I always thought it was just my problem. Every time anyone — friend, art dealer or family member — wanted to take a look around my studio, I felt I needed to apologize and tell them, “Nothing much here right now. Come back later.”
One day, several years ago, I dropped in on an elderly painter who lives nearby. At her studio door she warned me there was “nothing much here right now.” I insisted on seeing around her studio anyway. Every square inch of the place was filled with her art. Canvases ten deep leaned against the walls. Pastels in multiple piles a foot thick lay on large tables. I began to suspect that my “Nothing Much Here Syndrome” (NMHS) might be a universal condition. I wondered what might be at the root of this deception.
For some time I’ve observed that only the really poor artists are totally pleased with their work. I’ve also noted that most who toil for quality are lacking in even modest amounts of post-creation glee. As perfectionists and optimists, the better artists fantasize that their work may get better. It seems a mark of competency that these folks often hide their talents under a bush. In the land of the truly good, there is the tempting illusion that the truly good stuff will be created “later.”
Humans, of course, are probably hard-wired to be makers of things. But, as widely noted by smarter pundits than I, human beings are deeply flawed with incompetence and inadequacy. Schools, universities and colleges exist on this principle. People are widely advised there is no cure — other than to become a student and to keep trying. Here’s the point: the stations of our trying are not only of interest, they are the windows of our vitality, our personality, and become the very ports of our progress. Advice: Be strong, open ‘er up, let in the interlopers — that stuff’s worth looking at.
Hard-wired also is the artist’s need to sail the high seas and get away from the studio legacy. Intuitively, while we may love our studios, we also suspect them. The travelling artist has the benefit of being a more genuinely empty vessel, at least to start with. Newly virginal, with only optimism and without a nagging history of “not much here” — you have a clean canvas, a fresh slate, an empty sheet, and there’s nothing to do but fill ‘er up.
PS: “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” (Alexander Pope)
Esoterica: In 1493 when Christopher Columbus first came to the Lesser Antilles, he named this island Virgin Gorda because it looked to him like a big woman. Such, I’m told, might be the fantasy of one who has been long at sea. And much of what we think we know and believe, I’m also told, is a fantasy as well. So if an island can be a woman, I can be a lousy, undeserving artist who has nothing much to show. Or I can be a decent one who is prolific and available. The trick is to believe in the latter but still remain displeased. Even Columbus was displeased: when he came ashore here he saw no future in coconuts.
Battle of progress never ending
by Mark A. Brennan, Whitehill, NS, Canada
I would guess that my own “post-creation glee” lasts for perhaps a trillionth of a second! Then I am moving onto the next work, one that might not have the flaws of the previous one! One that will cause me to say to myself, “Got it!” But it never comes! It seems to be a never ending battle of ‘progress.’ This perfection we seek, however seemingly unattainable, is also a positive. It keeps us motivated, helps us achieve and in some strange way is something to strive for.
Struggle to live in the moment
by Jane Freeman, Bemidji, MN, USA
This letter really got me thinking about my process. I will be excited about a painting until about 1/2 way through and then the next one is developing in my brain and I begin to lose interest in the one I am doing. I begin to see the faults in this one and want to get to the next one because it “will be much better” somehow. The deal is, I am not living in the moment then and experiencing the joy that I should have in “just doing.” When we mentally move on, it is pretty hard to do justice to what is presently on the table. I guess I will always be dreaming and planning about what will come next but I am going to try harder to enjoy the journey of where I am now as well.
by Cathie Harrison, Roswell, GA, USA
Approaching an upcoming show with feelings of “Not much here…” and fearing what is here won’t warrant attention, I have a strong urge to fight or flee. A constant dissatisfaction with my work and a striving toward something that approaches the quality of the artists I admire is the reason I keep painting. I can’t imagine a day that I will say “Now I’ve got it!” There are brief moments and less than a handful of “leave alones” that keep me going. I have to say, I hope I never become satisfied.
Keeping the good ones
by Jim Connelly, Jenison, MI, USA
The reason there is nothing much there is the same reason there is nothing much here. All the good stuff is sold, at galleries, or given away. So what is left in the studio? The old stuff that didn’t sell, the one the gallery didn’t want, the ones not good enough to enter in competitions or give as a gift to a beloved relative, is all that is left here. Although I really want my next painting to be the best I have ever done, I would be happy if it was as good as my last best painting. I try to keep a couple “good ones” around long enough to inspire another “good one” while everything else sitting around is like the land of misfit paintings. Then there is the back room graveyard of “I didn’t really paint that” paintings but we won’t go there.
Keeping your mouth shut
by Anne West, Santa Barbara, CA, USA
Although I can understand the “Nothing much here right now” mentality, I wonder how many potential patrons are negatively swayed into not finding value in the art that is there by this sort of comment by the artist. After all, the patron may think that the artist likely knows best what is and isn’t good in their work. After spending some time in sales, you learn quickly to keep your mouth shut and let the buyers make their own buying decision. It is not for us to put ideas of value, beauty, or usefulness into the heads of our buyers. Artists who hope to sell their works must realize that they paint not for themselves but for their patrons. It is up to their patrons to decide if the work is pleasing.
Keeping fun of discovery
by Jeanita Ives, Kansas City, MO, USA
As a photo-artist, as I call myself, I may have 1000’s of photos in my stock file but only one may lend itself to the picture I have in my mind. I am continually looking for new inspiration for that ONE. I spent years in the time I only dabbled in art as a hobby taking photos that I would use as inspiration in a painting. When I found time to paint, I still picked up the camera and found satisfaction in creating with a digital camera and my computer. I am still struggling with this photo-digital-art argument that somehow one who uses a camera is not an artist. But that is the space I am in and now I find it to be a successful venture for me. Because I am continually seeking to find new and better ways of expressing myself in my photo-art, I am constantly feeling I don’t have much here. I have also discovered that the piles of pieces I think aren’t what I want to show, may be just the creation that a client absolutely loves. I also believe that when I finally think I have a lot here, I will have lost the fun of reaching out to find new ways of expressing myself.
The divine difference
by Carolyn Newberger, MA, USA
I am a flutist and as well as an artist, and one of my most memorable moments with a beloved teacher was when I complained after struggling with a particularly beautiful but difficult part of a Bloch concerto. I told him, “I am playing it perfectly in my head, but I can never seem to quite get there.” “Ah, Carolyn,” he replied, “That is the divine difference. It’s what keeps the music alive.” So too with art, and most of the rest of life, for that matter. The divine difference keeps us just a fraction (and sometimes more than a fraction!) from the perfect expression in our minds, and keeps us stretching, seeking, breathing and interesting.
by Dwayne Davis, Williams Lake, BC, Canada
Talent is not from some mystic natural ability. It is understanding that not perfect just means to do it better next time. It is the ability to move forward, and to imagine new possibilities. Talent is only the reaction to the actions of the creative mind. “Talent” is only a label that we as a society can use to pin on those who are not ever satisfied with their own accomplishments.
My 15 year old son, Steven, and I have had many conversations on the “why” some people find outlet in art. He has a strong curiosity of the mental makeup of creative types. The thing that makes an artist become one. Here is an excerpt from a story that my son wrote:
From Grey Inspiration — by Steven Davis-Gosling “I painted for the first time in over a year and it felt new. Novelty breeds change and that is exactly what was missing in my life. A fear died in me that day. Though I don’t know what is to come in this world of originality, I will take it in stride. I have dropped all things constant, including my job, and am enjoying the audacious new self I have found. I am now the blank canvas.”
by Mary E Whitehill, Newburgh, NY, USA
Today’s letter struck a nerve. I did this painting while experimenting with abstract designs and a limited palette and assumed it was nothing worthwhile. I called it Stay Cool as that was the dominance I was trying to achieve. It was hanging, price $100, in a cooperative gallery, where I was the sitter for the day. I glanced at it and suddenly realized, “That is a good painting.” I whipped it off the wall and subsequently entered it in many shows, winning several prizes and it helped me become a signature member of the Pennsylvania Watercolor Society. Don’t throw out anything until you’ve had a long period away from the work so you can judge it objectively.
Acquiring an artist’s work
by Donald Cadoret, Tiverton, RI, USA
It’s interesting that many of us, as creative people, suffer from the same issues. I’m reminded of the days when I used to visit a dear artist friend weekly — Jacob Knight — and try to acquire some of his work. He would use the same NHMS excuse. Several times I asked about what he might have available, only to be rebuffed softly, telling me that it wasn’t good enough, or that it needs more work. This from a successful illustrator and painter. Then one day I asked again what piece he cherished most. Soon he came downstairs with a pair of paintings that he kept wrapped up in his sock drawer. The paintings were of Paul Revere and the Revolutionary War, and were used for a children’s book several years before. They were beautiful and reminded me of Jacob in their innocence and style. I had to have them. Being a distant member of the family, I assured him that they would be kept safe if he let me buy them. He relented and, luckily for me, they are still safely hanging in my home today. Although he passed away over 12 years ago, I still visit him through the paintings I have acquired. They inspire me to paint daily with excitement and joy, although the result is certainly not perfection.
Grey Painting Competition
by Coulter Watt, Quakertown, PA, USA
Rarely do I have moments of glee after finishing a painting, but most often I’m looking to go to the next step, more refined technique, a different color scheme or a better, poignant idea. Since I find painting a continuous learning process — one of the great joys of painting — the thrill of the new is always on the next canvas. It’s an evolutionary process.
I’ve become interested in monochrome paintings — Van Dyke Brown specifically — since winning the Gamblin Torrit Grey Painting Competition last year. It’s all about values: high contrast, low contrast and full value rendering. I recommend everyone try doing one if you’ve never done one. And as a reminder, April is when Robert Gamblin issues the year’s Torrit Grey paint, it’s given away free of charge and his Torrit Grey Painting Competition is open to all.
by Barbara Noonan, Seattle, WA, USA
I am often referring to this quote by Marianne Williamson (and adopted by Nelson Mandela) when I don’t appreciate or share the work I am doing. “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
Enjoy the past comments below for Nothing much here right now…
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 Collette Fergus of Waikato, New Zealand who wrote, “Well I thought it was just me too! I always feel like there is not much to see when people are here because I’m usually in the situation where my best work is out in the galleries or on its way there or best of all, sold!”
And also Elda Hueth of Fairbanks, AK, USA who wrote, “This particular letter I understand but you forgot that art is in the beholder. What you may see as not your best work may be the best ever to someone else looking at it. That is the beauty of art. It gives the onlooker the right to see what they want to see or feel without guilt of being in the wrong.”
And also Marianne Champlin of Pauma Valley, CA, USA who wrote, “Does it bother you or any other painters, to hear your work referred to as ‘stuff’? Even when I worked in a very fine art gallery, clients would ask if we had any more ‘stuff’ by that artist.”
And also Joy Gush of New York, NY, USA who wrote, “Opening up my studio to show the casual viewer my unsold canvases, piled up in storage, is not a good idea. I am not up to the task of ‘juggling’ prices to please some stranger who pressures me for a bargain in visiting my studio for a ‘look.’ ”
And also Bill F of Elgin, IL, USA who wrote, “I become constipated in my studio. For better or worse I do my best ‘out there’ somewhere. I am rarely happy with my work and the few that I have a good feeling about as I leave the scene usually turn out to be lemons when I look at them in the studio.”
And also Catherine Robertson of White Rock, BC, Canada who wrote, “Does a new painting ever continue to please the painter or is that just a fable, like grasping the gold ring? No matter how much I may have felt some headway had actually been made, it’s as though the fresh, new, bright piece, that looked so encouraging at the final brushstroke, fell on its face upon second glance. Why is the euphoria felt so short-lived?”
And also Gail Harper of New York, USA who wrote, “Our blessed drive with which we were born is ever alive and part of the larger scheme of things — I must remind myself.”
And also Jill Rody of Campbell River, BC, Canada who wrote, “I am an artist who is directly inspired by a faith in Christ. He is the primary purchaser of my ‘worth.’ When it comes to ‘presenting’ my work, if I know in my heart it is offered first to God, then offering it to mere man/woman needs no apology.”
And also Phyllis Rutigliano of Englewood, NJ, USA who wrote, “I have been teaching and exhibiting professionally for over 30 years and I find the most consistent fault limiting the artist is her belief that ‘the best is yet to come.’ It took me a while to recover from this disease but it can be recurring. I have seen promising artists just give up, turn down shows, not compete because they kept looking for ‘the next good one.’ ”
And also Andrea who wrote, “What a relief! I was about to quit painting — again — ’cause I’d decided I was never going to be as good as I wanted to be.”
And also Colleen Anderson of Charleston, WV, USA who wrote, “In my writers group, we call this syndrome ‘The Obligatory Disclaimer.’ Almost without fail, before one of reads our latest work, we say, ‘This is a really rough draft,’ or ‘I’m not very happy with this,’ or ‘I’m afraid this isn’t my best work.’ Once TOD is out of the way, we proceed with the reading.”
And also Laurel Johnson of Canada who wrote, “Studio work can be deadly! If you need a muse, find one. As a breast cancer patient, I have chosen to seek the creativity that’s sure to be prodded into life by a horrendous experience, and have chosen mentors to push me to achieve. Trite and jaded will not be my credo.”
And also Kerimera Sseruwamikisa who wrote, “I was just reading last night in The Mystic Masters Speak! by Vernon Howard, the following question and answer (a quote by Schiller): Q: How can we overcome doubt in ourselves? A: Ever building, building to the clouds, still building higher, and never reflecting that the poor narrow basis cannot sustain the giddy tottering column. (Johann Friedrich von Schiller) Thank you for your observations.”
And also Jeanne Long of Minneapolis, MN, USA who wrote, “This past week a friend described his having met up with certain transforming people in his life, who affected him ‘as if you’d suddenly taken a sword through the heart, but only realized it later when you found you weren’t dead, but irreversibly changed.’ That’s how your letter affected me. I suddenly saw that all of my disappointment with much of my work might actually mean I could be going in the right direction.”
And also Mark Larson who wrote, “It has been said that ‘perfect confidence is a sign of the mediocre.’ Here’s to never being satisfied.”