The fine art of pushing yourself


Dear Artist,

While it’s generally a good idea to move in the direction of successes and proficiencies, from time to time it’s also valuable to take a look at weaknesses. Pros try to understand and disarm them. Amateurs either deny them or don’t know they exist. Here are a few thoughts on the fine art of pushing yourself:

It’s painful, but you need to make a “baddy inventory.” You need to identify no more than three at a time. If you pick too many, the task overwhelms and discouragement can set in. Homing in on specific areas of difficulty is easier if you see them as “zones of temporary avoidance.”

Get specific. Be honest. Give instructions. Make notes to yourself: “Due to the persistent and chronic failure of looking and seeing, my trees have become overly simplified, clichéd, and limited in species identification. I must now resurface with baby eyes and look again at trees. I must step outside in all lights, open my eyes to variety, and rethink arboreal anatomy by notation and sketch.”

There’s no better cure for mediocrity than a dose of truth. And there’s no better reason for taking the cure than the challenge. Fall in love with potential accomplishment. Central to this process is the realization that it’s a personal quest. It’s not a mentor or instructor but the trees themselves that give the demos and crits. Taking this course and building accomplishments one by one is like putting shiny new coins into your pocket. Accumulated pushes lead to creative wealth.

To push yourself to higher ground you need an attitude. The attitude is both achievable and hard won. It’s possible to be deceived that this attitude is the result of natural causes. Further, it’s easy to give credit to what seems to be inborn talent or irregular creative genius. Digging deeper, the better artists often have many “eureka” moments when the way forward is seen to be clearer. Eureka can happen by simply looking at your hands and realizing that you have everything you need to overcome. “Genius,” said Thomas Edison, “is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” Perspiring is part of the attitude. Evolved creators are just as curious about their failures as they are of their successes.


Best regards,


PS: “If I have accomplished anything good, then it’s mainly because I’ve been driven by the need to know whether I can accomplish things I’m not sure I have the capacity for.” (Vaclav Havel, playwright)

Esoterica: We artists are fortunate in that most of our tasks, while often daunting, are also relatively pleasant. The art-push needs to be noble and yet modest — one step at a time. Helen Keller noted, “I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish humble tasks as though they were great and noble. The world is moved along, not only by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate of the tiny pushes of each honest worker.” This is the nature of our theatre. “Work,” when it involves “play,” may just be the key to “push.” In the words of Arnold Toynbee, “The supreme accomplishment is to blur the line between work and play.” To perspire in play is to know progress.


Recognizing progress
by Vernita Bridges-Hoyt, Spring, TX, USA


“Zebra in Floral Jungle”
coloured pencil and watercolour painting
7 x 10 inches
by Vernita Bridges-Hoyt

Heavens, Man! I am still trying to find three GOOD things about my paintings. I have no problem identifying the parts needing improvement. The push to paint daily has improved my ability to see. I am encouraged to continue as I recognize progress gained from painting more frequently. Still, there is LOTS of room for improvement. There is an old axiom something like this, “The more I know, the more I know how much I don’t know.” That’s where I am now — learning how much I don’t know.


There is 1 comment for Recognizing progress by Vernita Bridges-Hoyt

From: Ann Byrd — Jul 08, 2008

Well, I have heard that old saying too, however you are really developing a unique, truly unique way to use scale to express beauty and wonder. I love the composition. It truly works on many levels. Keep making yourself find those three great things about your work; write them down in a journal if you are having difficulty because, I believe they are there. You are stepping into the fire of yourself and your truthsaying and this is the step you want to take. Ann


Constant desire to improve
by Clint Watson, San Antonio, TX, USA

It seems an irony of life that in any field of endeavor, whenever we meet the truly great in a given field, their only focus is how to “get better”… whereas when meeting those that are merely competent they think that they’re “pretty good”… it’s almost like the better we get, the worse we think we are. I think developing an attitude of “I’m not good enough” is healthy — it keeps us pushing. And if your objective is to be a “great artist” …then “good” isn’t “good enough.”


Great art has no shortcuts
by Donald Demers, Eliot, ME, USA


oil painting
by Donald Demers

The advice in this edition speaks of a great truth in the creative process. The clichéd adage that “showing up is half the battle” has some application here. Having about 30 years in the studio and in the field, I have found that presenting yourself consistently to your tools and your creative task at hand and working for what can seem like an interminable amount of hours has, in the end, never resulted in anything other than success. You have to continually walk through doors and break down barriers to achieve the results you desire. No tricks, no shortcuts, no fancy tools. It’s just a devotion to the vision that you have.


Life is art
by Scharolette Chappell, Auburn Hills, MI, USA


mixed media painting
by Scharolette Chappell

I have found the more I push myself the more I play, the more I play, the more the eureka moments appear, the more the eureka moments appear, the more confidence in the work, the more confidence, the more the reality of that single thought in one’s mind is revealed, the more revealed of one’s self… others relate, work leaps into the circle or orb of life. Life is Art.





Art enriches politics
by Carol Morrison, Oakville, NS, Canada


oil painting
by Carol Morrison

Vaclav Havel was the leader of the “Velvet Revolution” and last President of Czechoslovakia, as well as first President of the Czech Republic. In my previous life as a research scientist I attended some meetings in Europe. I came to know a prominent Czech scientist who was delighted to have a leader who was a playwright and poet, after so many years of domination by the communist Soviet Union. Maybe our politics would be enriched by political leaders who were also accomplished in the arts!




Look at your weaknesses
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada


“Alpine Meadow”
acrylic painting, 16 x 20 inches
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki

One of the popular nonsense ideas going around is that looking at weaknesses is “being negative,” which is bad and “politically incorrect.” I know a guy who doesn’t allow words like “bad,” “stupid,” “wrong” said in front of his kids. Weaknesses are ignored and everything else portrayed as an extraordinary success, which results in an imbalance at the least. I agree with you that a reality check is necessary for real success. I don’t particularly enjoy looking at myself and analyzing why I am doing something wrong, but every time I do it I learn something helpful.


Moments of pain and ecstasy
by Gary English, Nashville, TN, USA


“Orchids and Red Sofa”
original painting
by Gary English

Trying to maintain that balance between excitement (when something works) and dismay (when nothing seems to work) as you struggle through some paintings that seem to be almost willful in their obstinacy, but to eventually conquer the canvas with a respectable painting, is an exquisite meeting of those points of your letter — sweat and sweetness. A thousand small challenges with countless moments of hurt and some ecstasy tell the story of each major painting. Some paintings, like plein airs, are usually just fun and you knock them out in a couple of hours. But it is like tennis, if you are challenged and still do your best, win, lose or draw (winning is always better though), you are tired but actually quite fulfilled, and realize it is for that feeling that you play the game.

A painting that makes me stretch beyond the comfortable and easy is one that makes me want to paint more. Too many of the easy ones and I’d be looking for something else to do.


Life interferes with art-making
by Lynne Elkins, Cape Coral, FL, USA

My weakness is in pushing myself. It seems that I want to paint but put it off for something else too many times. I love to paint in a group setting, but have a wonderful studio in my home and don’t paint as often as I would like. I have to schedule myself for painting as I do the rest of my life. I am a very social person and love the work I do in my community, but would love to paint more. So there is my weakness. I end up painting cardboard boats, tepees, wall hangings, posters, and etc. Our boat won best design so I get some kudos from that but, alas, no money. I will try to push myself more as my artist friends try to do already. I am an acrylic painter of animals, my love.


Yearly challenges to overcome
by Valerie Kent, Richmond Hill, ON, Canada


Valerie Kent at the RHGA Art Show (2006)

Every year I give myself a new learning curve: one year it is light, another, colour and so it goes. It never ends and I look for resources and other artists to help me in my search. Knowing full well that I cannot learn it all in only one year, I rotate back to what I have done before. I do not know how many times I have rotated back to Edgar Whitney’s books and to Ron Ransom’s books on Edgar Whitney’s teachings. Although written about watercolour painting, the principles and elements of design remain universal and current.




Positive results outside of comfort zone
by Brian Kliewer, Rockland, ME, USA


“True North (detail)”
oil painting, 24 x 30 inches
by Brian Kliewer

Growth only comes with good self-observation. In my case, more than pulling out the “baddy inventory,” I feel I need to devote more time to working with other subjects… expanding my view. I have always enjoyed good portraiture, but rarely do I include figures or people in my work. I think a lot of this is due to shyness. But when I have asked people to pose, the results have often been useful. I think I will take your “pushing yourself” idea and put it to use in the direction of further portraiture.


Failure can foster greater successes
by Kirk Wassell, Chino Hills, CA, USA


digitally altered photograph

Your last sentence — boom — your words reached out and grabbed me by the scruff of my neck. You said, “Evolved creators are just as curious about their failures as they are of their successes.” I hope everyone who reads this latest letter lets those words seep deep into their creative soul, for they are so powerful. I am turning 61 in a few months and have seen failure not as a mistake but as an ingredient in my successes. For me this process of self-evaluation is paramount to creativity, for without it I would not recognize the differences. I would not step far enough back from my work, I would not let go, and not ask more of myself. So I hope to always learn as much from my mistakes as I do from my successes.


Balancing the ego
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA


“Akard Lane”
pastel drawing, 24 x 30 inches
by Paul deMarrais

The concept you refer to is “ego management.” I believe this is an ability one must develop to strike a balance between the opposing forces of self-esteem and self-doubt. Great artists have both in generous quantities. Our culture is often absurdly imbalanced. Celebrities are fawned over in embarrassing fashion. As much as we revel in worshipping these people, we take a certain dark pleasure when they come careening off their pedestals. A great example of this phenomenon is the show ‘American Idol.’ Modestly talented folks vie for the incredible thrill of instant fame. They become household names and viewers can join them on this roller coaster of emotion the show promotes. In a way, the judges on the show represent the demons an artist must face. One judge, a caustic Brit named Simon, routinely bashes and abuses the performers. He as much as says “You are a fraud, all style and no substance, a fake… but you’re not fooling me.” He embodies self-doubt as the worshipping audience embodies narcissism and ego-feasting. For the artist, ego-feasting is like the packed opening and sold out show, the compliments, etc. Self-doubt inhabits the studio paintings like callow starlets, hope they are framed and displayed and sold to move up to the sun-kissed walls of a mansion somewhere. Many will face permanent residence in an unseen stack or, worse, a cruel toss in the dumpster. In reality, artists need to inhabit the middle ground between these extremes and learn to assess their strengths and weakness, enjoy success but embrace failure as part of the process of self-improvement as well.


Security with publishers
by Ron Savory, St. Lucia

Please take on the current situation concerning Giclee publishers who scan artwork, put the images on CDRs or leave them on the hard drive and, as a result, the artists are left wondering if the publisher has an ulterior motive. It seems we can do nothing about it. My feeling is that these publishers should, if they want us to believe that they have integrity, present the CDR to the owner of the work at whatever cost, with a declaration stating no further use will be made of the scan without permission.

(RG note) Thanks, Ron. Unfortunately, even if the publisher gives you the original copy in whatever format, he may have identical, print-ready copies as standby. A “one use only,” or other limiting agreement, signed by both parties, gives the artist and the publisher some security, but it still has to be fought if transgressed.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for The fine art of pushing yourself



From: C.Keith Jones — Jun 22, 2007

“If I was only half as good as a woman, I would be one hell of a man.”

From: Val Norberry — Jun 22, 2007

Hi, boy, I really feel like we are talking 12 step recovery philosophy here. 4th step: Make a fearless moral inventory. (1st step is to admit you are powerless, 2nd that a power higher than yourself can restore you to sanity, 3rd step to admit that there is a higher power), 5th step, after you’ve written down your flaws and weaknesses (and some people counsel to write a few strengths there also), you admit them to another person. This is the key to sobriety, to serenity. Then you go on to the 6th step of making amends to people where possible and where it won’t harm anybody, the 7th and 8th and 9th and 10th and 11th and 12th steps, of admitting when you are wrong, making conscious contact with your higher power whom you perceive him (her or it) to be, and pursuing His (her its) will for your life, and having had a spiritual experience as a result of these steps, to carry this message to others. This is a sure-cure for control freaks. God Bless. Sorry if the steps are not in perfect order, don’t have my book in front of me, this is from memory.

From: Lynn Edwards — Jun 22, 2007

“Pushing Yourself” and the responses to it was one of the most inspiring and helpful things I’ve read. Not only am I taking away several invaluable nuggets of info from it (which I am going to post near my easel) I plan to share this sage advice with my students. Thank you, Robert!

From: Sandy Sandy — Jun 22, 2007

Painting full time for over a decade and often working in sets, one painting usually leads me to the next. This allows me to explore various possibilities. As I paint, I try to let the painting tell me where it wants to go. If I trust my instincts and don’t let my left brain get in the way, I usually get satisfactory results. Unsuccessful pieces can be frustrating, but are an important part of the process. They are necessary stepping stones to developing skills and creativity. I often tell wanna be artists to be willing to play, make mistakes and not let their work become too precious.

From: David Lorenz Winston — Jun 27, 2007

I feel that when I’m not pushing myself, I’m not growing in my work. However, the pushing often places more value on the product than the process. My personal challenge is pushing without concern for the product.

From: — Oct 27, 2011

very good i like it








acrylic painting
by Kathleen Turnbull, Invermere, 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 Adan Lerma who wrote, “Blending work and play is very key, and is a mix I’ve found naturally changes its balance each day, sometimes a little more sweating, sometimes a little more smiling, but ya gotta have both.”

And also Margaret Henkels of Santa Fe, NM, USA who wrote, “I like what Paul Klee said even better than Edison. Klee said, ‘Genius is the error in the system.’ Maybe it’s less about the effort factor and more about receiving spirit inspiration. Maybe the ‘trials’ are about how we try too hard to do it ‘our’ way.”

And also Vonni Sparks of Lincoln, NE, USA who wrote, “Why are you keeping that much old stuff? How is it serving you? Paint over it!! Free Canvas!”

And also Gordon Matheson of Southampton, NY, USA who wrote, “Robert, please send me some of what you were smoking today.”




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