Each time I start a new painting, I feel a particular excitement. I feel inspired, even confident. I see limitless possibilities.
From setting a blank art panel up on the easel, to blocking in the initial drawing, I often feel an exhilaration. I select colors for the underpainting and work quickly, establishing the broad patterns of light and dark. I feel good. The underpainting has turned out well, if perhaps not as refined as I’d imagined. But I trust it will come together in subsequent passes. I’m beginning to feel more sober about the long hours of work the painting will require.
Two or so days later…I am feeling dismal. I have abandoned my first attempt entirely, certain that it was terrible. I started a second time only to repeatedly wipe the panel back down to the underpainting. I feel like giving up. Worse, I go to bed in defeat, feeling I’m only wasting my time. I’m not really an artist. I’m a hack. An amateur.
And yet somehow, in the morning light I find that it doesn’t look nearly as bad as I remembered it. Upon examining the problem areas with fresh eyes, I address the flaws and continue with my work. It’s slow and steady, more hard work than divine inspiration. Each day I work on the painting now, I have a long mental checklist of things to do and so I keep at it. After some days, I find that the painting is beginning to look finished, good or otherwise. I now spend more time looking at the painting than I do adding new paint. I notice mistakes and fix them. I soften some hard edges, I tighten some highlights. I’ve reached a point of diminishing returns and so I sign the painting.
I show the painting to others and the feedback is positive. Some are positively impressed and make insightful observations about the work. I even receive a number of new inquiries about commissions. All in all, I reckon the painting isn’t awful, though it certainly isn’t my best.
This pattern of emotional ups and downs should be familiar to me. After all, it happens with nearly every painting I attempt.
Increasingly, it occurs to me what’s really happening during these stages of turbulent self-doubt — it’s the struggle to accept myself — when the painting is truly becoming my own, reflecting my individual style and my personality.
So if the question is, which is my best painting? The answer…my next one!
You have captured the frequent turmoil that we as artist experience with most of our life’s work.
I absolutely agree with you.
These days, I am learning to be more forgiving of myself in my painting -to know listen to myself and step away before I destroy the good. More importantly, learning to willingly wipe out the flawed compositions and start fresh again.
I enjoy reading your insightful blog posts.
Fellow artist, Lexie.
It’s good to hear other artists, especially those whose work I particularly admire, have similar creative struggles.
I recently came across the following quote that really resonated with me…
“Every creative journey begins with a problem. It starts with a feeling of frustration, the dull ache of not being able to find the answer. When we tell one another stories about creativity, we tend to leave out this phase of the creative process. We neglect to mention those days when we wanted to quit, when we believed that our problems were impossible to solve. Instead, we skip straight to the breakthroughs. The danger of telling this narrative is that the feeling of frustration – the act of being stumped – is an essential part of the creative process.”
– Jonah Lehrer (from article ‘The Neuroscience of Bob Dylan’)