Yesterday, Brian Crawford Young of Inverness, Scotland, wrote, “I’ve been having a crisis since I got back from a wonderful residency at the Art Students’ League, Vytlacil Campus in Rockland County, New York. The ambience was great, the staff helpful, the scenery brilliant, and the quick access to Manhattan exciting. But when I got home to the Highlands of Scotland everything crunched to a halt. All my fears and self-doubts emerged and creativity stopped. Any thoughts on this sort of blues?”
Thanks, Brian. You can get it after a residency, a show, a workshop, an art museum, or even going to a high-energy art centre. Just living in New York has put many fine painters into gridlock. The “What’s the use?” attitude can come from too much excitement, influence, competitive talent, or the disorientation of commerce. One is confused, disheartened and jaded.
The good news is that artists can come out of this if they really want to. There are cures. Here are three:
The sherbet cure. Like sherbet after the main course, take a couple of days of de-briefing. Intense influence has scrambled your cerebral neurons. You need to re-boot. I’d take a long walk in the heather and top it off with a few single malts. Near Inverness, I know just the places.
The solitary confinement cure. While any sort of intensity and learning is great, an artist also needs a private vacuum in which to gather thoughts and re-unite with personal processes. In the words of the writer Annie Dillard, “You need a room with no view so memory can meet imagination in the dark.” Leaving your intense experience and exciting environment behind, your work must now come out of you. Too many lambs spoil the haggis.
The forced beginning cure. This is where you puff yourself up, squeeze paint and dig in. Awkward at first, the processes that sustained you before, augmented by what you have recently learned, will gradually take over and you’ll be your old self again. You must know that people have risen again in their studios after a bout of major trauma. It’s been done before.
Fact is, the pursuit of art is a delicate balance between influence and self-assertiveness. As self-realized artists we all have different levels of tolerance for this mystery. Influence is like Scotch; it’s good to know your personal limit.
PS: “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” (Oscar Wilde) “Be selective about your external influences.” (Brian Tracy)
Esoterica: Excessive influence, even from the work of others in art magazines or books, can lead to malfunctions of the creative spirit. Fen Lansdowne, the brilliant and widely-published bird painter who recently passed away, suffered from a lifelong malady called “The Imposter Syndrome.” Comparing himself to others sent Fen into a dark and angry funk that sometimes lasted weeks. When he figured out the cure, it was pretty straightforward: Watch birds. Do drawings. Paint birds.
Brian Crawford Young
Take time to play
by Lynne Windsor, Santa Fe, NM, USA
Almost every artist experiences this at some point in their career. I believe it’s part of the creative process and all the things that you have suggested, Robert, are things I have done to get going again. Years of travelling back and forth from New Mexico to the UK have been challenging, especially since I don’t really have a ‘proper’ studio set up here at my Father’s house. I don’t feel that I can make a mess and spread out, and I know this influences my work, but my love of what I do, overrides everything. My need to paint is overwhelming, even if it’s just to meet a deadline and I just ‘get stuck in’ as we say here in Lincolnshire!
Brian, take time to play, go and dig yourself out of the snow, but most of all just get that paintbrush out and do it. Up in Scotland at this time of the year is tough, the days are short, but hold on to your beautiful memories of New York and don’t be too hard on yourself. I like the new work you did in New York, it seems that you made a leap, so don’t think too much, keep calm and carry on!
There are 2 comments for Take time to play by Lynne Windsor
Misgivings supplanted by understanding
by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA
This is a very common phenomenon and the only solution is within. There was a time in my life while an early student of art that I wondered if I should go further at all with all the great art and artists that have come before. It seemed to me they all said better than I could have hoped. What more could I possibly add? My contemporaries also seemed to have a far better handle on this than I could ever hope to achieve.
I realized at some point that I’m not in competition with these other seemingly more advanced artists. I had only myself to compete with. I had to be better than I wanted. I wanted to have my view of life shown. We all have a unique vision. We all see with different eyes. Sit in any painting workshop with ten other artists and you will see ten different points of view as to how to interpret the subject. I no longer wonder if I’m as good as… At this point in my life, I’m as good as I can be. The proof is people buy my work. I get complimented and awarded. The sky’s the limit. Will I see work I think is better than mine? Sure. Will I be as good as Michelangelo? Only time will tell. It’s a matter of what you want to accomplish with the time you are given.
There are 4 comments for Misgivings supplanted by understanding by Rick Rotante
Terrified but tenacious
by Laurie Sain, Lander, WY, USA
Brian’s blues were a godsend to me! I had just sat down at my desk after fighting the blues this morning, since I’m about to begin a serious business plan for marketing my art, and I’m terrified! Can I do it? Is my art worth the money to other people? What’s the point?
I learned a few years ago, after a trip to Greece in which we spent all of our time looking at old rock foundations and artwork — the only remnants of ancient cultures — that art is what lasts after most of the other “stuff” is gone from our human experience. Art is important, not only to the artists, but to those who manage to come after us as well.
Thanks for the Three Cures for the Blues, although I confess a tendency towards the Scotch option. However, today’s the day! And I’m off to both paint and start the visioning process for my works, called “murmurations of color,” which combine art and science: replicating the patterns of birds by adapting the “rules” the birds use themselves to fly about and avoid confusion, disorientation and dismay. May I learn to follow them as well as the birds do!
The graphite connection
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
I am just now re-emerging from the deepest down I ever had since I started painting. I had dips before, but this was the first time I actually asked myself the “Q” question (shall I quit). It came about after a string of overwhelming events, just as you said — super exciting heli painting trip, a week-long workshop with about 100 artists and students, topped off by reading a book by a famous artist-teacher who apparently despises stylized landscapes. It is amazing how all the millions of ideas, plans and inspirations that I normally have, at that point made me nauseous in a real way, as if sailing on a rough sea. As a result, I”ve been under for about 3 months. For the first 2, I tried to ignore the thing and carried on painting with a sensation of disgust. In the last month a kind friend advised to stop painting the serious stuff and just do something playful. I discovered that I am not a very playful person when I am in a rut, but from some reason it appealed to me to do color swatches so I did that for a week. Then I started pencil drawing compositions, no painting for another couple weeks. That brought me to last week when I tried out painting and it felt ok. I painted at almost full speed through the last few days and it feels as where I left off before the rut — no miraculous breakthroughs, just ok, but what a relief!
There are 5 comments for The graphite connection by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki
Left brain jump start
by Sharon Cory, Winnipeg, MB, Canada
One thing that works for me is to let my left brain analyze what had been the basis of my excitement, the triggers, so to speak, and then use that info in my work. For example, I recently got back from a visit to Prague, the most beautiful city in the world, with layers of culture and sophistication that predate the Hapsburgs. I had first traveled there as an art student in 1969, just after the country was invaded by Russia and the streets were filled with soldiers and disheartened Czechs. To return 40 years later and see the city so alive, the streets filled with people engaged in conversation, the store windows and galleries reborn in Bohemian style… well, I walked around in a state of enthrallment for days.
When I got back to my dull little Prairie burg, and looked around at what I’d been working on, I was disheartened and thinking “Why am I bothering?” But my left brain kicked in with “What did you like so much about Prague?” and quickly got down to the arches, the river and the warm golden glow that enveloped Wenceslas Square. Soon enough these elements were appearing in my new work and the levels of excitement were again bubbling through my veins.
There are 3 comments for Left brain jump start by Sharon Cory
Showing up is the first step
by Cathie Harrison, Roswell, GA, USA
Bravo to Brian! His work obviously shows competence, uniqueness and beauty. The aftermath of fear and sometimes hopelessness that he describes is familiar to me and I’m sure to others. I recently plunked down a significant amount of money and a full ten days to participate in a workshop with an artist I’ve followed and admired for twenty years. I thought I’d learn an approach different from any other and something about achieving an energy and elegance in paint application that was unique. Instead, after spending tremendous energy and effort, I learned that fear of failure is my biggest obstacle to moving to a higher level in my work. Now that is really worth something… but it has taken me a full six weeks of agonizing about “why I bother” to come to this conclusion! Needless to say, I failed in the workshop and felt all the embarrassment, self loathing and humiliation that comes with public failure. It has taken me many reflective hours to understand that it is a good thing to fail at painting something you don’t love in a way that isn’t intrinsically you.
Again I am reminded that we all come to our own precisely personal way of applying paint, choosing a subject and attempting the impossible task of communicating to the viewer something as illusive as how we feel about the subject. I’m certain Brian will move forward and do more great paintings. As for me, I’m showing up in the studio this morning and remembering Robert’s wise advice.
There are 3 comments for Showing up is the first step by Cathie Harrison
Criticism before compliments
by Colleen Obrien, Calgary, AB, Canada
I am now back from my 5 weeks at Artist in Residence in Italy. It was a whole life. I took time to do some thinking. There was a lot of time, which threatened to be boring, after working in the studio 3 or 4 hours a day.
This particular Residency is a wonderful place, partly because of the host and hostess. She is sweet, very helpful and much more. She has a little English, her husband has almost NO English, and both of them smile a great deal. He had a second piece taken in to the collection of the MOMA in NYC, during the time I was there, so we toasted him with the good local wine, grown right outside my window in Chianti. His name is Duccio Trassinelli.
The ancient buildings and culture were very inspiring. The hilly landscape, so much like the Vernon BC wine area, was also inspiring to this prairie person. The food and wine were incredible, the coffee, the bread, the olive oil, the pasta and the generous hospitality of the Italian people planted a deep impression. The Mayor of Greve in Chianti came to the exhibition at the end of my stay.
A few high and mighty art people, a Professor, a Gallery owner and an artist, also came to the exhibition. They had criticism, that my work had colors which did not match the region, they were bright and chemical. (I use acrylics). I listened closely, felt uncomfortable and then felt like giving up. I explained that I had been influenced by the Group of Seven, which no one had heard of. I also considered that my works were studies for larger studio pieces in my 3×4 foot size that I prefer.
I gave it some thought and realized these three men had their own agenda, and were immersed in their own visions. It is amazing what a strong sense I got from these three. The genuine compliments from other invited artists and guests had to sit in the background of my mind until I could process the criticism. Another thing which saved me was a little church bell tower. As I was walking along the gravel road, I glanced over to the little town in the distance, which I had painted. I had to view the tower from not only the place where it was painted, but to express it accurately, I had to walk to the town, and also walk in other directions, until I could grasp the darks and lights and the spaces. I realized that this work which I had done took a whole lifetime of study and looking and painting. A few comments could not erase all the force of my creative energy.
There are 6 comments for Criticism before compliments by Colleen Obrien
Coming down from the mountain
by Randy Bosch, Jackson Hole, WY, USA
People returning to their “normal” environment from a fulfilling conference, retreat, residency, reunion or other intellectually stimulating adventure will always encounter some form of “re-entry” turbulence, whether the gridlock experienced by Mr. Young or another predictable challenge.
One of the best descriptions I have heard is that you are coming back down to the valley from a “mountain top experience.” That experience was usually long planned with much preparation and anticipation. The experience was both exhausting, in a good way, and exhilarating. At last, the trip back down to the valley – home, work and normal routine — must be made.
Without an also pre-planned re-entry period, anyone can experience being overwhelmed by the “to-do’s” and “stuff” that accumulated during absence. Even with the best planning, an emergency may have arisen during absence that demands attention and energy to resolve.
Whichever scenario occurs, not only is the exhilaration of the mountain-top is lost, but the mind may actually build a mental barrier to lock away what was gained — a subconscious intention to devalue or lock away the learned skills and knowledge. Friendly family members and co-workers may either push for a detailed “what was it like” recounting too soon, or actively work to really bring you back down from the clouds to “reality.”
The responses you propound are among the best of which I have read or heard. Several attempts and great perseverance may be necessary for each of us to find that which is best for them. The truly extraordinary retreats, mentorships and conferences have a thread running through them and a “summing up” that reinforces such methods with skills and an agenda to help find the best response, keep the spark alive, and thereby prepare for a genuinely joyful reunion with the studio, family, co-workers, and productive implementation of what was learned on “the mountain top.”
Enjoy the past comments below for Fighting the blues…
Featured Workshop: Julie Gilbert Pollard
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 Richard Rabkin of NY, USA, who wrote, “By the way, Brian, you don’t have to wait to feel like it to do these suggestions. You never will. You just say, ‘Feet move.’ ”
And also Ken Paul of Eugene, OR, USA, who wrote, “That’s as good a take on what’s been called ‘post-partum depression’ that I have heard in a long time. The ‘scrambled neurons’ metaphor seems particularly apt. This phenomenon is also related to the age-old problem faced not only by artists, but most folks, I’m guessing: comparing my raw insides with somebody else’s well-tailored, carefully-presented outer persona. Some of us have to leave the single-malt therapy to others, though. Been there, done that, but after brief relief, it only made matters worse: more scrambled neurons.”
And also Maxine Thompson of Rotorua, NZ, who wrote, “I’ve just finished a year of teaching workshops in New Zealand and Queensland, and fitting commissions and exhibitions in between classes. I’ve been a professional artist for 20 years and the ball is rolling for me now with working coming my way without my chasing it. I’m thriving. Art gives me a rich lifestyle through the people I meet and the students I encourage.”