There’s a sub-title for this post. It’s this: How Changing My Attitude Changed My Art. There’s a connection between our thoughts and our actions, and we all know this. But sometimes it’s helpful to be reminded of how strong that connection is and how changing our thoughts can actually change our experience. This is true in most areas of life. Attitude does matter. It is especially true in art or any other sort of creative endeavor.
I distinctly remember my first “art funk” — over the years, that’s what I’ve come to call those bleak times when I don’t like anything I’m drawing or painting, those depressing moments when I feel that I’ve obviously gone as far as I can with art, those frustrating days when I question whether or not I really am an artist and, as often as not, think maybe I should just give it up and forget about making art ever again.
Make no mistake about it. An art funk is no fun, and I probably don’t need to tell you that. I’m guessing that maybe you’ve been through an art funk or two yourself.
I began learning to draw in June 2015. I surprised myself with the progress I made. But then, not quite a year later, in April 2016, my progress seemed to come to a screeching halt. In looking back now, I can see that this was a very logical progression, but at the time, I truly thought I’d hit a wall, that I’d learned all I could, and that I could never improve beyond that point.
Here’s what I wrote:
I… felt I was losing my way. I’d learned the basics of drawing, and I wasn’t sure I could progress beyond that point. Whereas my progress seemed swift and sure when I first began learning to draw last year, I now seemed to be making little — if any — improvement.
So, for the benefit of new artists, keep this in mind: the rate of progress will slow down as you advance, but even when it does, you’re still moving forward. It doesn’t mean that you’ve come to the end of the road. It only means that you can slow down now and enjoy the journey in new ways.
Despite my doubts, I did persist. I continued doing art exercises, doing drawing classes at online sites, and working my way through all the disappointments. I hated everything I did. At times, it seemed that I was actually getting worse instead of better. Yet still, I kept at it.
Gradually I began to see my drawings in a different way. I recognized that I was learning new techniques, that I was moving toward a more intermediate level as an artist, and as I looked back at all my horrible drawings, I realized that there was progress there. I’d just been so far down into that black hole of despair that I really hadn’t been able to see the improvements I was making.
Once I’d climbed out of that black hole, my art world seemed a bright and beautiful place to me. I truly felt enlightened, and with that enlightenment came a surge of creative energy. I naively believed that from that point onward, it would be smooth sailing.
Nope. I soon learned that my art journey would never be a smooth one, and from time to time I’d slip back into another art funk. I wish I could find some common thread, some causative factor that always seems to lead toward those funky times, but I can’t. Somehow a sense of inadequacy would slip in. I’d begin feeling a little intimidated. I’d start doubting myself. Before I knew it, the funk was upon me!
Fortunately, I’ve come to realize that those bad times aren’t really black holes, and don’t you just love all the crazy analogies I’m throwing in here? The bad times have been more like dark tunnels. I go into them. I slowly drag myself through them. And, at the end, I emerge once more into the light. Dramatic, yes?
Maybe — in fact, I’ll say most likely — this will continue to be the way of art for me. Maybe — again, most likely — there will always be ups, downs, and lots of in-betweens as I keep learning and growing as an artist. But I’ve recently seen once again how important it is to have the right attitude. I’ve seen what a difference it makes to truly believe in myself.
As you know, I’ve given a bit of thought to talent in art lately. I’ve shared a few reflections, and I’ve wondered what it would be like to be one of those talented artists. We all know them, I think.
Back in our school days, every class had its own artists — those whose drawings and paintings always stood out. They were naturals. When I go to a student art show, it’s easy to walk through the displays and recognize at once who those truly talented young artists are.
It’s true in our art clubs, too. Although every member of our clubs is an accomplished artist — and yes, that includes me — we all know who the stand-outs are. It’s a simple truth. Some artists have more natural talent than others, and disagree with me all you want, but I say… it shows.
Training is important, and I’ve had this discussion with many of you. I know I have limitations, or at least, I think I know this. It’s said that talent can take us only so far, that we need training as well. True enough. But I know that it’s equally true that training can take us only so far; we need some talent, too. My point here is that no matter how much time I devote to art, no matter how much I practice various drawing techniques, and how doggedly I persist, I will never be able to create drawings like Albert Durer, Leonardo da Vinci, or Pablo Picasso, just to name a few.
Recently, as I made my way through a series of workshops at Sketchbook Revival 2022, I felt myself slipping into yet another art funk. Whenever I’m working in a group setting and I see dazzling displays of art that others are creating, I start feeling that sense of inadequacy. I start telling myself that I’ll never be good enough.
But this time, I did something different. Maybe you remember that day when I decided to pretend I was a real artist, when I decided to pretend that I was one of those talented artists who could approach any drawing or painting challenge with a sense of confidence and self-assurance.
It made the process so much easier! My resulting drawing/painting wasn’t the greatest, yet it was better than I’d expected it to be. Here was my fanciful portrait in graphite form, drawn on inexpensive watercolor paper.
What I found most interesting here was that even though my art was not exceptionally good, it was exceptionally enjoyable. As I sketched this face, I liked what I was doing, and why not? After all, I was one of those talented artists who could draw anything, right? That was my mindset, and even though it was pretense, I allowed myself to believe it, so much so that I simply made my marks with an assurance that whatever I did would be good.
That’s the confidence factor that’s always been missing from my art. Until that moment, every mark I’d ever made, every stroke of paint I’d ever put upon a canvas had all been done from a place of doubt. Will this work? Am I putting this in the right place? What if I do this wrong?
By pretending that I had some natural talent, I was able to by-pass the thought-process. I somehow tapped into a place where I didn’t have to question what I was doing, why I was doing it, or how it was supposed to be done. I just did it, all the while believing that I could do no wrong.
Maybe you’ve heard that thought-provoking question before: What would you do if you knew you could not fail?
Soon, I realized that what I was pretending was actually based in reality as far as art is concerned. No, not that I have some awesome, incredible natural talent, but that I could do no wrong. There is no right and wrong in art! It doesn’t matter where I put my lines, how my paint goes on my canvas, whether my proportions are exact and my perspective perfect. What matters is that I’m making those marks.
I can guess that this is what talented, naturally-gifted artists feel, that they have this instinctive awareness that whatever they do will be good, that they absolutely cannot fail. It was fun to pretend that I was one of them, and what was even more fun was seeing how suddenly art seemed to blossom all over my studio.
Approaching art from a place of confidence feels incredibly good! It’s exciting to pick up an oil pastel and think, “Gee, I wonder what I can do with this today?” All the while I know that whatever I do with it, it’s going to be art. Maybe not the best… but, that’s where training comes in.
I can learn to make my lines a little less wonky. I can keep working on perspective. I can continue studying color theory, and I can improve my techniques with different media. But I’m doing all of this now with not just a belief, but with the certainty that whatever I do will be good, or, at least, good enough.
I’m enjoying my art now. I love coming to my studio each morning, playing with my pastels, getting out my watercolors, picking up a pencil or pen, planning my next oil landscape. I can do all of these things because I’ve somehow convinced myself that I can.
What began as a game of “Let’s Pretend” has given me a new vision of myself as an artist. I can see myself now as a true student, one who has confidence but who is also eager to learn. Most of all, I think, is that I can see myself as someone who is capable of learning. I have not yet come to the end of this art road, and I can’t wait to see where I go next!