Harlan Simantal wrote to say, “Lately I’ve wiped off about eight out of ten paintings I’ve started, and I’m wondering what’s going on. I’ve had periods where four out of five turn out well, and I’ve painted a lot of paintings; I’m not a beginner. I have lists of goals, photo references, and thumbnail roughs for painting from memory and imagination. I took a break from painting before this latest fruitless episode, so I don’t think I’m burned out. Any ideas?”
I know the spot you’re on Harlan. Been there. And what’s going on is indeed the question. Hold onto your seat — it has to be one of the following: Lack of desire. Self sabotage. Stale inspiration. Misguided inspiration. Creative inadequacy. Technical incompetence. Outside interference. Poisonous relationship. Talking too much. Listening too much. Artistic bankruptcy. Health failure. Life disappointment. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Original guilt. Self distrust. Crisis of confidence. Avoidance syndrome. Distracted mind. Laziness.
Brutal as it is, what you get to do here Harlan is to pick what’s poisoning you. Some of these situations overlap and you can probably identify with more than one. When you isolate them — name it and claim it — you are a long way toward disarming the devils and beginning to do something about them. Also, look hard at the stymied work and try to determine if there are any small items that might be blocking you. Sometimes habitually wrong colors or brush choices can bring things to a halt. A period of poor and unsalvageable compositions can also turn your work into “impossible projects.” Put your work firmly on the couch for a serious consultation. Transfer the guilt to the work and let it do the talking. My experience is that after a while it will start whimpering and crying like a baby on a roof. Its needs will become clear. That’s when you can slip into the old phone booth and change your clothes.
PS: “I have not worked at all. Nothing seems worth putting down–I seem to have nothing to say — it appalls me but that is the way it is.” (Georgia O’Keeffe)
Esoterica: The mind works in curious ways. Self-understanding and self-nourishment are the keys to a relatively continuous creative productivity. Avoid facing your own nature at your peril. “A creative block is the wall we erect to ward off the anxiety we suppose we’ll experience if we sit down to work.” (Eric Maisel)
The following are selected responses to the above letter. Thank you for writing.
Steve Bloom, Wye, Ashford, Kent, UK
My wife, who is quite accustomed to my complaints about creative blocks and lack of proliferation in my work, told me about a poet she heard talking on the radio last week. He was deeply depressed because he had not been able to write profoundly meaningful poetry for three years. In desperation he confided to a friend who replied, “Consider yourself fortunate. I have not written anything profoundly meaningful for my whole life.” His friend’s comments helped him believe in himself once again, and move forward.
Keep at the job
Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, Florida, USA
I have been blessed with economic issues which have compelled me to keep painting in spite of the atrocities that fall from my brush. And always, without fail, three or four hideous paintings down the road, an absolutely wonderful painting appears. A painting that is a better painting than I know how to do. A painting that feels effortless. It makes me think that maybe the part of me that really knows how to paint must sometimes need to retreat to a place where new things are learned, deep inside or far away, and I am left, here on the surface, spinning my wheels, wondering how on earth I ever managed to paint a decent picture. The best cure for a dry period to simply to keep at it. Good things are happening, soon to be revealed.
Ila Quin, Wisconsin, USA
For me these dry periods are the time to be still, to quiet the mind and wait with joyous anticipation. There is yet another transformation being offered by the universe. Vanquish doubt, close your eyes and leap.
Artist between phases
Jane Champagne, Southampton, Ontario, Canada
Harlan Simantal’s letter could be about that “almost threshold” we all experience: out of one phase and not quite into the next. It can be agonizing. Sometimes, if you just wait it out, and go on about your business without trying to force a solution, it comes — almost as if the old artist has to die before the new one can be born.
D G Therriault, Ghent, Belgium
The prevalence of dry periods can be a symptom of the disengaged or simply decorative nature of a lot of today’s art. The artists themselves are guilty of a narrow focus and concern with self and self-expression rather than looking to the greater value of art. Raising personal standards to look at world overpopulation, species decline, AIDS, environmental degradation, and many other issues are all appropriate for giving a personal sense of value and worthwhileness to the work we do.
One of the great things about these letters is that they give an idea that all is not always well in the lives of many artists. The quote from Georgia O’Keeffe made me feel better than I have for some time. We all have these down periods. Even the great artists. I guess it comes with the territory that we have been in the same glue.
Slay the dragon
Shirley Hatfield, Oklahoma, USA
Oh, my goodness, this came in the nick of time! This situation describes me completely. I have pondered long and hard over the fact that I find myself dry as a bone. I have all the signs of a burnout. My studio door is closed. Now and then, I find myself in there with a cup of coffee in my hand, staring at some of my incomplete projects, wondering what is the matter with me. Now that you have named a few demons, I will print this off and once more study my work habits and see if I can slay myself a dragon.
Don’t waste time brooding
Warren Criswell, Benton, Arkansas, USA
For me occasional blockages seem to be an unavoidable part of the game. Maybe, from a detached point of view, they’re actually beneficial, providing fresh starts, new approaches. Like damming a river to harness its power. Of course it’s impossible to think that way when you’re in the middle of the block, which is a place of black despair. Harlan’s case is a little different from my typical block, though. He was able to start ten paintings(!) whereas I can’t usually start anything at all. My case is more like Georgia O’Keefe’s: Nothing to say. What usually happens in my case is that an image of the despair will present itself to me and I will paint that image. That suddenly becomes what I must “say.” Go straight into the lair of the beast. Works for me. Maybe a time will come when Despair won’t make itself visually available to me like that, but why waste time brooding over that possibility. If it’s a question choosing between the blocks and a gradual drying up, I’ll take the blocks!
Waiting for the breakthrough
Cassandra James, Austin, Texas, USA
Harlan’s problem could simply be that being away from the studio makes it harder to get back up to speed. I find that it’s better to work every day, even if it can only be an hour or two, than to work in binge spurts. That way, the work naturally progresses in a more consistent fashion, and my skills don’t suffer. The paintings I do right before a big show, after months of hard, consistent work, are always the best. We are like dancers who go to the barre to stay fit. It might also help to pay some attention to what exactly made the successful canvases work. Identifying process lends a certain confidence that’s very comforting when things go awry. If you know you can go back, follow that process again and be assured of a fairly reliable product, you’re more inclined to range out and try something new. Security in process leads to both more adventurous work and more risk-taking. It could also be that he’s on the edge of something new. If it’s really painful, there’s a lot of growth going on. The important thing is to keep at it and suddenly he’ll break through.
Something new on the way
Terri Shows, Huntsville, Alabama, USA
Regarding Harlan’s dry period, another possible explanation is that he is getting ready for something new. Whenever I’m moving forward (this is the positive way to look at “technical incompetence”) I have to go through what I call the “ugly picture phase.” It’s a searching that requires of me some experimentation and inevitably results in some trash. It is discouraging and I hate it but I know I have to go through it and will emerge with something new integrated with the old. Fear goes with becoming a beginner again and, for me, that is also a factor in those ugly first attempts. I do better if I just go ahead and make the damn ugly pictures instead of reacting to them with, “Oh no, I’m just a fake, everything so far has been a fluke, or maybe I have a brain tumor (retinitis pigmentosa, etc.)” Today I’m coping by keeping 3 paintings going — one is experimental, the other two are safe harbors of somewhat boring traditional technique. There is not always a conscious awareness of this kind of growth experience — it may require the hand to go where and how it will.
(RG note) A wonderful quality is the wide rage of opinion in the responses. This time, a lot of artists wanted to reach out to Harlan and tell him he was on the verge of something new. Eloquently, and in their own way, they often saw the sunny side of the problem or added a new slant. Perhaps the sympathy and understanding aroused is due to the fact that most of us are all too familiar with dry periods. For this reason Harlan has a lot of friends. To those who wrote and whose letters we did not include — thank you. Your letters will be archived for a rainy day.
You may be interested to know that artists from 87 countries, as well as every state in the USA and all provinces in Canada have visited these sites since January 1, 2001. That includes Ifthikar Cader of Colombo, Sri Lanka who says, “I too enjoy sojourns in the jungle.” And Yachin Kochba who is not having dry periods in Yavne, Israel.