I’ve spent a lifetime trying to figure out why some artists just go ahead and do things and thrive, while others don’t get much done and languish. I noticed that thriving in our game often has more to do with attitude than talent. Further, I noticed that some would-be artists were dragging something around. I knew this because there were times when I dragged the thing around myself.
These days, some high-priced shrinks are talking about “Your Inferior Shadow.” This creepy critter is a dark presence — always with you — and he wants you to be fearful, incompetent, lousy, victimized, procrastinatory and self-loathing. Some of us have almost untamable Shadows while others have small ineffective ones. It’s possible to train the former to be the latter. No matter what the size of your shadow, here are a few ways to keep him in check:
A lot of what comes out of your mouth is him speaking. When you speak, you reinforce intentions. You need a small policeman standing alert at the side of your mouth. He puts up his hand and says, “Stop.” Shadow-talk needs to go to the trash.
You need to cultivate habits that overrule his power. Some of these habits can be mighty small, like washing your brushes, but when they become habitual you can move on to bigger ones. B.J. Fogg of Stanford University in California has pioneered a system of developing “tiny habits.” According to Fogg and many of his satisfied customers, the system can change behaviors and even personalities.
Your Inferior Shadow is a whizbang at throwing obstacles in your way. Funnily, some of the obstacles can be legit and daunting. But once your Shadow knows you will react to obstacles, any obstacle will do. One lady told me she couldn’t paint because her laundry wasn’t dry yet. I used to have a friend who felt he couldn’t paint until his studio was finished — and then he took 10 years to finish his studio.
Because your Shadow has his own powerful ego that can overshadow your own ego, he can actually block your ability to work confidently, study, take advice and learn. He can literally shut you out of your own best interests. Just knowing he’s there and understanding his motivation is half the battle. You can’t shoot him because he’s just a Shadow.
PS: “I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me,
And what can be the use of him is more than I can see.” (Robert Louis Stevenson)
Esoterica: The weaker your self-esteem the more powerful your Shadow becomes. By making small gains (like a painting a day) we begin to show our Shadow that we are in charge. For some reason, accomplishments blind him and make him crazy. It’s our accomplishments that build our self-esteem. One of the real pleasures of writing this letter is receiving the large number of emails from artists who confide. Frequent disclosures include, “If I don’t paint I start to feel rotten,” and “When I paint I’m happy.” These admissions let me know that another Inferior Shadow has at least temporarily bitten the dust.
Recognizing the concept
by Bonnie Rupe, Cincinnati, Ohio, USA
This is the message I needed today, not just for painting but, more importantly, for life. Thank you for realizing that we all have Inferior Shadows. Just naming this shadow is a plus because now I can call it something. It’s important to note the role this shadow plays in our lives. It’s interesting for me that when he’s at bay in my painting life, he may be overshadowing another part of my life. Just recognizing this concept is huge for me.
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Thirty Days Project
by Keith Ikeda-Barry
Great post today about the Inferior Shadow, and especially the daily work that can help undo the shadow’s obstacles. We have a thing called Thirty Days Project that has a similar goal: to get motivation behind one’s creative output by completing a single piece of work and posting it to a communal blog every day for thirty days in a row. The next one starts on June 1 but if any of your readers would like to join in the next day or two, we will gladly hold registration open for them if they mention they found out about it from the Painter’s Keys site. It is entirely free and we even offer free image hosting for those who don’t have their own website/hosting set up.
(RG note) Thanks, Keith. A noble idea and right down our alley. Readers can take a look here.
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Robert looks bad
by Dr. Peter Berndt, The Woodlands, TX, USA
The quality of the work of a Sunday painter tends to differ from that of a trained professional artist. Similarly, when someone who has not had the benefit of specialized training dispenses psychological advice, it is immediately apparent.
I have observed how you, Robert, have a habit of attempting to give such advice which can only be labeled as pseudo-psychological and which makes you look bad. It is obvious that you have no concept of the difference between conscious and subconscious motivation. You also make the classical error in thinking that subconscious motivation can be conquered or overridden by an effort of the will. This error in your thinking manifests itself over and over when you tackle psychological issues that are a challenge even to people trained in the field.
Since your words have an impact on the many people who read your column and who, like most of the general population, believe as you do in erroneous ways of thinking (such as the primacy of the will over feeling) you ought to be careful about what you say. By telling people that they can overcome their motivational issues by a simple decision may help a few but others, whose problems are deeper seated, will in fact feel stupid as a result of what you say in this arena. This is a fact that you may not have considered before.
I believe that you are well intentioned, hard working and wanting to be helpful. I would urge you to heed the old proverb which says, “A cobbler should stick to his last” — if you know what I mean. So tell us about painting, colours, composition, the life of a working artist, marketing, all that stuff that you know about but stay away from other fields such as psychology. Unless you want to look bad which I don’t think you want.
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by Ann Cofone, Hobe Sound, FL, USA
I just finished reading your letter this morning, and with tears in my eyes and tightness in my chest, I know you are speaking of me. I have loved and studied art all of my life and feel that is my “gift” …but it isn’t enough. I work in fiber, acrylic, collage and photography… buying the books, collecting the materials, thinking of the wonderful artistic possibilities, and then stopping myself from beginning or completing my work.
I know I have a demonic inner critic but don’t know how to curb her. I know it started in my childhood but that’s old news now and I put those days “to bed” a long time ago… but yet the shadow lingers on.
I’m wondering if perhaps you can direct me to literature or other guidance that might break this cycle. Accomplishing a ‘painting a day’ sounds like a good idea but… my head won’t let me do it. Thank you, so much, for caring enough to pass on so much of yourself and your knowledge.
(RG note) Thanks, Ann. You can see a few good books on our feature Books on Artist’s Shelves.
Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way is of course fantastic for getting folks focused. The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield is also an excellent source for motivation and understanding the dynamics within us. While I’ve not done it myself, Dr. B. J. Fogg’s Little Habits program, mentioned in my letter, seems like a good one to me. I’ve noticed that a great deal of what holds many of us back can often be traced to a few seemingly inconsequential bad little habits.
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‘The best laid plans of mice and men’
by Damar Minyak, Kansas City (area), MO, USA
Attached is a photo of a boat project begun by my brother-in-law, long, long ago. It has come to be known as “Ray’s Planter.” This year, some of the trees bear fruit. This shot is one of several I took, to use as a basis for a painting I will call Someday. There are men (and women) in all walks of life, all over the world, with “Someday” projects in waiting. Now, I need to get back to work.
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The miracle of working alone
by Adrienne Moore, Vancouver, BC, Canada
I agree that our shadow can be a detriment to our achievements and it has a lot to do with self-confidence. Some artists ooze self-assurance even when they do not have much experience and they do not shine in their field but to listen to them talk, it appears that they have no problems with the quality of their work. I tend to think that it is the more introverted doubters, who spend time worrying about whether it is their best work, that have darkest shadows. One or two denials into a juried show can send their confidence reeling and the darkness of doubt reigns supreme. To correct this dilemma I decided to allow myself time to just work alone, without critiques from other sources. I work often now in my studio to achieve a lot of joyful paintings not marred by the shadows of an overseer in a juried exhibition where I would run the risk of repeating the negative experience. I found that this idea worked well as I was no longer tailed by the ominous shadow that haunted and affected negatively my most recent work. I now take it one step at a time and accept the fact that I will always experience joy when I paint. These positive feelings that my new attitude has generated show well in my work although I realize that I do not have all the answers. However, without the shadows to darken my vision, I am pleasing myself and that is intrinsically the role of a painter.
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A woman’s story
Yes, we all have our “shadows” and I am learning to manage mine more by facing my fears and doing what I know in my heart is in my best interest. Perhaps I’m just getting older — I’m 56 — and decided it’s time I put myself at the front of the line. Many women are taught to take care of everyone except themselves. I’ve decided I don’t have time to do that as much because if I continue on that path, I’m never going to accomplish some of the things I feel I was put on this earth to do. Duh! It took me long enough to get to this point, didn’t it? I’ve cleared away many of my business responsibilities over the past 6 months, and I’m taking more action on what’s important to me. Amazingly, I’m finding myself creating things far better than I ever dreamed possible. Sometimes I’m not even sure how I did it or where these things came from.
You are so Jung
by Leslie Bamford, Waterloo, ON, Canada
Carl Jung has another angle on the shadow. I found this quote by someone referring to Jung’s theory, thought you might find it interesting…”The Shadow is the receptacle for all of that which we have for one reason or another disowned. There seems to be a movement on to ‘redeem’ the Shadow, as evidenced by such books as Your Golden Shadow, but in truth there’s a great deal that’s very, very unpleasant here, since we have good reason for wanting to disown our darker natures. The avenue for an attempted redemption of the Shadow lies in the belief that everything disowned winds up here. A person who grew up in a family where level-headedness prevailed and such things as art-making were not given much value may discover some artistic aptitude hiding out in their shadow. There are treasures here, but they are buried in stinking muck.”
“Beneath the social mask we wear every day, we have a hidden shadow side: an impulsive, wounded, sad, or isolated part that we generally try to ignore. The Shadow can be a source of emotional richness and vitality, and acknowledging it can be a pathway to healing and an authentic life. We meet our dark side, accept it for what it is, and we learn to use its powerful energies in productive ways. The Shadow knows why good people sometimes do “bad” things. Romancing the Shadow and learning to read the messages it encodes in daily life can deepen your consciousness, imagination, and soul.” From Romancing the Shadow by Connie Zwieg.
Need to rekindle desire
by Pam Craig, Memphis, TN, USA
I lost my father, closed my gallery and shut down my website all in the same year. I never ever expected it to cause such a loss in my life. I needed to be with my father while he was on hospice and that precipitated what I thought to be a short hiatus from my painting — hospice took 2 years. I feel that my father must have been my muse and since he parted this earth I no longer see the colors that were around me. I try to paint, but everything is muted, dull and or moody. Where I once was prolific in producing, now I piddle… a little of this, a little of that, but nothing appears to lead me into producing a collection or a serious body of work. I tried to find my desire again when I took some classes: I read new art books, I visited galleries, I judged local exhibitions. I joined a local painting group and I even set up workshops for me to inspire others. I brought out my camera and planned nature walks and road trips to enjoy the beauty and help inspire me. I tried other mediums and even went back to clay, but there appears to be such a void right now, that I am afraid my Inner Shadow has taken over. I wake up every morning expecting to find inspiration and I go up to the studio. Brushes are clean, canvas is on the easel, new paints are laid out, compositions are available, but I feel there is no real desire. I am at a total lost as what to do to get back to work. All my artist friends keep saying just paint. I sit in front of the easel and even pick up a brush but nothing happens. I don’t want to keep doing this for fear any desire that is left goes so deep inside me that I will never be able to draw it out again. I am not a big fan of “fake it till you make it” but if that is what is left for me, maybe I should give it a try. Should I continue to try and paint without thought just for the sake of painting and hope I inspire myself, or wait patiently for my desire to return, take the pressure off myself, let my passion rekindle on its own and hopefully I can paint joyously again?
(RG note) Thanks, Pam. It’s possible you have either fear of failure or fear of success. In previous situations such as yours I’ve suggested going right into the work like a zombie possessed. For some reason actual work, no matter how lacking your desire, primes the pump and gets things moving again. It takes a degree of character to pull this off. When my own parents died in 2004 I too went through a few months of non-productivity. Eventually I asked myself, “What would my folks want me to do?” and I went back to work. See next letter.
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Facing the shadow
by Fiona Frisby, Ireland
My own shadow self was probably the reason why I found I could not paint for nearly five years. Mine is so silent and unnoticeable that I had no idea what was causing my block, I just felt completely paralyzed and lethargic towards painting. My painting came back slowly, and now is back properly for the last few years. Like so many other artists, I feel lousy when I haven’t painted, and fulfilled when I do. I have a set amount of painting that I get done every month, and by following it, I feel content. It works like magic, making me feel productive, and it’s not even a very large amount of work I have to get done either. Consistency is the thing. I also meet other artists, who are so talented, and then I find that they have confidence problems and struggle with self-belief, despite their obvious abilities. I guess it’s something we all have to face at some point.
Enjoy the past comments below for Your Inferior Shadow…
Ravine pond with yellow and purple
acrylic painting, 22.5 x 16.5 inches
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 >Rodney Cobb of Scottsdale, AZ, USA, who wrote, “Just so you will know — I see that you are trying to steal my art blues by putting light on my shadow. Well done!”
And also Jacqueline Satterlee of Elmira, NY, USA, who wrote, ” ‘fearful, incompetent, lousy, victimized, procrastinatory and self-loathing’ …That’s so exactly how I feel, and my laundry is never done, and my studio is never quite right… too far, too cold, too hot… And my decisions always seem wrong… ”
And also Suelin Low Chew Tung of Grenada, Caribbean, who wrote, “It’s difficult to handcuff a shadow… so am leaving lights on (and thinking sunny positive thoughts) to banish her from interfering with my work.”