The complaints are so widespread as to suggest there may be an epidemic. While many mention the word “obsession,” the malaise takes many different forms.
Here’s one from yesterday’s email: “I’m compulsively watching art instruction DVDs in place of doing actual paintings. I’m obsessed! What can I do?”
Others include, “I spend all my time preparing to work, sharpening pencils, cleaning brushes, etc.” “I’m completely occupied with my aquariums and all my fish. They keep breeding.” “I go to the beach every day and hang out with girls.”
It’s called “The cold-easel syndrome” (CES) and it happens sooner or later to most artists. Fact is, these complaints and excuses expose a variety of natural human frailties. The examples above indicate fear of failure, need for nature’s nourishment, and loneliness. There are lots more.
Afflicted artists need to self-examine.
In studying my own distracted periods and those of others, I’ve often found one or two minor setbacks that have derailed the progress. The overly-sensitive artist may be tripped up by an insignificant rejection or misunderstanding. Ambitious projects can bog the artist down. Not-wanted or difficult commissions can block the will to work. After such events, CES can fester for months, even years. Unexamined trip-ups can lodge invisibly in the subconscious where they are difficult to dig out.
My advice: Dig them out early.
Unlike painters, the vast number of workers work for someone else. Self-employed easel-work requires a self-directed problem-solving approach and a few self-taught skills. One such skill is “pump priming.” In our case — Squeeze out. Get started. Get involved. Make mistakes. Let the work tell you what it needs. Find the joy. Fall in love again.
Esoterica: “I’m restoring my ’52 MG.” “I spend most of my time just looking at my sterile work.” “Now that I have my new studio, I never go in it.” “Since I won a prize in a Signature show, I don’t feel the need to paint anymore.” “I’m a workshop junkie — I only paint at workshops.” “I tape and re-watch episodes of Honey Boo-Boo.” “I’m finding my church more fulfilling for the time being.” “My boyfriend is teaching me backgammon.”
These actual quotes from subscribers make me think that distractions may be a natural way to winnow the non-contenders. Like potholes, they nicely impede progress along the hi-way of toil. Question is, do I need these hazards? Iaculis dignissim! said the great self-employed Roman poet and philosopher, Kjerkius Gennius (36BC), “Grab the brush!”
by Oscar Bearinger, Killaloe, ON, Canada
If I don’t shuck these oysters right now, they’ll go bad. I am also awaiting a signed copy of The Ethics, by Spinoza, in the mail.
Out of town
by Robert Sankner, Cincinnati, Ohio, USA
I haven’t painted much because I was in Afghanistan for 4 years.
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Taking a workshop
by Kamal Bhandari, India
I am an India based realist painter. I finally selected Florence Academy of Art in Sweden. I participated in their Intensive Still Life and Figure painting workshop in June-July 2011. After attending that workshop I felt so complete, so satisfied that I lost the urge to paint. I didn’t pick up my brush for the next 2 years. I do not know what has happened. I feel as if I know all the secret of good painting and have reached the epitome of painting and that there is no need to paint anymore.
There are 3 comments for ~ Taking a workshop by Kamal Bhandari
by Bob Maurer, Canton, OH, USA
I have put my art work on hold until I complete an authoritative biography of Kjerkius Gennius.
by Claudia Balthrop, Oak Ridge, TN, USA
One day I found a small snake slithering near my easel. Now moving anything in the room or just standing at the easel, I imagine a snake showing up at an unexpected moment. For a long time I avoided even going into the studio. I’ve moved since then but I’m still cautious.
There are 5 comments for ~ Snake problem by Claudia Balthrop
by David Ashworth, Minneapolis, MN, USA
Distractions? Never. I am far too lofty a human being, don’t cha know, to be side-tracked with mere distractions. The pesky figure studies are a nice to have; to clean up this place. Right Now is a need to have. To finally make a personal mini-color wheel of every stupid blue mixed with every stupid yellow so that I have a reference for every stupid green is a nice to have; to check all the catalogs to ensure I have all the blues and greens is a need to have. To do something, anything, so I don’t feel so itchy is a want; to wait for the Muse to grace me with ease, competence, and clarity is a need. I think it’s time to eat again. Gotta run!
There is 1 comment for ~ Studio impedimenta by David Ashworth
Inspiration from others
by Elisa Choi, Paco, Manila, Philippines
I surf on inspirational works and words from artists that it made me ready to start my painting duties only to find myself diving in further for more of their instructional videos, more works and their encouragement. In reality I didn’t start anything at all for myself but I always got this feeling that after all those good stuffs I am ready. Guess not.
by Jan Thomson, St. Arnaud, Nelson Lakes, New Zealand
Today I should have been finishing a painting which needs to be done by Friday. Instead I found myself sitting in the sun minding my sick chicken — even catching her worms to eat, which takes a while…
There is 1 comment for ~ Sick chicken by Jan Thomson
by Adebanji Alade, Belvedere, Kent, UK
Faced with a big publishing commission, I keep scouting for reference books, styles of illustrators I like and every other thing apart from being able to start this work. Fear or failure and over perfectionism with a very critical client has bogged me down and it’s not that I can’t do it, but for 3 months I’ve just courted this assignment!
by Karina Bjerregaard, Copenhagen, Denmark
Here’s my best distraction. It’s an art project in Finland.
There are 6 comments for ~ Big dominoes by Karina Bjerregaard
Not cold — hot!
by Richard Taylor, Mississauga, ON, Canada
What about the opposite of cold easel? I have trouble stopping, and therefore keeping on top of day-to-day chores and responsibilities. I have enough sketches, slides, digital images and abstract concepts to keep me painting for ten lifetimes.
There is 1 comment for Not cold – hot! by Richard Taylor
by Julie Eliason, Royal Oak, MI, USA
Most of my distractions are pretty mundane except for one. There have been times when I’ve attempted to “primal” my resistance to painting. I lay down on the bed, close my eyes and I sink into the feeling I am having at the moment regarding my art work. Because of my experience in regression therapy, I usually go back to a scene in my childhood or infancy that is relevant to my current feelings. For example, often I feel the fear of doing art that I felt as a child because my mother didn’t want me to be an artist. I needed her so desperately that I was afraid to go against her wishes. Fortunately, my dad and my grandma always encouraged me to do art. But after my dad died when I was eight and we moved away from grandma, my mother was all I had.
Often as a child I avoided art and I couldn’t understand why – because I was happiest when I was drawing, painting or working with clay. It has helped a lot to primal these childhood memories. I work with a creativity coach now to keep me focused on what I love the most, which is art.
by Sally Penley, Olympia, WA, USA
I teach a workshop called “Background Blitz!” (10 techniques for painting backgrounds for calligraphic work) and we talk a lot about this issue–how to just START, and why it seems impossible to remove the distraction and get there. I’ve heard a lot of great excuses/distractions, but I will share with you one of my own: the compulsive need to do “quote research” before I begin a piece. I have a fat book of quotes I’ve collected for 30 or more years (thousands!) and I always find myself sitting down with the book and searching (for the bajillionth time) for just the right quote. I make notes in another notebook about possibilities. So now I have MANY notebooks of repeatedly-written quotes stashed away in cupboards, drawers, taborets, work surfaces, etc… and interestingly, I never seem to use those quotes. I just keep “doing research,” then I close up those notebooks after a lengthy amount of time that could have been spent doing real work, and go to do laundry or grocery shopping. Sigh.
(RG note) Thanks, Sally. We’ve invited Sally to become an editor and contribute to our Resource of Art Quotations, the largest of its kind in the world, and she’s agreed.
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Four techniques to get off the pity pot
by Laurel Adams, Danville, KY, USA
1. Be grateful… I allot 15 minutes of woe is me-ing, then I snap out of it! Give thanks for the ALL of life! Get up. Go out of the “mood” and into Nature… it’s all there… the Light, the darkness, those amazing colours and the shadows that ensue. One must self-immerse in the unitive Life experience before dealing with the illusion of one’s separateness.
2. Get Creative… I am an artist! I doodle with my glasses off… Wow, I follow Monet… I try literally squeezing out fresh primary colors and set up in a darkened room. This develops my third eye, reminding me to feel more than see.
3. Turn on the Love… Set the mood… play your favorite symphony, or jazz it up, or dance to the oldies… whatever enlivens your spirit! Put on a pot of tea, invite a friend… Make love! Make a gourmet feast for your soulmate… See the colors of it, observe the textures. Make life your palette… then paint it!
4. It’s not about me. It’s my openness to channel whatever creative energy is flowing through me. So, I deliberately invite the Universal Creative Flow (call it whatever label you like) to play with me and we paint on… whether it is at my studio table, before students, or wherever.
There is 1 comment for Four techniques to get off the pity pot by Laurel Adams
Get away from it all
by Rebecca Stebbins, Santa Barbara, CA, USA
For me, a change of scenery will quickly eliminate CES. I am sitting in the Toulouse airport in France,waiting for the flight back to the States. For the past two weeks I have been in residence in a remote artist retreat in the Midi-Pyrenees. It is a luxury, I know, but I worked to get here and because I am paying for my space and time, I am compelled to make the most of it — and I am coming home with a dozen small oil paintings as well as a sketchbook of drawings and watercolors; I updated blog posts and social media and read a few books, including Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. But what I didn’t have was laundry, shopping, cooking, cleaning, animal care, and a social life beckoning. I highly recommend getting away from it all — where there is not much else to do and beauty abounds.
by Glen Hargrove
The “Cold-Easel Syndrome” that you described has an equally daunting second-cousin, “Cold Typewriter (or lap-top if you wish) Syndrome.” Writers, too, come up against fallow periods when the subtle temptation to find something else to do (practically anything) is just too compelling to rise above. Word cobblers describe this condition, when they just can’t seem to muster up the juice to get started, as the daunting “blank page.”
It’s more than just running out of ideas or inspiration, it’s the void where the very amplitude to push on seems entirely elusive. This is where many writers are forced to face a horrible truth; that they really wanted to “be a writer” more than they wanted to actually write. You see them talking about their latest project, discussing characters, plot development and such, but when asked how the work is going, they are eternally in a state of “compiling ideas” and never quite to the stage of actually doing anything.
Rather than acknowledge the realization that it is the inner self that projects all outer aspects of our lives as a manifestation of our self-perceptions, the ego faculty, the idea of self that we hold in our minds, tends to fancy us in the role or image of a specific “something.” We must establish a specific place in relative existence by laying claim some identity label as a lifeline to a specific segment of created reality. Of course, practically anything will do, but whenever possible we shoot for something flattering. Yet, we must be honest, at least with ourselves, and ask, Does the idea of being an artist or writer or poet or whatever, the identity, the bragging rights, the wearing of tweed jackets and berets and hanging around cafes and coffee houses, hold more fascination than the poetry or art or creation itself? Could it be that the ego-niche of the artist/writer/poet sometimes calls louder than the boots on the ground creative process of “arting?” (forgive me this one)
Statisticians, in their ongoing efforts to enlighten us all, have determined that there are more people today who write poetry than there are who read poetry. Now, I’m just a country boy, but this seems to hint that some of these people who write poetry don’t read their own work. Could it be that they lose interest even before the ink dries and head to the cafes and coffee houses?
There are 3 comments for Writer’s block by Glen Hargrove
oil painting by Don Demers, Eliot, Maine, USA
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes June Pryor of New Canaan, CT, USA, who wrote, “I call it ‘Fear of Flying’ or ‘Failing’! LOL It happens to us all. Fight it — if your will is strong, your courage will return.”
And also Roxanne Clingman of Milwaukie, OR, USA, who wrote, The Big Leap by Gay Hendricks is an insightful look at the whys of self-sabotage to keep us operating at a level of competency when we could soar in our zone of genius. He also provides some effective remedies.”
And also John C. Barsness of Bozeman, MT, USA, who wrote, “As one of my painting mentors once said, ‘The most difficult brush stroke in a painting is the first one; break the white expanse, preferably not in the center, and just get on with it!’ ”
And also Laurel McBrine of Toronto, ON, Canada, who wrote, “I highly recommend Julia Cameron’s little book, How to Avoid Making Art, which exposes many of the self-defeating behaviours we sometimes engage in.”
Enjoy the past comments below for The cold-easel syndrome…