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When to Call it Quits: Knowing When Something is Done

by Taylor Slattery | September 16, 2020

One of the hardest parts of creative work is knowing when a piece is complete. Art is unlike anything else in that way. When we bake a cake, we can clearly tell if it’s been overbaked or needs some more time in the oven, but when it comes to art, the work is done simply when we decide it is. Knowing when to call it quits is an art form in and of itself.

So how do you know when something is done? Do you strive for perfection or just aim to reach the point of good enough? A perfectionist might spend years on a single painting, continually making revisions and changes so minute, they’re virtually indiscernible. Maybe the bulk of the work was completed in the first couple of months but the artist couldn’t shake the sense that something was off and so persisted until they felt satisfied. And herein lies the problem. Knowing when something is finished really just comes down to a gut feeling. If you spend the entirety of the creative process waiting for confirmation though, it may come and go without you noticing. You need to develop a sense for it.

There’s nothing worse than taking things too far and suffocating the initial magic of a piece only to realize your mistake and try desperately to reclaim it. It’s a costly lesson, but it’s in these moments we learn the most. You need to understand what it feels like to overwork something. When that lesson comes at a cost, you’re more likely to learn from it. Deciding when something is complete all comes down to intention and experience. When we look at the work of famous artists, we see varying stages of render. Something that doesn’t feel finished to us might perfectly capture a moment or a feeling in the eyes of its creator, who in turn may view another work as overly rendered and stale.

When you begin a new piece, try to set clear intentions. That can take the form of a goal, or even a self-imposed deadline. These will help you to judge its completion. You might decide to focus on creating a dynamic composition or maybe try a new lighting scenario. Having a measurable goal in mind makes it easier to reach a point where you can be satisfied. Sometimes, when our output doesn’t match our expectations, it may just mean we simply don’t yet have the technical ability to fully realize our vision. It helps to think of your creative progress in terms of the journey as a whole rather than attempting to track it on a piece by piece basis.

Sometimes you may just need to take a break. Calling it quits doesn’t have to be for good, it can just be for now. When we spend long periods of time staring at a piece, it’s easy to develop tunnel vision. We grow tired of our work and we lose the ability to view it objectively. Rather than taking that as a sign that the magic is dead and it’s time to give up, just take a step back and work on something else for a while. That might be a few days, weeks, or maybe even years. When you do come back, you’ll be a different person with a fresh perspective and new ideas for its completion.

Ultimately, only you know when something is done. If you’re the type of person who struggles to reach that point, just think of each piece as a stepping stone for the next. Calling it quits on this one results in an opportunity to make something even better.


Taylor is the Managing Editor of Notes on Design. Taylor is a graphic designer, illustrator, and Design Lead at Weirdsleep.


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