Monday, February 4, 2008


I have had to throw away, or turn over for color testing, what feels like 92% of my work over the past few months. It feels like this is getting worse. I spend three days on a painting and then have to shelve it. It's not like I can paint over it. Well, I guess I could if I prime the paper for oil or use gouache but that's not what I'm doing now. This is extremely discouraging and disheartening and depressing. All those damned D words. Still, at certain times during the day, I realize that a) this is normal, b) is part of the process, c) will make me a better artist and painter (although I don't know how!) and eventually, I reach a place of trust which gives me a little hope. Then I have to go through it all over again. In fact, I do know that there's a way out of the vicious cycle, and that it isn't going to present itself by my banging my head (or brush) against the wall or by trying too hard. I'm just going to continue showing up at the page and eventually, the way will present itself. That's trust.

Usually, I find words of wisdom during these and other phases in the course of my daily life. Here's an excerpt from Dan McCaw's A Proven Strategy for Creating Great Art, in the "Opening Your Heart" chapter:
Why Bad Paintings Are So Good

So often when I finish a painting, I'm unhappy, dissatisfied, I wish I'd painted it looser or tighter, or I think I should have painted it brighter or grayer. The frustration is always there, but that frustration is a great motivator that keeps me going. When I am feeling the most frustrated, I know I'm about to reach a new level in my painting.

Even in the least successful painting, I try to find the 10 percent of that painting that works for me. That's all I need to provide the ember of inspiration for the next one. Or it may hold the solution to some other painting — maybe even a painting I haven't painted yet! I always learn something in every experience, no matter how badly it turns out.

Really, there are no mistakes. Remember, there is no such thing as a failed painting, only failing to paint. Instead these mishaps are precursors for originality. The sooner you make your first 1,000 mistakes or creative mishaps, the sooner you will be able to correct them. They will guide you down new paths of expression. But if you fear mistakes, you will lose the desire to experiment.

A bad painting is like taking a journey down a side road and finding it ends in a dead end. It may seem you've gone nowhere, but there are gifts you've picked up along the way. Just keep your eyes open. You'll learn something from each road you take. The main thing is to keep excited about waht you're doing. Thing of frustration as the vehicle that moves us forward and persistence as the gas that drives it. Enjoy the journey — it's the most important part of the trip.

There was also a great chapter on failure in Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit
Every creative person has to learn to deal with failure, because failure, like death and taxes, is inescapable. If Leonardo and Beethoven and Goethe failed on occasion, what makes you think you’ll be the exception?

I don’t mean to romanticize failure, to parrot the cliche “If you’re not failing, you’re not taking enough risks,” especially if that view “liberates” you to fail too often. Believe me, success is preferable to failure. But there is a therapeutic power to failure. It cleanses. It helps you put aside who you aren’t and reminds you who you are. Failure humbles.

To get the full benefit of failure you have to understand the reasons for it.

First, there’s a failure of skill.… There’s only one solution to this type of failure: Get to work. Develop the skills you need.

Then there’s a failure of concept. You have a weak idea that doesn’t hold up under your daily ministrations… Sows’ ears tend to remain sows’ ears. Get out while the getting’s good.

A third kind of failure is one of judgement. You leave something in the piece that should have been discarded, left on the cutting room floor.… The only way to avoid this mistake is to remember at all times that you’re the one who’ll be judged by the final product.

The worst failure is of nerve. You have everything going for you except the guts to support your idea and explore the concept fully.… All I have is the certainty of experience that looking foolish is good for you. It nourishes the spirit.…

There’s failure through repetition.…Repetition is a problem if it forces us to cling to our past successes.

Finally, and most profoundly, there is failure that comes from denial.… Denial becomes a liability when you see that something is not working and you refuse to deal with it.… Change-changing the work and how we work-is the unpleasant task of dealing with that which we have been denying.

…fix the things you know how to fix. (a blessing, a reprieve, a miracle shot at getting a second chance.)
She had quite a bit more to say but I had to return the book to the library because someone else was waiting to check it out. Still, I managed to make a note of a couple of other things she wrote. In "Ruts and Grooves", she wrote:
A rut (can be) a consequence of sticking to tried and tested methods that don't take into account how you or the world has changed.

and then something about
using the wrong materials can be deadly.

More on that tomorrow.


Don Gray said...

In certain ways I think the "Sunday painter" enjoys artmaking more than the "serious" artist. They don't usually feel the need to be so self-critical.

Really interesting to read the McCaw quote about dissatisfaction upon completing a work. I have that feeling with virtually every work I complete. What I love most about painting is the act of painting itself--the process. While painting I am nearly always enthusiastic and hopeful--joyous, even. In the back of my mind is always the thought that with this painting I'm finally going to "get it right." But as soon as I can't think of anything else I can do to it, my critical, analytical side kicks in and the piece seems to grow warts before my eyes!

My theory is that virtually all artists are perfectionists, and we must all develop coping strategies for this exasperating condition.
That nagging feeling of falling short is necessary, of course. It drives us to learn, grow, get better. Keeping that feeling of failure in proper perspective can be a real challenge.

Take heart--try to be kind to yourself. The recent paintings you're posting are very beautiful and I think you're on the cusp of new discoveries!

Suzanne said...

Thanks, Don. It's kind of you to respond at length.

I'm pretty clear on the difference between being too self critical and paintings that are just not working. But I do think that this sort of phase is quite normal and that it helps to see that other people go through this which is why I've written this and the subsequent posts.

Thanks for the positive feedback on what you've recently seen posted. I like them, too. Remember, they are the only ones I'm showing and I work a bit in advance so that I don't have a nervous breakdown. I also haven't figured out how to satisfactorily photograph my larger pieces so I haven't shown them at all.

Don't think I haven't been tempted about going back to Sunday painter status!

laura said...

Hi Suzanne. Thanks for this very thoughtful, intimate post: to some degree or another, or in some way or another, we have probably all experienced these frustrations. I especially love what Tharp said about being in a rut; maybe periods of struggle allow us time to contemplate escaping the rut? Let's hope, and, in the meantime, keep painting.

Suzanne said...

Thanks, Laura.

Not to worry, I'm not going to stop painting. I really do think that this is a common experience in various ways for everyone in almost every endeavor. This is addressed specifically to painting and, as I said in response to Don, I've put this out there for that very reason. Reading McCaw and Tharp helped me, so maybe this post will help others!