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.

The Big Picture

“Monarch Lake Summer”
Oil on Panel
30×24″
2013

I don’t spend too much time worrying about what my art is saying. I just try to get out there, find something that inspires me, and attempt to paint what I feel. Nothing complicated, nothing all that profound – just trying to make something beautiful.

And if you were to ask me what my biggest goal for my art is, I would probably think for a few seconds and then tell you that all I want to do is paint some really kick ass paintings someday.

Sure, there are some shows I’d like to be in, places I’d like to paint, items I’d like to add to my resume, but those things are secondary to the big goal, which is just to eventually make some really good art. Take your breathe away good, you know?

But that sounds kind of vague. Like, what constitutes a really good painting vs. a mediocre painting, or just a sort of good painting? I feel like it’s one of those things you just know in your gut. It’s not technical, it’s emotional. But it’s also really subjective. So, my big goal turns out to be a bit nebulous.

I was reading a really good book this week – The New American Road Trip Mixtape by Brendan Leonard – and this quote stopped me in my tracks when I read it:

“All my life, I had listened to great songs and read great books and watched great movies, and some of them moved me to the point of tears welling up, chills, the hair on the back of my neck standing up, some sort of physiological reaction to incredible, created beauty. Some song by some band or section of dialogue in a movie, or passage of writing in a book that would resonate with me so deeply that I would think just for a second that maybe it was all about me, about all of us. And all I wanted to do in my life was make one thing, one piece of art, a book, that did that for someone. Maybe for everyone.” 

– Brendan Leonard, The New American Road Trip Mixtape


And BAM! There it is. THAT’S what I want to paint someday.

Leave it to someone else to state it so much more eloquently than me.

(If you need something to read, pick up that book, btw – it’s an excellent read)

Beauty

“Sun-Kissed”
Oil on Panel
9×12″
2013
I don’t know a lot, but it seems to me that this much is certain – life is messy.
No matter how hard you try, there are things that don’t go your way, things that don’t fit into a tidy box of how a perfect life should look. Some days – some seasons – are hard. And sometimes, life can be so heartbreaking that it’s overwhelming. But through all of this I find my life punctuated by moments of sublime beauty – moments of goodness that make me thankful to be a living, breathing part of this world.

I lost my sister a couple of years ago. She was far too young to die, and the whole thing was unexpected and awful, and I miss her. Since then, I’ve found myself more purposefully seeking out those moments of beauty. In darkness, I suddenly felt more gratitude for those infrequent glimpses of perfection that seem to make the messiness of life so worth it. I found solace in music, in art, in climbing the hills around my home, in the easy smiles of my kids. And as I immersed myself in those things, it seemed that things got better, bit by bit. I stumbled along, gathering up these happy moments like beads on a string, until I had created something that had started to resemble a normal life again.
It might be a piece of music that brings tears to my eyes, a masterful painting that gives me goosebumps, or a sunset that stops me in my tracks and makes me still. It might be nothing more than a good laugh with friends or my children’s warm hands in mine, trusting. It might just be the way raindrops ripple across the surface of a mountain lake on a summer evening.
I drink these moments up, greedy.
I wish I could capture these things in paint. Someday, I want to transcend the mundane details of sales and technique, and translate that gut feeling though pigment and color. I might be working on that for the rest of my life, but that challenge is what makes me love what I do.

Why Do YOU Paint?

“Monarch Lake Morning”
Oil on Panel
12×16″
2008

Sorry for my downer of a post the other day y’all. I was obviously a little bit overwhelmed! We’re all still sniffling and coughing here in the Peterson household, but it’s snowing out today (I KNOW, it’s June!), so Aspen and I have been having a nice day snuggling on the couch. There’s just nothing better than a good excuse to be lazy sometimes…

Anyhow, I’ve been filling out a survey for the mentorship program I’m doing, and one of the questions that I keep passing over is:

“Why do you paint? (Think about the answer, do not take the first thing that comes to your mind. Keep asking “Why” to your answer, until you get to the root reason).”

When I read this question, a bunch of things come to mind immediately. It’s my job. It pays the bills. I want to communicate what I see in the landscape to others. I love the challenge. I find satisfaction in the feeling of a job well done. I like the process of creating. I love that art is an ever-evolving pursuit. I love the “idea” of being an artist. I love to simplify what I see into something that works as a painting. I love to paint.

If I keep going deeper and asking why to all of these answers, I get down to the bare bones fact that I just love the process of putting brush to canvas, or pencil to paper, and I always have. When I was tiny, I loved to color. In school, art class was my favorite hour of the day. Even when I got busy with college and a grown-up career, I always kept up with drawing and painting to an extent, because I just loved the process of creating a two dimensional image.

I’ve tried a lot of different hobbies – running, hiking, swimming, singing, piano, dancing, triathlons, acting, scrapbooking… Nothing gives me anywhere near the feeling of satisfaction that I get from the process of painting. Painting is fullfilling to me emotionally AND physically – I think this is why I enjoy it so much more than anything else I’ve tried. I know this sounds sort of touchy-feely-new-agey and all, but my soul just feels right when I’m painting. When I paint, I get into a flow where I’m not thinking about much of anything other than the painting in front of me. It allows me to stop thinking about life and about me for a period of time, and just focus on doing. And that seems to be something I need to be right with myself.

So, I don’t know that I have a one-sentence answer to the question “Why do you paint?”, but this is as close as I’ve gotten.

I’d love to hear the opinions of other artists on this subject. Why do YOU paint?

Why I Love My Job

“Crater Lake Cliffs”
Oil on Panel
12×16″
2008

This painting was SO MUCH FUN to do!!

I’ve been putting off painting these cliffs for the past three years, thinking I wasn’t good enough to do them justice. I finally got to the point where I just couldn’t resist, and tackled them on a relatively small scale. And I’m so glad I did, because they were so much fun to paint! Everything came together, and this painting actually looked like I wanted it to look.

The funny thing is, as much as I love this painting, I haven’t had an enthusiastic response from anyone else who has seen it. So, like I said in my post yesterday, you can never tell which painting will elicit the most response from people.

The cool thing is that it doesn’t matter. I always love to paint, but it’s the paintings like these, which are challenging and fun, that always keep me coming back for more. I talk a lot about goals and business on this blog, but only because keeping track of those things makes it possible for me to keep on painting as my job. And seriously, I don’t think there could be a better job to have!