Studio Chair, detail
Oil on canvas, 60 x 44 in.
As an artist, you have to not look back too much.
~ Steve Jobs
Updated September 14, 2018
Maddening, isn't it?
You work your butt off, spend a fortune on art books and workshops, and log in more museum hours than the people who work there.
Still, you feel stuck.
Nothing's more discouraging to an artist than the feeling of going nowhere. Except for the feeling of going backward.
Why is this happening to you, and why is it happening now?
One word: programming
It's our hunter-gatherer hangover, stubbornly conserving precious mental energy for important things, like survival. Which is fine most of the time, but with a downside...
It's when muscle memory takes over while creativity goes to sleep.
Sometimes, an artist just needs a good jolt.
So here are seven of them that can wake you right up, right now, and get you moving again:
1. Throw Out Your Old, Unfinished, Unsuccessful Work.
(You'll Never Miss It).
I recently drove a large oil portrait from 20 years ago to the local dump.
My heart sank as I tossed it into the pit. A grimy-looking attendant grumbled, “Nice picture”, as we watched it go down. I couldn’t believe what I had done.
The pain lasted exactly five minutes.
I returned to the studio, liberated, as if I buried a load of amateurish weaknesses along with the piece. I never looked back and never thought about it again until now.
Unsuccessful work is unavoidable. It's a critical part of your journey. And it's baggage, pure and simple.
Now it's perfectly fine to save a few favorite pieces from different phases of your career, beginning with your student days. In fact, it's a great thing to do.
And I agree with Alan Bamberger's wisdom in not trashing large bodies of work that you've suddenly grown sick of. Destroying a single work of art is a decision best made over time and not in the moment.
But unless you're serious about reworking, don't clutter the studio with your failures (and we all got 'em). Because they're holding you back in ways you can't imagine.
We rise and sink to the level of our surroundings. And nothing's as motivating as an empty studio. You'll be dying to fill it up again.
2. Work Bigger
Double or triple the scale of your works, even if you love working small. Here's why: it’s tough.
You can’t BS your way through a large-scale or life-size work. All the forms have to turn. All transitions have to be resolved. Cohesiveness is a greater challenge.
You have to put more distance between you and your canvas, and throw your entire body into it. You'll need bigger brushes and more paint - lots more paint. Which will make you a phenomenal paint-handler.
Working large-scale is also incredibly energizing. There's this wonderful feeling of athleticism to it.
Do this for a while and every once in a while. You can then go back to your scale of choice, which will seem like a cakewalk by comparison.
3. Work Longer
Double or triple the amount of time you typically spend on your work. For the same reason; it’s tough.
If two weeks on a painting is your max, then try a one-monther, or even a three-monther. Dig your heels in and make a massive commitment.
Now let me guess, you’ve been taught never to overwork a painting. That you should always quit while you’re ahead?
Fine, but here's a little secret…
Oil paintings don't have an expiration date. You can work them for years, decades even, and still keep them fresh. Provided you know how to keep them fresh.
And the way to learn it is to just do it - about a thousand times. Get into the habit of laying some fresh paint right over any areas you're not completely in love with, and paint them again.
Put some more heart into it this time. With practice, you'll become a whiz at achieving a high finish and covering up the struggle.
Which is just one hallmark of a master. They make it look easy, even when it ain't.
If you take just one tip from this post, let it be this one.
Don't paint reactively. Hold back a little.
Take a good long look at your subject, hold the brush to the canvas, take a second look to confirm the first one, then put the paint down, deliberately and with confidence.
Begin your paint stroke before the brush touches the canvas, then continue the motion after lifting the brush off the canvas. Each stroke should look graceful and elegant, like it came out of nowhere. Wind up and follow through as an athlete would. Fade in, fade out.
Do this and 95% of the time you'll catch a mistake before you make it!
5. Lighten Up.
Artists are fascinating creatures. Quirky, independent, supremely driven. But just a tad intense sometimes.
Maybe it's because our work is a reflection of our inner selves. Or because a few wrong moves can obliterate days of work.
Or maybe it's because much of society thinks of us as overgrown children indulging in playtime, followed by snack-time, then nappie-time. So we work and stress ourselves sick to counter that feeling...
I'll show you who the workaholic adult is!
Usually, it stems from the neurotic assumption that deep down, we really aren't any good, just lucky sometimes. Otherwise know as The Imposter Syndrome.
If you have any of these worries, then please, haul them along with your old works to the dump. 27 years of teaching have taught me this: artists who take themselves lightly will usually blow right past the obsessives.
6. Raise Your Prices
Sounds like a fun one, right? You wouldn't believe how much resistance this suggestion gets.
Most non-established artists grossly underprice, alerting their subconscious mind (and anyone else paying attention) that their work has no value.
Please, don’t sabotage yourself this way. Have some sense and some guts when pricing. Respect yourself and your work.
gives the impression
Few inquiries lead to sales anyway, because most “collectors” are just kicking the tires. And while offering your work for cheap will never win over a lukewarm collector, it will succeed in killing your confidence. Especially when the strategy fails.
It takes just one serious inquiry for a sale to happen. Do some research; as long as your prices are in line with the competition, your competition, you’ll be fine.
And getting the price you want - not what you're willing to settle for - is completely empowering.
7. Give It a Try, Starting SmallI’ve used and swear by all the tips presented here. But if you're willing to stick with one or two of them, you'll get results. You'll see each project as an opportunity for growth, not just something you create. You'll stay cool when your canvas is an utter disaster. And it will be sometimes...so what? Just remember not to experiment on anything important. Think of your learning exercises as throw-aways from the start; that will take a load of pressure off. Lastly, avoid telling the naysayers in your life that you're trying something new. You know, the ones who love to discourage everything? You can do this. Whatever's happening with you and your work can be turned around. All it takes is a little nudge.