The Pressure To Perform

I have had a huge artists block that has lasted for over a year, and almost derailed my entire career. I have beat myself up horribly over this fact. The more I stressed about it, the worse it got, until one day I just said “I’m done”.

But I knew in the back of my head that was the furthest from the truth. You see, I’ve always painted or drawn. Yes, I’ve had periods of rest where I wasn’t very active, but that deep seated desire to create has always been there niggling away at me, making me feel incomplete if I wasn’t painting.

The expectations placed on artists today are unreal. There is this huge push to create daily. Daily painters, daily practice, a painting a day, daily posts on social media. The competition to get better, be the best. Look how easy it is to compare your work with the worlds artists. Imagine how much easier it would have been when artists didn’t have access to the worlds best artists instantly there to compare their own work to. How impossible is it to feel competent today?

The chatter, and resulting pressure, is TOO much! Maybe this works for some artists, but for others that kind of pressure is crippling, leaving many wondering if they’ll ever be good enough, or how to find time for all their commitments in life. Job, family, health, friends, and all the other daily, weekly, monthly things that need our time and attention.

For me, before my slump hit, I had an empty nest and a husband working long hours, living in the country in almost isolation – too far away for friends or family to just drop by. I had tons of time to myself and this made it easy to get studio time almost daily. (I took the weekends off.) Then my husband was laid off and transitioned to retirement. We got a new dog. We moved to the city close to friends and family.

Suddenly all those hours of solitude had vanished. If I was in the studio, I felt guilty I wasn’t paying attention to the new dog, the at home husband, cooking, cleaning, or out visiting friends and family. If I was doing all those other things, I was getting frustrated at not finding enough time to be in the studio. I couldn’t seem to find a happy balance.

Today, I’ve decided to give myself a break and quit stressing about it all. I do not have to produce 30 top quality paintings a month. I don’t even have to produce that many a year. I wonder what the storage rooms of some of these daily painters looks like. I know what my painting storage looks like!

Even if I could produce a painting a day, I couldn’t sell that many. What happens is that I end up contributing to the environmental mess the world is in, by landing many of those paintings in the landfill. The realization of the environmental impact of needing to produce like I was a robotic factory, has helped me get over all the anxiety I have had over the past few years.

Wouldn’t a dozen good, sellable paintings a year be better for the world? I know it is certainly more doable for what my life demands right now, and has made it easier for me to relax and enjoy my painting time guilt free.

Despite the message the only way to improve is to paint daily, I think the opposite has been true for me. A slower pace has given my brain time to catch up with all the learning I have done over the past few years. With fewer painting days, my skills have improved. I have more time to think about and plan a painting, rather than rushing in to get it done. Win, win!

We do not have to buy into this all or nothing scenario. If the message you are hearing over and over causes you anxiety, know that you do not have to adopt it. Define your own parameters for your artist’s life and create from a place of contentment.

The Artist And The Ego

A recent rejection was balanced with some glowing reviews of my art. This yin and yang of life lead me to ponder the roll of ego in an artist’s life.

Dave Ames said: “Trash and treasure are two sides of the same coin. Low self-esteem produces one, and public adulation the other.”

I am genuinely surprised by positive reactions to my work, and am so grateful when another person forms a strong enough connection to my work to want to purchase it. I normally don’t take rejection personally and can generally separate myself from my art, even though it is such a personal part of my inner being.

Ego is defined as “a person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance”. Self-esteem is defined as “confidence in one’s own worth or abilities; self-respect”.

When talking to others about my surprise at positive critiques, I was asked how I keep working if I don’t expect others to like my art or if I didn’t think it was good. It’s not that I don’t think my work is good, exactly, but more that I’m unsure of how it measures up in the big scheme of things. When I begin a painting, I don’t start it with the public in mind. I don’t start it thinking about the ultimate sale. It starts from a deeply personal part of me. There is a need to create this story that end results are unimportant. It doesn’t even matter at this stage if it’s any good. It’s all about the story and how it relates to my spirit. At this stage there is no separation from self.

When the painting is finished I will usually, though not always, put it out there for others to see and judge. I am able to separate myself from the work. When praise comes in it is because that person connects to the story of the painting, not because I have superb painting abilities. When criticism comes in it’s because the story wasn’t clear to that one person, or was one they could not identify with. Yes, it could also be from sloppy technical execution of the painting process for which I am responsible, but it is a criticism against the painting not myself as a human being.

My ego isn’t very big, yet I have enough self-esteem to believe I can succeed if I work hard enough. I know my work has value, yet I know there are so many others who are better. When I paint, although I might enjoy the end results and feel I conveyed the emotion of the story well, I know where the flaws are and what can be improved. There may be technical aspects I’m unsure of. Sometimes I will love a painting and others don’t think much of it. The opposite is true as well. I will hate a piece that the public seems to love. That is why it is so important for an artist to go beyond their own walls and expose their work to the criticism

The ego is a double-edged sword in art. An artist at once needs to believe in themselves and the work they are doing in order to promote it, and have the confidence to show it to others, but at the same time they need to separate themselves from the art to avoid total discouragement and quitting in disgust.

On the other end of the stick, is the danger of an artist becoming so full of themselves to the determinant of their own career.  Most stereotypes of artists are built around the big ego. This is the person that thinks they are a genius and every painting a masterpiece to be held up on a pedestal for all the world to see.

If I were to think like that what motivation would there be for me to learn, grow, and improve? The big ego would become stagnant and dull from a lack of growth.  They already believe themselves to be the best they could possibly be.

Instead my ego tells me there are many others better than me, and so lots more for me to learn. There are a lot more things for me to strive to achieve. Yet, the praise gives me the courage to cast a wider net and reach for some of those higher milestones that will propel my career forwards.  

In Defence Of Slowing Down

In October I, once again, started out doing the daily drawing challenge that I have done for many years. But part way through, I lost interest. I continued anyway, but felt a growing sense of frustration. I am not a fast worker. I seem to take twice as long as anyone else to do a sketch, drawing, or painting. I realized that a few years ago when trying to join friends plein air painting. They seemed to delight in getting a painting down in ½ an hour, while I would leave so frustrated with nothing worthwhile on the canvas. But when I got back to the studio and could take my time with a painting, I was so much happier and the resulting painting was more meaningful. It’s like that extra time allowed me to feel the spirit of the place, rather than rushing through like a tourist snapping a few photos and rushing to the next destination.   

In trying to do the daily sketches, I was longing to make more elaborate drawings that would take me a several more hours than I had available to work. The same thing is true for my paintings. I prefer to start a painting and then slowly work through it. I am not interested in fast art. I am not interested in producing art like I was an assembly line worker in some factory. The world does not need anymore 20 minute or daily paintings. Judging by my inventory, and conversations with other artists, our storage bins are overflowing with artwork that never gets seen. 

Shoebill Stork

If any activity is done because of the love and joy you have for doing it, why should it be rushed through? I want to produce slow, considered art.

The other thing I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about is art marketing. I am rejecting all the push to sell artwork through various means. I am one person with a very exhaustible amount of energy. The older I get, and the longer I battle a chronic autoimmune disease, the less energy I have. I want to spend it painting, drawing, and living. I do not want to be tied to a computer trying to sell myself and my artwork. So I will not. 

Some of it will go out to galleries and shows. Some of it will be listed online, and hopefully that will be enough. If it isn’t then I guess my work will become meaningless other than as an activity to bring me joy. I am rejecting the push to produce and market, in favour of a slower, more considered life. 

Telling Stories

I am often frustrated trying to reach this goal I have in my head for the way I want my paintings and drawings to be. I am searching for a certain something which is hard to pinpoint. I am looking for more story, more expression in the work. 

Last night we attended a house concert with Kev Corbett, who is a folk singer and storyteller. There was a line in one of his songs which made reference to “a bunch of Group Of Seven trees on the shore”. I instantly knew the image his song was trying to paint and how that tied into his story. The expressiveness of Corbett’s songs and stories have a certain quality I want in my paintings. Some of his songs were able to reach down inside me to grab hold of my soul and give it a good shake….wake it up. At one point, I had a well of tears building in my eyes. If a story can do that to me in a living room full of strangers, you know it has real depth….serious expression. 

Frederick Varley Stormy Weather

That’s the quality I want to achieve with my paintings. And while most of my work is considered good, and loved, it’s not meeting that level for me on a consistent basis. I don’t want to just paint a pretty scene of the landscape before me. I want to create a story within in. I want the painting to have something important to say….to be able to reach out and shake the viewers soul. 

Working with the Revelations Of The Beautiful project – creating paintings to go with the poetry of Edwin Henry Burrington – I have challenged myself into thinking more of how to tell a story in paint. As that project winds down (I’m currently waiting for my proof copy of the book), I am left with how to create stories out of the landscape I live in. How can I be a visual story teller, rather than a just a good painter?

Creatures Mingler – 16×20” – Oil on birch panel Sold

“A work of art which did not begin in emotion is not art. Emotion is the starting point, the beginning and the end. Craftsmanship and technique are in the middle.
– Paul Cezanne


How do I create a story when I go to the pond to paint en plein air on a winter afternoon?  How do I improve the expression of the paint, values, colour, and design of a piece of canvas that same way a singer or poet creates a story to stir up your emotions? While it would be easy to look at the easily identifiable works of the Group Of Seven and try to emulate their style, that gets me nowhere on my quest of imparting my own story to the work. I can study it instead for the qualities that make it expressive. I can study all art and try to distill what it is that makes me drawn to it. What is the story and how has it been told? 

If I take my example of popping out to the pond to do a quick plein air sketch, I need to ask myself, why I am here. What makes this place worth wasting paint and canvas on? What is my emotional connection to this scene? But is that enough to give the work a story and expression? Or is it okay that some works are just pretty pictures in practice for the story, kind of like the writer jotting down a phrase or sentence that leads him to his song? 

My search for these answers, and to give my work this elusive something continues….. 

The Complex Simplicity Of Opinions

THE COMPLEX SIMPLICITY OF OPINIONS

“I want to touch people with my art. I want them to say, ‘He feels deeply, he feels tenderly.'”
Vincent van Gogh

The movie “Loving Vincent” is set to open in theatres shortly. This ground-breaking movie is entirely hand painted, and I am eager to see it. Not just for the way it was crafted, but for the story of Vincent. Much of what he wrote over his all too short of life really resonates with me, as I’m sure it does for many other artists.

While I am always striving to improve the technical mastery of my work, my main concern is expression, as I believe it was with van Gogh. I want my work to resonate with other people in the world who also feel deeply and tenderly. In that regard I have reached out to a couple of (so-called) experts over the past year to see how my work is perceived by others and if it is meeting the goals I have for it. 

In one instance I was given the advice to continue to work on simplification to allow the emotion to be more easily expressed. To represent the figure with the slash of a well crafted brush stroke, rather than excessively rendering it. In another the person said: “Consider removing the figures from your work until you can render them so well that they have something strong to say and aren’t props in a painting. ” The point is the figures are just props. As I’ve written before about staffage: figures placed to help guide the eye and tell the story, but not to form the story itself.   

I was recently at the Monet exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery and while studying some of his work a discussion about the figures in his landscapes occurred. His painting ‘Snow Effect Sunset’ was one of my favourites from the exhibition. In it, his rendering of the figures are exactly what the first expert had been pushing me towards. Nothing more than a well placed slash of paint.  What would happen to the painting if the figures were rendered more? Would the focus shift from the light and feeling of cold, to the figures alone? The hint of warmth in the sky would not have the same importance in telling us what a chilly day it is here if our attentions were diverted to more highly rendered figures. 

How do the figures inform the composition of this painting? 

“Oh! I must somehow manage to do a figure in a few strokes.”
Vincent van Gogh 

In the painting ‘Iron Mill In The Hague’ by van Gogh, the eye enters the painting at the start of the canal and follows it down. If not for the figure it would likely continue right out at the bottom right, but the figure says “hey wait a minute, look here”, and helps guide us up to the chimney stacks that tells us about the heavy industry and pollution happening in this seemingly idyllic village. The figure here is rendered in slightly more detail than that of Monet’s painting, but still not what one would consider ‘well rendered’. Was Monet’s version of the figure what van Gogh was striving for in his own work?

In my work, I am aiming for expression. To tell a story which the viewer can feel more so that read. My staffage figures are somewhere between the two artists. Probably closer to van Gogh, but trying to get more like Monet’s without them looking like accidental marks I forget to finish! I want people to see the passion more so than the technical mastery or technique. That’s not to say I don’t want the work to be better technically or for me to have better technique. Far from it. But the problem with trying to reach that goal is the goalposts keep moving! The closer you get, the further out (or higher up) you move the goal.  

The person who told me to leave out the figures had started off saying “The work is viable. It’s painterly, it’s abstract landscape, a good sense of color”, but then finished by saying “your work isn’t compelling – your subject matter isn’t interesting to a general public and the way you render it isn’t either.  You don’t seem to understand the importance of division of space, line and mark making, paint/brush work, edge, shapes, values, color, form, or drawing.”. Confused? Me too. 

Why such completely opposite opinions from the people I sought advice from, and even from one so called expert? A viewer’s background and past history has more to do with their reaction to any given painting than the technical mastery and intentions of the artist. The opinions may even depend on the kind of day that person has had and where they are struggling in their own life.

Therein lies the problem with art and, especially with seeking someone’s advice, there is no one answer. Where one person comes from may be completely at odds with where another person is coming from. Where one artist is aiming for high realism, another’s goal is personal expression. At it’s simplest, it all boils down to “do you like the work….does it move you”. The complexity resides in the why’s and why nots.

So how do you know who you should seek counsel with, and who may be at complete opposition to your artistic intentions and style? The whole process has spurred me to want to write an article about what to look for before seeking someone for art advice, coaching, or critique, and I would like to ask my fellow artists if you have any stories about hiring someone you’d like to share. I am looking for good and bad situations. How have you benefitted by a critique? How has it hurt you? Do you have any tips for making sure you have hired someone that you will get along with and provide YOU with valuable but trustworthy opinions?

Why Paint Figurative Work?

Wherever I want to improve any aspect of my painting abilities, I always turn to the human figure. The figure is useful in improving skills because mistakes are so easily seen. With a landscape a mistake in drawing can easily be accepted and taken as a natural anomaly built into the land. Here are more reasons I turn to the figure when I want to improve my paintings:

  • Figure drawing teaches you to draw better. As well as mistakes being more obvious in the figure, it also teaches you to relate each part to another. 
  • Figure drawing helps teach you to see relationships between shapes and distances.
  • Figure drawing helps you to see and represent gesture and emotion, which are always important to represent in the landscape.
  • The human body is complex. Learning to draw (or paint) it teaches patience and simplification.
Ballet Blanc 9×12” Charcoal on toned paper

Good drawing forms the ‘bones’ on which a strong painting hangs.
– (Chris Bingle)

The Artist And The Ego

A recent rejection was balanced with some glowing reviews of my art. This yin and yang of life lead me to ponder the roll of ego in an artist’s life.

Dave Ames said: “Trash and treasure are two sides of the same coin. Low self-esteem produces one, and public adulation the other.”

I am genuinely surprised by positive reactions to my work, and am so grateful when another person forms a strong enough connection to my work to want to purchase it. I normally don’t take rejection personally and can generally separate myself from my art, even though it is such a personal part of my inner being.

Ego is defined as “a person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance”. Self-esteem is defined as “confidence in one’s own worth or abilities; self-respect”.

Abraham Lake – 8×10” – Oil on canvas panel

When talking to others about my surprise at positive critiques, I was asked how I keep working if I don’t expect others to like my art or if I didn’t think it was good. It’s not that I don’t think my work isn’t good, exactly, but more that I’m unsure of how it measures up in the big scheme of things. When I begin a painting, I don’t start it with the public in mind. I don’t start it thinking about the ultimate sale. It starts from a deeply personal part of me. There is a need to create this story that end results are unimportant. It doesn’t even matter at this stage if it’s any good. It’s all about the story and how it relates to my spirit. At this stage there is no separation from self.

When the painting is finished I will usually, though not always, put it out there for others to see and judge. I am able to separate myself from the work. When praise comes in it is because that person connects to the story of the painting, not because I have superb painting abilities. When criticism comes in it’s because the story wasn’t clear to that one person, or was one they could not identify with. Yes, it could also be from sloppy technical execution of the painting process for which I am responsible, but it is a criticism against the painting not myself as a human being.

My ego isn’t very big, yet I have enough self-esteem to believe I can succeed if I work hard enough. I know my work has value, yet I know there are so many others who are better. When I paint, although I might enjoy the end results and feel I conveyed the emotion of the story well, I know where the flaws are and what can be improved. There may be technical aspects I’m unsure of. Sometimes I will love a painting and others don’t think much of it. The opposite is true as well. I will hate a piece that the public seems to love. That is why it is so important for an artist to go beyond their own walls and expose their work to the criticism

The ego is a double-edged sword in art. An artist at once needs to believe in themselves and the work they are doing in order to promote it, and have the confidence to show it to others, but at the same time they need to separate themselves from the art to avoid total discouragement and quitting in disgust.

On the other end of the stick, is the danger of an artist becoming so full of themselves to the determinant of their own career.  Most stereotypes of artists are built around the big ego. This is the person that thinks they are a genius and every painting a masterpiece to be held up on a pedestal for all the world to see.

If I were to think like that what motivation would there be for me to learn, grow, and improve? The big ego would become stagnant and dull from a lack of growth.  They already believe themselves to be the best they could possibly be.

Instead my ego tells me there are many others better than me, and so lots more for me to learn. There are a lot more things for me to strive to achieve. Yet, the praise gives me the courage to cast a wider net and reach for some of those higher milestones that will propel my career forwards.  

Duende

Duende

(n.) a quality of passion and inspiration.

  • a spirit.

ORIGIN 1920s: from Spanish, contraction of duen de casa, from dueño de casa ‘owner of the house.’

In art Duende loosely means having soul, a heightened state of emotion, expression and authenticity, often connected with flamenco. The artistic and especially musical term was derived from the duende, a fairy or goblin-like creature in Spanish mythology.

I saw a posting going around Facebook which states Duende is the mysterious power of art to move a person. While the definition may not be quite correct it’s a wonderful sentiment. There should be a word for such a thing, shouldn’t there? 

As an artist that is the ultimate goal. To create work with soul, emotion, expression, and authenticity, which has a mysterious power to move another person. For as long as I live that is what I search for – that is the thing which I strive to create. Art is a continual process of learning, refining, experimentation, and play. 

What is it that keeps the artist going? It is the search for that magical something – that duende which is different for everyone. We want to inspire passion in not only ourselves, but others as well. We want our work to move a person. The ultimate feeling of satisfaction comes not from awards or accolades, but from the story from that one person who was spiritually moved by your work. The irony of it all, is that the artist will rarely know when they’ve achieve a work having duende until it is placed before the public. 

Vision Quest Part II

My Vision Quest series had been going well until someone commented about me not being of First Nations descent. I tried to brush the comment off, but something got under my skin. Then I started hearing other negative comments. People were quietly questioning if I was guilty of cultural appropriation for painting these images, which made me question myself. A long dry spell resulted.

The last thing I wanted to do was insult the people I was trying to celebrate through my paintings. I talked and listened to some other non-native artists who were representing First Nations people in their art. They all seemed to have a relationship with a native person. Some said I needed to seek approval to do my work, so I set off to do this, not having a clue how to actually do it.

The Horse Warriors – 22×28 – Acrylic On Canvas – Sold

I spoke to one artist who said I needed to consult with an elder. So I sent emails and tried to make phone calls to find out how to get in touch with an elder. Those efforts all lead nowhere. Calls and emails went unanswered. Finally I talked to another artist who volunteers with our historic park, which hosts an annual pow wow. I figured he might know of someone I could talk with to find out how to find an elder.

The name he gave me lead to a person who worked at a local friendship centre, but she’d quit the day before I called. However I explained my situation and they gave me the number for another organization in town. Finally success. I was able to make the arrangements to meet with an elder.

I was so nervous of how my work would be received. I went in to their resource centre before meeting with the elder and was able to show my work to a small group of First Nations people and the centres employees. The work was so well received. I can’t even say what a relief it was.

The meeting with the elder went as expected. I had already known in my heart the answers that I was seeking. I have been given a gift and a voice. It is my story I am telling – my impressions and thoughts of First Nations people and their culture. They can not give me permission to do my work, because it is mine and they have no right to say if I can or can’t do it.

There are certain protocols which could raise concerns, such as if I were to call it Native Art, which I have never done; or if I were to copy existing work, or paint on sacred items such as drums or teepees, or represent myself as being of aboriginal descent.

I was told that those who question me are doing so out of their own insecurities or jealousy. I need to ignore them and not let them get into my head. And finally I was told how to honour and talk to the spirits so that my visions keep coming to me.

Since that time the images coming to me have been overwhelming. It is like the floodgates have been opened. I can’t paint quickly enough to keep up with the visions and ideas. And I am full of gratitude for both the gift  and support I have been given. The spirits have given me, and others who have a similar calling, this gift. It is not up to me to question the reasons behind it, but to follow and honour it to the best of my abilities.

Vision Quest Part 1

I have been working on my Vision Quest series of paintings for several years. I can’t say when exactly it started or exactly why, except to say that I’ve always been driven to represent First Nations people through my work. Even within my photography there are many images that have obvious, and many not so obvious, connections.

I titled my series Vision Quest because that is how many of the images come to me – through visions, dreams, or abstract thoughts. Sometimes the work will be influenced by a story or event, and I’ll try to fit the imagery to the story. Sometimes the image comes first and I try to fit the story to that.

Daylight Dance – 11×14″ – Oil on panel – Sold


Why the First Nations people? I have tried to rationalize this over the years, but the truth is I don’t really know. It’s just what I’m being guided to do. In my rationalizations I have come to the conclusion that it’s because these peoples traditional ways represent what is missing in our society today. Respect, freedom, harmony between land, nature, and spirit; honour for the past and future, a sacred knowing that goes beyond science and logic; and living an artful life.European immigrants, of which I descend, tried to strip away the spirit, stories, and traditions of the First Nations people. I don’t know what part, if any, my ancestors played in the horrible treatment they received under the wave of immigration. I hope none since my Scottish history shares some of the struggles of the First Nations people of being displaced from their land and made out to be the savage enemy. They came here in search of freedom to live peacefully as farmers. I know of no direct ancestors that were involved in the political or military shaping of this country. When I dream I see stewards of the land who have taken care of our planet for thousands of years without the damage we have caused in a fraction of that time. Ultimately it is the struggle between freedom and oppression, an uncertainty for the future, and a belief that if we listened there is a way to live in harmony with the environment and each other. It is my hopes that I can give the First Nations people back some of their spirit and help celebrate their culture for the strength, beauty and integrity it deserves.

In part two I will share the some of the negativity that has resulted from this series, and what I’ve done about that.