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How to be an effective painter

August 23, 2017

These notes are from a talk I gave at the Mount Gretna School of Art in July 2017 

 

 

     Effective people have effective habits.  I want to talk about 3 areas for an effective artist to focus on: STUDIO HABITS, PERSONAL HABITS, and MENTAL HABITS.

 

STUDIO HABITS

All aspects of studio life contribute to the success of your work.

THERE ARE NO CORNERS TO CUT. An artist who skips right to the painting is like a pianist who only want to play when they perform and not do their scales alone at home.

How carefully you prepare you canvases or paper matters. So does making canvases in advance so you are never on a roll with nothing to work on.

Cleaning your brushes and palette EVERY time you paint matters.

Spending time looking at art books matters. So does making copies to understand them.

Drawings and studies that won’t be shown matter…as does contemplating them. EXAMPLE of old work with B/W version. Better to model yourself after Edison than Leonardo.“Use boredom to destroy” - Diebenkorn How big is your “maybe pile”?Cleaning up your studio and keeping it organized matters. Being as frugal as possible matters which means planning ahead & stocking up Ex) I tube my own white paint. I use only Utrecht paint. Do the math before buying canvas/linen. Do not assume the more you buy, the cheaper it is per square yard. Whatever they have too much of will be discounted most. If you are flexible, try Ebay and Craigslist.

Presentation matters when showing work. Metroframe.com wood float frames “cut to size with wedges” allow you to put them together yourself saving money. Ask yourself, “Am I doing my scales?”

 

 

PERSONAL HABITS  

Your personal life choices can determine the success of your work.

 

     Technology is a great expense and time waster. You aren’t a surgeon who needs to be on call.

Being “in touch” means you will be regularly interrupted and then distracted by whatever text or phone call you just got.  Painting takes all the concentration you have.  

I don’t have a cellphone. “Doing without” raises your frustration tolerance & is good preparation for painting. Artists need to develop a high tolerance for frustration.

 

   Artists live differently than non-artists.  Our priorities are not the same. Time>money.

DO NOT COMPARE YOUR LIFESTYLE TO FRIENDS AND RELATIVES WHO ARE NOT ARTISTS.  Remember Malcolm Gladwell’s "10,000 hour rule", which states that it takes 10,000 hours to master something, be it chess, flying a plane, or playing tennis.

You can’t live like TV & magazines say you should, endlessly treating yourself to shopping sprees and entertainments.  Their job is to sell you an image. Yours is to think for yourself.  

     The ONLY way to get 10,000 hours of painting in is to cut things out of your life that many other people don’t- even good things. They may get to go on vacations, socialize more and make more money. (But they may not like their jobs....hence the need for a vacation.)

 

     Do you HAVE to belong to a gym? Have a car? Live alone? Have a separate studio outside of the home? Have air conditioning? Get a new phone? See that new movie or concert? Have an elaborate birthday party?

Have you ever seen a picture or Morandi’s easel? It looks like the cheapest, flimsiest thing I have ever seen. 

 

    Having said that, there are no hard rules guaranteeing you success as an artist.

Example: Having children does not mean you will be less successful.  

Choosing not to have kids doesn’t mean you will be more successful.

Ditto for marriage, marriage to an artist, and having a “real” job. Anything is possible.

 

     Fitness is vital to being an artist.  Landscape painting in particular is a very physical job. Exercise will keep you strong enough to haul your supplies around outdoors plus you brain will work better.  Remember the Power pose too. (See Amy Cuddy’s Ted Talk)

 

     Regular drinking is a great expense and time waster.  It will effect the next day in the studio if you even get there at all.  Artists are very prone to heavy drinking & creative at justifying it.  Would you want to get surgery from a surgeon who was hung over?

     Anxiety and stress come with being an artist. Find ways to deal with them.

The myth of the wild and crazy artist is just a story - the best artists are monk-like.

 

 

THINKING HABITS

     By far the most important category and affects the others.Your thinking habits can help or hinder you and are in your control.

Finding ways to sustain yourself is going to be more and more important the older you get.

     One way to sustain yourself is to actively develop a philosophy of why painting matters. For me, it is that good paintings slow you down. And as a doctor friend says, "We need doctors to survive but Art makes life worth living."

Another I sustain myself as an artist is to go to museums, visit studios and give and GET critiques. You are NEVER beyond the point of constructive criticism. Avoiding critiques because you think you are "beyond that stage" is going to backfire and can keep you in a rut.

 

 

     Lastly, I want to focus on a method of questioning you thoughts from RET (Rational Emotive Therapy) which I have found invaluable to being an artist.  I call it “doing my homework”:

It’s easier to fall into thinking errors than to think “correctly”.

Examining your thoughts lets you replace thoughts that are irrational, unhelpful and holding you back.  I highly recommend “The Feeling Good Handbook” and any other book by David Burns.  Sometimes I think this book has been the reason for my painting success.

 

     Keeping a written journal is the method that Burns and other Cognitive/Behavioral therapists recommend.  There is a difference between debating your thoughts on paper and just arguing in your head. One format for doing RET work is the ABC method which uses the following format:

 

A (Activating Event) -------> B (Beliefs) --------> C (Consequences).

 

     Most people think A----> C and forget about the B in between. Fortunately,the B is what you can do something about.

 

Example

A :You spend days on a painting and it still isn’t working.  

C: You feel depressed and stop working.

What is the B in between? What can you replace that with?

I’ll never get this painting to work! If I really had talent, I wouldn’t have these problems.

I need a beer.

 

Example

A: Your job/child isn’t leaving you with much time or energy to paint.

C: You are angry and resentful and stew about it.

What is the B in between? What can you replace that with?

It’s horrible to not be able to paint more. I can’t stand it.  A serious artist wouldn’t let this happen.

I need a beer.

 

 

COGNITIVE ERRORS AND EXAMPLES:

 

ALL OR NOTHING THINKING

“If this painting isn’t spectacular, I am a lousy artist.”

 

OVERGENERALIZATION

“If my show doesn’t sell, my career is over.”

“If this painting doesn’t work out, I will never make another good painting again.  Ever.”

 

MENTAL FILTER

“If one part of my work need improvement (drawing/composing/color), then it completely sucks.”

 

DISQUALIFYING THE POSITIVE

“This or that person may have liked my work, but the only people that really matter are the “big shot” galleries, critics and buyers somewhere else…”                        

 

JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS

“If a gallery will not show my work, I must be a lousy artist.”

“I never win anything.  Why bother applying.”  “My work will never get better.”

 

MAGNIFICATION/ CATASTROPHIZING

“If this painting/show/critique doesn’t go well, it’s a catastrophe! (equal to the Holocaust)”

 

EMOTIONAL REASONING

“If I feel like my new work isn’t good, it must not be good.”

 

SHOULD STATEMENTS

“Painting should be easier!”  “I shouldn’t have hassles.”  “My work should keep getting better.”

 

LABELING

“A painting is either a masterpiece or it’s crap.”  “An artist is either a genius or a laughing stock.”

 

PERSONALIZATION

“If I had only painted/communicated/promoted myself better, I would be in a gallery/won an award/ have a full time teaching job.”


 

  UNHELPFUL BELIEFS FOR ARTISTS

 

1. I MUST PAINT EVERY DAY, AND PAINT WELL.

 

2. IT WOULD BE AWFUL IF PEOPLE DID NOT LIKE MY WORK.

 

3. THE BEST ARTISTS ONLY PAINT MASTERPIECES.

 

4. PAINTING SHOULD GET EASIER AS I GET OLDER AND “KNOW WHAT I AM DOING”.

 

5. MY WORK SHOULD PROGRESS LIKE  A STAIRCASE - CONSTANT IMPROVEMENT.

 

6. IF I HAVE SOME SUCCESS,  THAT SUCCESS MUST CONTINUE.

 

7. STRUGGLING WITH A PAINTING IS UNBEARABLE.  I CAN’T STAND IT!

 

8. I HAVE WORKED SO HARD, I DESERVE HIGH PRICES FOR MY WORK .

 

9. IT’S NOT FAIR IF “LAME” ARTISTS ARE SUCCESSFUL - THE BASTARDS!

 

10. I CAN’T SCREW UP THIS PAINTING NOW OR MY SHOW /CAREER/ LIFE IS OVER!


 

    RATIONAL RESPONSES FOR ARTISTS    

(I have these taped to the wall above my studio sink)

 

1)NONSENSE! PERFECTION ISN’T POSSIBLE.  AND WHO WOULD BE THE JUDGE?  WHAT IF I SET THE GOAL OF JUST PLAYING AROUND?  WHAT IF IT’S NOT MY JOB TO RATE MY WORK? AM I SO SPECIAL THAT I MUST BE SUPERHUMAN... ABOVE AVERAGE EVERYDAY ?

 

2) IS IT REALLY POSSIBLE FOR EVERY SINGLE PERSON ON THE PLANET TO NOT LIKE MY WORK?  WHAT WOULD ACTUALLY HAPPEN IF SOMEONE DIDN’T LIKE IT?  WOULD I GET CANCER?  LOSE MY HOUSE OR JOB? THE TRUTH IS, PEOPLE HAVE THE RIGHT TO THEIR OPINIONS AND OTHERS’ OPINIONS DO NOT AFFECT ME UNLESS I ALLOW THEM TO. IT IS MY OPINION THAT MATTERS.

 

3) NO ARTIST COULD POSSIBLY ONLY MAKE MASTERPIECES.  THERE ARE TOO MANY OPINIONS IN THE WORLD.  JUST BECAUSE BOOKS AND MUSEUMS SHOW AN ARTIST’S BEST WORK, IT DOES NOT FOLLOW THAT EVERYTHING THEY DID WAS GREAT AND THAT I  SHOULD HAVE THAT AS MY GOAL.

 

4) THERE IS NO LAW OF THE UNIVERSE THAT SAYS “PAINTING SHOULD GET EASIER.”  ALL EVIDENCE POINTS TO THE OPPOSITE. THE MORE YOU KNOW, THE HIGHER YOU SET THE BAR SO IT ACTUALLY GETS HARDER.  LIFE IS HARD.  TOUGH BEANS.

 

5) WOULD YOU REALLY EXPECT OTHER ARTISTS TO NEVER HAVE UPS AND DOWNS IN THEIR WORK?  OF COURSE NOT!  SO WHY SHOULDN’T I HAVE PLATEAUS OR DIPS? I MAKES TOTAL SENSE.

WHY NOT SPEND MY ENERGY DRAWING OR PAINTING INSTEAD OF STEWING ABOUT MY “PROGRESS”? A ROCKCLIMBER JUST CLIMBS

& SCALES THE FACE OF THE MOUNTAIN ANY WAY THEY CAN!

 

6)IT WOULD BE WONDERFUL TO CONSTANTLY IMPROVE AND HAVE A BREAKTHROUGH EVERYDAY, BUT THAT IS GRANDIOSE FANTASY.  NEW IDEAS HAVE TO BE DIGESTED AND WORKED ON.  AFTER A BREAK, I AM NOT GOING TO BE ABLE TO “PICK UP WHERE I LEFT OFF”. THE BEST PAINTING OF THE YEAR IS NOT MY “NEW NORMAL.”  STRUGGLING IS WHAT IS NORMAL, SO I’D BETTER EXPECT IT!

 

7) I AM NOT A 2 YEAR OLD WHO WILL HAVE A MELTDOWN IF I DO NOT GET THE TOY I WANT.  I’M AN ADULT ENGAGED IN A COMPLEX AND DIFFICULT ACTIVITY.  IT IF WERE EASY, EVERYONE WOULD BE A PAINTER. I CAN AND WILL WORK ON A DEMANDING PAINTING. DO MY PAINTING PROBLEMS COMPARE TO A WORLD WAR?

 

8)PRICES AREN’T RATIONAL OR FAIR.  THEY ARE WHAT THEY ARE.

I CAN NOT CONTROL WHAT OTHERS WILL PAY FOR MY WORK.  WOULD OVERPRICING MY WORK & NOT SELLING IT FEEL BETTER?  EVERYONE WORKS HARD.  NO ONE OWES ME ANYTHING.

 

9)FAIRNESS IS A STORY WE TELL CHILDREN SO THEY WILL SHARE.  THERE IS NO LAW OF FAIRNESS LIKE THE LAW OF GRAVITY.  THE POLITICS OF THE ART WORLD AND OTHER ARTIST’S CAREERS ARE NONE OF MY BUSINESS. THE ART WORLD IS FLUKEY AND NOT IN MY CONTROL.  WHAT I CAN CONTROL IS FOCUSING ON MY WORK. ART IS A BIG LAKE THAT NEEDS TO BE FED; IT DOESN’T CARE HOW.  IT’S NOT MY JOB TO ENDLESSLY OBSESS ABOUT THE SIZE OF MY STREAM OR ANYONE ELSE’S RIVER.  JUST FEED THE LAKE.

 

10)HOW COULD ONE PAINTING DEFINE MY ENTIRE ART CAREER?  OR MY LIFE FOR THAT MATTER?  THAT’S ABSURD.  ONE DOT DOES NOT EQUAL MY ENTIRE CIRCLE.  THINKING “IF I WANT SOMETHING IT MUST HAPPEN” IS ARROGANT.  I DON’T RUN THE UNIVERSE!

 

 

The more often you question your thoughts, the less likely you will be to get off track, the more happy, relaxed and experimental you can be in the studio!



 

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