Among the emails that came in after my letter about Low Self-Esteem, Ralph Giannattasio of Wyndmoor, PA wrote: “I don’t believe I have LSE (if you listened to my wife she’d tell you I suffer from the opposite) but when it comes to my artwork I’m a real apologist. If art-LSE were painful I’d be rolling around on the floor in agony. Julia Child’s motto was ‘Never Apologize’ and I believe I need to adopt that motto with my artwork. What do you think?”
Thanks, Ralph. Don’t move too fast on that one. I’ve noticed a lot of really fine artists openly denigrate their own work. They’re not doing it to attract compliments, either. It seems to me it’s part of the stabilizing act we need for creative progress. It can even be false and self-delusionary, but it just might be a smart ploy.
Evolved artists compartmentalize their confidence. They tend to be audacious at the primary easel and critical at the secondary easel. Allowing themselves the satisfaction of dissatisfaction, they stealthily check their efforts for the quality they seek.
We all know of perfectly incompetent artists who never apologize for anything. This, too, is a form of self-delusion that sends a lot of substandard work out and about.
The real art is to develop the skills to vet your art prior to its completion. Clarifying and isolating elements in the work that may need revising — and doing so verbally — is not a bad thing, even in front of others.
The first trick is to identify those elements that are fixable and those that are not. The second trick is to know how to fix the bad stuff without losing the audacity you had in the first place. The third trick is to know it’s all an illusion, and with the help of your devious creative mind you have once more done the best you can under the circumstances. The fourth trick is to avoid the trap of perfectionism. At some point you must abandon all your façades and get on with the next project, no matter what your wife says.
PS: “Paradoxically, I have found peace because I have always been dissatisfied. My moments of depression and despair turn out to be renewals, new beginnings. If I were once to settle down and be satisfied with the surface of life, with its divisions and its clichés, it would be time to call in the undertaker… So, then, this dissatisfaction which sometimes used to worry me and has certainly, I know, worried others, has helped me in fact to move freely and even gaily with the stream of life.” (Thomas Merton)
Esoterica: Dissatisfaction is a significant key to quality. “Art,” said the American sculptor John Chamberlain, “is basically made by dissatisfied people who are willing to find some means to relieve the dissatisfaction.” In the midst of dissatisfaction ways are found. Without dissatisfaction it is swiftly possible to fall in love with your own mediocrity. Utter dissatisfaction can be liberating. “If the wine is not good,” said Michelangelo, “then throw it out.”
Be kind to yourself
by Bonny Current, Wolcott, CT, USA
I can’t say I am ever completely satisfied with a painting. I don’t think that is a negative thing — since I am always looking to see what I might do differently if I were to do it again. I am easily bored, so I never do a painting again — but I may do the same subject many times. Mostly I am looking at my work from a technical view — how could I improve the light effects or contrast, what would lead the eye better, how can I make the best impact or convey that mood better. I am also careful to notice the things I think are successful because that is important too. It is the way I would critique a student — so I need to be as kind to myself!
Don’t denigrate to customers
by Carole Böggemann Peirson, Townsend, VA, USA
Your best painting will always be the NEXT one and beauty is in the eye of the beholder… so when talking to (potential) customers, why take away from the beauty that was just created? You can discuss possible improvements with your artist-peers and actually make the world a bit more beautiful for everyone else!
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Impossibility of the goal
by John Crowther, Los Angeles, CA, USA
I see it slightly differently. I personally define Art as the metaphors with which we share our unique experience of life with others. Because experience is fleeting, and because metaphors are always imperfect, we are incapable of achieving our ultimate goal. We artists must a priori always remain dissatisfied. I’ll never forget Alec Guinness as the artist Gully Jimson in The Horse’s Mouth gazing wearily at a mural he’d labored on long and hard. As he took what would be his last look at it he sighed and muttered sadly, “It’s not what I had in mind.”
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They get what they get
by Ellen Margaret Hendricks, Smackover, AR, USA
I am not a fine artist, however, but a sign artist. There aren’t very many of us left since computers were invented and began to take over our profession. But I stick with it because I know I’m good at it, and I don’t know what else to do at this point in my life. That said, I want to comment about “Never apologize.” I do not. If a customer points out a flaw in the paint or some other minor human defect, I tell him that is part of the charm of hand painting. What I really want to say is, “If you want perfection, get a sticker.” But I don’t because it’s rude. I do preliminary sketches for a fee, and if they don’t want a sketch, then they get what they get. I am a perfectionist and take pride in my work, and they have plenty of pix to look at for my style. I also require half the money up front, and I tell them when to expect their order.
The tyranny of the ‘next’ painting
by Brigitte Nowak, Toronto, ON, Canada
Your letter brings to mind a comment made by Canadian artist Ken Danby, during a course I took with him at the University of Guelph. One of my classmates asked him during a slide show of his work, “Which is the best painting you’ve ever done?” His response, given after careful thought, has stayed with me: “The next one.” In order to improve, both technically and aesthetically, we constantly try and hit the high notes, when our ideas, subject, interpretation and skill of execution join together in a successful conclusion (whether that be a performance, painting, poem, etc.). For most of us, this rarely happens. In the hundreds of images I’ve created over the years, there are, maybe, half a dozen or so that have the magic I always seek to achieve. I’d like to think that it is this striving for magic that separates the artists among us from those people who live their lives in a more mundane fashion. But other professions also have these magic moments: a gymnast’s perfect routine, the moment when a scientist’s theory finally bears fruit, when a teacher sees a student’s eyes light up with understanding of a difficult concept, when a parent connects with a child… I agree with you, and with the “tricks” you enumerate for success, but think that in the third trick you should have suggested that your readers do “the best you can under the circumstances”: there should be no “making do” in the work we create.
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Accept the compliment
by Angela Lynch, Toronto, ON, Canada
Maybe the flip side to always apologizing is knowing when to accept a compliment graciously. We’ve all heard it and done it ourselves: someone pays us/our art… a compliment, and we immediately pop out with all the things that are “wrong” with us/it. I’ve always felt that a compliment is given honestly (you can tell when it’s a suck-up) and that expression of honesty is a way a person can tell you, without getting ridiculed or put down, how they feel. It is given genuinely. As recipients of compliments, we should learn to recognize how and why it is given, and from where, and just say “Thank you.”
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Not sure if approval is sincere
by Margo Goodman, Revelstoke, BC, Canada
The style I have developed in my painting has been a struggle, as I felt the need to “classify” the style for many years. This past two years I have eliminated this need and just create and the rest be damned. If ‘others’ don’t like it that is their problem. I have a difficult time when people say ‘I like this.’ I always think, Really? Are you sure? Myself, I am very satisfied with a finished painting. If I am not it will not proceed out into public until I am satisfied. Sometimes this can take several weeks to months of staring at it to figure why I am not satisfied. So there is this doubt that others can connect with my art. What is that all about? Also I never apologize for my art. After all it is a part of ME, and one should not have to apologize for putting their soul on canvas.
Dangers of self-denigration
by Rick Rogers, St. Albert, AB, Canada
I agree that an artist will benefit greatly from the ability to self-critique, problem solve, and accept imperfection. However, open denigration of your own work is a great way to either prove to prospective buyers that it isn’t very good, or appear disingenuous. Worse, repetitively doing so may even convince you that your work is less than worthwhile. It’s hard enough to promote and effectively price your work so that it will sell, without putting out negative messages. Julia was right; don’t apologize for your work. Critique it privately; sell its positive aspects publicly.
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Miles Davis apology?
by Norman Ridenour, Prague, Czech Republic
Towards the end of his life Miles Davis, the jazzman who owed no one an apology for his life’s work, was interviewed in an eight part series on NPR. Towards the end the interviewer said, “Miles, you have performed around the world thousands of times, you must have often come away from an evening feeling like you did good work.” Miles, long pause and then in his gravel laden voice, “Yes, three times.” When we are happy with what we do it is time to stop. As Merton said in your quote, we have died. Too bad, but most people never live.
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Drawn to the growth process
by Rose Moon, Sedona, Arizona, USA
I’m taking an advanced plein air oil painting class at a local community college that was lucky enough to bring in a master painter. I’ve been painting off and on most of my adult life, but I knew I needed this class. I was reminded of a Zen story where the master poured tea into a student’s cup until it was over flowing and spilling on the floor. The teacher said “How can I teach you when your cup is already full.” I’m glad I remembered that story. It’s a very challenging place to be. I know who the master is, but it’s hard for me to let go of so many things that no longer serve me.
I was really scared the first couple of classes, but now I’m getting more relaxed and amazing things are starting to happen. Some students are now complaining and some have lost confidence and may not come back. Other students are willing to take risks, make mistakes, and ask questions. We are drawn to the growth process, and we are learning to speak honestly about our attempts. Now I sound arrogant about being humble.
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Faith in the face of rejection
by Karen R. Phinney, Halifax, NS, Canada
There’s the flip side of the self-denigration thing. A few years ago, I read Depths of Glory by Irving Stone, about the Impressionist artist Pissarro. At the time I was struggling (and have off and on since!) with the whole concept of whether I had it, was wasting my time, etc. This book opened my eyes to the Impressionist brotherhood. They were rejected by the Salon of the day in Paris, looked down upon and treated scornfully, yet they believed in what they were doing. They had faith that they were on a path that was legitimate and valid and stuck with it despite the derision. They also supported each other, painting together on occasion and drinking together where they would endlessly debate technique, etc. It takes guts, it takes confidence, and faith in yourself. I think at the time it lifted me out of the pit of self-pity and despair I was feeling as an artist. I am no impressionist, but I do have a sense that what I am doing has merit and I will continue to pursue it and improve, too. Believe in yourself and what you are doing, no matter what. You can always improve, but you need to have that faith in the journey being worth it all. Not easy sometimes, especially when it comes to sales!
First Light 2
acrylic painting 20 x 24 inches
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 Claudio Ghirardo of Mississauga, ON, Canada, who wrote, “As an artist, you need to be absolutely honest with yourself and the work you do.”
And also Wendy Dumas of Colorado Springs, CO, USA, who wrote, “You have a way of reminding me that, as an artist, I am more in control of my environment than I have ever been. Your thoughts always inspire me in one way or another, but I too often catch them on the run when what I need to do is take them in like fine wine.”
And also Ann Marlar who wrote, “An artist friend of mine once told me ‘If you always strive for perfection you will always be disappointed.’ This thought has made my love and life of painting, collage etc. much more enjoyable. I paint with abandonment and fun, yes fun. If others do not like my creative endeavors then I just continue creating with love and enjoyment.”
And also Gail Nash of NC, USA, who wrote, “I never apologize to anyone — especially someone interested in buying.”
Enjoy the past comments below for Dissatisfaction…