Does unfinished artwork provide insight into the creative process?


paul-cc3a9zanne-la-montagne-sainte-victoire-vue-des-lauves2La Montagne Sainte Victoire vue des Lauves, 1901 – 06, Paul Cézanne


Is an artwork ever finished? Some artist can say yes, sign it, and let it go out into the world. Others, unless (it goes into the world) will keep changing and refining it. So we have finish as in “complete” and finish as in “process.”

When I did a little research I found that Paul Cezanne was among the painters who left many paintings incomplete. One historian blamed some of this on his analytical methods and his use of thickly placed layers of paint since it likely took months to finish any piece. But editors of a book called Cezanne Finished- Unfinished explain that the unfinished areas were possibly experimental at first but were later deliberate and provide us with insight into his creative process.

This all started because I am constantly “finishing”—one of those who fits both definitions. Just a few days ago I decided that a small portion of a large painting that had been hanging for at least two months wasn’t right. A shape in the corner seemed to lead your eye off the page so of course I had to fix it. And now it is “finished” again.


Where Am I Going?

“Mending Fences,” mixed media on board, 11″ x 20″
Journal entry “Mending Fences”


Sometimes I just put paint on paper, moving it here or there, adding a bit of this or that. Sometimes it works out. Most of the time, not so much.

Of course, that’s not true for everyone. Plein air painters produce their best work onsite. And I’ve seen some other wonderful painters who seem to start with one element and just take those twists and turns in the road one at a time until bang—they are in New York or Los Angeles.

If I do that I’m in the middle of no where in Iowa (and yes, Iowa can be lovely), but it’s probably the middle of winter. And while it may be beautiful, it has no focus. I’m one of those artists who needs to have some idea of where they are going, just a bit of a road map. Otherwise, I wander off tract. I see that nice tree over there or perhaps a lovely lake and take a hike. I know that many artists do studies, and I’ve done a few. But the best method for me seems to be a middle ground.

I’ve found that working on ideas in my journal helps me solidify placement of elements, color, markings. With a few little things worked out, I can concentrate on the idea behind the painting and on the emotions and feelings. Hopefully, this produces better strokes, more complicated markings. Doing this also helps when I am in a period that I feel stuck. “I am working,” but because it is in a journal, “I am not exactly working.” Somehow this frees me.

This method has its drawbacks. I can’t be as spontaneous. And don’t think it doesn’t mean I won’t have to redo a painting—but it is a place to start and a way to keep on track.

So what’s your successful method?


Separating the Parts

“Holding Fast,” 10″ x 10″, mixed media on wood

Lately I’ve seen some artists admonished on social media for posting comments or links that reflect their “politics.” I interpret this to mean there are those who believe an artist can separate their art from their “politics.” Perhaps there are those that can, but I cannot.

Here’s why: My art is a reflection of who I am—my joys, sorrows, experiences. When I create a painting it has many meanings. It may be inspired by nature, a beautiful piece of architecture, a poem. But always, there are deeper, more complex questions and emotions. There are bigger pictures. Some the viewer will never see.

Because it is not a party I vote for, but rather for my values and beliefs, then my “politics” will surely be incorporated into my work and my life.

What Painting and Listening Teaches

I’ve spent a lot of time in the woods, and the time I’ve spent lately has included more listening. That means I’ve heard the difference in the sounds of water—depending on whether it is a small stream, a river, or a waterfall.

The connection between timpani or kettledrums came when viewing a PBS film on crafts that talked about how different drumsticks change the sound of the drum. Some sticks are made with harder tip, others have more, and softer felt. This last trip to the woods I’ve tried to notice why the sound of the water might be different. Is it the force of the water, the height of the waterfall, the number and type of rocks below the water, or even how those rocks or logs lay in the stream or river?

So the start of the 4-sided painting has become the first in a series about the sound of water. I love what painting and listening teaches me. Even a small waterfall can rumble.


What’s Next

This photo illustrates the beginnings of one of my four-sided paintings— just a bit of paint, some texture with wood and cloth. We’ll see where it goes.

Ann Patchett in her essay on writing, “The Getaway Car,” admits she does not always know what is going to happen when she begins writing a novel. She carries the story around in her head for a long time before putting words to paper. She is not a novelist who works from an outline or who knows what every character will do.

I work in much the same way. I start with an idea, and I carry those shapes, colors, and emotions around in my head. Until I begin to put paint and textures to board, I am not sure where the painting will lead. I know if I put in the work, something will eventually happen. If it doesn’t work the first time, then it will by the second or third (though I may use a few naughty words).

Luckily, I enjoy the journey (or the making) as well as the promise of a satisfying and lovely destination.

The Most Important Layer


So far in my musings I have left this layer out. But I realized today as I struggled with what to do next to two very small pieces of art that I haven’t been writing every day. Yes, my journal is more about writing than sketching.

While it contains small drawings and mixed media, it is mostly writing— my attempt to figure things out, whether a tragedy in the world or just a problem with a painting. Just like my paintings are a process of addition and subtraction, for me writing is part of the discovery. Sometimes the “aha moments” come during the painting, but just as often they come during the writing.

So writing is a layer of sorts. It gives me the freedom to explore my head and my heart and hopefully use the two to create.

Showing the Process and the Progress

The challenge was actually 31 paintings in 31 days. I have committed to 31 layers in 31 days. That really shouldn’t be hard at all. I work on several paintings or projects at once. I just don’t finish them in one day, since as a mixed media artist I work in layers. So, many of my photos will not show a lot of progress. Therefore, I may not post daily as to avoid boring any potential followers.

But I am committed to showing you the process. Here are my first three layers on two wooden cradles (deep artist panels): paint sealing the cradle,

Sealed Cradles
Sealed Cradles








odd shapes attached,

Collaged Paper
Collaged Paper








and my layer of gypsum paste.

Cradles covered with gypsum paste
Cradles covered with gypsum paste








The texture is beginning to form.