Motivation and the Right Stuff

Art is a tricky profession. You don’t show up for work every day with the promise of a regular paycheck and benefits, and a boss who keeps you on track with regular performance reviews and assignments. You never know when the paychecks are going to come, and staying productive and motivated is pretty much all on you, with the caveat that a lot of people are watching and giving input on what you should be doing. Knowing what motivates you is key to a long career, and what motivates you is also responsible for the growth of your art.

I’ve been focusing a lot on my motivation to create over the past year, and how to keep it pure. It’s easy to get distracted by shiny things. You have a tough week in the studio and then 600 people “like” a painting on Facebook, and all of the sudden you have validation. You speak at a convention and have your name in flashing lights, or you get invited to a high profile museum show, and you think you really are somebody. You win an award at a show and everyone fawns over your work. Shiny things!

Adulation is a great confidence builder for those of us who struggle with self-doubt in the studio, but it’s also addictive. I believe that it can be the death of growth when it becomes an artist’s main motivation. I’ve experienced this cycle where you win an award and you’re on top of the world, and then you get rejected from a show and you’re in the depths of despair. It’s unhealthy, and it makes it difficult to create. My gut tells me that remembering my true motivation for painting is what should keep me somewhere in between those peaks and valleys, but the execution of that is the hard part. Those shiny things beckon.

I had a crisis of confidence about this time a year ago, as many artists do from time to time. My best-selling gallery closed, I was undergoing a transformation in my style, and everything I did in the studio seemed to be a struggle. I would do a painting I hated, and post it on Facebook, and get a zillion likes. The next week, I’d do a painting I loved, and post it, and get little response. I started to question what I was doing. “Nobody likes this, is the new direction my work is taking bad?? Everyone likes that, but I don’t – should I still do more paintings like that??”

I started to question my career choices. I had decided that the plein air scene wasn’t where I wanted to be. I wanted to do big studio paintings, and spend more time on my work. I wanted to do less paintings, but think more about my style and what I was painting. But as everyone posted photos of all the shows they were traveling to, I started to wonder if locking myself in the studio was a bad thing. “Man, looks like that guy is really successful, maybe I should be doing that?”

I decided to stick to my guns for a year and see how it worked out, and so I stuck my head in the sand a little bit. I stopped blogging. I did a lot of paintings that never got photographed or posted for anyone to see. I did what I needed to do to market my work, but I also spent a lot of time in my studio allowing myself to fail. People would ask me why I was riding my bike so much and not painting. I would laugh – I was painting, I just wasn’t posting. After a while, I started to see a lot of humor in it. “If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there…” is an awful lot like, “If an artist does a painting and doesn’t post it all over the internet, does it exist??” And in that humor, I started to see the farce of all those “shiny things,” and remember my true motivation for painting.

I’m in this long-term. I hope I have decades more to develop my craft. I paint landscapes because I love the land. And so I’m focusing on what moves ME. I spend a lot of time moving through the outdoors, on my bike, on my feet. And I spend a lot of time in my studio trying to translate what I see out there into a two dimensional image that might move someone the way the landscape moves me. Remembering this is what will keep me afloat next time I have a crisis of confidence (and I am sure there will be a next time).

I just watched a video interview with landscape master Clyde Aspevig that got me thinking about all of this again. Aspevig is a fantastic artist, and you can tell by his paintings and his words that he’s motivated by a deep love for and understanding of the land where he lives. He paints the landscape because he loves it, plain and simple. Not because that’s what sells, not because galleries tell him what to paint, not because he wants accolades or wants to be liked. This isn’t a guy who shows up at a lot of shows or teaches a ton of workshops. He’s not on social media. He’s outside, exploring the land and painting what he finds. And he’s successful because he’s a fantastic painter. His business model is a bit extreme (because he’s earned it with a long career based on selling solid work), and most of us have to do a lot more trekking around to sell our art, but I admire the pureness of his motivation.

I like being connected to artists across the world, and participating in shows, but there’s something to be said about tuning out the noise and coming back to yourself when you step up the easel, and I think that the best artists know how to do that. I hope I can too.

I think I just wrote this entire post to remind my future self to think about what matters the next time I get distracted by too many shiny things.

2015 in Pictures

One of my favorite ways of taking stock of a year is to dig though all the photos I took and be reminded of all the beautiful things I saw. It’s my job to get outside and find pretty places, so getting out there is something I take pretty seriously. I rode my bike a couple thousand miles this year on beautiful trails, and spent countless hours hiking, snowshoeing, and driving to find the right scenes to paint.

Here are a few of my favorite places from 2015. Maybe not the most beautiful photos I took (and every single one is a low quality cell phone snap), but these are the ones I look at that remind me of moments and places that captured my heart.

January

Jan (2)

I took this photo while I was out painting with some friends in January. It was unseasonably warm, but we headed up Bear Creek Canyon out of Evergreen, found ourselves some snow and good light, and set to work. I love days like this – hanging out with other painters, throwing around ideas about art, getting some work done, and breathing in fresh air in the middle of winter. I love my job.

February

Feb

This shot is from the top of Evergreen Mountain, my favorite local spot. I climb this trail on my bike a couple times a week when the weather is good, and this was the first year I realized I could pedal up there in the snow too. Heaven!

March

March

This was outside of Moab, Utah as we road-tripped home from our annual spring break trip to Arizona. We hit Moab at dinnertime, and I could tell the light would be good, so I convinced my family to eat in the car and keep driving so I could snap some photos of the Colorado at sunset. It’s a good thing they put up with me.

April

April

Front range at sunset. Need I say more? I live in the mountains, but this view will always say home to me.

May

May

It was a wet spring. Like, REALLY wet. We all got a little bit stir-crazy as the rain came down and the trails all turned to mud, but the moisture turned the park in my backyard into a cool place full of lush green grass and hidden waterfalls. This is a mile from my house – that stream is normally just a trickle.

June

June

Sunset from the trail on Green Mountain. Being outside at sunset in the summer is probably one of my favorite things in the world. I love to paint that last light. I love being out there on my bike with a group of friends, racing the sunset to the car. I love the way the last light of the day transforms a sort of mundane scene into something perfect.

July

July

I think July was the busiest month of the year, and looking back, I hardly took any photos! Lots of adventures, little time to stop and smell the roses, I guess? This is Cedar Lake, Indiana – my husband spent his summers here growing up, and we took our kids back for a week in early July. It’s one of those places where you can still let your kids roam the neighborhood on bikes.

August

August

Sunset from the top of Rollins Pass, Winter Park, CO. I had an art show in Winter Park in August, and we had some friends visiting from Michigan, so we all headed up to Grand County for the weekend and got our high altitude fix. The last night up there, we all hiked around above treeline while the sun went down. Standing on top of the world.

September

Sept

Trail 401 – Crested Butte. Yellow aspens for miles, my favorite trail, and an awesome new bike. Need I say more?

October

Oct

I took a solo trip to Glacier National Park for a couple of days at the start of October, so I could gather some reference material for a show. It was great – I think I was there during peak color, and the park was practically empty. I spent a couple of days sketching and taking photos to my heart’s content. I think I have enough material now to do a few years worth of paintings.

November

Nov

We had some heavy snow and a cold snap in November, and it was like a winter wonderland for about a week. I love having a fatbike for riding in the snow – it gets me outside when I otherwise would be happy to hide away inside by the fire, so I don’t miss out on scenes like this one.

December

Dec

Another month where we did so much, I hardly stopped to take a picture. This is the view from Flying J park in Conifer at sundown on a perfect day.

Overall, 2015 was a rollercoaster of a year. Lots of rough times mixed in with some truly amazing moments. These are some of the ones that will stay with me. Here’s to many more beautiful moments in 2016!!

 

FAQs – Where do I start?

“Colorado Winter”
Oil on Panel
18×24″
2015

I get a lot of emails from artists who want to pick my brain on how to make it as a painter. I love helping people out, and manage the occasional coffee date to answer questions for someone who seems motivated and excited to learn, but for the most part, I can’t keep up with the requests. I’ve noticed a trend though – my students and the folks who email me are all asking the same questions. I thought I’d do a blog series answering a few of those FAQ’s. That way, when I don’t have time to get to all the emails, the info is here for you!

The first question I get from people wanting to make it in the art world boils down to: How do I start?

To most aspiring painters, “How do I start?” very quickly snowballs into a thousand related questions: How do I get into galleries? Should I do shows? How do I price my work? Where do you get your frames? Are plein air shows good? Should I advertise? How do I get magazines to cover my work? Should I take more classes? And on and on and on….

Whew – let’s all take a deep breath!!

Most of the time, I encourage folks to stop right there, and go back to the beginning.

So – “How do I start?”

The answer to that is twofold.

First, you need to know where you want to go.

I know, this sounds really simplistic. Most people who paint want to win awards and get into galleries and make money selling art!! That’s what everyone else is doing! Right!? It’s easy to logon to Facebook and see everyone posting show acceptances and gallery announcements and sales and get caught up in thinking that that’s where you want to be as well.

I caution you to think hard about what you want. Everyone’s path is not, and should not, be the same.

Not all artists need to be professionals. Some do, some don’t, and that’s ok. You can still make art, regardless.

Making money as an artist is a lot of work. It requires a lot of perseverance, the ability to juggle a lot of different skillsets, and the fortitude to face a lot of rejection. It’s not for everyone. Even if you love painting more than anything in the world, making a living at painting is a whole different animal.

I have had students do the work to prepare for a solo show or big exhibition, only to find that it took away their excitement about painting. One of them said to me, “You know what? I think I realized that I don’t need to sell my art after all.” Perceptive, and self-aware.

So I encourage you, before you go any farther, to think about where you see your art in one year, five years, ten years… Do you just want to paint what you want and sell occasionally? Are you happy if you just do a couple of shows per year and maybe make a couple of sales or awards, or is it important that you be a professional? Is painting more of a social thing where you want to be involved in a group and do shows with your friends? Is this your true calling and you can’t see yourself doing anything else as a job? If you do want to make a living at it, how does that look? Do you see yourself selling your own work online or at shows? Do you see your work in museum shows and galleries? Do you need to support a family or is your goal just to cover the mortgage?

Before you go asking ANY other questions, take some quiet time and answer these questions for yourself. Be brutally honest. Don’t look at everyone else and let FOMO make your decisions for you. Think deeply about what makes you tick, and where you want to go.

If you don’t know where you want to go, you won’t get there (more on that in a previous blog post here).

Second, you need a body of work.

I know, again, this seems simplistic. But if you don’t have a good 20-30 pieces of work in your studio that show a cohesive style and consistent ability, you absolutely have to stop everything else and start there.

Style is important. It’s easy to put together a pile of paintings from different workshops or classes or mediums and say you have a body of work. But you need to make sure that you have spent enough time painting to develop your own voice. When I look at all those paintings is it immediately obvious that the same person painted them? If I’m a gallery, and I look at your body of work, do I know the general style of what you will produce next? This isn’t to say you can’t paint in different mediums or subject matter, but you need to have a voice that’s your own.

Consistency is also key. Everyone can knock one out of the park every once in a while. The first year I was painting, I got into the OPA national show with the best painting I did that year. The problem? It was a fluke – the rest of my work was not at the same level. I wasn’t ready to be in that show. If someone saw my painting at that show and visited my website, they were likely disappointed by the rest of my work. That’s not a good thing!

We’re not all going to paint a masterpiece every time we step up to the easel, but you should be able to produce work of a fairly consistent quality if you expect to become a professional. If your gallery needs six new pieces in eight weeks, can you produce work for them that is as good as your portfolio? I do a decent amount of scrapers, but I know when a painting is going downhill, and I can recover from that and produce. Can you produce consistent quality work? Can you do it under pressure?

I know it’s not as exciting as setting up your first website or entering a bunch of shows, but if you want a solid start, begin with a good sense of where you want to go, and a strong body of work. If you aren’t there yet, spend the time to get there.

Once you have a body of work that is of a consistent quality and style, and you know where you want to go, then you’re allowed to ask the rest of those questions. NOW you can start!!

Stay tuned, and I’ll tackle some of the smaller questions above in the next few weeks…

Welcome to my new digs!

TheEndofaPerfectDay_36x48_sm

 

“The End of a Perfect Day”
Oil on Panel

36×48″
2015

I’ve been a bit of a slacker about blogging for the past year, mostly because my blog was outdated and frustrating to format, and let’s be honest – I just don’t have time for that. But, I’ve been thinking and writing and I’ve got a lot of new content coming your way, so I finally transferred the old blog over to a new domain and host, and I’m hoping it’ll feel a little bit more current here. My old blog is still there, but I won’t be updating it anymore, so if you use a feed reader, make sure to update with my new address so you can continue to get posts => www.staceypetersonblog.com.

All of my old posts can be found here too, just in case you’re wondering what I was rambling about a few years ago. I even added a “Favorites” page so you can easily find some of my more popular old posts. I apologize that the formatting is a bit off on the old posts, but the words are there. You get the idea, you’re smart!

Stay tuned – I’ll be posting some new stuff soon!

Art and Soul

Every October, my husband and I sneak off for a mountain trip to recharge. It’s shoulder season in the resort towns – no snow yet for skiing, no colorful fall leaves, a bit of mud, unpredictable weather. But it’s our favorite time to be up there. The crowds are gone, and that in-between season before winter starts is one of the most beautiful times to be up in the hills. It’s a quiet beauty for sure, no bright colors shouting for your attention, the weather in a state of confusion – seeing the beauty in it requires you to slow down a bit, immerse yourself in the place for a while. It’s not that obvious, but when you see it? Ahhh…. It’s good for the soul.

When we lived up in Grand County this was our favorite time of year – yeah, it was mud season, but we had the hills all to ourselves.  You can really soak up the character of a place when you experience it in the quieter seasons. It’s like life – there are the big ups and downs and momentous occasions that take your breath away with their magnitude, but the way you respond in the quieter times, the mundane every day – THAT’S where the meaning is. That’s where you shape yourself, your life.

One evening on our trip, we drove my Landcruiser up a gnarly four wheel drive road until it got so slow going that we could walk faster, then we parked and went exploring. We decided to skip the road and went stumbling cross country over a big field of talus, up towards the remains of an old mine. The mountains around us had just a dusting of snow, and it was chilly out – the end of a cloudy, unimpressive sort of day. As the sun went down, we found a perch on some rocks up above the valley, and sat down to just drink it all in. We had this huge amphitheater of mountains all to ourselves, and just sat in awe as the sun lit the peaks of the hills as it dropped below the horizon.

I think we were both stunned at the importance of it all. The quiet beauty, the hugeness of the landscape, our togetherness in a valley of silence. We gnawed on some snacks and just watched the sun fade, then had a conversation about how moments like these, in the grand scheme of things, were what remind us that no matter what, it’s all good. We get so caught up in the everyday stress of life – two businesses to keep afloat, two kids that keep us on our toes, a house and two cars to upkeep, bills to pay – that sometimes, it’s hard to find that place of gratitude, see the beauty in the world around us. But we both sat there at the edge of treeline and knew that as long as we had this – quiet moments in places where the world has been stripped bare by snow and wind and altitude – we’d be okay. MORE than okay.

We joked that someday, we’d probably find ourselves living in the mountains again. Then we trudged back down the car in the dark, laughing at ourselves and our high altitude addiction. It was one of the best nights of this year.

These moments of clarity don’t come often. I get them occasionally when I’m somewhere amazing with someone I love, or when I’m flowing downhill on my bike on some sublime piece of trail. I get them sometimes when I watch my kids laugh, or see their little silhouettes come into my shadowy room in the morning, ready to wake me up and start the day.
I have a hunch that the better I can stay in touch with those feelings, the better my paintings will be. I paint the landscape because I have this big pie-in-the-sky goal of translating that centered feeling that I get outdoors onto a two-dimensional surface so that maybe, someday, someone will get that feeling just looking at one of my paintings.
And so it is that the best paintings are not the ones that are picture-perfect postcard views, but the ones where I’ve sat quietly with the landscape and absorbed it, and let it change me a bit.

I’ll probably spend my whole life working on this in my studio, and that’s one of the great things about painting.

“Enhanced with some intuition, a bit of ego, confidence, intellect, luck, perseverance, exhausting work and a lifetime of experience, perhaps, someday I will produce a painting that matches my ambition. I know it will not be anytime soon. This does not trouble me because my fascinating journey is much too fun to ever end. Picasso said that when you arrive, you are dead. When you examine his work, you’ll see he did everything he could not to arrive.”
– Clyde Aspevig, Recent Paintings 2004