Count me among the professional artists
though I’m enough of a student of Degas to feel some ambivalence about the term “professional,” However, art is the main thing I do and I have many pictures now that I’m preparing to market so therefore I am a professional. It’s my profession. It’s what I do.
Nevertheless I understand the feeling of a serious amateur painter who asks “why am I doing this?” And it’s useful before venturing further to remind ourselves what “amateur” originally means: “late 18th century: from French, from Italian amatore, from Latin amator ‘lover,’ from amare ‘to love.’ Pro athletes were at one time banned from competing in the Olympics because they were paid athletes. The difference between amateur and professional related not to quality, but to money.
Anyway back to art, I have wanted to be an artist since at least the age of 9. I know this because I stumbled upon something I wrote in grade school (my parents never threw anything away) that stated firmly: “when I grow up I want to be an artist.” I’ll omit the date, but suffice that I was nine when I wrote it.
I have had many, many bumps along the road in my artist journey (and periods of time when I did almost no painting — as when I went to college where I studied literature). Painting is the thing that always pulled me back whenever I wandered, and it did so because I love the beautiful paintings by the Old Masters and longed for the difficult challenge of painting, have wanted to understand it at its highest level, and love thinking about and experiencing the world of visual perception. I like staring at stuff. Always have.
Moreover while certain subjects perpetually confuse me — for example my brain has no use for mathematics which I say with no pride — the visual things have always felt like something I naturally and inherently understand. Even when I had not a clue how to do some art skill (draw a contour, mix a color) I felt that inwardly I understood — that I could figure it out myself if I stayed at it long enough. That’s not to say that art came easily. I recall that in the days when I first got serious about drawing, my head would ache. After a session of drawing, I felt overwhelmed with fatigue. Sometimes I just wanted to retreat to bed and take a nap. I was often having a case of the vapors.
I was young then, bit of a crème puff. As we get older, we get tougher — less quick to wilt. Art’s struggles were not things I welcomed at first, but they are now. These days I want to make painting “harder.” I look for things that puzzle me, confuse me. I want to attempt things that I don’t know how to do. I come to that eagerness for difficulty from a place of skill. I’m much more confident because I remember earlier times when I succeeded through difficulties. I face the unknowns by using what I do know. I gained skills over the years. I am eager to stretch and use them.
Youth is wasted on the young!
Still, there’ve been times when I think about a specific work — think to myself that it’s a wreck. “Why waste my time going further with it?” I have learned to ignore that sentiment. A drawing I have that is now a special favorite went that way. I was drawing my husband’s garden from a photograph and about mid-way it wasn’t working, but I kept going because “what the heck.” It’s turned out to be a very lovely drawing to me now that it’s finished, and is different from other things I typically do. I am so glad that I didn’t abandon it at that icky, awkward stage — that I kept going. I would post it here, but I haven’t been able to take a decent photo yet. The colors are subtle, and all my attempts to photograph it so far failed to do it justice. Now that the weather is sunnier I’ll have another whack at the photography. It’s on the long “to do” list.
I love that drawing. And I wouldn’t have that drawing if I had listened to those doubts. There are other works that were also awkward that I’ve made the last year that I didn’t like so well — one I already posted at this blog though I didn’t report the negative feelings. It’s reposted above. I know that I have learned things by doing the blue still life above, have gone out of the comfort zone. I know it because of the negative feelings. So even regarding the blue still life, I’m glad that it led me into new territory. Perhaps at some later juncture that new territory will further develop into something that does have meaning for me, that I’ll care about the way I love the drawing of my husband’s garden.
I could explain exactly what features of the blue still life I don’t like, but it would be too much of a digression in an already long story.
Maybe it’s different from your situation. This post develops from a long comment that I left at another artist’s blog. I’ve adapted it here — making it even longer! But you and your situation — I have no idea to whom I speak. Who’ll find these words? Today or some other time? I don’t know who you are. I hope that you’ll consider what I say when I tell you about discouragement — everybody feels it — and persistence. If you love what you do — or if you want to love it — you must stay the course. That’s the ticket price.
Because painting is my chosen vocation and I’m committed to it unequivocally, I paint come what may. (By “paint” I comprehensively include drawing in any medium, painting in any medium — oil, watercolor, pastel, other kinds of crayons, colored pencils, acrylic — I have used a lot of different materials.)
I don’t know if you have any idea how awful a violin sounds when played by someone who doesn’t know what she’s doing — especially a cheap violin.
I have another example also — an even better one. It demonstrates that I know something about the difficulties that beginners or amateurs or others on the spectrum of experience feel. Some readers have known me to reference this topic before. When my daughter was little she began violin lessons through the Suzuki program (the one that emphasizes early lessons). I saw all these little kids playing the instrument, knew that some would get to be good at it in just a few years and asked myself “why not me too.” So I got a cheap violin and began learning along with my kid (I already knew how to read music, but with the violin I found that — for me — learning to play by ear worked better).
I don’t know if you have any idea how awful a violin sounds when played by someone who doesn’t know what she’s doing — especially a cheap violin. It really did sound like I was torturing some unfortunate animal. I didn’t just think about quitting sometimes. I thought about it every time I touched the instrument which was nearly every day. Later I bought a decent student instrument and it sounded a little better but I was still a long way from being “musical.”
I kept at it. Now after over ten years I am beginning to understand the violin and I play well — not likely to ever be confused with a “real” violinist but I am very glad that I didn’t give up. It opened up a whole new world. I hear music differently now — especially if there’s violins in it. I hear the violins as I never heard them before. I love my violin and have a special relationship to what I learned because I gained it mostly alone (had a few lessons for a while but not many). I did it my way. Just like Frank Sinatra. Cue music (especially the violins).
And yet! When I first warm up, in let’s say the first ten minutes of a session, I often wonder all over again if I should quit the violin — even now — why keep doing it — I’m not very good — etc. I hear all those negative messages again inside my head. I have learned to ignore them. After a bit, warmed up, I play music that I love and I am always getting better. And I enjoy it. It stretches my mind! And I can put on a record album and play along with it. Some professionals can’t do that if they don’t play by ear. Isn’t that neat!
If you hear a voice telling you that you cannot paint, then paint my boy, and that voice will be silenced. So said Van Gogh.
He knew a thing or two about hearing voices. Sometimes the temptation to quit comes when one is nearest to making a break-through. So if you love what you’re doing — and sometimes even if you don’t love what you’re doing! — I think you gain by having faith, going forward, being willing to see where the path leads, find the new experiences and the new knowledge that it offers. The feelings change. They wax and wane. The knowledge stays.
Good luck to you one and all!
[Cat freaked items — available for purchase here. I borrowed their picture to illustrate my early violin practice.]
12 thoughts on “staying in the game”
I can relate to so much what you wrote here, I am amazed and I am also a “stare-er” I know what you mean about keeping on and ignoring those voices that say stop or isn’t that awful? I have discovered that when I push in anyway and keep on, my painting or drawing turned out surprising good or I end up loving it. Wonderful and thoughtful post!
Excellent post. For me as a “newbie” to art, I have to remember that a painting is going to look a lot different when it’s finished than it does when I’m working on it. I loved that reference you made about that “icky, awkward stage” because I never realized before that paintings go through stages like that. When I first encountered those “icky, awkward” stages, yes, I wanted to walk away. But I’m not a quitter, so fortunately I kept going. I now understand that it’s part of the process — both with paintings and often with drawings, too. When my husband wants to see a watercolor I’m working on, I sometimes say, “Remember, it’s still at the funky-looking stage.” Yet, at other times, I do forget, especially while I have the brush in my hand. I think, “This isn’t working. This isn’t coming out right. This is an awful mess.” But I keep going, and sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised by the results. It’s a learning process, and even if things look icky, awkward, and funky, we learn more from continuing on that we could ever learn from quitting. Thanks for the great post!
Judith, I’m so glad that the post speaks to your experiences. I want to encourage people.
Yes, Margaret, for sure! Staring is a hugely important fundamental in the process. Staring fosters visual thinking over narrative thinking — awareness of shapes, colors, perceptions over the formation of words and ideas. The time spent just looking is time spent activating the visual cortex. Cognitively, there’s a difference between what we see and what we think we see.
I have noticed that it will take up to 30 minutes for my brain to finally register what I am really looking at….the shapes, colors and alignment. I have to remember that and that is partly why I like to do several paintings while plein air painting.
I enjoyed reading the post, and yes, it definitely “spoke” to me and my experience as a beginner artist.
A beginner whose images remind one of some famous artists! Ha! Must be that left-hand advantage.
Seriously, look at Matisse, Morandi, Iturria, Braque and others who pared down the images to an iconic simplicity, to strong designs. A certain boldness added to simple lines and shading that is direct. It’s okay to make mistakes. Make them deliberate ones — as in put down what you think is there.
Like in baseball, you have to swing at the ball. Worse happens is that you miss. But that swing needs to have some bravado in it. I thought your painting — the still life is kind of spunky. I like it.
Oh, I like that baseball analogy! Keep swinging, and eventually I’ll connect. And be bold about it. Yes, that’s good advice, and I’m going to take it. 🙂
Great post, lots for me to think about. Also cudos to you for sticking with the violin, I really admire your tenacity.
That’s the spirit, Judith!
It is perhaps my family, the unwitting listeners, who had the real tenacity, Fruitfuldark, but I am glad I stuck to the violin too. Ha, ha. And glad that they stuck to me even as I stuck to it.
Visual awareness does change through a session — it seems to me — I firmly believe it. Some of our cognitive skills are partly compartmentalized and time is a factor. Cells turn on, light up. Cells can fatigue too. The time factor in art is not often referenced, how attention shifts, ebbs and flows, how suddenly you notice something — it was there all along, but now you see it, etc. Totally agree, Margaret.