You Need a Journey

I have a love/hate relationship with goals. More specifically, I loathe how resolutions set us up to fail, but find myself setting goals as my go-to journaling activity.

And yet, the first thing I wanted to do in 2019 was decide what I wanted to accomplish this year.

As I shared in my last blog, by the end of 2018 I had taken my first steps toward feeling ‘real:’ I had run two successful shows, just about met my revenue goals thus far, and things seemed to be moving along well. When people asked what I did I wouldn’t tell them about my day job, I would call myself a painter.

While I wasn’t squeamish about it, I wasn’t comfortable, either.

As far as I had come, my work still wasn’t where I want it to be.

Finding Your Touchstone

When I look at my idols (mostly the Putney Painters), there is this immediate sense of joy. It’s not about the subjects of the paintings, but more of a sensory experience. There’s the kinetic energy of the brushstrokes; the lush texture of a deft stroke or a palette knife smear, a celebration of simple color. And how such simple patches of paint can suggest such a rich experience of the world.

I think the problem is that words have never been enough to share that. There are analogues, sure, if you look at the cadence or sound of a prose poem, but nothing that can duplicate the feeling of looking at these paintings.

And so this year I’m on a journey to bridge that talent gap. I started with a simple study of a gorgeous painting that I’ve long admired by Richard Schmid, ‘North Garden Peonies.’ Somehow, the study turned out. Of course it pales next to the original, but this little 6x6” piece taught me quite a bit. (Mostly about how hard it is to use a palette knife with any deftness whatsoever, but that was just the start..)

Now, I have a mission: continue these studies. Keep making pieces in the style of my idols. Create a plan for each painting to continue plowing forward down this path.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

1) Set Behavioral Goals, not Resolutions

The trouble with resolutions is that they come from this outside force: this is the year I should lose ten pounds; this year I should make more time for my hobbies.

The problem with ‘should’ is that it becomes the tool by which we judge ourselves. Rarely does it come from a place of compassion, or more to the point, a place where we’re well prepared to make that change.

The next step is to think about what you want not as an end-result, but a process. This is common for many athletes: don’t worry about a goal body, focus on your performance in the gym. Or better yet, lose the outcome-centric thinking altogether and make your goal a set of daily habits you’d like to implement, rather than where you want those habits to get you.

So how does this relate to art?

It may make sense to back off of things like revenue goals, getting into a particular gallery or placing in a contest, as those things aren’t directly in your power. Even something like ‘paint like Richard Schmid’ isn’t primed to set you up for success.

Instead, plan to spend 5 hours this week working on a Schmid study, or completing an exercise from his book.

(Of course I’m using my personal goal as an example here, but the same applies regardless of the artist. If you can find a book, tutorial, or video demonstration, follow along!)

If you stick to it, you’ll probably look back at your progress over a few paintings to realize you learned much more than you thought. Especially if you’re able to get a little distance from the pieces by mixing things up and alternating between working on your own pieces in between these learning exercises.

2) Find your Style

I know, I know. Easier said than done, right? There are countless Youtube videos, blogs and interviews that cover this. There’s one key takeaway I’ve seen from all of them, and one extra piece of advice that many of them ignore:

  1. You are not a copy machine, so you will, by default, have your own style. If you are making what you want to make, but you are having trouble describing the style, or can only see the artists who’ve influenced you and can’t put your finger on what makes this uniquely ‘yours,’ don’t worry about it. It’s unique, even if you don’t see it yet. This is the advice I see over and over from other artists, but I often saw artists asking ‘yeah, but what if I don’t know what style I even like yet?’ If that’s you, move to the next item.

  2. If you aren’t making what you want yet, do this:

    1. Pull out images from every artist you’d like to emulate.

    2. Find the artist whose work you’d be most proud to call your own. Ask yourself what why that is. Is it the subject matter? The meaning speaks to you? A certain technique that they use?

    3. Accept that you can’t be all things to all people. Chances are you’ll always pull a little bit from each of the artists you pulled out, but sometimes this can be hard. For instance, you probably won’t be able to pull your love of expressive brushwork into comic book art, but that’s okay — you don’t have to master every kind of art to feel connected to them.

This process was essential to letting me move forward with my work. Some of my favorite artists are in concept art or illustration, but at the end of the day I had to accept that the work I knew I’d felt most excited to make wasn’t in those fields. And likely, many of the things I really appreciated in character design or visual development wouldn’t be showcased in any of the art I made, and that was okay.

But making this choice was necessary to be able to move forward. I spent three years pursuing art in industry before I made this realization and focused solely on fine art. And just now as I realized something was missing from my art, it helped me to identify what I wanted to work on in order to improve.

3) Consider Holding Off on Revenue Goals

If you truly want to focus on making some serious investments around refining or even changing your work, take the pressure off. It’s challenging to give yourself enough room to innovate if you’re constantly facing the pressure of making things that will sell.

This isn’t to say that you can’t sell anything, but making sure you have a separate source of income and backing off on time invested in the business side of your art can seriously boost your creative efforts.

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