I spent the afternoon out painting yesterday and came back to the studio with nothing
—a failed watercolor painting, a real dog. As I sat looking at it and the other "dog", an oil I'd painted the day before, I felt an old familiar feeling begin to creep over me: would I ever produce a winner again?
. One might think that after more than 30 years of painting this question would no longer be part of my private soul-searching. Wrong. I'll admit, it is a less frequent occurrence, but when it happens, it is even MORE discouraging because of the years put in, the time, the past successes. When you are a beginner, you expect some unsuccessful efforts. But at this stage of the game?
Yes. At this stage of the game and at any stage of the game. Years of experience up the ante, but if we are serious about our work we will always demand more from ourselves. Our standards grow with us in the quest for excellence.What may have satisfied us earlier will not suffice now. But what do we do with this grinding, deflated feeling of failure, the discouragement that hangs over us like a dull curtain?
Let's get some perspective. We are searching for excellence, right? In order to improve our skills, we have to 1) be in the "learning zone"(see blog of 7/25/10), where comfort is not a consideration; and 2) we have to be willing to fail. So...knowing these two things let's reevaluate the "failed" painting experience. Is it a failed painting or a valuable step to the next good—maybe even great—painting? A seed sowed in roughed up but now fertile soil? Can we dare to be grateful for this mess we see before us? And even if we can theoretically reason ourselves into gratitude, what action can we take to move past this disheartened feeling and realize some tangible benefit right now?
What I did was this:
I took the watercolor outside to the hose and scrubbed it down to a mere ghost of its former self, then put it up on my easel to dry. I took my painting knife to the oil and scraped the canvas clean, down to, yes, a mere ghost of itself. Then I sat back, had a cup of tea, and contemplated each pale offering. I waited for the paintings to speak to me.
After a while, I was able to see places where my drawing was weak and tentative. I saw where my composition could be reorganized and strengthened. I could see that I got fussy, too detailed, neglecting to define the big shapes. I realized I had been focused on painting "things" instead of the big shapes, color, value and edges. It was if I were looking at the process of the paintings instead of the paintings themselves.
I picked up my brushes and began to paint over the ghost paintings with big bold brave shapes of color. I felt the sense of freedom that comes whenever there is no expectation. Almost immediately an old familiar feeling washed over me . . . PASSION!