When Elizabeth and I first started contemplating making this course, we brainstormed about all the things we wished we had learned in the first ten years of painting. We talked about what might have helped us get better had we known. We both love teaching, we love to see someone fall in love with the same thing we love with all our hearts. To see someone step up to another level and feel good about themselves and what they are accomplishing is such a satisfying and exciting thing! To watch someone gain self confidence in their ability to create is the best thing ever. There is one thing I’d like to talk to you all about that hopefully will give you a sense of relief and a knowing that every stage is normal and we have all been there – no matter how skilled, how “talented”, how driven you are. That subject would be self doubt and insecurity. At times it can be debilitating and make you want to give up.
In my art career, I have been very fortunate to exhibit with some very, very well known and great artists. I don’t know why, except for my persistence, but I have been really lucky to get in the galleries and shows that I have been in – long before I was ready. This has had its advantages and its disadvantages. I am also extremely hard on myself and on my work. In 2010, I was invited to be a guest artist at the Maynard Dixon Country Show. I was doing backflips in the parking lot with excitement of being asked! It was the biggest thing that had happened to me in all of my years of painting so far. That very same summer I had four other gallery shows and was working my little behind off. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I had reasoned that the MDC 2010 was a plein air event. Instead of thinking that I should be very, very prepared with my very best work possible, I went with my normal Fly By The Seat Of Your Pants mentality and showed up down there to paint. I am not exactly the most accomplished plein air painter, especially not then. I have gotten better as a result of this experience but I don’t have a “way” of direct painting. I jump in with both feet and pray to the heavens that they work out in the end. By the end of the show, I had a body of work together that I felt pretty good about. I had a great time “star” watching, meeting the artists I have admired since the earliest of days. Although I was timid and certainly intimidated, I made the very best of it and put myself out there. Until…….. The day of hanging our works had come upon us. I found my spot where I was to exhibit and hung my work before anyone else had the chance. Then I took a break to freshen up before the reception. As soon as we came back to the reception, I walked in to see my work hanging with the rest of the show. Let me tell you, there is NOTHING more humbling than to see your not necessarily best work or best effort hanging next to the likes of Clyde Aspevig, Daniel Pinkham, T. Allen Lawson, Len Chmeil……you get the point. I was completely devastated with my own work. If I could have grabbed them off the wall and ran home without embarrassing myself any further, believe me, I would have. The comparison of my work against others tormented me to the point of giving up painting completely! I was done, I was going to cancel my shows, sell my paints and get another job ASAP. The work probably was not quite as bad as I was telling myself, but it wasn’t even close to up to par and it was really the first time I had hung next to anyone of that caliber. I cried in the parking lot, I went to my husband to be consoled with my tail between my legs. He was completely baffled by my reaction and had no idea what to do to make me feel any better! Thank you to a warm and generous spirit, Dan Pinkham, he took me to my work and talked to me about it and truly acted interested. If it had not been for that, I might have truly quit. Two weeks later I was taking a workshop with him in California and chin up, determined once more to get better and never allow that to happen again. Looking back now, it was actually one of the best experiences, albeit painful, of my career. How many times in one’s life can a person hang their work next to the best of the best and see EXACTLY where they stand in quality? Of course, it would have been much easier for it to be in private but hey, you get what you get! This art thing forces us to wear our hearts on our sleeve, put our vulnerable self out on display for all to see and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. It is a roller coaster from the beginning until the day we die I think.
I wont assume that everyone has the same insecurities that I have had, but I truly don’t know many successful, accomplished professional artists that don’t struggle with this daily, even hourly sometimes. And believe me, I know A LOT of artists and call so many of them my friends. It seems in all my conversations with them that the better you get, the more you see that you still have to learn – which can feel very hopeless at times. As hard as it is, consider these sometimes heartbreaking traits to be a blessing. An artist that no longer questions what they do or doubts their abilities or even their future relevance has ceased to get better. If one is totally confident in how they do things, they have stopped reaching for more. They have gotten to the stage of just repeating what they know, doing “formula” work that they know will be appealing. Appealing and predictable work does not make a great piece of art! Yes, confidence in knowing that you will eventually work through a piece is good, faith that you have gained enough tools to problem solve situations as they arise is a great thing – but just as important is the search! The pushing of oneself, going beyond ones own boundaries and getting outside your comfort zone without a net – THAT is what shows a soulful painting! And that never comes easy or without a load of insecurity. It parallels life in a way, in taking risks and leaps of faith in most everything that you do or try. It’s like riding a bicycle and knowing that there will be falls. It’s kind of like skiing down a hill going from a modest Stem-Christie to a parallel stance. Crossing that line or level requires determination, desire and a huge leap of faith. Oh, and the ability to get right back up and get back on that horse again! I know I am using a lot of analogies, but it is the truth. Any experience in life is paralleled in your growth in art. Expect nothing to come easy, but learn to enjoy (or at least power through) the ups and downs of growth and know that you are in the same steps as many, many masters of art.
Remember, talent is a rare and subjective commodity. Perseverance and persistence will win out almost every time. Learn to draw, learn color theory, practice good composition even with your photography and thumbnails and study art history with all of your might. Looking and studying the great paintings will give you great compositional experience! Don’t get caught up in too much art of the modern day as only the test of time will tell what is chic or in style of the moment. Look for individual, unique voices that have stood out and find out what made them tick – why they did what they did and what their cultural and social environments formed them. How did they study, who did they study with? The most liberating thing about this kind of research is knowing what made them create their works gives you permission to create yours! Every voice is important, every person with search and authenticity has something important to to express, experience to portray. And that my friends is art! How much perseverance and persistence do you have???
I am so excited to watch your journeys and see your successes – and failures. Just like I have done, just like Elizabeth has done and just as every artist has done. Participate in the group forums and help each other as we help you and we will all succeed! Thank you again for being part of our circle of friends!
I’ve been told it’s the artists’s curse……Self-doubt is so destructive. I, too, spent time in my car at a workshop crying my eyes out telling myself I should throw out all my art stuff and never paint again…..that I didn’t belong.
The kind words of the instructor after I crept back into class meant the world to me, and I completed the workshop and actually did quite well. That was 25 years ago!!
It means so much to be encouraged.
Thank you, Shanna for sharing……
We all go through really tough, insecure moments as we progress. It helps to know that we are very normal and things get better as you go!
Thank you for sharing. I am very appreciative of your lessons and critiques. I truly have no one else to ask. I am very hard on myself and I am trying very hard to slow down and just learn. I am fortunate to have a few family members who are very supportive. With social distancing I have plenty of time to paint. I will read this again when I am discouraged. Thank you
We all need an art friend. I am very lucky to have so many but especially blessed to have Shanna
Hi Terry! I am excited that we have a community here to reach out to. Sometimes it’s hard to find local people that are at the same level and the same goals as you, so reach out to the wonderful people here in our boards! And of course, to us :)
I’ve printed this out and put it on our bathroom door :) don’t be offended!! I think it’s where we all seem to go when we need some peace :) This is a great reminder we ALL struggle, and have doubts. My grandma would say next time you fall down and pick yourself up, remember it’s YOU that picked yourself up, no one else. ❤️❤️ Thank you for this wonderful website and course, it really does make a difference! Xx