Is it finished yet?

wendy ann greenhalgh mindful drawing.jpg

Is it ever possible to 'complete' an art-work, and should we even want to?

The other night I was having a very interesting chat with an artist over on Instagram about creative process and trust (which is one of the core creative mindfulness attitudes) and she brought up the idea of 'completion'. And this idea of completion struck me as very interesting and one that I needed to reflect on and unpack a little. There was something about the idea of working towards completion in the creative process that bugged me a little and I wondered why that was. So I sat down and had a little think, and this is what I thought...

What do we mean by 'completion'?

First off I think we need to be mindful of how we think about 'completion' and our relationship to it. Completion of an art-work (assuming that completion is even possible) rather suggests that when we start making something we believe we're moving towards a destination, that we have a goal - even if we're not sure what that goal looks like exactly.

Completion implies that at some point we're expecting there'll be a moment when we think to ourselves, 'Yes, that's it. It's done.' Implicit in this is also the idea that this 'done' will look or sound how we're imagining it will and that we'll be satisfied or even happy with it. Completion is an implied happy ending. NONE of us imagine a completion that isn't happy, do we?

So it seems to me that the idea of 'completion' makes an end point or goal an important part of the creative process; and brings with it a belief in the happy ending or even - the nail in the coffin of creative process - the perfect ending, the perfect drawing or story or photo. I'm concerned that if we hold on to this notion of 'completion' then we'll always be chasing the happy ending, dissatisfied with what's emerging creatively in the moment, because it doesn't match the idea in our head of what 'completion' is supposed to look like.

And I'm utterly convinced that the more we can create without expectations, and the more we can put aside goals or completion in favour of process, in favour of in-the-moment-creating, the better, happier and more freely we create. Which I guess is one of the main reasons the idea of 'completion' was bugging me.

Completion is the opposite of creation

And it's why I think we need to be mindful of how we think about 'completion', because actually completion and creation are the complete antithesis of each other, aren't they? Creation is a process of constant change, of flux, or consistently limitless possibilities. Completion (again - if such a thing exists or is possible, and I have my doubts) is stasis, is fixed, it is the total opposite of creation.

Our whole reality - you, me, your drawing, my painting, a mountain, the whole world - exists, moment to moment, in an ever-changing, creative flux. In the philosophy of Buddhism this is called anicca. The translation for this Pali word is, impermanence. In other words nothing ever stays the same. Nothing lasts. Nothing is ever complete. Not you, me, your drawing, my painting, that mountain, nothing in the world.


Is completion possible?

Which brings me to the question - is completion even possible? Now of course, at some point in the creative process - whatever we're making, be it a painting, poem, song or performance - there will come a point when we stop making it. Let's call it a pause.

We get to a certain point where we do - inevitably - think, either, 'Yes, it's done.' Or at the very least, 'I can't do any more with this.' This pause happens naturally, doesn't it? We get to it without planning it, though we may have a sense of it getting close. However its the creative process itself, the painting, novel, collage that lets us know that it's arrived. The thing we've created actually feeds back to us that now is the time to stop.

So it seems that this pause is a natural part of the creative process. I'd be willing to say that this pause is a moment of completion, or - perhaps more tellingly, the completion of a moment. So okay, here, maybe, I'm willing to concede there is some kind of completion going on. But what's happening in this pause? What IS this pause?

A moment of balance

My own experience, when I reflect on it in relation to lots of my different creative activities (drawing and writing in particular), is that this pause is a moment of balance. Throughout the process of creation we play with balance. Whether we creating with words, marks on a page, notes in a score, we set something down, and that requires something to balance it. And that next thing requires another to balance that. It's as if in creating we are working with a set of finely balanced, old fashioned, weighing scales, with each mark, word or note subtly altering the balance. Up and down the scales go.

This need for balance comes from within the art-work at this stage. Not from us, we're simply responding to what is there. The art-work tells us - I need this, now I need this, now I need this, the scales swinging up and down, as each new element is called forth by the work itself and we respond to it.

However, there comes a moment when the internal balance of the art-work is resolved. (In brackets, but very important - FOR THE TIME BEING). For the time being the art-work is in balance. We stand back. The scales no longer sway. We need do nothing more. Ah! That is the moment we call completion. And at that point we'll put the painting on the wall, close the sketchbook, save the file on our computer. Click. Done. 

But then is it complete?

Ah, but are we done? We've all had that experience of coming back to something we've created, a day, week, month or year later and discovering there is something more to do. The drawing we thought was complete, that seemed to be balanced, no longer is. Our fingers itch to change it. We start redrafting the poem. Why does this happen? Why, if it was 'complete' is it now not?

I believe this is because in that previous pause there was state of balance not just within the art-work, but also between the artwork and US. If creation is a process of change, of becoming something else, and something else and something else, then this is true just as much of the artist, as it is of the art-work.

When we are creating, when we are in the act of creation, then we are in a state of becoming and change just as the artwork is. Indeed, if we really have to use the word 'completion', then I'd say it's just as true that the art-work is completing us, as it is that we're completing it.

So we too are going through a balancing as we create, changing and responding through the process of creation. And there is a moment when we and the art-work have both reached a point of balance with each other at which it is natural to pause. And in which it is natural to say, 'Yes, it's done.' Or, 'I'm done!' And then we put the art away and we make something else and something else and something else, going through this becoming and changing that creation requires of us again and again. Because you know you're not the same artist you were a year ago, right?

But a year later we take that old drawing out again and the relational balance between us is no longer there because WE HAVE CHANGED! We are different. Anicca, the flow and flux of life has carried us along. And so now we can begin again (if we want to) on that drawing, the two of us coming into balance again. Or not. Or we leave it.

How I'd prefer to think of completion

If we must think of completion, then I'd suggest it's most helpful for us to let go of expectations, goals and the desire for happy endings, and simply see it as a temporary part of the creative process, simply as a pause in the creative flux. Let's think of it as part of the balance of movement and stillness, action and repose, expansion and stasis, resolution and emergence which require us and our art-work to come into being, to come in and out of balance, to begin and end continuously. Because the truth is every artist knows that an art-work is never complete, not really. And if they could talk, our art-works would probably say the same about us.