Prior disappointment syndrome


Dear Artist,

Artists with integrity and high standards can fall prey to a particularly nasty condition. It’s called “Prior disappointment syndrome.”

When the Big Ones Eat the Small Ones (2015) Acrylic on canvas 120×60 inches by Marcos Raya (b. 1948)

When the Big Ones Eat the Small Ones (2015)
Acrylic on canvas 120×60 inches
by Marcos Raya (b. 1948)

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.

The Anguish of Being and the Nothingness of the Universe (2000) acrylic on canvas by Marcos Raya

The Anguish of Being and the Nothingness of the Universe (2000)
acrylic on canvas
by Marcos Raya

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.

Our Lady (2010) Acrylic on canvas 44×70 inches by Marcos Raya

Our Lady (2010)
Acrylic on canvas
44×70 inches
by Marcos Raya

Best regards,


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.”

This letter was originally published as “Prior disappointment syndrome” on August 19, 2008.

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. 

Marcos-Raya Justin Kerr photo“There will be little rubs and disappointments everywhere, and we are all apt to expect too much; but then, if one scheme of happiness fails, human nature turns to another; if the first calculation is wrong, we make a second better: we find comfort somewhere.” (Jane Austen)





    • I’m right there with you, Julie. I appreciate each and every one of Robert’s articles. He has a splendid way of describing events, things, state of mind, etc., etc., etc. And, the connections he makes to give us a clue what he’s referring to are always mind enlightening. Thank you, Sara, for reposting your dad’s words.

    • What a good attitude. Yes live with your best works and say good bye to rest. After all it is only a piece of paper or canvas…. that brought you some learning experience. As I say out with the old and in with the new…..

    • Ditto! I have several things I do to avoid further disappointment when I complete (or not) a particular piece; a painting I consider NOT WORTH PURSUING. Turn the canvas or board to the wall and place it in the “To be gessoed pile”. As artists we need to know when to let it go ……the other small phrase which sits on my work table is,
      “What would you do today if you knew you could not fail?”

  1. What is a “failure”? Is it work you aren’t proud of, and idea that doesn’t work….or work that others declare invalid? Opinions are personal and can hurt….but creativity is personal too, and at times hurtful as well. We can’t prevent disappointments nor expectations, but we can maintain an attitude of gratefulness for our talents and a willingness to learn from our failures to become even more in love with the work we were meant to produce….no matter what the world might think of it! Thanks Sara….& Robert….you rock!

    • Wyncia Clute on

      I am with you, Joan, questioning “what is failure?”
      I am an barely experienced painter, having worked attainting for almost ten years. I would say all of my painting have flaws, but each is a story that I appreciate.
      I tend to see the year the garden bloomed that well, the day I painted with Betty and Maggie, the tree by the brook that I like even though it doesn’t critique well.
      I am lucky not to need, or even want, to make this a profession. I do get a grin out of a sale, but I can enjoy the process and pushing my skills to the point of making more flaws…not failures!
      Thanks, Sara for keeping the Glenn letters alive and growing.

  2. Yes disappointments are inevitable and as we love our art more over the years of nurturing it is inevitable that others may not see it the same way. But we know our art best and what to give it next – and if we feel we don’t I believe just spending time with it or with others art you love then we will see its beauty and meaning again. Regardless on the labels or not it is given. Sure vacation time away can help but even then, if we supposedly “fail” yet again, maybe it’s the perspective of appreciation that is needed. Great letter and great comments. Let us keep on loving art and those that make it.

  3. …and give it some time! Often, even just a day or two later, you’ll see it in a different light. Particularly when plein air painting, what it needs is simply some time between your original vision and what you came home with to see what the painting itself has to say. This also applies to work that you create in your studio! So I advise to turn it to the wall and wait awhile before looking at it again.

  4. What I experience most of all is a “current disappointment syndrome,” when I don’t think that a finished painting is worthy of being posted on social media, or put on any type of pubic display. I set it aside (I can’t throw them away) and by some miraculous transformation, they take on a different character over time. If I’m not actually happy with the way they look, I’m at least willing to put them back up on the easel and get back to work.

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I, Ramya Sadasivam, have been practicing art since 2006. I so love to portray Indian culture, customs, day to day chores of the hard-working laborers, happy village life and life of women. I love to capture the difference in values between the shadows and bright light and also I like to capture genuine emotion.