Last night Krysta Stahl wrote, “I’m one of those painters who really has to make an effort. I spent all day Saturday in my studio… and ended up with 3 colossal failures. Nothing was working the way I wanted it to… I should feel thankful I managed to find the time at all but instead I just feel disappointed in myself. Could you or any of your readers help me with this?”
Thanks for that Krysta. There’s not one artist alive or dead who hasn’t had the same experience. It comes with the territory. It comes with the territory in anything that requires skill and resourcefulness.
It reminded me of one Saturday when I was invited to take part in a golf tournament. The politicians who promoted the event thought that it would be good to include someone from the arts community. The three fellows I teed off with knew what they were doing — one was a pro. From the get-go my self-esteem was in ruination. My best drive was when my ball hit a tree in the next fairway and bounced near the pin. The whole day was a sweaty, embarrassing disaster. I finally and sheepishly got off on the 17th when I happened to notice where I had parked my Bentley. Driving home, I decided I could either take lessons, get in touch with my inner golfer, or abandon further contact with the activity.
Similarly, getting in touch with your inner artist means finding a clear way to your passion. In my experience you do this by digging into books and galleries and by examining all the feelings that you have ever felt. You must ask, “How do I want my world to be, and how do I want my work to look?” You must trust the journey and have expectations of future joy. Then it’s a matter of drawing on every resource to actualize what you visualize. Be prepared for surprises. Along the way there will be the artistic equivalent of sand traps, bad lies, to say nothing of other duffers. But make no mistake, you must make the time for the exercises — the “pitch and putt” and the driving ranges of art — before you start to feel a better sense of accomplishment.
In my golfing situation we do not speak any more of that Saturday and I shall never again be seen replacing divots.
PS: “How many a man has thrown up his hands at a time when a little more effort, a little more patience would have achieved success?” (Elbert Hubbard)
Esoterica: A technique that I’ve found to be valuable is to always have something on the easel. While marathoning has value, doing it all on a Saturday has its shortcomings. Better to pass by for a few minutes before breakfast, after dinner, after the party. It can be frustrating with limited time, so let the painting help you by giving it a longer period of gestation. “When you get to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.” (Franklin D. Roosevelt)
The following are selected correspondence arising from the above and other letters. Thanks for writing.
Advice that has helped me
by Felicia van Bork, Davidson, NC, USA
I’d like to respond to Krysta Stahl’s sad story of failure by mentioning three pieces of advice which have helped me:
1. Don’t be afraid to paint the same thing again. It will always come out differently.
2. Once you’ve reached the point where you’re ready to throw the painting into the dumpster, you can do to it anything you like. You’re going to throw it out, anyway, right? So why not do something wild to it?
3. End the workday with your work unfinished. By this I mean, leave yourself with a task for next time. Then when next time comes, you’ll have less trouble getting into the groove.
Can’t do everything
by Judy Crowe, Houston, Texas, USA
I can relate to Krysta’s feelings. I am a mom with very limited time, but also a serious artist. I want to work, but sometimes when I finally do get to my studio, I am so stressed that I find myself just getting more frustrated and these feelings show in my work. I was wondering if there was something else going on in her life that might be keeping her from focusing. I also teach and have met so many women who want to do it all. They want to learn oils, and watercolor, pastel, and jewelry making too. I guess that’s fine for some, but I know I cannot do everything. I just want to be the best oil painter and best person I can be. No more, no less. Sometimes I just have to take a breather. Take some time away from painting and get the necessities cared for so that I can refocus. That takes planning. She must focus on the things that really matter in life and take some positives toward that goal. I’m reading a book called The Yin/Yang of Painting by Hongnian Zhang and Lois Wooley. They write about the push and pull in all aspects of painting found in Ancient Chinese Philosophy (value, shadow vs. light, edges, hard vs. soft. etc.). Anyway, I think it is that way with our success vs. failure. You can’t really have one without the other. My students are always surprised when I tell them I throw away more failures than I keep. Krysta’s statement touched me and I hope she knows that the next one will probably be dynamite.
by Rodrica Tilley, Montrose, PA, USA
Knowing the cyclical (or rather up and down) nature of creating art makes it somewhat easier to take. Three bad days or weeks are inevitably followed by a breakthrough. Have faith. I have two signs over my work area: “Paint now, Judge later” and the Claude Monet quote; “I am very depressed and deeply disgusted with painting. It is really a continual torture.” These two motivations keep me moving — which is a great antidote for a streak of failures. Don’t let them paralyze you or you will never get to the good days. The days when all you have struggled and cried over come to fruition in a fine work of art. We are all learning, and that means failures. The Monet quote gives me strength to know that even the greatest of artists had really bad days. Maybe the bad days made them what they are.
Trust the process
by Judith Jones, Pleasant View, UT, USA
I, too, have had days, weeks even, where nothing I paint is worthwhile, and the garbage can fills up rapidly. I, once, complained to one of my mentors, and he said. “I am glad that you are wasting so much paper, that is how you learn.” Now, when I have days of frustrated non-production, I tell myself that I am working my way to a higher plateau. But the important thing for me is to keep painting, and painting and painting — just trust the process of creating.
by Truella Rogers, Woodbridge, VA, USA
Krysta sounds like she needs to get in touch with her inner child. Get away from pushing to paint something wonderful (what dead art that would create!). Take a vacation!! (I live for mini-vacations!) Get away and do something that has absolutely nothing (and everything) to do with art. The inner excitement of a breathtaking sunset, shapes of clouds over the waves of endless ocean, coolness of a mountaintop in the heat of summer, foggy forest trails, just to be for a few hours or a few days. Take in smells, sights, colors and emotions. Sleep! No alarms, no phones, no doorbells, no neighbors, no groceries to buy, chores to do, or errands to run. Play! Ride a roller coaster and see blurs and waves of color and light. See ant colonies of people from atop a Ferris wheel or a helicopter ride. Look at life from a different perspective. Rest the mind and body. Only then take in the work of others. Trip off to a different museum in a different place. Go back to the studio, not to work but to play some more! Finger paint, work in clay, slab or wheel. Laugh or marvel at the outcome. Use it for an under-painting later. Art is created from the soul — from the inner stores of what we see and feel, hear, smell and experience. Art flows when you let it form.
Keep it alive
by Bruce Meisterman, Germantown, TN, USA
Reading Krysta Stahl’s letter reminded me of something I learned some time ago. Unlike a painter usually working on one piece at a time, as a photographer I get numerous chances at one time to “fail.” After all, multiple attempts per roll is a great opportunity. I too have tried to pull something from a negative (read this as idea) only to look at that piece of work as coming up way too short. All the hours, the work and to miss the mark widely: it can and will drive you crazy if you let it. What I discovered is that those are not failures by any measurement. They are steps to a greater understanding of an idea/image that we have not yet worked out to our own liking. I have boxes and boxes of ideas that haven’t worked. But, and this is the key here, if I spend time with them, I can learn from them and build it going forward. Now, this is no guarantee that the next time we approach it, we will succeed. If we’re lucky though, we will have moved even closer to what we’re seeking. To Krysta, I say, Not finding the time to do your work is more of a “failure” than missing the mark. Stay with it. Nurture it and keep it alive. It WILL grow.
Pushing against the river
by Catherine MacLeod
I have a large landscape that I have been working/playing/blundering away at for the past 6 months. The sky and the trees in the foreground were just a gift — I felt fearless and happy and just slapped away and they revealed themselves perfectly. Felt that happy buzz. But the ocean between that sky and trees! I have painted and repainted it. Doesn’t matter if others love it or not, approval or disapproval doesn’t help a bit, it’s just wrong. I don’t have the skills yet to know why, but it is. Two friends and I are doing the Julia Cameron “Artist’s Way” series together. We do this or something similar every once in awhile, to keep the creative juices fired up. Just before they arrived last night I decided that ocean might be better if it was just a different colour. It was REALLY shouting at me — at us — at this point. This morning I was up journalizing and my son (and roommate) came trundling out to the living room with his duvet wrapped around him Linus-like. He peered at the painting and said “Oh good. What a relief it must be to you to know that green is not the answer for that sea, you can safely eliminate that.” We both had a good laugh. Taking oneself too seriously is a waste of perfectly delicious life moments. That was one of them. I think I’ll now take the painting off to someone even more knowledgeable. Pushing against the river anymore at this point would be futile.
I am not alone
by Caroline Jobe, Powell River, BC., Canada
Whew! After reading Krysta Stahl’s letter, I realized I was not alone in my feelings of failure. I have also had days like that when everything I try does not yield anything I think is worth leaving on the canvas. Luckily my main medium is acrylic, and I can paint over my unsatisfactory attempts. I have discovered however, that even those botched attempts are better than not sitting down in my studio and at least practicing sketching or painting. One way I have learned to fool myself is to tell myself that I am just going to play with the paint, that this painting is just for me and will not be judged by anyone else. I tell myself I am just colouring and having fun. Often I end up with a fresh unique piece that comes from my heart and someone comes to love it too. I find that my best pieces are those done without expectations of glory or recognition.
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville FL, USA
It seems a paradox, but many of my best and most surprising work has appeared immediately after a lot of incredibly awful work. No kidding. Right when I’m beginning to think that I know nothing about painting, and all my good work has been a complete accident, one of those wonderful gifts-from-the-universe paintings appears. The kind of painting that when you go back to the studio the next day and see it you say, “How on Earth did I do that!” So when I’m elbow deep in mud, I think: “Oh boy, something good is coming soon!”
Remember the great ones
by David Sharpe, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
What I find almost always works to turn on my tap again is 3 things: I go into my living room and look at my work on the walls; I look at my file of pictures of the best work I’ve sold over the year; I pop down to my gallery and look again at my work. These things all remind me that I CAN do it… heck — I’ve done it before. I do have the talent inside to paint pretty good paintings… that I’m not drying up into a hack. Then I go back to the easel and scrub it out or get another opinion from folks I really respect (usually my family) on what’s not working or simply turn it against the wall for a week or two and start another one. That usually does it. Never give up. This too will pass.
Working through writer’s block
by Sophia Morrison
When writers experience writer’s block they should continue to write even if the work seems amateurish or clumsy. One should even write anything that comes to mind whether the words and sentences do not relate to each other or whether they make any sense. At a later time, if one reads the gibberish something will often trigger an idea which can be developed into a good piece of writing. I believe that this is true in any of the arts and that the experience which produced bad results is not wasted but added to the bank of skills. I have on several occasions taken a bad painting years later and developed it into a good one. If the idea and composition are good, the painting is often worth rescuing at a later time. If not, one should chalk it up to practice much as a pianist must practice scales before the elements are made to “make music.”
Taking the pressure off
by Deborah A. Lowe
I too have set a goal of keeping a colored pencil drawing or painting going all the time. I have found that this is better than trying to do a “masterpiece” all in one day. It takes the pressure off. I also find that it’s a comfort and an inspiration to know that there’s always something on my drawing board to look forward to. I sat down for a couple of minutes this morning before leaving for work and I also worked on one last night for about an hour after dinner. This works great for me! It keeps your momentum up and keeps you focused on the inner artist.
Take the journey
by Susan Correia, Castro Valley, CA, USA
I think we have to keep in mind that it’s the Journey, not the finished product. That’s the important part of art. Perhaps Krysta has a busy life and set aside Saturday for her art. Perhaps she needed the escape from all of her other pressures and needed to think about brush strokes and color mixing. Maybe she learned some things, something about art or something about herself. Maybe what was learned on that Saturday will simmer in her brain and produce something great the next time. But we shouldn’t judge the worth of the time spent doing art by what ends up on the canvas. It just doesn’t work like that. We have to analyze our work and analyze our methods and learn all the time; be aware, generally speaking, of the journey, of progress, of shortcomings. And then just keep on doing/exploring our art. There’s a point to choosing to do art, and it’s not the decimal point. We won’t all be world famous. But it’s still important that we continue. For some of us it just allows us to keep our sanity while the rest of the world is going nuts.
More on fundraisers
by Jane Champagne
Jane Lake’s experience with a charity auction is as good an example of bad karma as you can get, and your reply is right on. We’ve all been there, and eventually are sickened and disheartened by these people and their attitude that because we are artists our work has little intrinsic value. Never do as they say and paint to sell cheaply. It’s ruinous to one’s own good karma (learned the hard way). Had I not been taught not to indulge in profanity (the sign of an inarticulate, powerless person) I’d lend Jane a few choice words to say to them next time they ask. I say no to most of them, and donate regularly to women’s shelters I know to be in need. They always send a thank you note.
(RG note) Jane Lake’s letter and my note is in http://painterskeys.com/karma/
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 100 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2002.
That includes Sharon Voyles of Illinois, who says, “Finding time to paint is sometimes so difficult, and then having the paintings turning out awful is pure frustration, but sometimes there is magic worked, and the painting exceeds all expectations.”
And also Jacques Fignac of Paris, France, who wrote, “Your message is ‘Give up doing what you do lousy.’ — hooray!”
And also Joseph P Blodgett who confirmed, “It’s a matter of finding out what you’re not good at, then working on what’s left.”