Fighting the blues

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Yesterday, Brian Crawford Young of Inverness, Scotland, wrote, “I’ve been having a crisis since I got back from a wonderful residency at the Art Students’ League, Vytlacil Campus in Rockland County, New York. The ambience was great, the staff helpful, the scenery brilliant, and the quick access to Manhattan exciting. But when I got home to the Highlands of Scotland everything crunched to a halt. All my fears and self-doubts emerged and creativity stopped. Any thoughts on this sort of blues?”

Purple Haze acrylic on canvas 75 x 75 cm by Brian Crawford Young

Purple Haze 
acrylic on canvas
75 x 75 cm
by Brian Crawford Young

Thanks, Brian. You can get it after a residency, a show, a workshop, an art museum, or even going to a high-energy art centre. Just living in New York has put many fine painters into gridlock. The “What’s the use?” attitude can come from too much excitement, influence, competitive talent, or the disorientation of commerce. One is confused, disheartened and jaded.

The good news is that artists can come out of this if they really want to. There are cures. Here are three:

The sherbet cure. Like sherbet after the main course, take a couple of days of de-briefing. Intense influence has scrambled your cerebral neurons. You need to re-boot. I’d take a long walk in the heather and top it off with a few single malts. Near Inverness, I know just the places.

The solitary confinement cure. While any sort of intensity and learning is great, an artist also needs a private vacuum in which to gather thoughts and re-unite with personal processes. In the words of the writer Annie Dillard, “You need a room with no view so memory can meet imagination in the dark.” Leaving your intense experience and exciting environment behind, your work must now come out of you. Too many lambs spoil the haggis.

The Winding Road acrylic on paper 75 x 75 cm by Brian Crawford Young

The Winding Road
acrylic on paper
75 x 75 cm
by Brian Crawford Young

The forced beginning cure. This is where you puff yourself up, squeeze paint and dig in. Awkward at first, the processes that sustained you before, augmented by what you have recently learned, will gradually take over and you’ll be your old self again. You must know that people have risen again in their studios after a bout of major trauma. It’s been done before.

Fact is, the pursuit of art is a delicate balance between influence and self-assertiveness. As self-realized artists we all have different levels of tolerance for this mystery. Influence is like Scotch; it’s good to know your personal limit.

Best regards,

Robert

PS: “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” (Oscar Wilde) “Be selective about your external influences.” (Brian Tracy)

Tangalory Isles 2, 2017 oil on canvas 20 x 20 cm by Brian Crawford Young

Tangalory Isles 2, 2017
oil on canvas
20 x 20 cm
by Brian Crawford Young

Esoterica: Excessive influence, even from the work of others in art magazines or books, can lead to malfunctions of the creative spirit. Fen Lansdowne, the brilliant and widely-published bird painter who recently passed away, suffered from a lifelong malady called “The Imposter Syndrome.” Comparing himself to others sent Fen into a dark and angry funk that sometimes lasted weeks. When he figured out the cure, it was pretty straightforward: Watch birds. Do drawings. Paint birds.

This letter was originally published as “Fighting the blues” on November 30, 2010.

The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.” (Annie Dillard)

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23 Comments

  1. Oh yes, this might be my favourite letter yet! I take all three of these cures seriously and imbibe frequently. Just these three have kept me painting for years through all the ailments mentioned such as “after a residency, a show, a workshop, an art museum, or even going to a high-energy art centre.” While traveling and painting in Europe for three months in 2014, I swear my painting practice was saved more than once by regular doses of these three.

    Thanks as always Sarah for making these weekly readings possible.

  2. I’m happy to report that nine years later I’m still painting. I think I took the forced beginning cure, mixed with a wee drop of the local amber nectar. Self-assertiveness also helped. Maybe painting the blues, as well as fighting them. Thanks Sarah and the team for updating the post with more recent paintings.

    • Brian: While I too fall prey to “the blues, and live in a very paintable area, nothing inspires me as much as your country’s landscapes. (I presume you know Glen Affric, Skye, Orkney, etc..). Happy to see that you’re still at it. (Incidentally, I very much like your “Purple Haze.”) Dave in Colorado

    • Brian! Love your work. I have had these blues too, recently, – as a musician after workshops and highly interactive stretches. This was a nice reminder for me to try the three cures. In no particular order. I love “Melodies for Strings 2”. And the haunting “Land of Sunshine and Mist” hope to travel to Scotland someday soon.

  3. Think of your “time off” as incubation time for your next paintings. Then the heather walk and single malts sound like a perfect start. Then pick up a brush and make a mark on the paper. That alone will get you started. Your work is beautiful. Nature heals. Art heals. Put the two together and you’re off and painting again.

  4. After going through grad school, I had a similar melt- down. I managed to produce a few nice paintings and drawings post grad school, but the constant looking, questioning, critiques, and influence that are a part of the education experience had left me with a lot of doubt, instead of confidence; and. to make matters worse, without the skill set I had really gone to school to get. That happened because I found I could not paint in a classroom with others using solvents, I am a real canary in the coal mine type. . If I were to ever find my way to my own voice, I needed to detach. I am on the solitary confinement cure and it is working. I am finding my own way with paint and have found what I love to paint. I am finding more self-acceptance of what my own style is along the way. I have also found a compassionate critic to whom I send the small works that are experiments with subject matter outside of that which is usual, so I can expand my abilities. That individual is a real blessing and confidence booster. At least I know I am not deluding myself as to my progress while I work in solitary confinement. Painting is finally getting to be fun again. I really appreciate these letters. It helps me keep things in perspective.

    • Jeanne Aisthorpe-Smith on

      Sherrie, I had to come to terms with my painting over the years. Being around others can be fun, exciting and inspiring, but for me, I have to take them in small doses….I like being alone while I paint, apart from the cat of course, who would probably feel very miffed if I didn’t mention her…..learning to love what I do and doing the very best I can, and being less concerned about what others think has been my greatest art lesson…..

      • Jeanne,
        Some folks like a lot of company and some folks, like us, need to find our course by connecting to the zone in solitude. Learning to paint is certainly an on-going effort. Every new idea is a new problem to be solved. The end result sometimes takes months to complete, but, when it’s done, it is usually satisfying. Best wishes to you on your personal journey, Jeanne.

  5. I call it post project depression. My son is a musician and he gets it too. Funny he mentions museums which also affects me that way.
    A blob of paint is that cure for me.
    Beautiful paintings
    Much wisdom.

  6. I can’t tell you how many times I have been touched by the powerful quotes you use in your articles. I want them to stay with me so I can pull them out at appropriate times. I would sound so wise if I could do that! The best I can do is share them with others in the moment. Your content is always on target, and the quotes make it even more profound.

  7. Sharon Lalonde on

    This letter is so timely. I returned, in October from a month away in Paris and Tuscany. When I returned, I felt like my feet were in cement. I had no confidence about what I was doing and since I work in a collective of 9 artists, I kept comparing myself to them, seeing the ease with which they went from one image to another, so successfully.
    I’m past it now. You are so right. It’s a matter of getting in one’s space and painting. Thank you for the confirmation that one is not alone, in this experience.

  8. This is so refreshing to read and relate to other artists sharing the same experience. After every big event I need to re-energize and regroup to be able to forge ahead with new work. Walking and reading seem to help.

  9. Think about this for a moment….and perhaps you’ll realize how very fortunate you are to have such an insignificant problem. Think of your talent as a tool for alleviating pain, and then contemplate the breadth of your blues in comparison to this big blue world….Art is an addiction, and all artist’s experience withdrawal from time to time. Working is the fix….brooding is boring!

    • Wow. A beautiful response to a great post. Such timely thoughts at this dark time of year when apprehension and doubt creeps in. Love the simplicity of your paintings Brian.

  10. One of my dear arts mentors calls this “Post-Artum depression”.

    The only cure for me is to get some solitude and do some art even if I don’t “feel like it”.

    The process takes over once I start.

  11. I have been intimidated every time I go to a great art show and then look at my art. But we are all unique, so even among the best I know my art is an expression of me and not a confinement to my ability. I continue to learn and grow and improve. I love your work Brian!

  12. Brian, your work is delightful. It is so serene, it belies your blues. But as much as the workshops are wonderful and eye opening, they also can over stimulate the artistic psyche.

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February 19, 2020 to February 26, 2020

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If you live in the cold north like I do, this is the BEST thing you can do with a February – believe me! Join me, Hermann Brandt for my 4th annual PLEIN AIR workshop/retreat on the west coast of sunny Mexico. Casa Buena Art Retreat Center is a beautiful private residence overlooking the ocean. While our vivacious hostess, Jane Romanishko takes care of almost every need, I will guide you through the process of identifying, designing, composing and painting the gorgeous land and seascape that surrounds us. Medium: oil or acrylic.

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I look forward to painting with you

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