Sunday, May 7, 2017

On Discouragement

Just about every artist who writes has written about the ups and downs of a painter's life, especially the downs.  Carol Marine devoted an entire chapter to painter's block and discouragement in her book Daily Painting and included writings from other artists.  We can lose sight of the progress we have made when we are in a bad place mentally.  Here are some of my own lows over the past nine years.

I'm haven't improved- maybe I'm just not talented (when I first started painting).
Painting is like any other discipline.  It takes many miles of canvas to acquire the necessary skills to make successful paintings.  Truly accomplished artists were not born with the ability to paint like they do.  One of my favorite quotes regarding talent, by Richard Schmid in his widely read book Alla Prima, is: "Don't bother about whether or not you have it.  Just assume that you do, and then forget about it."  He goes on to discuss talent in a way that has been very helpful to me. When well meaning people tell me I'm talented (and exempt themselves by saying they can't draw a straight line...) I have to remind myself that it is a compliment.  What I'm really thinking is that this pronouncement makes it sound as though all I did was pick up a paintbrush one day and instantly produce reasonably good paintings, which couldn't be farther from the truth. When up against everything there is to learn, a beginning painter can easily get discouraged to the point of giving up.  If this is where you are on your art journey I encourage you to talk to other artists about it and read everything you can on the subject. Believe that you will improve and keep at it. There are no shortcuts.

I used to be a better painter than I am now (when looking at my older files)
With few exceptions I have photos of every painting I have ever finished- even the very worst ones.  I did this so I could gauge my progress.  Sometimes this has backfired.  Early on I occasionally knocked one out of the ball park, at least for my skill level at the time. A few of those paintings are still favorites.  When I've had a run of unsuccessful paintings and happen to look back on an old one that turned out well, I have convinced myself from time to time that I have lost it.  In reality, though I did paint some good paintings 3 or more years ago, they were the exceptions.  When I study my failed paintings from the same period, I am able to see that I am a more consistent painter now. Also my standards are higher, meaning that my definition of success has changed.  If I compare my failures now to my failures in past years, they are better failures. A very accomplished professional artist recently told me that 75% of her paintings are not successes.  This undoubtedly reflects her high standards, but no matter where we are skill-wise we should not expect to succeed every time we approach the canvas.  And as many have said, our failures help us grow.  Instead of letting many failures lay you low, consider the possibility that you have set a higher bar for yourself.

I'm will never be accepted into the national shows.
This is the one that has occupied my thoughts the most in the past couple of years.  I have entered 2-3 of these every year for about 3 years.  I never have an expectation of being accepted, yet I must admit that when I see the DECLINE button I allow myself a 5 minute pity party.  (It doesn't help that the day the results are announced Facebook is filled with posts from happy acceptees.)  The important thing is this- I get right back to work.  If I never get into a prestigious show it will have been a goal that inspired me to study and paint, and for that I am truly grateful.  It also gives me specific deadlines which I would not have otherwise.  Debra Groesser recently wrote a great article for the Oil Painters of America about getting one's work into exhibitions.  She mentioned that it took her 13 tries to get into the OPA National Juried Show.  I encourage you to read it if you are entering this stage of your art journey. 
From the judging side, Barbara Jaenicke blogged about what they are up against and a bit about her own path to the nationals.

I can't get in a good gallery, so I must be a bad artist... 
Fortunately I have moved on (and I'll get back to this) but it can be a big one for many emerging artists.  Even the top professionals sometimes have difficulties finding galleries that are good fits for them.  Being in a bad gallery or one that does not treat the artists well is not worth it.  For professionals who must support a family with their art I do not have meaningful advice as that is not my situation, but I have heard wonderful podcasts on The Savvy Painter with many well known contemporary artists who have achieved financial success. I encourage everyone to check out this website because it is well done and interesting.
For those of us who do not have to make a living income with our art I do have advice. There are so many ways to get your work out there.  You do not have to be in a gallery. Selling online is easy to do and financially beneficial.  I have reached the point where I cover all of my expenses and make a modest profit.  Word of mouth adds up with time. Local events call attention to your work, so participate whenever you can.  The best way to grow as an artist is to paint what you are passionate about, not what a gallery tells you to paint or what the market demands (which can change on a dime).  Though it is all well and good to be in a gallery and selling, make artistic growth your top priority.

I don't feel like painting today though I know I should....
It's OK!  Because the daily painting movement has become so publicized through books, articles, websites and the never ending "challenges", there is pressure to paint daily no matter what.  I am often asked by painters and non-painters alike whether or not I paint everyday. My answer is no.  Frequent painting is the way to improve, but forcing yourself to paint is rarely productive.  Some have suggested these are good days to clean the studio or do some other art related chore on the "to do" list.  I like to take time out for photography which gives me inspiration.  Keeping a regular schedule to paint is a good practice, but allow some flexibility.  Do whatever it takes, guilt free, to clear your head.

Because blog posts should have at least one photo (I hear) I will close with this-

Spring in Charleston.  Photo credit goes to Bruce Dean. Sorry this was so long but if you made it here thanks for reading!


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  2. As a public school art teacher, I always strove to support students and colleagues by sharing outstanding resources and working together. This piece should be available in high school classrooms and colleges. Your fearless commitment is palpable in your writing as well as in your art work. Keep doing what you’re doing Dr. Parker.
    I have reserved “Daily Painting: paint small and often to become a more creative, productive, and successful artist”
    “Alla Prima: Everything I know about Painting”

    Thank you.