You’ve no doubt heard of “buyer’s remorse.” That’s where you go out and buy a new Volvo and immediately start thinking you picked the wrong colour, should have bought the turbo version, and paid more than you needed to. Painter’s remorse is a similar situation. Both fall under the frequently studied condition known as “cognitive dissonance.” Having committed yourself to something, you soon find your second thoughts getting the better of you. All seems well when you’re building toward those final strokes, but in its frame and under another light it begins to fall apart.
Funny things happen in the human mind when cognitive dissonance takes over. Psychologist Leon Festinger disclosed early theories in his 1957 book When Prophecy Fails. In one case he observed the beliefs of members of a UFO doomsday cult after aliens had sent the cult leader a message that the earth was about to self-destruct. When it didn’t, most cult members, rather than certifying their leader as a fraud, readily accepted her new message that the aliens had spared the earth for their special benefit.
This brings us to the flip side of painter’s remorse — painter’s delusion. Just as the Volvo buyer, in order to justify his recent action, will reread advertisements, positive reviews and road tests, as well as solicit the approval of others, the delusional painter goes to work to magnify the work to a higher status than it may deserve. Painter’s delusion and the irrational evaluation that goes with it is at the core of a lot of unresolved art. We are all familiar with artists who tell you why their work is so wonderful. Overcoming this unfortunate habit is, for many, necessary for further growth.
Many psychologists have speculated the evolved spirit does not become married to any particular viewpoint. Freedom from rigid belief permits one to due diligence on any project — buying a car or painting a picture. Better informed and realistic in the first place, he marches into the showroom or workroom with a more balanced understanding of his choices. In the case of painters, failings and potentials become philosophic issues, not problems or unrealistic expectations. Genuine humility before the great goddess of art reduces painter’s remorse and largely nullifies painter’s delusion.
PS: “One may either discount new evidence, truly regret and try to renounce it, or blindly triumph it.” (Leon Festinger)
Esoterica: Keep in mind the salability of something is probably the weakest argument of all. After all, lemons are bought every day. The idea that someone wants your work can be a deceptive delusion. While it’s better than someone not wanting your work, it really doesn’t prove very much and is no reason to rest on your laurels. The evolved artist, forever a student, gets her main feedback from the personal process of art-making. Green feedback comes naturally and unheralded because other healthy and livable processes are in place.
A life without critique
by Keith Cameron, Sierra Madre, CA, USA
I don’t feel it is a necessary quality for kindred spirits to measure, mark, or compare their work. Our journeys are unique and special and the fact that we have chosen to paint in an effort to express our contemplative selves binds us to the values in mutual appreciation. There are enough who see their role as critic to maintain the “value” of the world, and I believe their place is valid, but the role of the painter is to act as vessel for appreciation firstly, and an enzyme for thoughtful expression second, and third, and fourth and in reverse order without ranking ad infinitum until life does not continue.
Overcoming painter’s remorse
by Diane Horn, Wolcott, CT, USA
I have overcome painter’s remorse by painting the subject again, with an improved viewpoint. When I do this I’m hoping to ‘settle’ the issue but it doesn’t always work and I find myself repainting a third and, once in awhile, a 4th time. When the subject begins to bore me I will turn them to the wall for awhile and revisit in some future time. If a year goes by and I review them I can usually find something of value in them all but I destroy anything that doesn’t seem like my best effort. I’m about to repaint (that is paint a whole new painting) of a small house near the sea, the house will be much smaller, the sky much bigger, because now that I’ve ruminated on the original painting I can see that is what I meant to say! It doesn’t feel as much like remorse as illumination!
Painting reveals true character
by Martha Faires, Charlotte, NC, USA
This reminds me of Herman Melville‘s comments in Moby Dick: “When a man suspects any wrong, it sometimes happens that if he be already involved in the matter, he insensibly strives to cover up his suspicions even from himself.” Painting, I think, is another revealer of character. If I am pursuing my idea more than real beauty or truth or excellence, then something is usually wrong. We learn a lot about our foibles and faults when we cherish the inept.
(RG note) Thanks, Martha. Cognitive dissonance is at the root of so many of life’s anguishing changes. This includes falling in and out of love, dealing with employees, bosses, children, parents, customers, friends, religions, politicians, governments. Changing the mind is one of the enduring characteristics of the human species and the very basis of the democratic spirit.
The pressure of commissions
by Fay Fairbairn
I was asked to do a commission for an organization — after 20 years of painting I thought it would be no problem! However, the many elements that they wanted included in the painting made it necessary for me to do a collage, which has been a real challenge. I think I have it together finally after many agonizing hours and advice from a friend. What was I thinking? There was so much pressure. Never again.
by Karli Foreman
I have been an elementary school teacher for several years. Having recently remarried and moved to a new home, I am faced with the opportunity to actually do more art than teach. I have enjoyed many forms of art (in my small basement) — watercolor, acrylic, pastel, collage, and even calligraphy — but am not an expert of one. I am currently setting up a studio area in our house and would like to ask you what you consider the most valuable aspects of your studio? Should I try to focus on a particular medium? I’ve looked forward to this all my life and now am looking at blank walls? Why the fear?
(RG note) Thanks, Karli. You fear either failure or success. Forget both for the time being and focus where your nose points at any opportunity. Do it for the fun of it. The most valuable aspect of your studio is you.
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What do I really know?
by David Glover, West Hollywood, CA, USA
Who among us has not suffered the dreaded Painter’s remorse. Having agonized over difficult works and become disillusioned with the outcome, I have tossed many of those pieces aside. Later, much to my horror, it’s those very same miss-hits (or at least that’s my view of them) that one of my dealers fishes out of the pile. Few of the paintings that I feel are personally successful engender a similar reaction with a collector or dealer. Many years back I came to realize that when it comes to my own artwork, what do I really know? So now, when I have failed to knock one out the park, I don’t feel so deflated. Set it aside and move on. One day the painting we know is average will speak to someone who just has to have it.
Outside the comfort zone
by Tom Fong, Alhambra, CA, USA
I decided to make adjustments to several watercolors that I demonstrated for my students. Boy, did I screw up! But if you don’t wander outside of your comfort zone, you’ll never know how things will look in the danger zone. An artist’s life is an every day situation of learning, unlearning, failures, and many failures! I still don’t know what’s going on, but that is what gives us artists the drive to search in order to make discoveries!
Green feedback reflects market’s approval
by Karl Leitzel, Spring Mills, PA, USA
You noted that salability of something is probably the weakest argument as to its quality, and I would agree, relative to a single piece of art in a particular venue. On the other hand, the respect gained by a body of work over time is the main way we define good art, and that respect will, in the long haul, be reflected in dollar value and salability. Outside of that larger public reaction, the only definition of good or bad art is back in the hands of the artist, and painter’s remorse and painter’s delusion can both rear their heads once more.
Corrections made after framing
by Leni Friedland, Mt. Sinai, NY, USA
I’m not comfortable with the term “remorse” for painters. I believe objectivity, after some years, needs to be as sharp toward your own work as it is to others. Teaching has definitely made me “see” better and even after looking at framed pieces in my selling booth for a season, I have taken them out of frame, off my website, and attempt to correct the things I perceive as not right which I did not see prior to framing.
Parallel personal with artistic growth
by Gaye Adams, Sorrento, BC, Canada
Objectivity and humility are hard won, and often a rare find amongst artists. Those who identify greatly with their own ego have an especially tough time with it, constantly comparing themselves with others, seeking approval from others because they have not learned to trust their own assessment and can get no “distance” from their paintings. This is a problem in two ways: If they win an award or get a sale, they assume they are “good.” When the opposite happens, they assume they are “bad.” It’s a real emotional roller coaster, and prevents growth by constantly keeping the artist in a dither and dissipating energy. Our art-making should not be separated from the rest of our lives. As they say, “If you are what you do, then when you don’t, you’re not.”
Let art-making guide you
by Lorelle Miller, CA, USA
As far as success or delusion goes, I have to dig deep not letting the wiles of sales or popularity steer my ship. Not letting the tales of glory sway me. I have all too often given my power away to others thinking they know better, have the answers only to find false gods. The answer lies in the act itself and the dance we have together. The act of painting and art-making is my true and honest guide and teacher. Delusion and remorse have both been on the court, but after distancing myself for a while the truth usually comes out and waits for my next move.
by Elin Pendleton, Wildomar, CA, USA
What about the artists who don’t seek that validation in the extroverted way you’ve cited, but who rage and slash at their work as they verbally destroy it with negativity to anyone who will listen? The artists who do the “Ain’t this a great piece of art that I did” ought not be the focus for this positive messaging. We use this response all the time when a collector buys a piece of our work and then invites all the neighbors over to see their latest acquisition. That free advertising is one of the ways we garner more sales. Keeping up with the Joneses is alive and well, taking your self-promotion to an outside level.
Minimize commitment to maximize growth
by Carol Marine, Austin, TX, USA
Painter’s remorse and delusion are very familiar to me, as is the fear that goes along with the first. I am regretful of choices made in a painting, I deem it “bad,” and I become so afraid of doing another bad one, or worse, never creating a good painting again. I end up becoming somewhat paralyzed with this fear, and putting off those choices as long as possible. For me, daily painting has been a huge success in overcoming this fear and remorse. I do one, small painting every day (6″x 8″, 6″x 6″) and post them on a blog. The side benefit is that I sell them on eBay. But even if I didn’t profit, I would still do these small paintings every day. They are so small that I do not become nearly as emotionally involved with each one, and am able to say, at the end of the day, “Well, there’s always tomorrow.” I have grown quicker as an artist with this new practice than ever before.
Making it right
by Mary DuVal, TX, USA
Painter’s Delusion is the name of the little gremlin that visits me when I’m about to finish a painting. He’s annoying because I really don’t want to be dissuaded from finishing, but he’s also necessary to the process because I realize the need to stop and ask myself, “What, if anything, am I deluding myself about in this particular painting?” It’s even more annoying when he visits days or weeks after finishing and it dawns on me what that item is that needs to be changed. I have a particular painting right now the little gremlin insists is wrong, even though it’s been done for weeks now. It’s very irritating! Your letter convinced me this “gremlin” should be used to my advantage and not be considered an obstacle.
It’s all in the attitude
by Mary Susan Vaughn, Weddington , NC, USA
So what do you call an artist who is neither suffering from Painter’s remorse nor Painter’s delusion? I find that I am somewhat comfortable but still unsure of the final results of a painting even after it is completed, and I do not have any delusions of grandeur for my paintings either. The funny thing is, I usually think my work is “okay” and I am a perpetual student indeed — daily reading, studying, workshops, classes, instructional videos — always believing that there is plenty of room for improvement and growth and humble in the knowledge that I know nothing. I am always amazed that I receive so many accolades for my artwork, awards, honors, recognition, positive comments. It certainly makes me smile and keeps me at my easel creating what I love to create with the personality that I portray on canvas. What do you call an artist with this problem? Then again, is it a problem?
Benefits of ego management
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
Humility is key to self knowledge. As I have grown older in life and art I can honestly assess my strengths and weaknesses. In painting, my strength is color and my weaknesses are drawing and patience. In making this assessment I have eliminated painter’s delusions. I can play to my strength and work to improve my weaknesses. If you know yourself and do an honest inventory, you won’t be puffed up by praise or horribly depressed by critique. The process of self-assessment must be continuous to keep up the benefits of ego management. Perhaps I am not as good with color as I have thought? Maybe my drawing isn’t so bad? All artists should face the facts.
Refresh by detaching from the work
by Phyllis Tarlow, Hartsdale, NY, USA
I identify with your description of having second thoughts after thinking you had finished a painting. I’m often astounded at how dissatisfied I sometimes feel after I’ve finished and framed a painting. I have gone through boxes of framer’s points removing my oil paintings on panel after they’ve been framed because I’ll realize that I have to make some changes to the painting and that it’s just not right as it is. What I’ve come to accept is that the same painting can look great right after finishing it, but after detaching from it, I come back with a fresher and more critical eye and see flaws that I couldn’t see when I was immersed in it.
White heat of creation
by Jim Jordan, Orinda, CA, USA
As I was reading your letter today on buyer’s/painter’s remorse and cognitive dissonance a corollary thought came to mind. As I am painting, the piece I am working on is the best thing I have done to date. Nothing done before is as cogent, as colorful, as well composed, as masterly applied as the masterpiece in front of me. Wow, how brilliant! Of course, later in the day or the following morning when I have had a chance to reflect, I often find that the work is not quite as stupendous as I had perceived it in the white heat of creation. The conundrum then is, should I work back into it or receive the lessons it has to teach me and move on. Fortunately, attacking a new canvas fills me with the same excitement and optimism as the last one. We grow.
Avoiding remorse by never finishing
by Anita Stoll, Coarsegold, CA, USA
Perhaps I wait too long after completing a painting to actually call it done (up to a few of years on a couple of paintings) Is it because I don’t want painter’s remorse or is it because I am unsure of myself, have my doubts about the work. I know the more I paint, the more I like my work and it is me I aim to please, isn’t it? Remorse is an old friend that does me more harm than good. The consistent and frequent actions of painting as part of my lifestyle is how I grow and progress. I think my once a week meeting with colleagues to paint or going to a weekly class and not painting in between holds back the growth that I might achieve.
At The Summit
painting by Lesley White, Prince George, BC, Canada
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 Ed Pointer who wrote, “Hey Robert — what about us ‘men’ artists? ‘The evolved artist, forever a student, gets her main feedback from the personal process of art-making.’ You could write it this way: ‘The evolved artist, forever a student, receives the most feedback from the personal process of art-making.’ Or similar… thus both men and women are acknowledged.”
And also Jack Dickerson of Hingham, MA, USA who wrote, “During January and February and July and August, when sales slow down, I find that I feel like something is wrong with my work. When I am productive during higher sales periods I paint more paintings and have more energy and paint for longer periods of time.”
And also Susan Burns of Douglasville, GA, USA who wrote, “Life is about reuniting small parts of ourselves that we have cut off or lost touch with because of some of life’s processes. It is about making peace with ourselves.”
And also Arthur Jessop of Yorkshire, England who wrote, “Horse apples. I enjoy your ramblings but I won’t join the ranks of sycophants who kneel at your feet.”
And also Joseph Comellas who wrote, “Who are you? I have been receiving your letters
for a year now and all I want to say is, Thank-you.” (RG note) Thanks, Joseph. If you want to see other zingers that people have written about the twice weekly letters, please go here.
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