"Painting is easy when you don’t know how, but very difficult when you do”—Edgar Degas
Anyway, the reason I am bringing this up, is that I have been working on some landscape studies over the weekend, and have been struggling with my own motivations for the subject. I mean, why paint a landscape—why not just take a picture? I know it sounds a bit crazy, but landscape painting as a whole has not been around that long. It was less than 150 years ago or so that people even starting thinking that landscape painting was something to take seriously—and then mainly because there was no photography. People lived without landscape paintings for thousands of years and seemed to get along just fine—I suppose they would just look out the window instead. So why ruin a good thing and start hanging these colored scribbles on the wall? It seems a reasonable question.
When I started painting landscapes early in my artist career—I really didn’t think too much about it. I owned a French Easel long before I owned my studio easel—and going outside to paint just seem natural. However, as I have gotten older and more progressed in my painting process, I have found the same thing that Degas has spoken of--that the more I know about painting, the harder it seems to get—so why?
The first reason is that you start asking much more from paintings. Also, and I think most painters will agree, your artistic output always lags behind what you think you can do in your mind. In that sense, the painting you are thinking about, or trying to paint today—is the one that will come out at the easel in three or six months. This means artists are always a bit frustrated with their outputs—always challenged by “the next one” that is lurking in our head. This is probably also true of other creative processes, such as writing.
Which brings me to my point of this post, which is the need to find a process that works for you in terms of reducing the lag between what you want to do—and what actually comes out. That is, the need to make a stronger connection between your artistic vision and the practical process of making art. I think if you take the time to do this, it can be very empowering—and will provide a strong foundation for your work—which I think this is absolutely necessary to sustain yourself as an artist. I mean, what if a critic says that your paintings are no better than “embryonic wallpaper”—would you quit painting? What if they said it over and over again over fifteen years…in the local newspaper? I don't think many artists can honestly say they could still go to the studio everyday. I wonder if I could.
The good news is that the most potent antidote for the critics and self-doubters alike is to have a solid artistic process that supports your studio practice. What I am talking about here is a practical process that will get you back into the studio painting no matter what happens in your daily life. Of course, everyone has a slightly different way of going about their art, so I am not trying to say that I can give you a detailed plan—but let me tell you about some steps that I have taken that have helped me move in the right direction in my own process:
1. Take yourself seriously. As you have probably learned, there are very few people who take artists seriously and painters even less. Degas always said that this is why he never married, he didn’t want his wife popping into the studio saying—that is a nice little painting—why don’t you paint more like that? Everyone has so many pre-conceived notions about artists, if you say you are an artist—you are more likely to get a snide comment about what a nice hobby that must be—rather than support. Imagine, if you were to stand up at a party and announce you have decided to become an investment broker, no one would bat an eye. On the other hand, if you stand up and announce you were going to be an artist—most people would roll their eyes. Someone once said to me, “If you don’t take yourself seriously, how can you expect anyone else to?” I think this is worth thinking about--if you want to get people to support you—you need to do it yourself first. Would you take yourself more seriously if you were a heart surgeon? Hmmmm.
2. Think before you Paint. I think there is a great tendency to jump too quickly into a painting. I mean, what is all the fuss--get some paint, brushes, and a canvas—and away you go. For many years, this is the way I approached painting—and while it led to output—it usually did not lead to satisfying results. I have come to understand in my own work, that it is important to consider, before even lifting a brush, what I am trying to accomplish for each and every painting. I know it sounds tedious, but believe me—this helps. Once I have a clear idea, then I can start looking at the options in terms of composition, focal point, and basic color schemes. As I mentioned in a previous post, I find it useful to pick one simple idea or objective for each painting. For example, for a landscape—it might be a particular feeling of evening or morning light, or the color of a particular mountain or colors of the season. If this is too complicated, you can make it simpler—like the just capturing the mass of a tree or the color of a field. In my experience, the simpler and more focused the objective—the better the painting will be in the end. Also, having a clear objective in mind helps you to establish a process for developing ideas. For example—if you wanted to capture a particular time of the day—you can start by looking at how other artists have accomplished it, do some small studies and sketches, and work through the problem. The process itself will take you somewhere.
3. Have clear goals and a plan for your work. Making progress in painting is very slow. In my experience, it takes about 3-4 months of painting everyday to see even small improvement—and years to see any big gains. Thus, your goals and plans for your work need to reflect this reality. For example, if you want to get your work into a local gallery, it may take years just to get your work to the point when you feel you are ready. And, even if you are good enough today, you will still need enough work, the rights sizes and subjects, and a consistent style of work even to be considered—that could take months, if not longer. Personally, I find it useful to set clear weekly, monthly, yearly, and every five-year goals for my work. You can also have a long-term or lifetime goal—but these are mostly for dreaming. It is better to have more short term goals, than long term goals—since these are the ones that will drive your daily process. For example, a short-term goal might be to paint a small painting that really captures the feeling of the fall colors in your neighborhood—while a 6 month goal might be to make a set of paintings that you could enter into a local art show. The one-month goal is the one that will drive your immediate process, so you should take the time you need to achieve it. Do small studies, do some research, make it happen. Taking a slow, practical approach to your short-term objectives will immediately reward you, as it serves as support for you as an artist. After all, the first thing you will need to go to the museums to look at how other artist have done this, do some sketching, color studies, take pictures—really let yourself get into it. The deeper you go, the better your will feel about your work—and the more self-sustaining the process. Your spouse might even start to take you seriously.
4. Judge the process, not each individual output. It is very easy to make a bad painting. We all make them. Even the ones we think are good, often backfire. I am always surprised when the paintings I think are my best, other people don’t seem to like—while some of my worst (in my opinion) have been the ones to sell. Artists are not good judges of their own work. So how does one judge ones work? Well, if you are focused on clear objectives and are taking the time to prepared and execute, the outputs become less important as individual pieces to sell or show. What you will quickly see is that each painting is like the piece in a larger puzzle—leading to something else. Sure, some are better than others—but you might find for example, in that one I really nailed the colors. Or the composition in that one is what I was after. You will begin to see your paintings less as statements of whether you are a "good artist"--and more as imperfect children of your process.
Anyway, I hope you have found these ramblings useful—and perhaps inspiring. In my experience, a good artistic process will give you a sense of purpose and motivation—and provide support even in the most chaotic times. I usually close by saying, go to your studio and paint. But, today I think I will close by saying—go to your studio and think (but not too much)—then paint.
All the best, sixtyminuteartist