allowed (or forced) myself to stop working on something despite the remaining flaws that seem so glaring to me, once I’ve had time to see with fresh, uncritical eyes, I often find that an imperfect painting has yet managed to turn out good. Sometimes, even, I end up with something that seems (to me) to get better and better with viewing. Something I can look at with simple pleasure…and, yes, with a little bit of pride.
Near the end of his excellent biography of Leonardo Da Vinci, Walter Isaacson proposed various ways in which we can learn from the example of Leonardo. In one proposal, Isaacson turns a famous admonition on its head, suggesting that we should, at least sometimes, be like Leonardo and Let the perfect be the enemy of the good. It’s well known that Leonardo, when he could not complete a work in a way that lived up to his own standards, was apt to abandon it and move on rather than deliver something that was “merely good enough.” Nonetheless, certain beautiful paintings (masterpieces, including the Mona Lisa), he carried around with him for years, continuing to add one more stroke, one more touch – virtually until his life’s end. The incomparable Leonardo was not known for finishing a lot of his projects, but what he did complete was in every case magnificent.
Leonardo’s approach may have been reasonable for someone of his legitimate and rare genius, but I don’t believe it holds for the rest of us who, if we insist on perfection, may well produce nothing. Better to aspire to perfection, to strive for it, but be happy with good.
And, of course, perfection is but one measure of art. Arthur Koestler may have been right when he said, “The true mark of genius is not perfection, but originality, the opening of new frontiers; once this is done, the conquered territory becomes common property.”
But then, true originality (which Da Vinci certainly had in abundance) is as difficult as perfection. And although both may be extremely difficult to achieve, that difficulty should neither deter us from the attempt nor diminish our pleasure in the effort.