Starting a new art project is like falling in love. It’s wonderful and full of potential—dreams of success and grandeur glitter in the future! It might even be something of an addiction if you’re anything like me. How to finish the project is another matter, though. While it’s even more exhilarating and satisfying, it’s a much harder feat to accomplish.
This is a widespread difficulty, especially in the creative world. If you’re struggling with this issue, it’s not all hopeless. There are a few ways to address this issue. Every person has their own sticking points, so it’s important to think about your projects and figure out where exactly you’re getting stuck. If your main holdup is procrastination, there are several techniques I’ve found helpful in overcoming this issue as well.
The structure of the project and the way you work on it can also prove fatal. I’ve noticed a specific pattern in my art projects where my motivation lags after I reach what I suppose to be the midpoint. At first, I’m relieved and congratulate myself on my success. When the excitement fades, I look forward and realize how much further there is to go.
It all starts to sink from there.
The Middle Morass
This is an area I’ve come to call the Middle Morass. It’s a soul-sucking landscape that drains motivation the longer it takes to get through. I like to think of it as the cousin of the Swamp of Sadness.
There’s just so much more work left to do, it’s overwhelming. Not really knowing how to go about finishing the project usually most damaging blow.
If you find you don’t know how to finish a project, there are probably a few factors involved such as a lack of clarity, low self-confidence, and a good amount of indecisiveness. Let’s not overlook the staggering weight of perfectionism and all the anxiety that comes with it.
These feelings are the food of procrastination.
I’ve lost many creative works to the Middle Morass. There is nothing worse than watching yet another half-finished project slow to a standstill, countless hours of hard work, hope, and love slipping under the ever-deepening guilt. Dealing with this time and again can damage any artist’s self-confidence, and leave them questioning if they really even should be making art.
Self-doubt feeds a vicious cycle, but breaking out of it is essential to your overall health and well-being. Quitting art will only deepen your suffering, and the world will be deprived of the chance to be filled with your creative work.
If you feel like this, then let me tell assure you: you should keep making art. You’ll be happier if you do, and not all is lost. You can change, and you’ll find ways to finish your projects!
Losing Momentum: A Plague on Creatives
Many creatives suffer from this dilemma. Even the great ones.
When I was in university, I took a class on Romantic poetry. It was a great class because I learned even William Wordsworth had a creative struggle—something that he wrote about frequently. I mean, “Kubla Kahn” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge is one of the most famous poems ever written-but-not-completed. And it wasn’t his only one. Coleridge never finished the ballad “Christabel” either.
There are countless works of art and literature and film that never get finished, for whatever reason. So it is. And that’s understandable. So if even creative giants struggle with a lag in motivation, then perhaps it’s some small comfort to realize that you’re not alone in this. The secret to their success, though, is that they just kept trying.
Luckily, some ways of trying are better than others.
Art is a process
Art is about exploring. It’s about creating, improving, and trying new things. Exploration is a great way to learn, and indulge your curiosity, which is necessary for building motivation and fueling creativity in the first place. But this doesn’t mean we can just let art run its course. To be an artist who successfully harnesses your creative spirit self-discipline and determination are needed.
Art takes time, so don’t be too hard on yourself if it takes longer than you imagined. Be patient and keep working at it. Making art has taught me to keep trying, even when I don’t like how it’s turning out. In my experience, the middle of a project is usually an embarrassing mess, but as I put in more effort, the piece turns out better.
Art is not about finishing every single project you start. But if you’re not able to finish your projects, and this becomes a too familiar pattern holding you back, then it’s time you look at this pattern and figure out what’s happening. Whatever shackles and impedes your creativity and productivity are issues to be addressed so you’re free to create more.
If you’re struggling with one project, it might help to work on or even start another. Having multiple projects helps maintain motivation by keeping things fresh. This gives you the energy to keep being productive.
When you’re stuck, you can take a break from a difficult task and work on something engaging until you’re ready to tackle the challenge of your other project. But realizing you never finish anything wears down your motivation over time.
If having multiple projects is still not quite enough to keep you working, then consider using these five ways to help you finish your next art project.
5 Ways to Finish Your projects
Examine Your Intentions
This is an important first step, so take a time to slow down despite the initial exhilaration. Reflect on your motivations by asking yourself questions.
Self-evaluation: What is my purpose in starting this project? Am I starting this because I want to do it or because someone else wants me to do it? What do I hope to achieve through this creative process? How will I measure my success?
The reason behind your new project is important for identifying and sustaining motivation. There’re two kinds of motivation: intrinsic—which means you’re motivated by your desire to learn or create—and extrinsic—which means you’re motivated by external rewards such as fame or money or to avoid punishment.
Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation affect us and the quality of our work differently. Doing something because you love it boosts your creativity. Motivations based on your own, personal growth sustain motivation over a long period of time, which is necessary for big projects.
While there’s nothing wrong with extrinsic motivation—after all, money is definitely necessary and a good motivator at times. If it’s your main or primary motivation for finishing a creative project, it may lead to low-quality results. Not to mention, there’s a high chance you’ll sputter out before the end.
Before starting, make sure you’re devoted to the project and that you really want to finish it. Once you’ve examined your intentions, you’ll have a better idea if this is a good project to start working on or not.
Make A Plan
Draw, sketch, outline your work. It took me years to realize the value of this. Think it through til the end, and imagine what you want it to look like when it’s done.
When I was younger, I dismissed planning. I thought, “I’m an artist. I don’t need structure.”
This arrogance was self-defeating because I ended up devoting a lot of time and energy to fixing mistakes I could have easily avoided. I still leave a lot of flexibility when it comes to the details—I find that every project grows and changes as I work on it. But having a good idea of where you want to go and what you want to do with an art project helps a lot with actually getting there.
Self-evaluation: What materials do I want to use? Do I have enough resources—time, money, space—to do this? How big or small do I want it to be? Do I know how to do everything I want to do? What will be the hardest part of this project? How long do I think it will take?
By thinking about the skills and materials you’ll need to finish the project, you’ll have a good idea of how easy or difficult the project will be. Otherwise, you could get caught in the technicalities of how to actually finish the project. In this case, you might find yourself having to start a sub-project in order to complete your work.
Detours can take a lot of time and lead to frustration if you’re not expecting it, especially if you’re a perfectionist and have trouble with something being good enough. Make sure you think about what’s required of you to actually finish the project—and be prepared for any unforeseen surprises to appear if you’re trying something new!
Next, plan how to get there. Recognize your limits by setting achievable goals and deadlines. Make the process as streamlined as possible so you don’t have to figure out what the next step is.
When you develop a method to follow, you don’t have to expend as much attention on distractions . By making a plan, you’ll be able to focus on getting it done instead of making a lot of choices. When faced with too many choices, we get overwhelmed and make poor decisions. So cut out unnecessary decisions as you work towards your goal!
If you’re having trouble finishing your art projects, then make sure you’re starting a project small enough that you can complete it. Finishing a project is a great motivator so you can do something bigger next!
Evaluate yourself and be honest. It’s important you know what you’re getting into before deciding to start.
If you decide the project might be too overwhelming, write the project down and note the details. Make a folder for ideas and future projects you’d like to work on. This way you can set it aside and work towards the project when you feel able to do it.
Self-evaluation: What are the main reasons I don’t finish other art projects? Does this project have these hurdles, too? Do I feel capable of finishing this project with my current skills and abilities? How can I make this project smaller or easier? Is it a good time to start this project or should I wait until I develop my skills and have more experience?
Once you’ve decided to undertake your art project, break it down into smaller tasks. And then break those tasks into smaller tasks. It’s like eating an apple. Don’t stuff the whole thing in your mouth and take bites easy to chew, otherwise, you may choke.
Make a list of things you need to be done, and focus on completing the most important tasks before moving on. Completing small tasks will generate dopamine in your brain, which makes you feel great about what you’re doing and motivates you to complete the next task.
Take A Step Back
When you get stuck, lose focus, mess up or start crying, take a break. Put your paintbrush down, and walk away for a little while. Breathe, go have some tea, and find something calming so you can relax for a bit. Your attention span is limited. So allow time to let your mind wander.
You’re stuck now, but it’s not a big deal. You’ll work through it. When you’re feeling rejuvenated—in an hour or a day even—think about how much progress you’ve made. Look at your creation and appreciate your efforts.
Don’t focus on the area you’re stuck on, but take in the entire artwork. See how it flows. Look at the forms, lines, and shading.
Having some distance between you and your work, both temporal and physical distance, helps a lot in the creative process. Sometimes we just get too close. Try looking at your artwork from a new angle—turn it upside down, squint at it, hold it up to the mirror.
You might notice an area that needs more work, and it’s making the entire piece feel off. It’s easy to get tunnel vision when you’re trying to make one area just right and ignore the rest of your creation.
If the shading is wrong or a proportion is off, it may affect the rest of the piece. Details like this feed into how we interpret the whole. Taking a step back will help you look at what you’ve done so you can improve.
You can also use this distance to see how the project is relating to your overarching vision. Don’t be afraid to tweak projects when necessary, if you figure out something better though. Sometimes, it’s in the midst of creation when we discover a new path. Following inspiration and exploring is more important than sticking to every detail of your initial plan.
Decide You’re Finished... Even If It’s not
If you’ve tried everything and a project still isn’t coming together, it may be time to put it away and move on, especially if it’s holding you back. When an unfinished project is preventing you from working on something else, it’s a problem. It’s not about giving up, it’s about making the choice to free yourself to do something else.
This advice has helped me when I got bogged down with a project that just wasn’t working out. It was a huge relief. I tell myself that one day, maybe I can come back to it, but for now, I’m done. This was practice.
Deciding a project is finished—or you’re finished with a project—without it being 100% complete is sometimes necessary. At times artists chose not to finish paintings, which can be an artistic choice in and of itself.
Making the choice you’re finished with your art project, rather than letting it nibble away at your self-confidence for months or years, is a choice of empowerment and frees up emotional resources. There’s still value in your creation: think of what you’ve learned and the skills you gained.
Progressing as an artist is more important than finishing every piece of artwork that you start. Leonardo da Vinci is famous for being a perfectionist who abandoned his paintings mid-way through to start other projects. Many famous artists’ paintings remain unfinished for myriad reasons but are still spectacular.
No need to feel guilty about unfinished projects, art is about the process. After all, it’s hard to know when exactly a work is “finished” anyway. So if your artwork is a source of stress and causing procrastination, then it’s time your perfectionist stepped aside to let things be.
So tie it up and move on. Limiting yourself to one project is draining and prevents you from exploring other opportunities. Besides, there’s nothing in the future stopping you from revisiting old works.