The Digital Memory Hole

As artists we all get frustrated with our works in progress. We feel the sting of seeing our weaknesses exposed on the paper or canvas. That frustration easily leads to giving up and abandoning a half-finished piece. While there is sometimes value in moving on to the next thing and leaving an imperfect piece behind, there is also the risk of running from our mistakes and artistic weaknesses over and over again. Of course, these limitations will pursue us no matter how much we run. Until we turn and face our fears and try to solve the problems on the canvas, we won’t move forward. It’s an ongoing struggle.

Artists working in the digital medium have additional obstacles to overcome in this struggle.

Let’s say you’re working on a drawing or painting on paper or canvas and the piece isn’t going the way you want. In fact, it looks like garbage. Instead of just hacking away, you decide to take a break. You get up and walk away from it for a while. It still exists. It still takes up space and looks at you. You go into another room and you know it’s still there, calling to you. “Fix me! Finish me!”

Now let’s say you’re doing a digital piece, and get stuck. It looks pretty awful. You’re not sure how to move forward, but you know you can’t just keep working on it right now. You save the file and close it. You get up and have a sandwich. You open a new browser tab.

What happens to that half-finished digital art? Does it call to you? Do you go back and finish it later? How many unfinished digital files do you have on your computer? I’ve got hundreds. How many have I ever revisited to finish? Maybe a dozen.

If a half-finished piece of paper or canvas truly offends you enough, you can hide it behind a bookcase, paint over it, or set it on fire. But you have to make a decision to do that. It doesn’t just effortlessly disappear with the click of a little “x”.

The physical “presencing” of a work in progress can be a powerful force. When you draw or paint with physical media, you bring a new object into the world. A half-finished object has a certain kind of electricity around it. Both its potential and its flaws are present before our eyes and goad us into engaging with it again. It’s more difficult to ignore a physical thing. A dormant digital image, on the other hand, is superlatively easy to ignore.

I have so many unfinished digital paintings that I started, got frustrated with, closed, and never opened again. By contrast, when I start a physical painting, I’m far more likely to finish it because it sits on my drawing board between sessions. It’s harder to forget about.

If you work digitally, try intentionally keeping your half-finished work in front of your face. If you’re in the middle of a digital painting, before you save it and close it, make it your desktop background. Maybe make it your phone’s lock screen. Even if it looks awful right now – ESPECIALLY if it looks awful! Don’t just make it disappear. Let it haunt you for a while. See if you feel compelled to make it better.

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