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.

More on Rejection

“Epilogue”
Oil on Panel
12×16″
2014

Chances are, if you’re trying to make it as an artist, you’re well acquainted with rejection. 

You’ve entered your favorite painting into a juried show and gotten an emphatic NO… That gallery that would be the perfect fit just isn’t interested in taking on more artists… The museum show you’re dying to break into just doesn’t think your work is quite there yet…

It’s the worst, isn’t it?

Sure, there might be a couple of superstars out there who have made it big without suffering rejection, but if there are, I haven’t met them. Chances are, most of your favorite painters have been rejected more than you think. After all:

“The master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried” 

                                                         – Stephen McCranie

I wanted to talk about a couple of different topics related to rejection here, just because I find they come up a lot in conversation with my students and friends.

The Positive Side of Rejection

We live in this age of social media where we’re constantly bombarded by people’s announcements of their show acceptances, new galleries, even sales. I love seeing people’s success on display – it’s inspiring – but it doesn’t show the whole story. For every acceptance that an artist is posting on Facebook, they probably have quite a few rejections as well. But rejection doesn’t sell, so no one’s talking about it. No one wants to talk about it. 

I do, because I think it’s part of the whole picture.

A while back, I posted a picture of my many juried show rejections in an attempt to be transparent and encouraging. I get emails every once in a while from people who think I’m crazy to put my rejections out there in public in front of everyone, and suggest I take that post down. Personally, I think that’s bunk – I have a strong resume, I work with great galleries, my paintings are selling well. I work hard to build my brand and increase the value of my work, but I see no need to pretend I’ve never been rejected.

Without rejection, I wouldn’t be the painter I am today. It’s what spurs me on to improve. It’s the honest feedback I need that tells me every once in a while that I’m still not where I want to be.

When you get rejected, USE IT.

Don’t get bitter, don’t get mad, don’t give up on entering shows. Spend a day wallowing in your dejectedness, then focus your energy on transforming that feeling into something positive. Use all of that energy you might use being bitter, and instead go hit the studio and analyze your paintings. Think hard. Figure out what you need to improve. If you can’t figure it out, ask someone you respect to give you a critique. Then, go to work. Paint until you’ve figured it out. It might take a while, and it might be frustrating, but paint until your paintings are better.

This is one of the most important skills you can have as an artist. Take that negative input, and use it as a catalyst to make better paintings. It will make you a better painter, I promise.

Embrace rejection for the gift it can be.

The Numbers Game

I was invited to be on the jury for a couple of national shows this year, and jumped at the opportunity. I wanted to see what jurying looks like from the other side, and quite frankly – it was eye-opening. I will never feel quite so sensitive about being rejected from a big show again, and for that I’m extremely grateful for the experience. I wanted to share some behind the scenes info to give you an idea of what you’re up  against when you enter a big show, in hopes that it might help you process the outcome a little bit differently in the future.

First, when you enter a big national show, there are usually thousands of entries, and only a small percentage get accepted. I know you know that already, but I want to put it into perspective for you with some real numbers, from a real show.

The first show I juried this year had 2,200 entries. In the first round, the jurors basically said “yes” or “no” to each painting. The 500 paintings with the most “yes” votes made it onto round two of jurying. In round two, the jurors scored each painting on a scale, and their scores were then averaged to determine the top 200 paintings for the show.

When I ranked the top 500 for round two, I was amazed at the quality of the work submitted. When I looked at my final scoring summary, I had given over 350 paintings scores that I considered high enough to say, “this painting absolutely deserves to be in the show!” Only 200 of those got in. If you do the math, over 40% of the paintings I considered good enough for the show didn’t make the cut. When I saw the final show, I was bummed that some of my favorite paintings had not made it (the jury’s results are averaged).

What does that mean to you?

Well, you might enter your best painting, and it might indeed be good enough to be in the show, but it might not make the cut anyway. There just isn’t enough space for all of the good paintings to make it. The higher the caliber of the show, the more this is true.

The takeaway? Work to make your paintings so good that they can’t be rejected. Not just good, but GREAT.

Out of those 500, I gave about 25 the highest possible score. To me, those paintings were an absolute, no questions asked, emphatic YES! They were modern masterpieces.

It’s the same thing with galleries. Yeah, you get rejected when your work isn’t strong enough. But sometimes you’re the person who gets rejected because they already have too many landscape painters, or they have another person who uses thick paint, or they simply don’t have space for another painter.

Approach it the same way – make your paintings so good that they can’t be rejected. Not just good, but GREAT. I don’t know a gallery out there that wouldn’t jump at the chance to carry someone that they consider to be a master. They’ll make room, if you’re all that. So get to work, and try to BE all that.

Don’t focus on that other artist they carry who isn’t as good as you, or that person who got into the show with their best painting even though the rest of their work is awful. Focus on YOU. Focus on your WORK. And get better.

The Moral of the Story?

We all get rejected, I promise. It’s what we do with it, that determines where we go.

Go forth, be positive, and USE IT.

Keep Your Eyes on the Trail

 “City Lights”
Oil on Panel
24×36″
2013

 

When I moved to Evergreen last summer, I took one look at all of the fantastic trails out my back door and decided it was time to learn how to mountain bike. If you know me in real life, you know that I can be a bit clumsy (EXHIBIT A: broken wrist this summer), so maybe this wasn’t the most logical of ideas, but who needs logic when awesome trails are involved, right?

(Disclaimer: I promise that this post has everything to do with your art career and not as much to do with biking – trust me and keep reading!)

Since I’m kind of a klutz and not the most athletic person in the world, I immediately signed up to take a skills clinic so I could have someone tell me how not to kill myself while hurling myself down mountains on two wheels. I showed up the first night thinking we were going to practice wheelies and drops and how to muscle our way over rocky obstacles, but instead we headed up a pretty mellow trail and worked on some things that seem really basic, but make EVERYTHING else about mountain biking come easier once you’ve figured them out.

The one that was the biggest challenge for me?

FOCUS YOUR EYES ON WHERE YOU WANT TO GO.

Don’t look down at the rock you’re about to ride over. Don’t look at that tree on the side of the trail that you want to avoid. Don’t look down in the middle of that switchback. Instead, look down the trail at where you’re headed.

Here’s the deal:

As soon as you focus on that rock you’re trying to clear, you’re going to lose your equilibrium and come to a stop. As soon as you look at that tree you’re trying to avoid, your brain is going to make your body head that way and you’re going to clip your handlebars. But if you keep your eyes on the place you want to end up, your brain is going to get you there. The body is amazing like that.

Now, every time I’m out riding the trails, I’m constantly reminding myself to focus on where I want to go. It doesn’t come naturally to me. And every time I do this I start thinking to myself what an awesome metaphor the whole thing is for how to handle a career in the arts.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

Being an artist is tough. There are obstacles. There are always new things you’re trying to achieve. And to make things more complicated, you’re constantly surrounded by other awesome artists who are making all of those things look really easy.

Enter frustration.

I see a lot of artists who are so focused on getting into a certain show or gallery that they lose sight of where they want to go. They focus on those things so much that when they don’t get in, they’re crushed and can’t figure out what to do next. They don’t know where to go.

I see a lot of artists who go to shows and keep track of every painting that sells, making a mental note the entire time of who is selling and who is not. And when they happen to be the artist who isn’t selling, they get so focused on the guy who is that they make themselves miserable. They put so much energy into keeping tabs on the other artist that they lose sight of where they want to go.

I see a lot of artists who take a few workshops and get inspired, then go home and hit the studio only to paint a bunch of scrapers. Instead of seeing each failed painting as a learning opportunity, they get upset that it isn’t coming easy anymore, and as those scrapers pile up on the studio floor they lose their motivation to paint. They’re so focused on results that they completely lose sight of where they want to go.

When you lose sight of where you want to go, you lose your equilibrium. You forget that you love to paint, that you have the best job in the world. You stop working. You find something easier. Essentially, when you focus on the wrong stuff, you fall.

Usually in art, it really isn’t about where you are and what you’re doing RIGHT NOW. It’s about knowing where you want to be.

What is your vision for your art, ultimately? What is your vision for your career, long-term?

If you start focusing on all the little obstacles along the way, you’re going to lose your balance and fall. But if you keep your eyes focused on where you want to be, you’ll get there eventually.

I promise.

Persistence

Because sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words:

Every time I log onto my Juried Art Services account to enter a show, I see this list of my entries and have a good laugh.

See all those red x’s? Those represent years of rejection.

I know a lot of artists who take it personally when they don’t get into a particular show, but here’s the deal – behind EVERY artist you see posting excitedly about their latest show acceptance on Facebook, there is a long list of rejections. Rejections from shows, galleries, whatever. And every successful artist had to brush off those rejections and keep trying to get to where they are today.

So, even though it sucks when I don’t get into a show, I try not to take it personally. That show up there that I got rejected from for five years in a row? I got into it the previous two years and won awards. Totally unpredictable.

You have to laugh when you fall, brush yourself off, and keep on trying. And also, just use it as motivation to make your paintings even better – sometimes getting better is the best revenge.

Just Let it Go

The DeWalt Sander – one of my most valuable studio tools!

I’ll never forget the first time I saw Quang Ho give a demo. He was painting from a model at the OPA national show with a huge audience, and when he was about 45 minutes into the painting, he decided that he wasn’t quite happy with the eyes and wiped the whole thing down to canvas and started over. The entire audience gasped in horror (it looked great to us!), and he proceeded to tell everyone that the biggest mistake you can make in painting is to get too attached.

It made a huge impression on me because at the time I was the poster child for getting too attached to my paintings. If I painted a scene and liked one little thing in it (the color! the sky! that tiny brushstroke in the corner!), I would get all invested in it. I just couldn’t let go. And even if everything else in the painting went wrong, I couldn’t bring myself to scrape it or set it aside. And so I ended up with a LOT of mediocre paintings. A lot of mediocre paintings with a couple of small parts that worked, and a whole lot of big parts that didn’t work at all.

Since then, I’ve learned to let go. When something isn’t working, I’ll scrape it and start again. When a finished painting doesn’t do it for me, I’ll trash it, no matter how many hours of studio time it took me to paint it. And if a painting has been floating around my galleries for a few years without selling, I have no problem getting rid of it.

I still can’t paint like Quang Ho, but being able to let go has made me a better painter. It allows me to move on, and leave failures in the past.

When you get too attached to your work, you are subconsciously embracing failure. It’s difficult to improve when you’re surrounded by things that didn’t quite work.

I spent three hours this morning sanding down a pile of rejected paintings that has been growing in the corner of my studio for three years. There’s something amazingly cathartic about watching hours of struggle disappear into a ghost of an image. Without that pile of bad paintings on the floor, I can go into my studio without seeing failure blinking at me from the corner of the room. I can move on, get better.

And I’m not gonna lie, it’s nice to have a fresh stack of panels to paint on without having to spend hundreds of dollars on new ones. I’m cheap!

Do you get too attached?