It’s great to be optimistic. There’s also something to be said for a reasonable amount of pessimism. An optimist is one who writes checks before her funds come in. In 1782 Ben Franklin quoted the old German saying: “When poverty comes in the door, love goes out the window.” Some sage advice is pretty pessimistic. I’m sort of interested in how happy and well-adjusted pessimists are. Because they anticipate a poor outcome, pessimists are seldom disappointed.
Take painting. Feelings of honest doubt may press the god of creativity into your arms. Instead of blind and egocentric confidence, a healthy sense of invention and curiosity can prevail.
From Plato to Norman Vincent Peale, optimism leads the way to fame, fortune, happiness and proficiency. The trouble is that we creators are often contrary beings. As well as that, more than any other worker we tread the daily path of trying to mine excellence from ourselves. As well as the juggling of materials and techniques, we toil with feelings and emotions. With these high demands, some sage advice can be as valuable today as when it was minted. Here, mostly from Poor Richard’s Almanac, are a few thoughts that just might be useful in your studio:
A stitch in time saves nine.
The used key is always bright.
Good enough is not good enough.
Lost time is never found again.
Be ashamed to catch yourself idle.
If something can go wrong, it will.
He that lives on hope will die fasting.
Failure to prepare is preparing to fail.
The easiest person to delude is yourself.
Keep your shop and your shop will keep you.
There will be sleeping enough in the grave.
We may give advice but we cannot give conduct.
A place for everything, everything in its place.
There’s no such thing as an undiscovered genius.
When the well’s dry, they know the worth of water.
In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.
Sloth, like rust, consumes faster than labour wears.
The master’s eye will do more work than both his hands.
Want of care does us more damage than want of knowledge.
PS: “If you’re a pessimist who really thinks through in detail what might go wrong, that’s a strategy that’s likely to work very well for you.” (Julie Norem)
Esoterica: Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) was a journalist, author, philanthropist, abolitionist, public servant, scientist, librarian, diplomat and inventor. A leader of the American Revolution, he became the first Postmaster General of the USA. His inventions include the Franklin stove, bifocals, medical catheter, lightning rod, swim fins and odometer. As well as investigating electrical matters he published and gave sage advice in Poor Richard’s Almanac: “In order to be happy you need a good dog, a good woman, and ready money.” Oops, we’ll have to adjust that one. Try this: “To lengthen thy life, lessen thy meals.”
Definition of a pessimist
by Marc Lemonnier, Pointe-Claire, QC, Canada
“A pessimist is an optimist with experience.” This from a die-hard optimist. The thoughts of all of the artists on this site steer me and give food for the soul. The creative process is a lonely one and you connect me with a community that suffers from the same troubles as me.
Puppy dog wiggly
by Meg Lauder
Controlled pessimism works for me. I get all excited about something then massage it in a healthy dose of pessimism. When I give it the “It will never work” kind of treatment, then anything that happens is better than what I had thought. I’m surprised and happy and puppy dog wiggly. Wrong again — oh boy!
by Priyanka Tiwari, San Francisco, CA, USA
I consider myself a positive person and I think a person with positive energy always rubs his off on others. This is not only true about art or any profession, its true about relationships too. Sometimes people ask me why I am so happy. “For what reason are you happy?” they ask. That’s the most absurd question. You don’t have to have a reason — or at least be aware of why.
Beware of ‘better’
by Diane Voyentzie, Brookfield, CT, USA
My father readily quoted almost all of those quotes in your letter to us when we were growing up. However, there is one that was omitted here which I think helps us painters. It is from the French: “Better is the enemy of Good.” Sometimes we think we can try to make a good thing better and end up ruining it.
(RG note) Thanks, Diane. And thanks to all who saw fit to add sage advice of all sorts — both artistic and not. We’ve gathered a selection of these at the end of this clickback.
‘Ready money’ runs interference
by Barry Roth, Berkeley, CA, USA
Regarding Ben Franklin: “In order to be happy you need a good dog, a good woman, and ready money.” Two out of three will do it. I have had all of the above, but never all at one time. It’s the quest for the third when you have the first two that interferes with the happiness — and perhaps with painting too.
Too pessimistic to find out
by Coulter Watt, Quakertown, PA, USA
I’m feeling optimistic about being pessimistic. Somebody once told me, “Always borrow money from a pessimist, they don’t expect to be paid back.” And judging by what’s out there in the art market, I’m not so sure artists always succeed in mining excellence from themselves. “You can lead a person to culture, but you can’t make them think.” (Tom Wolfe) And in your “Esoterica” section, Benjamin Franklin probably invented the pedometer, not the odometer, since cars were not in existence at the time, unless he had one on a horse drawn carriage. I’m feeling too pessimistic to go and find out.
(RG note) “Borrowers will be sorrowers,” said Ben Franklin. As Postmaster, Ben had to figure out routes for delivering the mail. He went out riding in his carriage to measure the routes and needed a way to keep track of the distance. He invented a simple odometer that clicked over with every turn of his carriage wheel.
Transfer of romantic optimism
by John Carson, France
At 77, I didn’t think I would be swapping a number 8 sable for a sledgehammer and concrete mixer in the supposedly romantic pastime of renovating French barns and houses. I have had to painfully remind myself not only of the biblical admonishment of being faithful in the small things but an incessant nagging wake-up call of, “infinitely better is not necessarily good enough!” Is there any romantic optimist who might want to buy a riverside studio in central France?
by Carol Hama Chang, Edmonton, AB, Canada
I am the eternal pessimist. If things can go wrong, they will! What I do to “protect” myself from the onslaught is to “protect” myself for every foreseeable event. Then nothing bad happens. But if I am negligent in preparing myself for the worst or take an optimistic view and adapt a cavalier attitude then for sure something negative will befall me. So I have learned over the years to take reasonable precautions and I have come through thus far relatively unscathed. So I have to be a pessimist! So my pessimism has turned to optimism in a contorted sort of way: Be cautious and nothing bad will happen.
Don’t be cautious
by Nancy Wells, Jersey-City, NJ, USA
There is also something scary about being too pessimistic. It can choke out one’s life force. An example of what I heard as a child is the statement, “Better safe than sorry”. This kind of thinking is why many people literally die of quiet desperation (as Thoreau said). They are busy being safe. And why is being sorry the possible result of not being safe. Worrying too much about what is safe is a deadly game, and comes from living out of one’s fear. Why not just be in the moment with all our faculties alive and alert, meeting life’s challenges as they arise. Anthony de Mello speaks of awareness being the key to living. I certainly am not there but there are moments when I am aware. I have friends who are pessimists and what I see is a lot of uptightness and deep sadness. They always seem to think they are right because they claim to see the truth. But what they are missing is spirit. As they see, analyze and dissect everything, they miss the most meaningful part — what cannot be named or taken apart.
Mindfulness gives clarity
by Laurie Garver, Dallas, TX, USA
You did not mention a very important alternative to optimism and pessimism, which is the middle path of mindfulness. You painted optimism and pessimism as polarities without middle ground. They do come together in an attitude known as mindfulness. It borrows the best from each attitude. When you are mindful, you are well aware of and weigh all aspects of a situation (hallmarks of pessimism as you describe it), but you proceed with confidence and joy, after careful consideration of all the consequences, risks and benefits, and with an eye to modifying your approach as you gather new information (hallmarks of optimism). I think you will agree, that part of any problematic situation are parameters set by others, the realities beyond your personal control. But another part of it is mindset. You help create your world, by projecting your attitudes upon it. Mindfulness addresses these points, by borrowing the best from both optimism and pessimism, thus giving clarity to any situation.
Pessimistic about shows
by Brad Greek, Mary Esther, FL, USA
I try to stay optimistic in setting my short and long-term goals toward reaching the success level that I have set for myself. Yet when entering juried shows, I find that I’m pessimistic about being chosen for an award. Most of that comes from the attitudes or vibes that I receive from sponsoring organizations. The politics of shows is pretty obvious. So I don’t expect to win an award. My sage advice has always been: “If it is worth doing, it’s worth doing right.” I have an “all or none” mindset. I’ll either obsess over a project or not do it at all.
Two types of pessimists
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki
From what I have seen so far, there appears to be at least two types of pessimists. The constructive pessimist works to his benefit, envisioning all the obstacles and planning how to overcome them. The destructive envisions himself as a failure, and sabotages himself in order to “achieve” the failure where he feels the most comfortable. It is obvious that there are good things in the book for the constructive pessimist. I wonder if the destructive one can get something out of it too? I know an excellent artist whose attitude mostly causes destructions — he however seems to be especially inspired by the feeling of failure. So far I haven’t seen him capitalizing on that, but maybe he will eventually. Maybe this type has to wait after death to be recognized (since his worst enemy dies with him).
Time turns into music
by Gerardo Beretta, Mexico, DF, Mexico
Franz Kafka said, “You do not need to leave your room, simply sit at your table and listen, you do not even need to listen just become still, silent and solitary. The world will offer itself, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.” Yes, when you are working (I prefer it to Creating, just personal beliefs) and time is forgotten and no longer an issue, you enter bliss. Body and Mind expand beyond consciousness — time turns into music — music being any aesthetic affair!
Advice for Vanessa
by Christine Schiff, Rockville, MD, USA
This is for Vanessa Solis Herrerias who said she was struggling and asked for advice from us. I am an abstract painter and a writer. My advice to you as you begin your art journey is “don’t struggle.” Just put one foot in front of the other, go to your art classes and soak up all you can as you learn who you are as an artist and how you want art in your life. There is no urgency — if you are meant to do this, it is a process that will evolve naturally and cannot be rushed. There is much to know. Let the classes lead you, one to the next, and take them for no other reason than for the love you feel now. Outside of the classroom studio, make your art at home. Eventually your direction will emerge out of your simply walking forward and you will know without asking what your next step should be.
(RG note) Thanks, Christine. And thanks to all who reach out to others in times of need, joy and sorrow.
Sharing a loss
by Mary Wiley, Sherman, TX, USA
My condolences to Gena and her family. I, too, lost my son a few years ago and it was the most devastating thing that I have ever experienced. All the kind words and good deeds were greatly appreciated but the emptiness lingered on. When I attempted to paint, my paintings were very dark and lonesome. I finally removed all the dark colors from my palette so that I would become aware of the dark, dreary colors as I then had to mix them. A couple of years ago, while reviewing some photos, slides and movies made of my son and my daughter when they were small children, I felt a need to paint some of those memories. That process gave me the greatest relief from the sorrow of anything that I had done. We never completely overcome the grief but I do hope Gena and her family can soon find comfort in remembering the life that their son led and the person that he was.
Artists in grief
by Cyn McCurry, Fort Worth, TX, USA
I need the wisdom and help of other working artists right now. I am an oil painter with many scheduled demands and deadlines. People rely on me to produce. Much of my work is autobiographical and intimate. My daughter Tiana has been my main inspiration since her birth. She recently took her own life. I am completely undone, floored, devastated, beyond functioning. I paint but it is all so much schlock and forced. What seems sincere is completely sad. I am lost and afraid that this is a terminal hurdle. I wonder if there are any words of wisdom for those artists in grief?
watercolour and pastel painting
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Sage advice from readers
“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” (Unknown) from Sandy Sandy
“When legends die, there are no more dreams. When there are no more dreams, there is no more greatness.” (Unknown) from Sandy Sandy
“Better is a handful of rest than a double handful of hard work and striving after the wind.” (Ecclesiastes) from Gail Wiseman Reed
“Idle hands are the Devil’s work-list.” (Gail Wiseman Reed)
“No change cometh but from a still quiet center.” (Gail Wiseman Reed)
On use of cameras — “If the Egyptians had cameras they would have gotten the eyes right.” (Arnie Westerman) from Bob McMurray
On having goals and objectives — “If you don’t know where you are going it’s very hard to get there from here.” (I think I made this up myself) from Bob McMurray
On haste – “Fools rush in and get the best seats.” — (probably a comedian) from Bob McMurray
On patience — “The early bird gets the worm but the second mouse gets the cheese.” (Bob McMurray)
“Robert is a yogi in disguise.” (Alar Jurma)
“The road to success runs through the desert of failure.” (Unknown) from Mark Wallin
“The reason a dog has so many friends is that he wags his tail instead of his tongue.” (Dick Thompson) from Joe Blodgett
“Before you criticize people, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way, when you criticize them, you’re a mile away. And you have their shoes.” (J. K. Lambert) from Alyce Bryson
“If you don’t say anything, you won’t be called upon to repeat it.” (Calvin Coolidge) from Leanne Cadden
“‘Tis better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.” (Samuel Johnson) from Alyce Bryson
“Blessed are they who have nothing to say, and who cannot be persuaded to say it.” (James Russell Lowell) from John Sherlock
“Never trust the advice of a man in difficulties.” (Aesop) from John Sherlock
“Advice is seldom welcome; and those who want it the most always like it the least.” (Earl of Chesterfield) from Joe Blodgett
“A good scare is worth more than good advice.” (proverb) from Joe Blodgett
“Don’t believe all you hear, spend all you have, or sleep all you want.” (Sandy Sandy) from Karen Austin
“No one wants advice – only corroboration.” (John Steinbeck) from John Sherlock
“Make the most of the best and the least of the worst.” (Robert Louis Stevenson) from Leanne Cadden
“Quit now, you’ll never make it. If you disregard this advice, you’ll be halfway there.” (David Zucker) from Karen Austin
“Seize opportunity by the beard, for it is bald behind.” (Bulgarian proverb) from Alyce Bryson
“Listen or thy tongue will keep thee deaf.” (American Indian proverb) from John Sherlock
“Don’t curse the darkness — light a candle.” (Chinese proverb) from Sue Legault
“I had no shoes and complained, until I met a man who had no feet.” (Indian proverb) from Karen Austin
“Be wiser than other people if you can, but do not tell them so.” (Earl of Chesterfield) from Norman Brown
“Wisdom too often never comes, and so one ought not to reject it merely because it comes late.” (Felix Frankfurter) from Bruce Miller
“Where ignorance is bliss, ‘Tis folly to be wise.” (Thomas Gray) from Gilbert Roy
“Every man is a damned fool for at least five minutes every day. Wisdom consists in not exceeding the limit.” (Elbert Hubbard) from Eric Mewhinney
“The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.” (William James) from Alyce Bryson
“It requires wisdom to understand wisdom; the music is nothing if the audience is deaf.” (Walter Lippmann) from John Sherlock
“Wisdom comes by disillusionment.” (George Santayana) from John Sherlock
“Life is like a dogsled team. If you ain’t the lead dog, the scenery never changes.” (Lewis Grizzard) from Alyce Bryson
“Make your life a mission — not an intermission.” (Arnold Glasgow) from Alyce Bryson
“Accept that some days you’re the pigeon, and some days you’re the statue.” (Roger C. Anderson) from Leanne Cadden
“It isn’t the mountain ahead that wears you out; it’s the grain of sand in your shoe.” (Robert W. Service) from John Sherlock
“Spend all you have before you die, and do not outlive yourself.” (George Bernard Shaw) from Norman Brown
“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” (Confucius) from Linda Timbs
“Do not condemn the judgment of another because it differs from your own. You may both be wrong.” (Dandemis) from Bruce Miller
“When looking at faults, use a mirror, not a telescope.” (Yazid Ibrahim) from Bruce Miller
“A fly, Sir, may sting a stately horse and make him wince; but one is but an insect, and the other is a horse still.” (Samuel Johnson) from Norman Brown
“When a man points a finger at someone else, he should remember that four of his fingers are pointing at himself.” (Louis Nizer) from John Sherlock
“Do what you feel in your heart to be right, for you’ll be criticized anyway.” (Eleanor Roosevelt) from Sue Legault