When thieves broke into the studio of the great New Zealand painter Peter McIntyre, they stole unfinished paintings.

It was many years ago now but McIntyre's son, Simon, says he understands why the burglars might not have known some of what they were stealing was incomplete. Simon, also a painter and a visual arts lecturer at AUT, says even for an artist, it can be difficult to know when a painting is finished.

"One of the most frequent questions to be asked is, 'how do I know this painting is finished?' There's no one answer to the question," he says. "The next mark you make could ruin a painting or completely make it."

Sometimes that concern becomes paralysing, stopping an artist from declaring their work is done. At other times, more routine matters can prevent completion: ill health, a family event which demands attention or a commission which falls through. It means a painting can languish in a studio for years.

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Now a unique exhibition is taking unfinished work from artists' studios and making it public. Arrested Practice, at Northcote's Northart Gallery, features work by 10 well-known painters including Simon McIntyre, Rosemary Theunissen, John Oxborough, Patrick Malone and Allie Eagle.

They've submitted work which, says gallery manager and curator Wendy Harsant, provides an insight into the artist's process.

"Anyone viewing the exhibition can really consider the question of 'when is a painting finished' and think about the ways which a work might be able to be resolved," she says.

Simon McIntyre says his own work is one he looks at often and ponders whether it needs an extra "something".

"There's something about it that keeps me coming back to it rather than going, 'it's not right' and painting over it or simply [shelving it] for good."

• The artists will speak about their work at Northart on Sunday from 2-4pm. Arrested Practice is on until Wednesday, August 3.