Lately I’ve been studying the plight of several painters who claim to be having a “crisis of confidence.” All of them began painting in their youth, sold work in their teens, had at least one hyper-critical parent, enjoyed moderate success with their art, and now find themselves, in mid life, “losing it.”
While there are variations in their styles, media and techniques, all three suffer from indecision, dissatisfaction and overworking. All are having trouble finishing, signing, and getting work off to shows or galleries.
I’m not going to dwell on all the possible reasons. Suffice to say they may include too many works under the belt, knowing too much, thinking too much, lack of joy in life, the misplacement or loss of the inner child, the feeling of never being satisfied, health issues, economic pointlessness, boredom and other depressing thoughts.
A thorough vacuuming is nevertheless in order.
Here’s a little program that can play out over a week or so: Line up a hundred or so small inexpensive panels, papers or canvases and have them ready to go. Give yourself a more limited palette — perhaps half your normal range. Put all reference material and prior works out of sight. If this is not possible, work in a new environment such as a hotel room or friend’s cottage. In preparation for starting the program, bring yourself to a mentally uncluttered, dream-like state. Now, over a relatively short period of time, fill the first support with a limited number of strokes. Get your subject matter from the deep well of your memory. Don’t finish, move on to the next. Even though you may consider yourself a real pro, try not to lean on what you know, but rather take yourself back and try to paint as if you were four years old. For some folks, this can be mighty difficult. Persist. Keep in mind that the exercise has nothing to do with creating great art, but is rather a ruse to free yourself from an all too common crisis.
You’ll be temporarily re-routing tried-and-true habits and exchanging them with temporary new ones. The program is based on, “If what you’re doing right now isn’t pleasing you, try something else.” Anything goes. For the sake of the program, the wilder the better — the more childlike you are, the more confident and fresh your regular work will become.
PS: “It takes a long time to become young.” (Pablo Picasso)
Esoterica: Here are a few predictions: The first few attempts will be filled with timidity and resistance. But because there are so darned many of them, you’ll find the middle ones getting more and more cursory and loose. Then, toward the end, you’ll feel yourself tightening up and incorporating some of your treasured knowledge. At the very end you’ll become thoroughly wild and unruly, partly in the knowledge that the program will soon be over, and partly because you have learned something and know that you could go on like this forever. Some pieces you’ll want to frame. If you do, that won’t be bad either.
Embrace the creative performance
by Rick Austin, Fort Mill, SC, USA
I have been painting professionally for close to 40 years and have experienced most of the artist downers that life can throw at you. I’ve found solace in a few simple realizations. Artists are a unique breed of performers. Yes, performers. We are compelled to act out our creative addictions in the hopes of finding release. We outwardly ‘perform’ by physically creating our own kind of art, and who do we do that for ‘just us?’ I think not.
Musicians, dancers, actors, etc., need an audience to find validation. We remain behind a veil as though the creator and the created were distinctly separate from each other. Imagine going to hear a concert and not see the performer? We would feel cheated. Doesn’t the stage performer need the audience as much as the audience needs the stage performer? I’ve observed that most people have little or no concept of our creative blood, sweat and tears. They assume that, “it must just comes naturally”! Or, my favorite, “Oh my gosh, did you paint that!” (my response, “yes, but I hid all of the numbers! — talk about being under-valued” ? Perhaps if we embraced the creative performance, we might find we like the applause.
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by Diane Weintraub, San Diego, CA, USA
Robert Motherwell did that… took a stack of papers and his usual limited palette of black, white, red and yellow-ochre. It was hot in NYC that summer. As Motherwell tells it in that great video on him, he took his shirt off and went through over 100 sheets of paper trying to get at something. Finally there came the breakthrough he’d been looking for. Then later he heard that his good friend David Smith had died that day. As the old joke goes: the kid said, “With that room so full of manure there’s gotta be a pony in there somewhere!” Sometimes it takes shoveling through a lot of manure to find your pony.
Take the program into your being
by Haim Mizrahi, East Hampton, NY, USA
Your suggestions make sense, but you are leaving out the most important aspect which is that the exercise you offer as a tool to expedite the “going back to normal” should be what people need to consider as a way of life, as a given in the realm of constant creative engagements, as an attitude builder to face the one dimensional society we live in.. I work with kids and I realize that they can really relate to complex subject-matter by mixing it with their adamant beings. It fortifies the durability needed for any and every creative interaction. We waste our time with 80 percent of verbal garbage, 10 percent sorting through the crap and finally, maybe, the rest that applies to a real coming together with a powerful pleasing force, i.e. the free flying of pathetic encounters that speak the language of the era that changes daily and therefore encountering all the syllables as a language of its own. I think it is a no-brainer to understand the secrets and beauty of the alternative. I will leave it up to you which avenue you are going to use getting there.
Find again the boyness
by Charles Peck, Punta Gorda, Florida, USA
Robert you hit a home run this time. Not just for those with this “crisis of confidence” you speak of or worse yet those, up against the wall of painter’s block, but for everyone who paints — those who have been at it for several decades and earning their sustenance from it as well as those still relatively new at their painting pursuit.
Haven’t done it yet in as complete a way as you describe but I commonly have an extra surface about to “get loose on” when doing something else to “tune myself up” during the process. It is my way of fighting anal retentiveness and its dastardly staining of an image. While reading your letter I sensed I need to do this. So I shall get my pieces lined up (center cut-outs from mats) and find the way back to my inner/larger self even if the boyness can’t be found alive and well.
Loosened fatigue and tension
by Gillian Hanington, Ajijic, Mexico
In an attempt to deal with the tail end of a similar sort of funk last November I got a pad of watercolor paper and told my unconscious it could paint the pictures and “I” would stay out of the way. Actually I am not a painter. I make glass sculptures. Putting myself into “a dreamlike state” I started to paint. I put music on to distract my intellect and over two months painted a series of strange and wonderful pictures, many of which were mandalas. They used different colors than “I” do, and the designs and subject matter were different. Once when my intellect was trying to take over and THINK about what I was doing I kept having spasms in my arm which jerked the paint out of the carefully defined boundaries I was trying to maintain, and I realized that someone inside was saying “Hey, you said I could do this.” So I got out of the way again and let it continue.
I have made no attempt to analyze these things in any way, but they freed me up and loosened up the fatigue and tension in my heart and now I am eagerly awaiting a turn in the weather so I can return to my outdoor glass studio refreshed and full of new ideas. And they were fun! I was always so curious to see what would come out.
Creative rebound triggered by sound
by J.R. Baldini, Niagara Falls, ON, Canada
When I experienced this condition, it lasted for close to 5 years. During that time, there were multiple personal situations that I had little control over. I did not choose to ride it out, I just eventually went with the flow. What turned the tide for me, was when I went back to painting outdoors. I have since realized that even though I am a painter, I am an Audio. That is the sense I lead with. The other two being Visual and Kinesthetic. We’re all a combination of all three with one being dominant.
It was not enough stimulation for me creatively to paint in the studio. I truly come alive creatively, when I can hear the ocean, the birds, the wind and feel totally in synch with my world. When I don’t get outside to paint for an extended period, I get grumpy and my husband will remark, “Why don’t you go out and paint?”
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Using The Artist’s Way
by Lanie Frick, Licking MO, USA
Your painting program sounds like so much fun Robert that I’m going to do it even though I’m not experiencing the same art career issues as those you refer to here. Another helpful breakthrough program is The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. When I was in a very stuck place in my life and art The Artist’s Way was given to me by a friend. I followed the Julia’s program, completed the exercises and made some big creative breakthroughs. I went through it by myself but the author recommends going through it with fellow artists. In fact, three other artists and myself are meeting next week to begin the course together. Revisiting for me, new for them. Wow, wonder what might happen doing your painting program and The Artist’s Way at the same time? Think I’ll try it.
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Child not easily found
by Andrew Baker, South Downs, UK
This method is familiar to me.
I ran a ‘Big Draw’ event here in the UK where 200 people came of the street and ‘Take a line for a walk’ many would preface their start with ‘I haven’t done this for years.’ The results were astounding to all and a rediscovery was made of earlier delights in this instinctual activity. More importantly, watching a group of about 12 people around one table, children, grandparents, unemployed, the well healed, wrapped in full silence, creating, was a powerful experience. I know the importance of this method because it is a lesson that I have to learn and relearn often. I need this now as lack of esteem which is at the root of our issues of motivation, (Doing something for me) is hard and confounds our adult best sense.
by Gary Hiscott, Wales, UK
I enjoyed your most recent post not because I find myself at a point of lack of confidence but because I have just decided after a long run of painting ‘a series’ of paintings, to do something out of my normal range.
I have been painting over paintings that have not worked, or have gone past their best stage. I have experienced such joy in launching out into the deep, not quite knowing where I was going, changing course mid-stream and ending up somewhere very beautiful I didn’t even know existed.
Being ‘playful’ in this way started to bring about feelings of ‘will THEY like it — will they tick the NO THANK YOU box.’ It was good to become aware of these feelings, aware of the way perhaps I was beginning to paint …and still carry on working regardless, after all I’M ONLY PLAYING!
I keep getting ideas during the day for starting points — but I know that is all they will be for in play the elephant can easily turn into an aeroplane, the orange carrot into a red setter or beetroot!
Daily art plus Facebook
by LeEtta LaFontaine, Prince George, BC, Canada
My own self-imposed criteria for this exercise were: using my non-dominant hand, min 20 minutes, min 8×10 inch any medium. Then I needed to journal about how I felt doing each piece, connect on the internet in some form as well. I chose to open a page on Facebook to make my journey and comments public which has certainly helped me keep up my commitment.
I’m really enjoying the freedom of making mistakes, because after all I am using my left hand. The feedback that I receive is fun and inspiring. I hadn’t considered that others would enjoy my journey with me, I had only thought about what it would do for me. eeeYup! The usual… “it’s all about me” to start with. This process is giving me a freedom of expression that I’ve not given myself before and the opportunity to just be on paper is wonderful. I hope that others take you up on your suggestion because it is so worth the time it takes to help shift the boredom into a new dimension of discovery!
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Breakout technique after travel
by Carol Mayne, Leucadia, CA, USA
I’ve just returned from 4 weeks in India, and your Crisis of Confidence hits a nerve for me.
The contrasts of opulent jewel-encrusted marble of the Taj Mahal, silk-work that goes beyond timelessness, to the stark primitive existence of those living and squatting on the side of the road, to the burning ghats on the Ganges, all stirred gently with cell phone consciousness, and driving on roads where there are no rules for cows, camels or cars. These sights and feelings have asked me to dig deeper into my psyche and go past ‘pretty things’ in my paintings. I trust these kinds of breakout techniques you outlined will usher a new paradigm in perspectives to add to my tool kit! I’m ready for the next leg of my journey and will take whatever time is necessary to open up. Light! Love! Namaste.
Forgetting and not forgetting
by Warren Criswell, Benton, AR, USA
There’s another instance of this in Phillip Roth’s last novel, The Humbling, about a formerly great actor who has lost the ability to act. He can’t lose himself in a role anymore. He and his skill, his experience, his knowledge is always there, like a wall blocking his entry into the character. When I’m painting I often have the feeling of complete ignorance, like I’ve never done this before, so that every brushstroke is a new discovery. I almost have to have this feeling in order to paint — or sculpt or whatever. Richard Foreman, the New York writer and director, put it this way: “There are writers who despair that a gap exists between the self and the words that come, but for me that gap is the field of all creativity — it’s an ecstatic field rather than a field of despair… It’s the unfathomable from which everything pours forth.” That gap is created by forgetting.
When we study art or science, the focus on what’s known gives us the impression that almost everything has been discovered. With art you can make a good case that “There is nothing new under the sun.” But the physicist Richard Feynman wrote that science creates an “expanding frontier of ignorance,” where most discoveries lead to more questions, and I think it’s the same with art.
This is what intrigued me about Husserl’s phenomenology. Husserl wanted to set aside, or bracket — which is another way of saying forget — everything you know about an object or a process, and concentrate on the immediate phenomenon itself. Reading Husserl and Heidegger led me into still life painting for the first time. I abandoned all thoughts of a narrative or any associations the objects might have for me and tried to look in complete ignorance at the visual phenomena in front of me. I can never plan or set up a still life, I have to be ambushed by it. In this way, things I’ve seen all my life come to me as fresh and mysterious discoveries that lead to more questions, as Feynman said — like how do I paint this? …
The upshot of it was that everybody but me saw narratives in the work! In fact I’ve been told by more than one viewer that some of my still lifes are my most intimate self-portraits. Because, as Jung says, we don’t really forget anything, we just exile it temporarily into our unconscious. It comes back in dreams, psychosis or during the creative process. Only in retrospect do you realize it’s you after all.
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oil painting by Karla Bogard, CA, 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 Deborah Tidwell Holtzscheiter of Aiken, SC, USA, who wrote, “Take a class painting in a different way, paint with a friend and try it their way or, as I did, spend some time with an artist friend and see what she does.”
And also Gena Courtney of Macon, GA, USA, who wrote, ” ‘Nevertheless’ Thank you for using this word. It’s my favorite.”
Enjoy the past comments below for Crisis of confidence…