Art Is Never Finished

Art is never finished, only abandoned.
—Leonard da Vinci

You can always go back and touch up a painting. You can always rewrite a lyric or melody. You can always edit a book or blog post. Art is never done. It is never complete. It can always be refined.

Futility by Hugh MacLeod - Art is never finished
“Futility” by Hugh MacLeod

Maybe the tools we use to express our ideas are insufficient. Maybe our hands and brushes and laptops are crude instruments compared to the complexities of our souls and imaginations. So when we step up to our “canvases,” we end approach an inherently flawed medium in comparison to the genius inside of us.

As a result, the project always feels incomplete. It could always use another refinement or edit. It never feels “just right.”

I struggle with this feeling all the time, when it comes to creative projects (including this blog). I’m always wanting to tweak an element here or rewrite a word there. I’m never satisfied.

Or maybe ideas are, by their very nature, transient. Maybe they are always changing. Maybe art is constantly evolving, and therefore, the artist must continuously change how he expresses what the Muse is inspiring.

Maybe creativity is the act of embracing perennially unfinished work.

Maybe an artist is someone who starts, anyway. Realizing that the art will never truly be done, they choose to be courageous, to create.

Maybe that’s why so many people abandon creative work and why so few begin in the first place. Because art feels futile at times, but is, in fact, incredibly brave.

Do you think art is ever finished? Share in the comments.

*Thanks to Stephen Brewster for inspiring this post over a cup of coffee.

Post-script: Since posting this a few minutes ago, I’ve already edited and tweaked five six things.

37 thoughts on “Art Is Never Finished

  1. I think this is one of the main reasons we spend more time thinking about creating than actually doing it! My husband is hosting a songwriting challenge this week (5in5 @ and we’ve been shocked by how productive we could be under a deadline. We HAD to finish and so we did. Of course, we listen to our songs and think, yeah, let’s go back and fix that later . . . : )

    1. Thanks, Felicity. I think songs are especially this way — since even when you publish or record, the reality is that the song is living INSIDE of you. Every time you perform or play it is another chance to rewrite it. I write songs (on a very amateur level) and always change at least one element every time I play one.

  2. Great post! I don’t think art is ever finished. That’s the beautiful thing about art. It can always be tweeked, added-too, or taken away. plus art ends up looking different depending on who is interpreting it…it’s a beautiful thing.

  3. Brilliant post Jeff.

    So, I write and produce music and you get to the place where it just has to be “good enough”. What makes it great or mediocre is the standard by which you evaluate “what is good enough.” You print the mix, or hit publish, or ship, or do whatever constitutes “finished” and off it goes.

    But the ideas keep developing… I see this happening a lot in worship songs, where spontaneous new riffs and lyrics spring up out of a song when you get “in the flow”. Know what I mean?

    1. i know exactly what you mean, rob. that tension between waiting for excellence and shipping something mediocre is tough to describe. i want to write a post on it, but i’m not sure how to explain it. you just know, i think. know what I mean? 😉

  4. I don’t think it’s ever finished. And from the sound of it we share a lot of the same views on it. I don’t think it’s ever finished because we are constantly growing and changing. And if we are ever growing and every changing, then our art will be the same thing. What we create is truly a reflection of us.

    1. Thanks, Michael. I like your thoughts here. Have you blogged about this at all? Would love to read more. This is actually a bit of a new revelation to me.

      1. I haven’t blogged about it. It’s something I’ve thought about doing. But it falls into one of those things that I (think) I have a fear about. It’s obvious that I’m not an expert about blogging or creativity. So every time I get ready to do something regarding it, I experience a lot of Resistance.

        1. Hmmm… well, for what it’s worth, I’d love to hear what you have to say! Feel free to shoot me an email, man. Btw, I think you’re an expert on building community, which is an essential part of blogging.

  5. Good thoughts Jeff!

    As a person who is never really satisfied, it would be easy to say that any art I am involved with, is never truly finished. But maybe mostly complete, or complete enough to let it go and start something new.

    You’re right. We can always tweak, re-word something, shave a little off here and add a little more here. And even then, I’m not sure we’d ever come to the crossroads of a finished piece.

    I’m a writer and songwriter and I’m never really satisfied with the ending… just 80%!

  6. Jeff,

    Excellent, provocative material once again!

    This is always a tough one, and actually a topic I always love discussing with other artists and creative people.

    I believe there are times when you reach a point and feel that stopping is the right thing to do. I use the word “feel” here because that is exactly what transpires.

    Then again, you could always find ways to do something different, no doubt about it. But ultimately we have to tie a bow around what we’re doing and send it off at some point so best not to beat ourselves up over whether it was the best or worst thing to do.

    Nice work, Jeff!


  7. I also tend to go back to posts and make edits, sometimes immediately after publishing. As far as writing goes, I think that’s part of the craft. You keep refining the words until you’ve reached a level of clarity that you can live with.

    The great thing about a blog is that you get a fresh start as often as you want. And you can go back and make older posts better. And sometimes if you re-read a post you weren’t happy with originally, you might be surprised that it’s not so bad after all.

  8. My boss tells me on a regular basis that, “Sometimes you just have to hit print.” I’ll tweak articles, papers, and projects forever and they’ll still never be good enough. I’ve kind of used the “Publish” button as the printer in that once it’s posted it doesn’t get re-edited again. Whether that’s a good or bad policy I’m still not sure.

  9. For myself, I’ve been so interested in “shipping” (which is here defined as getting good posts up regularly), and doing the rest of what life requires of me, that I actually haven’t thought about going back to look at my previous “works”–my focus has been forward. I don’t disagree in principle, but the constant need to revise can be a trap. Maybe some works belong to certain eras of our creative lives and are best left safely alone? Perhaps I don’t yet have enough time and distance to have perspective on this? I’m certainly an amateur, but I’m learning.

    Soon I will be writing on why the “creator” is sovereign with regard to his works as part of a new Wednesday series I’ve been doing on “Life and Art.” I truly attribute what I saw as a one-off post becoming series due to your encouragement, Jeff. Thanks!

    1. Awesome, Chad. You’re right – it’s a fine line between constant refinement and obsession. You do need some distance before re-approaching old works, but it’s a good practice. I love that series you’re doing – I’m glad my encouragement helped you.

  10. Great post Jeff – came across your stuff through a friend, glad I did.

    I agree with MichaelDPerkins. Hopefully I will always have the ability to make past work better because I am continually becoming better.

    What works for me is defining the difference between works of art and art. Works need completion. But art needs a lure of nonattainability so we will always feel the need to explore it.

  11. Hi Jeff – great post as usual! 
    I love this quote:
    “A rule of thumb for artists is this — if you can’t think of anything you left out, you aren’t finished”. Robert Brault 
    It reminds me whenever I am painting that there will ALWAYS be something else to add or ‘play with’ in a painting – but the golden rule for me is that ‘when you start fiddling with the painting – stop painting!’
    I guess the same is true with writing too?
    Each work is another step forward – another chance to learn and grow – and move on – 
    so… should we keep going back and altering things – or just add what we have learned to the next piece – of art – music – or writing? It’s an interesting one to think about!

  12. The problem is not knowing when it can be “shipped”.  I heard a songwriter friend say he wrote 300 songs since last May.  Someone asked him how many of them are good.  He said, “If I knew that, I wouldn’t have to write 300 of them.”  I can relate.

  13. Art does indeed feel futile at times. Sometimes I ask myself if I shouldn’t be doing something “more productive” with my time in a voice that eerily sounds like my mother. I never thought of it as being brave. Thanks for introducing this possibility into my mind 🙂 

  14. For years I couldn’t have one of my paintings hanging in my house because every time I looked at it I wanted to add/delete something, tweak it, ‘fix’ it.  I’ve gotten better about it but still believe there’s always room for improvement.  We can only hope we get better at executing our art, whatever the form, as we go along.  Then it only makes sense that you can always improve on it.
    Thoughtful post Jeff, thanks.

  15. As far as painting is concerned for me, I am pretty comfortable stopping, and I usually know for sure when I reach that point. The idea that “art is never finished” was never appealing to me…
    I love painting very much, and the process of painting is one of the best experiences of my life. However, I know when to walk away. Permanently. 🙂

  16. I’m always in trouble regarding this subject….

    Right now, I have “finished” a big project of mine, I would love to upload it and show people around…but I stare at it and ask myself “Is this enough?” – its never enough. But is it WORTHY enough to be shown?

    This opinion, of course, variates from artists. I always have the trouble trying to feel satisfied with a “finished” piece. Then you just abandon the project…Thinking you’d have another view on it tomorrow. But you just open the canvas…Do a few things here and there…And then you’re in the same situation again; wait for tomorrow.

  17. “The idea that the piece of work is not finished until the audience come to it and add their own interpretation – and what the peace of art is about is the grey space in the middle. That grey space in the middle is what the 21st century is all about.”

    — David Bowie, 1999

    In: David Bowie speaks to Jeremy Paxman on BBC Newsnight (1999),

  18. because if you do not abandon it and get back to it instead, it’s not art.. youre killing the art.
    when you rip a part of your soul and put it out to the world, you don’t want to go back and “edit” it.. it then becomes not your soul. if you go back and edit it, how is it art at all? it becomes technique.
    i always hate to go back to my art after ripping it out of my soul, maybe because im too scared to see it again, maybe because im embarassed, maybe because i hate it. but it’s my soul nonetheless… here, see it.

  19. Jeff, thanks for sharing. Really insightful and really helpful. A couple of thoughts for me.

    1. I am a novice, untrained writer who does not know the rules, but enjoys the process. As such it has never felt finished, but what I took from what you have said is that the art can change because the artist changed. I might not agree with something I once wrote any longer. Yes, it is a marker to a point in time, and it was my ‘truth’ then, but it may not be true anymore.

    2. Life. Life is never finished. Nothing is final in love or life. You can always create another memory, share another smile, make another moment. After all, moments and memories are the tapestry of life.

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