Artists with integrity and high standards can fall prey to a particularly nasty condition. It’s called “Prior disappointment syndrome.”
Failed works of art and even disappointing passages, particularly recent ones, can haunt and disarm your current work. You may have noticed when returning from a holiday, you sometimes paint freshly and well for a few days and then the old decay sets in. If you’ve ever experienced this situation, I’m here to help you understand why the decline happens and what you can do about it. When you’re returning from that holiday, you’ve actually been temporarily energized because you’ve not recently experienced failure. This gives a clue to the “fresh slate” and “beginner’s mind” approach to creativity.
You need to drop into short-term thinking and to live in the now. This may seem a bit trendy, but it’s been my observation that highly realized artists have a knack for getting into the now and thereby achieving regular renewal and a clearer creative path — a state of mind that sidesteps potential historical burdens.
History, when we admit it, often holds the evidence of failure. You need to get rid of the evidence, both mental and physical, by putting prior failures to the wall or shredding them. “See no evil,” is the motto. Look only at what you consider your better stuff. Otherwise, the stealthy voice of inner doubt will get a hearing.
For some artists the syndrome causes so much anxiety that panic sets in and work can grind to a halt. One way to beat the problem is to angrily change some processes and give yourself a major shakeup. As well, bouts of physical exercise, like mini-holidays, can also be used to re-jig systems.
The operative game is to take charge of your mind and drop into a state of confident, audacious and untroubled flow. You’ll know it when it happens because it’s almost goofy. Every stroke seems a new experience. It requires a sort of reverse thinking, and unless you happen to be a reverse-minded genius, it’s learned. This may sound nuts, but believe me, for seasoned, demanding artists, this goofyness is right up there with stuff like perspective, negative areas and the difference between warm and cool.
PS: “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” (Dalai Lama) “Success is often achieved by those who don’t know that failure is inevitable.” (Coco Chanel)
Esoterica: Books have been written on the value of failure and the lessons to be gleaned from disappointment. Creators like Leonardo, Edison and Steve Jobs depend on their repeated failures to get to their successes. While artists can certainly learn from their own and other’s failures, the joyous, daily production of art has further parameters. Perceived prior failures dampen or jinx current successes. Flush your losers. Think in the now. As Henry Ford said, “History is bunk.”
‘History is bunk’ is bunk
by Martin B
An article on LRC today mentions “The Mother of All Misrepresented Quotes,” Henry Ford‘s “History is bunk.” I want to expand on that. A fuller quote is, “History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today.” — 1916.
Attachments of being
by Isa-Manuela Albrecht, Ebmatingen, Switzerland
Not everybody is able to look neither in past nor future. Very often people are drifting away from reality and living in a dangerous and abstract world. My old teacher Jean Klein told me always, “Isa, have a look what you are not.” This helped me to stay aware of my own attachments of being, instead of becoming empty and not having too much identification with “I am” and “I have.”
Feelings resolved; painting finished
by Jackie Strickland, Brunswick, GA, USA
Reading this must have been a coincidence. Last week I pulled out a painting I’d given up on twenty years ago. I had kept it for sentimental reasons. Well, I just finished it! This gives me hope for the other seventeen. I teach, and I tell my students all the time, “There’s no such thing as a bad painting — it’s just an ‘unfinished painting.’ ” I’ve gessoed over some canvases, I’ve trashed some, but those ‘starts’ that are really close to my heart, I keep. Another insight about this particular painting is that the negative emotions I had for the subject matter at that time, have recently, finally been resolved.
(RG note) Thanks, Jackie. I’m afraid there are “bad paintings.” I know because I’ve made hundreds of them. They’re toast and will never be seen. There’s a difference between a sentimental favorite and a bad painting. Getting rid of the ones you personally feel to be bad is one of the best things you can do to get good on your own terms.
Rejected paintings can be winners
by Jan Ross, Kennesaw, GA, USA
A couple of thoughts came to mind after reading your letter regarding Prior Disappointment Syndrome. First, sometimes ‘switching to the left side’ of the brain by doing mundane tasks such as housekeeping, washing the car, yard work, balancing the checkbook, etc. gives our creative side a mental vacation. I’ve found these trips less expensive and just as worthwhile as an actual holiday away from my drawing board. No security checks, baggage claims or chatty passengers to deal with, either.
Secondly, works we may consider failures, may not really be after all. Those of us who still enjoy entering juried shows may have what I call a ‘virgin’ painting. It’s never been seen outside the studio but I decide to take a chance and enter it in a show. The sting of the rejection letter initially makes me feel a bit foolish, but upon a second try, I’ll receive an award in a different show! If I’d depended solely on the opinion of the first juror, the painting may have ended up in my personal ‘filing cabinet.’ How often have we entered 3 paintings in a juried exhibition to discover the one we least thought would get in, is the one the judge selects? Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so can a failed painting… look again!
Physical Evidence of Failure
by Jill Charuk, Vancouver, BC, Canada
I refer to this as P.E.O.F (Physical Evidence of Failure). This means the keeping of lousy paintings in your view or even in your possession. Get rid of the stuff, send it to new homes. A constant daily reminder of unsold work only erodes the fragile yet mighty ego of the artist. Give away, burn or paint it a nice cadmium red.
by Gavin Calf, Cape Town, South Africa
2007 was a bad year for my art career. I was rejected by two major art forums being: Grahamstown Arts Festival and the Spier Contemporary Art Competition. In January this year, after a gift trip to Egypt, which was fabulous, my wife and I sat together to work out how we were going to make it without me making any money as an artist. The telephone rang and next, I had sold all my available works to a gallery near Johannesburg straight away.
A month before this happened I had stripped six paintings from their stretchers, all nude paintings which cost us modeling fees at about six sessions per painting. Michelangelo said, “If the wine is not good, then throw it out!” This led him to strip a whole section of the Sistine Chapel he was working on at the time. Read The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone. When the gallery owner and her husband took time to travel down to Cape Town to meet me, the rejected canvases were returned by my canvas maker and newly stretched. That I was able to be non-precious about my paintings impressed them immensely. In April I was invited to the 7th Biennale di Firenze in December 2009.
Don’t think it all away
by Audrey Bunt, Prince Edward Island, Canada
I am, yet again, being revisited by the creative block, not so much because of the work that is not up to snuff, but looking at the better work and thinking, “Did I do that?” and “How did I do that?” Then when I start to analyze and break them down, all the flow is up and gone scared away and you are left staring at a blank canvas thinking, “I need another cup of tea!” Mary Pratt said, “Don’t think it all away.” I’m thinking that she is right.
Clearing the way for open spaces
by Alicia Chimento, New Jersey, USA
Just last week I cleared out my studio of all the old paintings, including work that I’ve recently showed but doesn’t reflect what I’m doing now. It was so freeing to have that clean slate, with just a small wall area to compare, critique and ponder work in progress. Nothing at all on the walls but open space, light coming through previously curtained windows, and floor cleared of all other assorted piles of stuff. The peace of having nothing but the present in front of me really does allow me to move forward without the distractions of the past. This process of simplifying my surroundings, including those of where I live, is what I need in my life right now. It was also the best thing I have done for my art in a long time.
First breath of a dream
by Kittie Beletic, Dallas, TX, USA
Failure has gotten a bad rep because of semantics. It is how we understand it that counts. Failure is an integral part of the process and it is inevitable. Our universal friend, the Dalai Lama says to not DWELL in the past … dwell, live, reside … that is a phrase connoting long-term. Don’t stay there. He didn’t say, “Do not experience the past.”
That trendy thought about concentrating the mind has been trendy for a long time. Focus is genius, plain and simple. It is also joy, peace and passion. Hanging onto failure serves no one. Is there comfort there? Maybe for fleeting moments. Is there fear of letting go of it because it means we must dip our brushes into the paint pot and give it another go? What is so fearful about that? Ah, is there a need to be perfect underlying it all? What’s the fun in being perfect? I’ve never cared much for it … Perfection is for nature who teaches us that it’s all perfect. The important thing is to paint, stitch, compose — and dream. The dreaming comes before all, but you cannot dwell within your dreams. You must act on dreams to make them breathe. That first breath is joyful.
Distortion of the NEW
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
We painters often fall prey to the question of what is new and what is old. Our culture favors the new and the young and worships this period of youth as the ultimate in beauty. What is ‘new ‘ to me is the painting I am working on today. Anything stacked around the studio is ‘old’ even if done a week ago. Old paintings tend to pick up a bad smell to them as they age. Galleries reinforce this distortion. “When are you bringing in NEW paintings?” As soon as I enter the door these “new” paintings are becoming “old.” We have to guard ourselves against this syndrome. Some of the new work could stink and some of the old paintings could be strong and enduring in quality. We have to hold on to our objectivity. Bad paintings should be destroyed as part of a periodic cleansing. I try to be philosophic about it. I gave it a good effort and take comfort in that effort… but I failed. Oh well. Failure is part of the process. Failure is a constant companion of the painter so we must learn to be comfortable with him. Our pastor spoke the other day about spiritual “turnaround,” that no matter how dark or hopeless the situation our faith can turn it around. Artists need that concept of faith. We will all have bad spells or creative block but through faith, effort and persistence we will break through and produce decent paintings once more. We must have faith that one day we’ll produce that really great painting that is the best we are capable of doing.
What to do with ugly work
by Stephanie Quinn, Dallas, TX, USA
Although I am not a professional artist at this point, I am trying to get my degree done in school. There are moments when I do not have time to get in my studio to do my art. (I am left with doing my academic classes now). So unlike being energized after vacations, I have periods when I know I have not practiced and will fail when I get back to work, and know this will cause me to not want to continue at times. I am now at the stage where I realize that “practicing” and “discipline” are my friends and I need to fit them in my schedule. But what to do with the ugly work is interesting because I was taught to SAVE everything. Now I think I know what to do with it. Destroy it and put it in or work in into other works of art.
The Creative Habit
by Sonia Gadra, Frederick, MD, USA
Everyone has to take a turn having prior disappointment syndrome. It’s part of the deal as an artist. How to handle it is the key to overcome. I’ve just finished reading the book The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp which was mentioned recently in one of your letters. Artists of any genre have to go through the rituals of preparation. After a holiday from any routine you are energized and eager to get back in the groove but the rut is certain to come back eventually if you don’t identify what isn’t working and why. Building that bridge to the next day is very important. Twyla Tharp’s excellent book opened my eyes to a new way of thinking and gave me a big boost.
Process of change — failure
by Patty Ryan
Every night while you sleep deeply, your brain goes about reorganizing itself, deleting things you don’t use any more, changing circuits, updating priorities, making itself more efficient to support the needs of today. The brain that you woke up with this morning is not the brain you painted with yesterday. The world around you has changed; you have changed. Take a deep breath and exult in your new opportunities. Unexpected failures are Life offering you a lesson you didn’t think to ask for. What don’t you like about the work? The design? The execution? Here’s a chance to work on that, with a clear-cut example you’ve created of something you don’t want. I like what Robert Burridge says, that we paint to teach ourselves to paint, not to do stuff we already know how to do. We need to appreciate everything we do, failures included, because it’s all part of the process of becoming what we want to be.
by James Gielfeldt, Welland, ON, Canada
I tend to paint over my less successful pieces or pieces that just haven’t sold for whatever reason and the value in this is two-fold. One, it is recycling at its best and two, I actually prefer to paint over an old painting, to the point that when I do start a new canvas I will paint something I have no intent in keeping on the pure white canvas. I find it much nicer to work on these ‘used’ canvasses after priming over the first piece often with a tinted primer coat. It’s almost like a little warm up exercise to get the creative and artistic juices flowing.
by Sheila Norgate, Gabriola Island, BC, Canada
I am finding that sales in my Canadian galleries have slowed like never before. I just had a show in my Utah gallery where nothing sold–a first in my career. I have spoken with a few other artists as well as some of my dealers, and I am hearing that this slow-down is pretty much across the board. Since misery loves company, there is some comfort in knowing that I am not alone. Still… it’s difficult to keep the faith (and pay the bills). I was wondering if you had any observations or comments about these matters… and also, of course, any advice about how to weather the storm of lean times.
(RG note) Thanks, Sheila. During my life as a painter there have been dozens of ups and downs. The downs are often down for about two years, but the ups can be up for longer. The general softness has not hit Canada too badly, the USA is really soft in many areas, Europe is for the most part steady. I was talking to a couple of dealers today, and they mentioned softness due to standard summer doldrums, but expect better things in the fall. Remember that decorative art tends to rise and fall with the value of real estate, while investment art often rises during times when other investments don’t. Advice–don’t worry, beat the problem by improving quality. There’s a sale for quality in all seasons. Depressions and recessions are the times to paint important work. Keep busy while you’re waiting for something to happen.
Enjoy the past comments below for Prior disappointment syndrome…
A moment in time
acrylic painting on canvas, 20 x 24 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 Carole Pigott who wrote, “This is also a great description of total right brain painting. That unbelievable feeling when every stroke is right on and when one is finished and examines the work wonders, “Did I do that?””
And also Kelli Maier of Westerville, OH, USA who wrote, “I sometimes go through something very much the opposite. When I do exceptionally well on a piece I worry I can’t top it, and become hesitant to do more work.”
And also >Kathy Neudorf of Langley, BC, Canada who wrote, “I painted in a free, creative frenzy for 12 years, then began to have expectations so unrealistic that they doomed me to failure. What began as perfectionist drive destroyed me as a painter, and I put my brushes away. My disappointment in myself was too great to bear. I now make photographs, which are immediate and my failures are simply deleted.”
And also Tracy Wall of Denver CO, USA who wrote, “As Henry Ford also said, ‘Think you can, think you can’t; either way, you’ll be right.’ ”