Detail view of David’s Death of Marat. Brussels, Royal Museums of Fine Arts. The background was intentionally unfinished.

In the preface to a book of poetry by Dylan Thomas, the poet said he was going to publish this group of poems so he would have to quit futzing with them. Once in print, he would be forced to treat them as finished.

Paul Valery had another take on completion: “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.”

James Elkins‘ series of art posts for the Huffington Post last year included one article that explored the question, How can you know when a painting is finished?

This used to be a simple problem: when the artist had filled in the blanks, she was done. Over the past two hundred years it has become a very difficult question. Artists, critics, and scholars debate it endlessly. It’s one of the mainstays of conversation in artists’ studios. There is a lot of talk about intuition: artists say, “I just work until it feels right,” or “I’m not sure if it’s finished, but I am slowly getting the sense that it might be.” But feelings can be elusive. Many painters mull over this problem for years on end. It’s an unending source of fascination.

Elkins looks through the history of art to identify three kinds of unfinished paintings: the simply abandoned, non finito (where the artist deliberately stopped working before the painting was finished in order to create an effect), and the perpetually unfinished painting that “cannot be finished because it is infinite, because the artist is in the grip of a compulsion.” Elkins uses the famous painting by David of the death of Marat as an example of non finito. The unfinished background speaks to Marat’s untimely death and his unfinished life.

Thomas Nozkowski‘s take on that question (from an interview with Francine Prose) is a simple one:

To put it as simply as possible—and this is a simple answer, not a total answer—I know when a painting’s finished when I understand why I wanted to do it in the first place. When it becomes clear, there is this energized space, there is this color, there is something interesting to me.

“When it becomes clear, there is this energized space, there is this color, there is something interesting to me.” I know exactly what he means. It’s a subtle thing, and it is intuitive. But I know that moment. I think most artists do.

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