There’s a wise saying that gives us a good definition of insanity. It is “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” To me, this might well be called a universal truth because it’s so obvious — and so applicable to each of us. Yet, again and again, we repeat the same mistakes, we cling to unproductive habits, and we continue doing the same thing over and over, all the while hoping for different — better — results.
By the way, in case you’re curious, that quote is often attributed to Albert Einstein, but most likely he wasn’t the one who uttered those precise words in that precise way. You can read a bit about the quote here.
Yet, regardless of who said it, it remains true. If we do the same thing over and over, we’ll get the same results over and over. Well, more or less. We could quibble about the efficacies of practice and how it can be beneficial, how repeating an action can help us establish helpful new habits, how repetition can help us strengthen and improve various skills, and yes, all of that’s true, too. It has to do with how we practice and how we approach learning.
All of which brings me to the point of this post. Sometimes I feel that I have been doing a lot of the same things over and over, and while I’ve seen definite improvement in my drawing and painting abilities, I still feel I’m getting a lot of the same results.
Maybe it’s a bit immodest of me to say this so forthrightly, but I think I’ve gone beyond the beginning stages with my art. I can now draw reasonably well. With time, and occasionally a bit of guidance on how best to approach a complex subject, I can turn out fairly good graphite drawings. I’ve fared well, too, with my oil painting, having won several awards at local and regional shows. I’ve achieved far more than I ever thought possible.
So, of course I’m pleased. At the same time, I’m not satisfied, This calls to mind another expression I’ve heard many times, that we should be content but never satisfied. In many ways, I am content. I have an art studio where I can devote myself to my pursuit of arts. I have shelves of art supplies. I have supportive friends and family. What more could I ask for?
I’m content, too, by knowing — and seeing — that I’ve grown as an artist, that my paintings now are considerably better than those I did even two or three years ago. Yet I turn and look at the paintings on the shelves here in the studio, and what do I see? Nice paintings, but paintings that in many ways are indistinguishable from one another.
They are landscapes. Some are river scenes. Some are forest scenes. Some are “skyscapes”. Yet there is a discomfiting sameness about them. That’s good in some respects, I think, because it suggests that I’m seeing a personal style emerging. Yet I feel there’s something missing, something that might take my art from good to really good, something that would make me see myself not just as an artist, but as an artist with a voice, an artist with something to say to the world.
Lofty ambitions, perhaps, but what’s a dream for if not to push us to be all that we can be?
All of these feelings settled around me recently as I sat outside with my gansai, just painting imaginary scenes, like this one:
I was just relaxing, just enjoying the day, just having fun playing with my paints — and just painting one more watercolor scene that looks very much like dozens of other watercolor scenes I’ve painted. I do enjoy this. It’s restful. It’s relaxing. And I do feel that I’m learning from doing this, but at the same time, let’s be honest here. All I’m really doing is painting the same landscape over and over again, so I can’t expect to get anything more than the same results over and over again.
Is this what I really want for myself as an artist? Or, do I want to do more, be more? How far do I really want to go with my art?
This last question — how far I want to go — is one I’ve been asking for a long time. Of course, when I first began learning to draw six years ago, my only thought was that I’d go as far as I could. I never expected to really be able to learn. I never thought that someday I would actually call myself an artist, or — even more surprising — that some day other people would consider me to be an artist. I thought I’d learn a few basics, quickly find myself in over my head, and that I’d shrug, say, “Well, I tried,” and give it up.
But here I am sitting in my art studio. Here I am surrounded by paintings and drawings I’ve done. Here I am with a collection of ribbons on the wall. And here I am seriously asking myself again, “How far do I really want to go with my art?”
I turned back to a post I wrote in April 2016. I’d been learning to draw for less than a year, and I’d started this blog only a month before. In Do I Have to Do All of That?” I remarked:
“For now, I’m mostly content with being a learner, someone who’s eagerly exploring the world of art, trying many different things, and figuring out where I fit in. Art is fun — most of the time. Yet even as I’m enjoying this journey, I do sometimes wonder how far I can go. Maybe if I applied myself a little more, paid a bit more attention to detail, gave a little more thought to the right light… maybe someday I could become a real artist.”
I was mostly content then, and I’m mostly content now. But I’m far from satisfied. Art has become part of who I am, and as I’ve explored the art world in greater depth in recent months, I’m seeing that while I’ve reached a comfortable place, I don’t want to stop here. I’ve done so much more than I once thought possible, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t do more.
So, I’m going to take my pursuit of art in different directions… or, maybe it would be better to simply say “new directions”. I want to push myself to learn more, do more, become more skilled in both drawing and painting. As I said earlier, I don’t think I’m a beginning artist any more. I think I can legitimately claim to be at an “intermediate” level, both with drawing and painting.
Now, I want to become a real artist — not one of those real artists from art school that I wrote about before — but a real artist in the sense of having learned and practiced and worked hard to improve my work. Maybe what I’m saying is that while art is — and should be — fun, I want to take myself a little more seriously now. I want to look at where I’m weak and work to develop those skills. I want to learn how to take my art to the next level — whatever that means. I want to make more art, better art, more meaningful art.
I guess what this all means is that you might be seeing a lot of “trial and error” from me as I try new things, as I work to improve different aspects of my drawing and painting, as I struggle with more advanced techniques and concepts.
It’s a whole new attitude for me, a different way of approaching art, and I’m excited for the future. How far can I go with this? I don’t know. But it’s no longer a question of how far I want to go. I’ve answered that. I want to go as far as I can.