As Da Vinci allegedly wrote, art is never finished only abandoned. Personally, I have abandoned a lot of art…most of it long before it even resembled anything even approaching “finished.” This wasn’t client work, mind you. I’ve always managed to find a way to at least hobble over the finish line with client work. But personal work? I’ve started many, many paintings and walked away somewhere in the middle…sometimes closer to the beginning.
My reasoning for walking away from each is varied. Some were the victims of paid gigs getting in the way, others were in need of additional reference that I just never found or bothered to get. But mostly, they’re pieces that I lost interest in halfway through, or more likely, lost confidence in.
A lack of confidence and self-doubt are two things I’ve struggled with off and on my entire life. In my head, I’m never as good as I think I should be, and work that I’ve done is never as good as anyone says it is. These feelings aren’t crippling, mind you, but sometimes they put my head in a space that is a little dark, a little lonely.
It’s at this point that I would share with you the many coping mechanisms I have developed that may help you if you too suffer from similar feelings, but I don’t really have any. All I know how to do is keep moving forward and continuing to push myself to do my best—even if my brain keeps telling me that’s not good enough. Beyond that I try and trust the positive feedback of my art directors and peers. After all, if the folks who hire me felt the same way I do about myself, they’d never have hired me in the first place, and generally my peers will be honest—some of them brutally so.
With commercial work, I try and take the time to do what I can to ensure that even pieces that I don’t love (at the time) have a good amount of polish. I try to make sure I’m on deadline and I try and produce work that makes the client happy. With all things professional, I finish what I started, regardless of how I feel about it.
Personal work is a very different thing. I don’t have a lot of interest in being bored or feeling bad about myself for free and since I don’t rely on my personal work for income, I’m not going to slog through something just because I’m supposed to. The only work I want to follow through on is the stuff that is exciting to me—even if I’m the only one that’s excited by it. I’m not a fast painter, and so I live with imagery a long time. If it becomes stale in my head, it’ll become stale on the board, and the moment that happens it’s not worth following through to me.
That’s not to say that these incomplete pieces aren’t valuable in some way. In fact, they are—they often impart important lessons in the doing. But that doesn’t mean they deserve more time invested and a frame at the end. The sunk cost fallacy is not a trap I want to get into, and walking away can very much be an act of self-preservation for me because I tend to start digging a hole of self-loathing when things aren’t going well or if the personal work isn’t what I wanted it to be.
Now, walking away falls very counter to the work ethic I’d been brought up with. I definitely grew up with “finish what you started” drummed into my head. Maybe that had more to do with the stuff that was on my dinner plate, but I used to think that it was somehow wasteful or bad to walk away from projects. I can’t say rightly when my mind changed on that, but it’s just something I’ve become more comfortable with over my couple decades of doing this full-time.
I’d like to say that I don’t abandon things cavalierly, but that would be something of a lie. Sometimes I start a piece and a third of the way into it, I just look at it and…well, it sort of becomes a “nope.” But I do think it’s valuable to take some time to ask questions before hitting the eject button. Why don’t you love this anymore? Is it too challenging? Is it the kind of challenge you don’t enjoy? Did you start this off in the wrong medium? Is the basic idea salvageable? Is it just the wrong way to execute this?
Obviously I actually do complete and have completed plenty of personal works—everything from little pen and ink doodles to oil paintings that required a fair amount of research and deep reference dives (I’ve even been known to post about some of them on this very blog). But the pieces that I tend to take all the way to “finish” are the pieces that keep breathing throughout the journey, the ones my fingers keep itching to dig back into. They also tend to be the ones that most reflect me and my interests, and so they’re generally worth every second spent on them.
Of course those personal works often have fits and starts. Sometimes I think a piece is finished, but it keeps nagging at me. Other times I get stuck in the middle and it takes a while to find the path forward. But like I said, I pick at things. I don’t have the laser focus, the speed or precision to get an idea, nail it down and execute it. I admire folks who do, and I like to think that I have to potential to join the ranks of such folk. In reality, I’m still figuring out what I like to paint, what I like in my work, and how to do more of both without getting dragged down by my own brain in the process.
So what about all those the half-baked pieces—the ones that were set aside (seemingly) permanently? I still have a ton of them. In fact, I’ve even paid to move them across the country more than once (the second time there were more of them). Some of them I have no intention of ever getting back to and will eventually be sanded down or painted over. Others sort of just sit there, awaiting the day that I might figure out a new direction to take them. Those are a collection of zombie works, neither living nor dead and all awaiting a chance to get their hands on my brain. They may be abandoned, but they still contain stored potential. I just need to find something about them I can be interested in again.
Before I go, I want to thank fellow illustrator John Tedrick for inspiring this article. Always asking good questions on Facebook, and painting cool stuff. I really appreciate the prompt on this one, since I’m in a work hole and my brain is fried.
Until next time, take care of yourselves out there.