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What are the challenges of finishing an artwork?

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Considering the benefits of finishing, how can it be difficult to finish a piece? Because our emotional involvement makes it hard to disassociate ourselves from what we do. We often don’t see our current inabilities as part of a process to ultimately increase our abilities – we simply want to be good already now. The slow increase of craft improvements often results in us not realizing how much better we got over time. Instead of witnessing the change in our abilities (eg. within the last year), we tend to notice how much better someone else might be. Instead of comparing ourselves to our previous selves, we compare ourselves to others. All of this results in finishing a piece to represent a symbolic burden, that for some can be heavier than starting or progressing: instead of manifesting our efforts, finishing in this line of thought manifests our failures.
Because of all these reasons, finishing requires courage.

Consider these challenges that you can encounter when finishing:

  • While progressing implies an openness to change, finishing closes down: Progressing on a piece can feel powerful and actionable; it lets you be proactive. Finishing on the other hand can feel more like a declaration (“this is done now”), without a whole range of actions associated with it – finishing a piece can feel like closing down your creativity.

    This is only true though when interpreting a finished artwork on its own, independently of your preceding and subsequent work; when instead understanding it as part of an endless series of creations (your oeuvre), then a finished artwork becomes a milestone on a path, whose direction isn’t necessarily obvious to anyone.

  • Finishing turns a work’s potential into one specific manifestation: Progressing inherently limits your range of actions for it. This can be soothing, especially if you’re satisfied with the emerging result. It can also be stressful, since the work can now increasingly only become this one specific thing, which can’t be confused for anything else: progressing towards completion implies a loss of the work’s potential, which gradually gets replaced with its actual manifestation – creation implies a selection process. This can be frustrating: you might never have had ONE answer in mind when you started out. There was a question, an urge, an idea about the many things that might be; yet through progressing, those alternatives slowly get ruled out.

    To counter this, create a list of what alternative paths you didn’t take, and consider revisiting them in future works. You can produce alternative versions of your work, or focus work series that process the approaches and choices you couldn’t take.

  • A finished artwork represents your choices: While an unfinished piece can be argued to not yet represent your ideals, it’s hard to argue this way for finished work. Because of this, a finished artwork represents more than your abilities: it represents your choices. It represents how you want to be seen, considering the circumstances. That’s why finishing can even be a narcissistic challenge: the realization that your abilities can’t hold up to your expectations: finished artworks manifest what is, and what is not.

  • Finishing enables feedback: Being afraid of feedback (your own or other people’s) might create a strong urge not to finish; after all, feedback on finished work doesn’t just focus your abilities, but also your choices. Feedback on finished work is feedback on your quality judgements, and thus deeply personal; a finished piece doesn’t just embody what you wanted to achieve, but also what you might not have wanted, but now deem worthwhile to call “done”.

    Understand that feedback ultimately has to be seen as a tool to progress, and to improve your artistic experience. If it doesn’t help you on this mission, you need to adapt: by discussing your work with more adequate people, by changing your attitude towards criticism; simply refraining from finishing usually doesn’t help you on your mission, especially since feedback can be given on unfinished work as well.

  • Finishing can highlight your (lack of) art world visibility: As long as your work is in progress, it’s meant to be for a few eyes only – yours, and most likely those of a small circle of trusted friends. Once a work is done, your visibility as an artist will strongly define who will see the piece; this can cause frustration if your network is small or not potent, if you don’t have options to exhibit or a strong social media following. These facts can shift your focus: finishing might not feel to be about progressing artistically, but might remind you of your place at the bottom of the art world’s food chain.

    Understand that most everyone starts with a low visibility. Only very few people benefit from a preexisting art world network; a strong network is usually the consequence of strong, enduring efforts – and luck. Your lack of visibility should rather move you to create work, and to use that work to establish your voice. Seen this way, every new work becomes an opportunity for a greater network.

  • Finishing can result in the loss of a goal: Finishing risks jeopardizing your work structure, since it implies the potential loss of momentum – something that’s especially rough if you’re a goal-based person. That’s why a circular understanding of the creative process is important, where any of your actions are not just part of what you create right now, but can become part of your artistic tool set, part of your personal canon. In addition, establishing a process-based structure lets you minimize your dependence on goals.

Check out the chapters about the anatomy of finishing an artwork,, and the benefits of finishing:

What’s the anatomy of finishing an artwork?

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Progressing on an artwork doesn’t necessarily result in it being finished; some efforts simply and organically get discarded, abandoned or forgotten. This doesn’t imply failure: a lot of value can be extracted from pursuing a process at all – to the point that some argue for the process to matter more than the results, and for the process to definitely matter more than how happy one might be with the result. After all, it’s usually easier to influence ourselves to get working, than to properly master our actions to lead to certain outcomes. While selling art usually requires finished pieces, the artistic process itself really only requires its own pursuit; this pursuit can easily live on unfinished experiments, which some artists see as more important than their results: the experience of creation.

Beginnings and endings are often misunderstood to be on opposing ends of a linear scale – the work on a piece started back then, and ended later on. Yet with creative processes, this isn’t entirely true; beginnings and endings should rather be seen as part of a circular topology, where your actions can feed back to any of your future actions. Even though this might not be true emotionally (you might be desperate and frustrated about what’s going on in the studio), on a structural level all your beginnings, progressions and and potential endings coexist peacefully. In sum, they define your work.

Check out the chapters about the challenges of finishing, and the benefits of finishing.

The Artist’s Imagined and Actual Life

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Life is an endless series of challenges. We often lack the courage to approach, and the knowledge to solve them. But life isn’t just an accumulation of challenges – it’s also an endless series of experiences. Challenges can become experiences, and help us to proceed better next time. Nevertheless, we need to accept life as an endless accumulation of problems: when one is solved, the next one appears. As a result, there’s always a biggest problem right in front of us. This can be intimidating – but by understanding problems as personal growth opportunities, we can accept and solve them. We can find our place in the world.

Everyone understands the creativity required to be an artist – it’s a cliché by now. The artist’s knowledge of aesthetics and semantics, the histories of their media and paragons, the skills required to master their crafts, the urge to materialize thought, opinion and emotion into matter – these are core parts of any artistic practice. For historic reasons, this is where art schools usually stop their discussion, leaving graduates with rather romantic ideas about their profession: if the curriculum doesn’t discuss business and personal growth, can it really be essential? The artist’s imagined life doesn’t need any of this.

The reality is different though: art has become a business. It’s possible to live from your creations, but that requires you to grow your business sense, and balance it with your work practice. Art done for the pure sake of personal expression can ignore this: professionals don’t have this luxury. With art schools mostly leaving business realities unmentioned, artists become professionals predominantly by learning from their mistakes: messing up gallery collaborations, missing out on sales opportunities, ignoring commission contracts or work insurances, failing at communicating to their collectors, suffering from burnout, screwing up their taxes – the list is endless and enraging: by so exclusively focusing on art practices, art schools foster an outdated, romantic, unrealistic and unreasonable approach to life. They focus on the creation of hobbyists, not professionals. 

The expertises required to succeed as contemporary artist are immense. Artists traditionally think of topics outside of their work practice as hardships (“Can’t I please just continue sculpting?”): for professionals, this won’t be good enough. Aren’t artists the ultimate problem solvers? Isn’t the artist’s actual life the ultimate creative challenge? There cannot easily be a more holistically challenging, and thus potentially more gratifying job out there. Let’s therefore embrace the complexities of the real world, and become better artists along the way. To this end, the Handbook offers analyses and strategies beyond pure career advice. It wants you to thrive as an artist, as a business person and as a human being worthy of success.

To get there, you need to be circumspect, and perpetually increase your self-knowledge: who are you? How do you want to express yourself in your art practice and business relationships? How does success look like to you? By incorporating these questions into your everyday inquiries, you will become ever more sensitive to your surrounding’s changes and challenges. A seismograph of change and potential: an artist.

What general challenges do I have to expect as an artist, and how can I lessen their blow?

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Artists should expect various hardships on their path to establish their own processes; they will need to establish structures in regard to work, network and psychology. The meta-tools to do so are sensitivity and self-assuredness, with ego often working against us.


Instead of clear goals, the arts offer openness and ambiguities. They allow you to set up extremely individualized paths, within which almost anything can be done: you can choose your own processes and semantics, use specific media and materials in unexplored ways, and even define your own quality ideals – just to name a few. No one can really tell you what to do in the arts; you need to define your reasons of operation, through endless exploration, accompanied by the omnipresence of (often unexpected) successes and failures. To understand what you might want to do, you need sensitivity and self-assuredness:

  • Sensitivity: you need to refine your sensitivities to understand your personal wants and urges. The lesser these sensitivities, the more you depend on external stimuli to guide you – which rarely represent your personal ideals. The stronger your sensitivities, the higher the chances to actually fulfill them, and to be satisfied
  • Self-assuredness: you need to refine your ego, so that you can actually trust your sensitivities. Your self-assuredness guards you from all sorts of transgressions and missteps – at the ubiquitous risk of becoming self-centered and ignoring the world.

You need to find strategies and solutions for all sort of situations in order to better create the work you want to (or feel you have to) make. With introspection and care, you will find and establish beneficial processes, environments and collaborations. In addition to what’s happening in your work processes, your work’s visibility will grow. The following major challenges will require your long-lasting attention:

  • Work: You need to find the right emotional and mental spaces to push your work forward, in regards to content and form. You need to stay sensitive to your works’ potentials – even though you are the person most immersed in it, and thus the most prone to being blind to it. For this, you need to establish tools of realization and understanding: (a) discussing your work with yourself (through introspection, writing about your work, etc.), and (b) discussing your work with others (through studio visits, social media connections, exhibitions, etc.). You need to be able to convey the potential of your visual-mental universe. You need to become not only a builder of worlds, but also that world’s brand ambassador. You need the tools to let people know about your ever-changing, -transforming and -growing artistic vision. .

    Your work might start out positively basic, with just a pencil and some paper – but soon enough, you will feel the requirement for more complex infrastructure: a studio with storage space, proper lighting, camera equipment to document your work, a computer with the appropriate software to edit your works and portfolios, plus a reliable data backup. The better these solutions suit your needs, the more focused you will be able to work; the more complex they get, the more energy will be required for their maintenance. Finding solutions that strike the right balance between ease-of-use and complexity, between minimalism and efficiency, between autonomy and outsourcing, is an ongoing challenge. The  better you understand your needs, the more adequate your decisions will be.
  • Network: You need to establish a network of trusted, loyal, reliable collaborators from all sorts of sub-fields. This might ultimately include graphic designers, photographers, curators, text writers, frame makers, insurance brokers and generalist craftspeople to help you realize specific works or shows. You will likely need people who can offer financial support, but also others whose feedback lets you grow (instead of being surrounded by people who use your work as a platform for their agenda: to hurt, damage or dominate you). You need people with networks stronger than yours, who want to use it to your advantage, or at least in your spirit and intention. Support doesn’t always come as encouragement or reassurance; at times it arrives as (ideally benevolent) criticism – which is necessary if your actions are morally, spiritually, emotionally or economically unsound, or simply naïve or illogical. Sometimes support comes in clear words defending a vision or position, because you lost sight of it – good friends might at times disregard your ego.

    Your network is based on individual loyalties, and thus a complex result of how you engage with yourself and others: there will be no lasting loyalty from others if there’s no loyalty on your end towards them; and neither is likely to exist without your basic self-loyalty. Are you loyal to yourself? Do you understand the many ways you can abandon yourself?

    Networks are based on self-care and care for others: your self-care focuses on your mental, emotional, and physical health (healthy living and eating, reading and doing sports, psychotherapy or yoga, etc.); the less you care about yourself, the less loyal you are to yourself. Short- and long-term goals can require opposing loyalties, which makes this topic challenging: the more you understand the world and your needs, the potentially better your decisions. Your care for others shows in your capacity to listen, support, protect and provide for others: lunches, coffee talks, late phone conversations, family vacations, evenings or weekends spent together. You can rarely make up for uninvested time: if you continuously prioritize your work and ego before your kids, partner, parents or friends, it will likely result in spiritual loneliness – even if you, in theory, do have a family and children, or a long list of social media contacts. Weirdly enough, your network begins with self-care; but can only thrive on your attention to others.

  • Psychological knowledge: Both your work and your network are built on human interactions – even if you work on your own, far away from others, you’re still constantly surrounded by and embedded within yourself, a fellow human being. Being alive means to question life, and our potential place and purpose within it. That’s why you will benefit from establishing deep psychological knowledge about the inner workings of humans: it will help you better understand yourself, and to better know what to expect from your collaborators. Who supports you, who doesn’t, and who might even want you to fail? Who cares about you – and who doesn’t? These questions sound basic, because we’ve lived with them all our lives. Yet they nevertheless tend to benefit from the knowledge and experience garnered over decades. You might want others to understand and work towards your goals, without requiring you to be pushy or off-putting; you might not want to use money as your only currency. By properly understanding people’s motives and your mutual attractions, you can often find deeper, more intimate ways to connect. For all of this, you need to be able to let yourself accept help in the first place – if you’re unable to do so, you’re usually on your own; life is possible, but harder that way.

    We would all benefit from “mastering” human relationships; which would let us understand what’s actually going on between (and within) us all the time. It pays off to work on this. Doing so requires a deep inspection of yourself, your childhood, your traumata and pains; the more you know about yourself, the more you can know (about) the people around you, since each of us has their own traumata and pains, and their subsequent, individualized coping mechanisms. The more you understand and transcend your pain, the better you can relate to and support others. Life is more humble then. Books, benevolent friends, and obviously psychotherapists, mentors and/or coaches can serve as tools to get there. It requires a lot of insight to understand whether which of these tools are helpful, and actually work in your favor. Accumulating these insights is based on making mistakes, and trying to learn from them. Psychological knowledge is based on failure and not giving up, and thus very similar to the artistic process. Embrace it.

It’s impossible to sidestep life’s blows, but we can sometimes lessen their impact by anticipating them. You can expect certain challenges and anticipate potential solutions without being overly paranoid. The more you understand life’s complexities (other people, new situations, the pitfalls of a structured, domestic life, etc.), the more you will appreciate strategies that navigate you safely through them. Memories of failures can be used as platforms for future success. By being circumspect, open-minded and relentless in approaching your life and work, you will gradually find a path that will make it all a little easier. And who knows – these experiences and your increasing depth as a human being might inform your artistic work as well.

I want to become an artist – but am unsure whether I have something relevant to say. What do I do?

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Contemporary artists need to understand (and embrace) their authenticities. Doing so usually results in work that’s personal, and thus vulnerable – which is not a guarantee for (economic) success, but has a high likelihood of feeling worthwhile: because you focus on what matters to you.


Art is often thought to require the expression of something relevant – but.. what is relevant? There cannot be an absolute answer to this question: relevance is subjective. It’s also volatile and temporary: people change their preferences and relevancies all the time. It’s important to understand that sometimes, we need to express something of relevance – yet other times, the sheer act of expressing something creates the relevance. The former uses expression to manifest an “external” idea and incorporates it into art (an artwork about love, societal criticism, the portrait of someone, etc.); the latter might or might not do that (it could simply be an abstraction created without deeper contextual intention), yet can still create relevance and emotions within viewers. That’s the power of art: people getting attached to an idea they never knew of, because of a film, a novel, a song or a sculpture.

RELEVANCE AND AUTHENTICITY

What might feel relevant to one person, might not ever faze the next one, and might not even face themselves at a later time. This usually means that you need to focus on what’s relevant (a) to you, (b) today – because these are the two things you can try to understand (side note: it can be argued that focusing on what “you want today” puts you way too deep in what’s already established, and results in you being unable to anticipate what’s upcoming and fresh. A good strategy might be to always go in the direction of authenticity: focus on the topics, processes, aesthetics and works that feel important and authentic “to you, today”. This way you might still miss what’s upcoming and fresh, but did at least focus on something that will be hard to regret). Take time to write down topics, ideas and contexts; aesthetics, role models, experiences and thoughts that you care about; this can become the navigational map for the current phase of your art life.

DECONSTRUCT FEARS OF ART HISTORY

Even if you have a good understanding of what’s relevant to you, you might still be unsure whether your personal relevancies can matter within the system of art. Let’s deconstruct this worry by discussing art as transgenerational group effort, benefiting from diversity: there cannot be a single artwork or artist that fulfills, all on its own, the “idea of art”. No single piece or person could reflect and highlight life in all of its aspects, depth, joys and sorrows – and that’s not even a problem. It’s more healthy (and humble) to understand art as a blend of opinions of ideas; not just of yours and your contemporaries, but of our entire species – from the deepest past into the widest future. Each one of us is but a pebble in the sands of time. We can all just express what we know and feel; yet if everyone does that, art becomes a chorus of diversity, only limited by the (mostly diversity-lacking) systems of the art world. Your work might be of little relevance to art history, but it’s very few artists where this is ever different. Influencing art history might not even be the best goal; instead, it might make more sense to focus on yourself: is your work relevant to you? If so, there’s a high likelihood you will continue to create and challenge it, and work on making it visible. Your personal relevancies are maybe the most essential aspect of your artmaking.

RELEVANCE AND VULNERABILITY

The more you create work that’s relevant to you, the more personal, and thus vulnerable life gets: caring creates vulnerability. That’s why artmaking requires courage – how else to express and exhibit your deepest feelings and ideas? Once you care, your work won’t just be another performance or another short film, but an honest expression of how you view the world. Others might make fun of it, misunderstand or ignore it. This would be disturbing, but could happen: they might dislike it because they dislike you personally, or because it touches a topic they are deeply uncomfortable with. Neither of you might know this – potentially even resulting in weird antipathies: if you create a highly sterile work, some people will despise it for its lack of emotions. If you create a highly emotive work instead, some other people will despise your over-abundance of public emotional release. It’s important not to take either situation personally, or as worthwhile feedback of your work – it’s usually not. Sadly the opposite, positive feedback, also might not help you too much (beyond the initial burst of joy, which isn’t nothing): feedback simply highlights the alignment of personal relevancies and affinities, not an absolute value of what’s relevant. Values are personal. Relevancies are individual. Vulnerability is human: creating work that’s personal makes you feel, and gives your life meaning.


Instead of discussing relevance, consider using individuality as metric to judge your work: what matters is whether what you do is authentic – to you. No one but you can judge your authenticity; if relevance is a currency, your individuality has the highest value. In a world of global brands, any individual approach will stand out as unique and rare: push for it. This effort might feel naïve, sad and laughable to some people – but that would be a difference in values (between them and you), and could not ever be an absolute judgment of value. You can handle that.

What talents or skills do I need to become an artist?

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The main skills required by artists is willful curiosity, and the endurance to establish your own work processes, based on this curiosity. Specific knowledge about predefined artistic processes is not essential (but can be exciting and enriching).


Sometimes it feels as if certain people are meant to be artists, while others could never ever become one. A lot of people still believe in the notion of preexisting talent or excellence; according to them, artists are often thought of as rare geniuses. This is outdated. In actuality, the idea of talent is mostly used as (self-)mythologizing marketing strategy – or even as defense strategy by those who don’t want to fail, or even start trying: “If I can’t do something today, for sure I’ll never be able to do it. After all, others can do it so well already: why bother starting?” If this was true, life would be static; we wouldn’t ever be able to learn something new: another language, a new hobby or craft. People couldn’t ever change jobs or raise children – simply because ten years ago they didn’t know how to do it either. Life wouldn’t feature change.

At the same time, people rarely talk about talent when discussing less romanticized, more down-to-earth activities (like learning to cook or how to ride their bike). Yet in the arts, especially by outsiders, it’s often used as metric of excellence. Considering the many hours required to master any complex craft, the reality of “talent” becomes obvious: while it can be a kickstarter, it will never outweigh someone’s sheer power of will: whoever truly wants to become a chef, skateboard pro or jazz guitar player, for sure won’t be hindered by their perceived lack of initial talent. Rather, they’ll approach the new field according to their character, and find ways to turn alleged shortcomings or flaws into their signature style – with a mixture of humbleness and boldness. In addition, remember that talent can at times be problematic: if it creates arrogance and a wrong sense of security about a field’s complexity, and one’s position within it.

What About Talent?

If discussing talent and arts, here’s a controversial idea: Contemporary art is an especially amazing field for those without talent, simply because it doesn’t feature a unique, static set of expectations towards content or form. Resultingly, there isn’t (and can’t be) a specific set of skills required to become an artist. If you’re blind but want to paint, if you want to film but can’t afford camera or editing software, if you’re insensitive but want to sculpt, then for sure there can’t be a better place than the arts. Don’t misunderstand: the arts are not a place for dilettantes. Amateurism and incompetence will always stand out as signs of bad quality – but the arts even have room for these: Since tastes are subjective and temporary, what might be perceived as “bad” by someone at some time, will feel like actual bliss to others, or the same person at another time. For an artist to make proper “bad art”, they need to embrace and expand on specific ideas of that quality – which is far away from operating naively. As long as you pursue your work authentically, continuously questioning and expanding it, and ignoring destructive criticism, then your work can thrive – entirely independently of preexisting talent or skills.

That’s why in today’s world, the most general requirements to becoming an artist are 

  1. your will to be curious, and 
  2. the endurance to establish your own work processes, based on your curiosity.

For these to exist, you need to show up – there can be no art without it. Instead of cliché sufferings, artists should expect the hardships experienced by anyemerging entrepreneur or business person: slow recognition and sales, a lack of structure, all sorts of financial worries, the requirement to do side jobs, the doubt of whether it’s all worth it. The beginning artist’s journey brims with ambivalence: to be faced with one’s inadequacies and lack of competences, a general joy that frequently gets mixed with frustration; unexpected learning curves, the depth of the medium’s history far exceeding one’s previous expectations, surprise about the field’s lack of diversity, anger about the field’s unfair distribution of wealth, etc.

What an Openness..

Because of fine arts being such an open field, with such a myriad of qualities to experience, it can be hard to understand whether your work is “good” or “good enough” – and even whether you yourself are succeeding or failing. How to know such things? A frequent strategy in the world outside is to compare ourselves to others: if we are similar to specific aspects of successful people, then surely we are in some way successful as well? Because of the open nature of art though, you are not likely to answer these questions through comparison; art simply doesn’t offer comparison metrics like e.g. sports, where you can judge excellence by comparing numbers.

We often start making art because of the impact that other people’s had on us – so on a certain level, it makes sense to compare our work to the one we love. While these comparisons can fuel your artistic imagination, it’s tricky to compare yourself to others; their surroundings, socialization, their culture and spirit usually cannot easily be compared with yours. No two people swing their brushes identically, mix their colors identically, use the same techniques in their modelling software.

The challenge instead is to create the best work you can, and this work will always be the consequence of your surroundings and socialization, culture and spirit. It’s a consequence of the tools and infrastructure available to you. That’s why it’s better then to compare yourself with (a) yourself from the past, or with (b) your potential; the former focuses on what you already achieved since (focus on past), while the latter focuses on what you still haven’t managed yet (focus on future) – and to use other people’s art mostly as inspiration.

Otherwise, you risk experiencing art through a tainted, stained, maybe even cynical filter – to start despising the art world you crave to get accepted by, as much as potentially your work and yourself. It can then become difficult to appreciate or enjoy someone else’s works and achievements – even your own. By seeing this potential dynamic, it becomes a choice: it’s possible for you to instead engage the world with a realistic kind of positivity. One way to do so is to not compare your work (and yourself) naively.

It might make more sense then to take some distance, to take a breath, and to not define the artist’s job by what you might like and enjoy about it – but by the hardships you’re willing to endure: are you up to face the challenges listed above, and find your own path through them? Sometimes  it’s not about what you want from art, but what art wants from you. While this book suggests many strategies, the meta-advice is to 

  • stay utopian (“I know I can manifest this feeling/thought/idea!”),
  • while firmly being rooted in the realities of our world (“I know I have to work hard doing x/y/z to make my work visible!”).

Artistic skills and traditional notions of talent really have nothing to do with these.