The Burden of Doing Something Right

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When you finally do it right. When all your hard work culminates in that great piece. When you feel you were finally on your game. When it felt almost easy. What happens next?

Well, for me it boosts my confidence — as it should, right? I mean, I’ve been working SO HARD for this. It finally happened. Yay, Me! So this means I can do it again, right? I just did it. So, of course, I’ve reached a new level in my skill set. I broke through the barrier. I can do it again, can’t I?

…Maybe…

Maybe not.

What has happened to me so many times when I reach that new level in a particular piece is I set myself up for failure. How? Because I’m an optimist — especially after doing something great. I launch into that next project as though I were invincible. And…I tank. Ouch! Don’t let your successes side track you. I’m not saying you shouldn’t launch into your next project with confidence and optimism. You should! But if you fail, as I have so often after a performance windfall, don’t let it get to you.

I’m writing about this because I know how sensitive we artsy types are. We can be downright bi-polar at times. One moment we are going to conquer the world with our art. The next we are contemplating giving it all up to go do something easier. So don’t give up. If we were to graph our progress as artists the upward curve would not be smooth and consistent. It would be as jagged as a crosscut saw. Of course, in the big picture we are getting better. So don’t let those little failures bother you too much. And they are little. Maybe “failure” isn’t the best word to use here. Maybe “setback” or “speedbump” would be better. Just keep going. Progress in art is much like anything else in life: relationships, parenting, learning any highly skilled activity. We succeed, we fail, we succeed…etc. But the persistent and optimistic ones make steady progress. We grow. We mature. Believe it or not I have to talk myself through this quite often.

So keep going, My Friends. Don’t let your successes set you up for failure. Realize you’re GOING TO FAIL at regular intervals…unless you’re super human or something. Learn from it, take it in stride, and enjoy the journey.

DG

PS — When I say “realize you’re going to fail” that doesn’t mean you should expect failure when you start a painting. You should expect success. Start each piece thinking you’re going to nail it, because that’s probably the only way you will nail it. But if you don’t…you know what I mean. When I tank it still seems like a surprise. “What do you mean I screwed up?!” It kind of hits me hard. But I pick myself up and go after it again. Perhaps just a little wiser this time.

27 thoughts on “The Burden of Doing Something Right”

  1. Oh man. Spoken from the rock pile of hard labor. Exactly what I ALWAYS feel. No amount of success is ever enough. It helps to have some reasonable souls about that can give us the perspective we so desperately need.

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  2. My A Level art teacher tore up my best work! I was speechless, he said you did it once, you can do it again then when I did he tore that up too. I left his class 2 weeks later. I never went back to any teaching until I found your blog and vids they have birthed a fire to paint again, just not got the confidence as it is going to be reinventing the wheel now. It will come again Im sure. Thank you for your generous helps.

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  3. Thanks to admitting to failures. Often as a struggling artist, I look at those works of artists that I admire (like yourself), and never see the mistakes, the failures posted. As if you have all reached this unreachable place. I then may feel hopeless…”why bother, I’ll never be able to…”. What keeps me going is that one success…and the decision that I just won’t give up.

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  4. I love this, David. I appreciate your candid-ness with this art biz we do. Not many are willing to share their honest feelings about what they do, I sometimes wonder if I’m considered the whiney artist in Victoria, the one who can’t stop sharing how I feel each day I set out to strive to be as good as . You’re right, it’s not just at the easel, it’s everywhere. For me also with singing it’s the same. One day I am Barbra Streisand, the next day Joe Cocker on helium. I don’t call those days “failure”, no. I call those “off days” lack of mojo, unexpected inablility to be what I expect of myself. It is SO frustrating to realize the work still needs to be done, there are no magic levels that will forever more mean perfect success. But the good days sure do make up for the off-days, that’s why we keep going. Thank you!

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    1. You know…it seems to me that so many want to hide their humanness. I don’t really see the point in that. Part of my goal with this blog is to dismantle the “mystique” of art making. There is a spiritual, dare I say mystical, side to it. But we are fallible humans who tend to make a lot of mistakes. I want the aspiring to know that. I don’t try to hide that. I appreciate your comment. Best wishes!

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  5. Great post. For me, painting is like sport; you can play to win, or you can play not to lose. In painting, playing to win is attacking the subject without worrying about mistakes or the final result. Playing not to lose is painting in a stiff, keep-it-inside-the-lines manner. My failures (and they are in the vast majority) are play not to lose paintings. But, like you, I always have hope for the next one…

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  6. This is a great post and timely, as well. You’ve described my experiences so accurately that I’m wondering where the hidden camera is!

    Great post and great encouragement. Thank you!

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  7. It is good to know that an artist who’s work I admire greatly shares the same burden as I do. There are so many things I admire about your work, but the one thing that you “seem” to have an iron grip on is your technique. It seems so be very much a part of you, and that is a beautiful thing. I took some time off a couple of years ago and have spent the past two years failing while trying to remember how I used to paint! Thankfully, it is returning now, but not after almost quitting for good… many times. You have had a great deal to do with me pushing on. Thank you.

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    1. Thank you. Yeah, by now I’ve been painting enough so that my process is pretty solidly developed. BUT…some days it seems like my skills went bye-bye! They always come back but it’s strange how this happens.

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  8. The struggle is part of what makes it worth doing. It is reassuring to know that even accomplished artists like you experience the ups and downs. Sometimes I’m filled with self-doubt. But I love painting and strive to keep improving.
    Among other things, it teaches me perseverance and humility.
    And when I see your work, which I admire greatly, it gives me joy, inspiration, and something to aspire to. I recently saw one of your beautiful paintings in an exhibit at the Bennington Art Center.
    Thank you for sharing your valuable knowledge and reminding us that even the pros don’t always hit a home run.

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  9. David, you write so true and from the heart. I can’t tell you how much I admire you both as a person and an artist. This article and the one on artist block are great! I just attended your Whidbey Island workshop and it was every thing I wanted, needed and hoped it would be! You did jump start this old battery and I have been painting almost everyday…as per your advice to all of us. You are so right about the comradery of other artists. I’ve missed it very much! Thanks again for all you give and share.

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  10. Wow. This came just at the right time. I tanked just days ago and have been avoiding my canvas. I have been asking myself “why do you try so hard? Are you any good at all? Thank you very much for the lift and encouragement David.

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  11. Well stated and thanks for posting it. Through the years I remember frizbeeing canvases right out the window and even shredding them at times lol. Not rational…but an artist and this is a common burden because we do act bi-polar as David eloquently put it. Thanks for making me feel normal among my own David!

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  12. Thanks you, David, for your honesty. When I watch you paint (online) it seems so deft, such complete confidence in each colour mix, each stroke. I used to wonder if I was more talented if I would fight with my pictures less; but I’m starting to understand that all artists have their battles. To find out that you, with your exceptional talent and skill, still have those days, those paintings, those problems too, reassures me greatly. Thank you for sharing your thoughts as well as your techniques.

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  13. David – spot on. And I understand your reluctance to use failure. It has taken me a long time to change my thinking from using the term ‘failure’ to ‘learning’. At first it seemed like I was weasling out but then began to see that looking at it this way mean we are less likely to fall into that trap next time. There is no instant successes, we all have to be grinders. Thanks for the boost to our artistic confidence!

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  14. I have always wonder if it is better to have a lot of work on my website or just my very best paintings? Most of my paintings don’t look nearly as good in the photos as they do in person. I also find that once you varnish the paintings this is even more so. I also don’t know if I should have work that is sold on my website. Someone told me to write a little story about each painting on my website. Sometimes if I sell a painting I wonder what it was about that painting that got someone to buy it? Sometimes I paint at the time what I think is a successful painting and then look at it later and think that wasn’t that great, I really appreciate your article.

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  15. So glad to read this as the exact same feelings happen to me. I’ve been trying to improve my portrait painting. Just when I think I am doing OK I look at one of your paintings and think…shit…I’ve got a long way to go yet. I get periods where wow something just clicked! And I don’t mean a dodgy hip joint ( not that old just yet ha!) and I feel I’ve made a step forward….then recently had to paint 3 seperate attempts at a portrait to get it right. That knocked me back. Your words of wisdom helped me realise, its not only me feels these things. We all get up and down times.

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