Sunday, January 13, 2008

Getting Discouraged - Part 4 of 4 - Nancy Doyle

Following is the final segment of
Nancy Doyle's article,"Getting Discouraged"

The Solution:

Be the best artist you can be. You need to be your own teacher, after a certain point. You need to figure out what your areas of weakness are, and work on those. You need to push yourself to keep learning, always stretching yourself and your awareness of yourself, and as much art as you can learn about - from different places and times. Listen to what good artists have to say about art, through books, films, workshops, gallery talks, etc. - doing this will help greatly - mature artists can give great insights about the creative process - its non-verbal nature can still be articulated by sensitive and knowledgeable artists. This also includes teachers, fellow students and well known visiting artists who come to give critiques and lectures.

Don't have the goal of fame and fortune - have the goal to be the best artist you can be, and make this a lifelong goal. If you concentrate on the work, chances are that the rest will follow - respect, recognition from your peers - and there's always that outside chance of becoming financially successful. Develop yourself as much as you can, by reading good books, experiencing life, seeing good films, dance, theater, and of course all kinds of art, hearing all kinds of great music. This self-enrichment will give you and your work depth and breadth - it will help you find what you have to say. Pay close attention to what moves you. Look for connections and meanings between things - not just visual, but social, psychological, political, and in nature. All these things can also inspire you, which is the best solution to discouragement.

Accept the dry times. Even baseball players have slumps, which shows that even purely physical activity is related to our state of mind. So much more so in the arts. I think that we have come to expect success all the time - masterpieces on a regular basis. This is not only unrealistic, but I think unhealthy. We expect musicians to produce great music on a steady basis, for years and years, but even the best can only do so for a certain number of years, particularly if their recording contracts specify that they are to produce on demand year after year. What happens is burnout and breakup - the Beatles are an example, as are many other rock groups and performers.

I believe that the "dry" times are a necessary part of the creative process. They are difficult to go through, but often they are incubators for growth and new ideas. If we accept them, rather than fight against them, we will be less self-conscious and more able to keep working, which is the key to working through them. They can be times when we learn a new medium or tackle a new subject; or experiment with a totally new approach. In art, sometimes we seem to be in a rut; not able to circumvent an obstacle. It may seem like we are getting nowhere; then suddenly things start to click, to our amazement, and everything flows.

The creative process feels to me like an airplane. It sits on the runway, motionless; then it starts up, and rides on the runway, gradually picking up speed. After a time, it takes off; and once in the air it really flies on its own momentum. It seems sometimes like it will never take off - but once it does, it feels great to be flying. These slow periods are often just transitional periods in the work; these transitional paintings may be mediocre, they may even be downright bad. But we have to accept these images without shame - their creation makes the good work possible, they are the legwork necessary for the real prize.

Antidote: Inspiration. When you are discouraged, seek for inspiration, wherever you can find it. It may be by looking at the work of artists you love, online or in the library, or in a museum or gallery, or at artists' work you've never seen before. It may be by walking outside, or by visiting a good friend or pet, or supportive family member. It may be by reading poetry, or an artist's biography or written words. We can get a lot from reading about the lives of artists - their struggles, their creative visions, their ideas and excitement. Matisse wrote some inspirational things in essay form; one is called On Painting. Kandinsky wrote Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Robert Henri wrote a book about art, The Art Spirit; Van Gogh's Letters to Theo (his brother), are great to read. Cezanne's letters have also been published. There are many other biographies, such as one of Georgia O'Keeffe. Whatever works to get you excited about art - use it.

The bottom line. I don't believe in the idea of talent - that we have it or we don't. Art is not measured only for its perfect design or flawless technique - the main objective in art is expression. If an artist has great skills, and has little to say, his art is not as valuable as someone with little facility and a great vision. Of course, the ideal might be to have both - but of the two, expression is the more essential ingredient. Expression is what is remembered centuries after the fact, whether it is Michelangelo or Van Gogh. So - this means that we are to be evaluated not by our aesthetic perfection, or our talent - but by what we have to express, and how well we express it. So, if we are criticized for weak design, or poor drawing, this is not necessarily a sign that we are not good artists. We should strive to be the best artists we can, in terms of formal elements, drawing, etc. - but the ultimate goal is our expression. We should not be as concerned with whether or not a work of art is "good," as whether or not it expresses something substantive and meaningful, for us and for others.

I once saw a TV talk show interview with a handful of songwriters. The host asked one writer if he worried about writing a good song; the writer answered, "No - I worry that I will not be able to express what I'm trying to say." I think this should be our goal - to be thinking more about what we are trying to say, rather than producing a "good" work. If we have done our homework, have worked and studied and stretched ourselves, the work will improve, and hopefully eventually will be good. But trying only to produce "good" work is an empty goal by itself, without expressing anything.

When students are just learning, they usually don't know what their "vision" is. This comes only with working - one thing magically leads to another, and soon it is a self-fulfilling process. By working, we not only find what we want to focus on, we also find out what doesn't interest us, and sooner or later we find our own way.

All these things - rejection, criticism, discouragement - can at the very least slow us down. It's normal for it to affect us - but try not to let it slow you down for long, and definitely do not let it stop you - if you really want and need to make art. If you believe in what you are doing - GO GO GO! These humbling experiences can be difficult to go through, but they make the high points feel even higher. The high points - praise, acceptance, a good review or critique, a sale - are good mainly because they give us a green light - to continue to make our work; to encourage us to keep going through the tough times. The good feedback we get makes it all worthwhile. The trick is to find your niche - whether it is a local art center, a gallery in a large city, the Internet, or your own backyard.

Often if we are feeling discouraged, it is a good sign - it means that we care about the quality of our work. If it comes too easily, we probably aren't doing it right. I once heard that an amateur artist always succeeds, and a professional artist never does. If we develop a formula and stick with it, we are not really making art, we are just making pictures. A professional artist will continue to search for new and better ways to express him or herself, and never feel that they have arrived. An art professor once asked me how my painting was coming, on a day that I was feeling discouraged about my work. I answered, "I have a long way to go." He smiled, and said, "Good!" And of course, if it were always predictable and easy, we would lose interest quickly. The challenge and the unknown are two things that make art exciting, that there are so many variables and possibilities, that we could never plumb its depths. It is like a challenging intellectual game; but it is even more - it is also an expression of the spirit and heart - a very valuable commodity.

To read this article in its entirety:
To learn more about Nancy Doyle and to view her art:


Helen said...

Wow, What a great blog Gwendolyn. Very informative. Well Done.

Gwen Magee (Gwendolyn) said...

Thanks Helen. I am so glad you're finding the information to be useful and/or interesting.