Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Riding The Rollercoaster


Waiting In Line

As artists, we’re intimately acquainted with the highs and lows rollercoaster ride of the creative journey. When we reach our pinnacles of success, we feel buoyant and bright, invigorated and intoxicated by our well-earned sense of achievement. So fueled, we become enthusiastically motivated for the next project, hungry to hop back on that coaster to hurdle towards our next creative joy ride. 

But we can crash and burn, too. 

We’ve all augured into our own dismal lows. Maybe we believe we failed somehow and so feel inadequate, frustrated, even despondent. A despairing shadow becomes cast onto everything we touch and then nothing comes together as we’d hoped. So we slump in our studios, believing the situation is hopeless in our struggle against some impossible barrier. Sometimes this feeling can be so strong, it keeps us out of our studio altogether. 

This is normal. 

Like the balance of yin and yang, the ups and downs of the creative process are part of our private lives as artists. Just as our greatest highs give us wings, there will come an inevitable crash landing. Periodic disillusionment in either our skills, achievements, or our direction is just part and parcel of our journey. We all get a bit lost along the way! But sometimes what’s a minor setback can instead bubble up to feel like a major catastrophe, backing us into a tight, ever-shrinking corner. What’s the result? Crushing disillusionment.

So when it comes to riding out these inescapable lows, the name of the game becomes one of coping mechanisms rather than denial. A strategy rather than stasis. Truly, our creative drive is a precious thing worth protecting because without a doubt, disillusionment is a miserable state of mind for an artist. So our ability to pull out of this nosedive is crucial for maintaining our momentum, or that’s to say, disillusionment can be managed, even overcome with a tactical approach.

So how do we keep our fires burning brilliantly when it appears circumstances want to snuff them out? How do we stay joyous and motivated even when disillusion looms its ugly head? 

First, we should understand the nature of our chosen art form and harbor no illusions. Only by seeing this animal for what it is can we learn how to live with it. To that end, there are six realizations we should reconcile to keep disillusionment in perspective…

Pulling Down The Bar

Reframe Our Creative Space

When disillusion tarnishes our efforts, what was once enjoyable can feel more like drudgery, can’t it? More like a chore. But here’s the thing — being creative, having the ability and the means to make our Visions real is a true blessing. It’s also a blessing not everyone has the luxury of experiencing to the fullest, if at all. So consider this, rather than thinking, “I have to do [insert task]” reframe it into, “I get to do [insert task].” Completely changes the perspective, doesn’t it? Sometimes all we need is a shift in our view. In so many ways, context is everything especially when it comes to art. Because — hey — there have been days where I get up and think, “Oh man…not that today!” Like sanding — who likes sanding?! But then I reorient my thinking to “I get to” and voilá! There I go, sanding! Another trick I use through particularly tedious stages is envisioning a couple of days from now when it’s done, like projecting my life forwards through it and imagining how the piece will look afterwards and how awesome I’ll feel about that. That kind of carrot can really help me slog through even the most maddening steps. Or yet another tactic is to simply be literal about things and take it all in micro-baby steps. For instance, we did a massive house clean-out two years ago where we got rid of pretty much 70% of everything we owned (it’s amazing how life debris builds up after twenty years!). But the job itself was so overwhelming, it completely numbed my mind into inaction. So daunting! So what I did was to break the whole task down into the tiniest, even the most mundane steps and focus just on that one step. Like, “I will pick up this pillow and put it into the bag,” or “I will take this this excess Tupperware to the donation box.” Chip away at the whole job like that and believe it or not, you’ll be done sooner than you think. Baby step baby step baby step your way to success! So, for example, think of this approach: “I will pick up the sandpaper and sand that left shoulder,” then do just that then, “I will pick up this emery board and sand the right front hoof,” then do just that and so on. Just keep moving forwards in small incremental steps even if it’s slow going. Chip away chip away chip away! Another strategy is to reward yourself with something fun for every blecky, boring part you have to do. For instance, if you have to dremel something down a lot which is noisy, messy, and tedious, reward yourself later with, say, painting something or working on the expression of another piece or even just taking your dog for a walk. Whatever trips your trigger, make that the reward and it can be surprising just how well that works. Now if you ultimately need a break to regroup — do it! Try always to avoid forcing yourself through a piece because, for one, that rarely works to satisfaction and, two, it creates a negative feedback loop that can make us come to associate creativity with unwelcome feelings, and that’s always a quick path to systemic disillusionment. Try to always keep the creativity feedback loop positive!

The first thing to embrace then is keeping our focus oriented on gratitude and keeping The Big Picture in mind. Think of how great it’ll be when the piece is completed — because, yes, there is an end, really! — and how awesome it’ll feel. Stay on target. Stay focused on the light at the end of the tunnel. You got this.

In Our Towers

We are alone when we create because, ultimately, art is a solitary endeavor. Don’t we mostly work sequestered in our studios, quiet in our own thoughts and aspirations? Don’t we set our own goals and silently do what we can to meet them? And even if we create with others around, as in a demo, classroom, retreat, or collaboration, aren’t we still inside our own heads the moment we focus, the world narrowed down to a fine point with our piece? Probably “yes,” right? That’s because art isn’t done as a team even when there’s active collaboration going on. That nexus with the piece exists only inside us. 

Art starts alone — and convinces society later. 

— Douglas Davis

Each one of us also experiences our own unique challenges and responds in our own unique manner, and methods and interpretations are as singular as each artist. We also engineer our own strategies based on our own prerogatives and determine whether we’ve fulfilled them based on our own internal judgments. And only we can determine when our work is done. 

The urge, ability and vision to create is a solo endeavor. 

— Linda Archinal

What does that mean? That it’s all on us. The buck stops here. We succeed alone and we fail alone. When we’ve triumphed then — what a great feeling! What a high! So reaffirming and confidence-building. Yet like a cruel devil on our shoulder, maybe a little voice whispers in our ear, “Maybe you didn’t stretch yourself enough?”, or, ”Maybe next time won’t be such a success,” or ”Can you do so well again?,” or worse, “That piece isn’t as good as you think it is.” And so the balance tips to the other direction, and if you’re an overthinker — ooooo boy — now there’s a lovely walk in the park. Or maybe our piece failed outright. Maybe it just faceplanted. Hey — it happens to every artist for any number of reasons. When this happens…my gosh though…does that dredge up the most self-punishing thoughts! So much so, it can even paralyze some artists!

With this barrage, we may turn to family or friends for affirmation, support, and encouragement. As surely as they love us though, it may be difficult for them to comprehend how artists so deeply internalize their creative experience. This means that we pretty much live with either the wins or losses in our own internal landscape, even fighting our own emotional battles solo. Yet not everyone’s nature matches well with this kind of solitary psychological minefield. In fact, many artists are ill-suited for it so when they hit a low, they truly become crestfallen and can feel quite isolated despite being surrounding by loving peeps trying to reinforce their self-worth. 

Of course, when one is faced with a canvas, one is no longer alone, and the sense of solitude diminishes. This can be an agreeable passage of time. In fact, solitude then becomes a kind of companion. 

— Pierre Alechinsky

Moreover, sometimes we only learn whether we succeeded or failed after the fact in the arena of public opinion. It’s such a delight to have our piece strike an unexpected cord and meet with great acclaim! What a fantastic surprise! But by the same token, what a terrible shock to be so proud of our creation only to be blindsided by wholesale bashing, typically in inconsiderate and discourteous voices. Inevitably then, many artists develop a thick layer of trepidation with the completion of each piece and take a deep breath with a debut. It’s no surprise then that experiencing this kind of anxiety alone can truly be difficult for some tender souls. 

Now to help compartmentalize all this, a handy tactic is to consider this concept: The ancient Greeks regarded the artistic gift as a function of a Muse. Here, there’s an outside influence, force, or inspiration compelling us to create the piece so in a sense, our piece isn’t our sole creation. Something else had a hand in it, too. Therefore, if we created a stellar piece, our Muse definitely “showed up” and helped us to rock it! But if our piece flopped, our Muse just didn’t deliver. So altogether, this perspective displaces the blame from off our identity and self-worth and onto the mercurial reality of creating art because sometimes — yeah — our Muse just bails on us! That’s normal. And that’s okay! Creativity is a total mystery that just happens to fail us all at some point. But this handy concept can help us from internalizing too deeply any perceived failure which, if left unchecked, is a guaranteed open door to deep disillusionment. So if we’re not in control so much at all, then we’re not entirely “to blame,” are we? Let’s give ourselves permission to ease up on ourselves and accept the grey area of creativity and Fate.

So, the second thing we must accept is that our chosen activity is a solitary experience. We stand alone, triumph alone, and fail alone so unless we learn to cope alone, we’re going to be in for a rough ride smack dap right into disillusionment. 

Charging Windmills 

Realistic art is inherently comparative, i.e. competitive. Whether we compare our new work against our older pieces, or against the living subject, or against our expectations, or against the works of other artists, we’re forced to gauge our progress through comparison. Realism simply has prerequisite boundaries we have to compare against every step of the way. And this can be a real problem as Mark Twain points out, “Comparison is the death of joy.” So this means we’re working in a genre that intrinsically invites disillusion right from the get-go.

Add to this the fact that nothing we could ever create will be truly technically realistic. We’re fallible. We aren’t DNA. No matter how hard we try, Nature will always outdo us. In essence then, we’ve set up an impossible Don Quixote task for ourselves which we’ll perpetually chase with our enthusiastic ambitions, but always falling short of spearing our coveted target. With this kind of self-defeating relationship with our work, it’s no wonder disillusionment happens from time to time.

It also means that we exist on a sliding scale of ability because our mind can comprehend only so much at any given stage of development. We simply progress at our own pace and become aware of things in our own time, which is something no amount of outside input can completely counteract. Wrap it all up and this means we’re vulnerable to our own tunnel vision, our own blindspots and biases which will keep us ever-missing our goals despite our best efforts. This is how artists can keep making the same mistakes despite critique or get stuck in a habitual rut. Ultimately then, working within realism can also mean living with self-doubt, a difficult place for creativity for sure. 

In lieu of all this, the pursuit of perfection can either be a healthy fuel for improvement or douse our urge to create entirely so we need to be very clear where we stand with it. But the thing is, we all experience both edges of that sword at different stages of our journey so it’s how we cope that will spell the different outcomes. 

In a nutshell then, the third thing we should accept is that we’ve chosen a challenging and meticulous art form, and therefore one often inherently frustrating, even maddening. We have to make peace with that.

Moving Targets 

Not only are our targets difficult to reach, they move! With the completion of each new piece — with each new comparison — we re-evaluate our goals and evolve. So we can’t stand around to improve — we have to get moving! Realism demands we chase after it, which is why those who settle for “good enough” can plateau rather quickly. Indeed, this genre is constantly moving forwards and unless we do, too, we’re going to get left in the dust.

Just be prepared though — we’re going to trip. Hitting the proverbial pavement isn’t pleasant and can knock the creative wind clean out of us for a time. We may feel embarrassed for stumbling and disappointed in ourselves which adds further toxicity to that emotional brew. Yet every rider must get up and start riding again, and so must we. Get back on that horse!

Or sometimes we lose sight of our target or get distracted by new ones and get lost. For instance, we can inadvertently lose sight of our initial goals as we work and so start to feel confused or overwhelmed, even a sense of defeat if we get buried by it. Yet it’s okay to change our minds, even midstride, as long as we pick new goals that are a good fit for the moment and the piece. It’s very easy to get sidetracked by lots of shiny aspirations, but if our developmental stage isn’t ready for them or we don’t stay sufficiently focused, we might find ourselves spinning our wheels between interchanging targets and right into disillusionment. Exasperation can happen a lot faster than we know! But even so, sometimes the lesson isn’t found in the success but in the setback. When this happens, learn from it, move on, and get back on track knowing there’s always a way through it.

Where you stumble, there lies your treasure. 

— Joseph Campbell

Nevertheless, there are false targets out there, too. A fresh perspective can definitely take the art form to new heights, but some not so much. Indeed, I’ve seen some faddish painting techniques come and go that were certainly splashy, but not so realistic. It happens. So be careful to measure a fad against your own goals before simply accepting it all at face value. By that token, we can also create our own false targets that can steer us off course. For instance, blindspots can make us believe we’ve created a problem area when, in fact, it’s just fine, or on the other hand, we can’t see an error at all. Or if we’ve been working on a piece for so long, we’ve developed creative fatigue and so familiar aspects start to feel weird and wrong — a strange phenomenon. Plus, overworking a piece is a very real thing and so we may inadvertently destroy parts we particularly like. We may even come to believe we’ve lost our inspiration for the piece — not so — or even our Muse — definitely not so — when all we really need is a break to refresh and regroup.

So the fourth aspect we should accept is that this art form tends to most reward those who periodically chose the moving targets to stay on their toes. Stepping outside our comfort zones isn’t only fun, its necessary from time to time.

Chasing The Glory

Absolutely, soak up those positive comments! It’s not only awesome, but practically speaking, it’s necessary to counterbalance the negativity of the tone deaf, the inconsiderate, or the jerks. So bask in it, baby! You’ve earned it! All your hard work, dedication, struggles, and passion paid off! It’s important to pat yourself on the back, too, especially with your great successes, so don’t feel that it’s arrogant or narcissistic. It’s not. It’s healthy, affirming, and empowering! Know your worth and know the beauty of your abilities. That’s confidence, my friend, and there’s nothing wrong with that!

All that said though, weighting feedback does best with cool objectivity. That’s not easy to be sure, but try to get to that end of the spectrum as much as you can. Above all, keep it in context. Consider the source, beware the delivery, mind the knowledge base, recognize the motivation, weigh the aesthetic, and analyze the relevance. Think on this, too — don’t get too caught up in either the glowing comments or pummeling criticisms. Try to come back to the middle ground. Why? Well, if we aren’t careful, either end of that spectrum can create a false sense of where we are developmentally by either dragging us too low or elevating us too high. We want to keep our feet on the ground to be responsive in any direction we need to go, even when it surprises us. Now why for that? Well, one of the fastest routes to disillusionment is a rude surprise born of a false notion of where we are in our skills. We need to be truthful with ourselves and wrapped up in that is how we handle feedback. Stay as grounded as you can and take what you can use then let the rest slide like water off a duck’s back. Because if we’re to trust anyone, it should be ourselves most of all. Indeed, self-doubt can be devastatingly disorienting and disillusionment isn’t far behind. So ultimately, having our rock to stand on helps us to avoid many traps of public opinion, gives us the gumption to defend our work when needed, and gifts us with a sense of artistic self-awareness that serves our progress well.

So the fifth aspect we should accept is that while lots of positive reinforcement is great, we can’t let it go to our heads. Likewise, we can’t deflate so completely with unwelcome feedback either. Try to maintain an even keel to stay flexible and adaptive and, mostly, to stay enthusiastic. Indeed, our creative joy is our single most lethal weapon against disillusionment so protect it with perspective and context.

We act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirements of life, when all that we need to make us really happy is something to be enthusiastic about. 

— Charles Kingsley

Losing Steam

Because — yeah — sometimes disillusionment happens because we simply lose our enthusiasm, even our inspiration. For instance, we may no longer be passionate about creating realism right now and so other art forms now are capturing our attention. Sometimes we can just lose interest in the piece itself, even get lost in the process and just peter out. The Muse is a mercurial thing that can’t be forced. Realism just may not inspire our Muse all the time. If we press the issue though, disillusionment can build as we desperately push our Muse to deliver, turning a pleasurable experience sour. If creating art becomes a chore then, something is very wrong so regroup and rethink. Because the thing is, if we’re unable to break this cycle, the feedback loop then becomes geared to process irritation and discouragement rather than excitement, and — wow — is that a welcome mat for disillusionment. 

So the sixth realization we best accept is that our Muse may not cooperate all the time when it comes to pursuing realism, but forcing it usually fails. We have to go with the flow or find a way to work through it while preserving our joyful engagement.

Holding On Tight, Screaming

Okay, so now that we know a bit about the nature of our chosen art form and how it tends to invite disillusionment by its very nature...what do we do now? Be proactive! We have to actively protect our enthusiasm and to this end, we do this by developing mediating strategies — because the only way around it is really just through it. So what are some tactics? Luckily, there are quite a few… 

Maintain Perspective 

Keep things in context. You are an artist and your artistic style and prerogative are unique. You create the way you do because of who you are — not the other way around. You’re the one and only vessel in all the Universe that your art can come through and it’s as singular and special as you are. Therefore, your worth isn’t dependent on what other people think of your art, only on what you think of your art. So never forget — the first and only person to please with your art is yourself.

Because understand that not everyone will like your work. It’s a big world out there with many different tastes and your “flavor” may not appeal to everyone. And that’s okay! So while your art may come from the heart, learn not to internalize other people’s opinions of it — either good or bad. Try not to get swept up in the squall of opinion out there or worse, get lost trying to please everyone. Your personal connection to your art is an imperative so keep others from disrupting that synergy. In short, don’t create your art based on chasing down people’s approval and don’t fixate on who likes or dislikes your work. Who cares? Stop keeping score! You’ll drive yourself crazy and, ultimately, does it really matter? No. 

Instead, create work on your own terms, authentically and unapologetically. When you create authentically with joy in your heart, it shows in your work and the rest will fall into place. Yet this joy can only emerge when you create to amuse yourself, when you create in the manner you were meant to in carefree freedom. Don’t forget that the act of artistic creation is one rooted in love, joy, and introspection — cultivate them! 

But perhaps most of all, give yourself time to surprise yourself. You may want to scream at how you keep hitting roadblocks or not progress as quickly as you’d like…but give yourself time. Because believe me, you’ll happily surprise yourself if you keep at it!

No person who is enthusiastic about his work has anything to fear from life. 

— Samuel Goldwyn

Stay Open Minded 

Disillusionment can be a symptom of being stuck. Undeniably, a rut can lead to a kind of boredom that saps passion right out of the studio and — whomp — there’s disillusionment. But if you keep your mind open and your options plentiful, you’ll constantly challenge yourself with all sorts of different directions. Keeping your skills stretched to the point of breaking, too, is far more important than many artists realize. It doesn’t have to be all the time, but if you don’t periodically push yourself beyond what you think you can do, you’re tempting apathy. Those proverbial walls are there to prove to yourself how much you really want something, right? Because every once and awhile, a piece should feel like jumping off a cliff into the unknown if even just a little bit. With this will come a kind of high, not only from this act of wild abandonment, but in each little triumph that you unexpectedly won! You’ll also find greater zeal in conquering the challenges that pop up and find they become deeper learning experiences. There’s something to be said about damning the torpedoes — you become more committed as your gumption flares up in a way no other approach can inspire. Audaciousness is such a great way to tap into your passion, and all great art is first a product of passion. And if there’s one thing that can atomize disillusionment on the first shot, it’s passion!

Make this a habit then and the more likely you’ll jump to new points of progress quicker. This is because pushing yourself opens your mind to the possibilities and in them rest plentiful stepping-stones of learning and all manner of artistic expression. More still, you’ll remain aware that you don’t know everything and that there’s always another and perhaps a better way to render reality and so you start looking for them. In this way then we create a new positive feedback loop that keeps us constantly busy-minded with our art and with this state of mind, a rut just doesn’t stand a chance of taking root. So what’s the best balm for boredom? A reachable challenge! Stay curious! Be bold! Explore without fear!

Nothing splendid was ever created in cold blood. Heat is required to forge anything. Every great accomplishment is the story of a flaming heart. 

— Arnold H. Glasgow

This does beg mentioning though: Don’t confuse evolution with “selling out.” Being able to recognize the need to evolve and then knowing how to update your methods without losing yourself in the process is important. Indeed, the difference between evolutionary improvement and pandering to fad is an important distinction. The trick is evolving while still staying true to yourself and we do this by creating always tapped into our love and joy which will keep us honest and authentic.

Unless you try to do something beyond what you have already mastered, you will never grow.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

Appreciate Irony 

As you gain experience and develop a portfolio, you’ll find that your view of what you create may not be the same others share. That’s to say, how we see our piece isn’t necessarily the same way others see it. This isn’t a bad thing! Art is open to interpretation and the experience of the viewer, even realism, and so everyone brings with them their own unique perspective, right? That’s one of the cool things about art! So once we learn to nestle our own meaning in our hearts, we can learn to “let our piece go” to allow others to nestle it into theirs in their own unique way. If we allow our work to have a fresh new life in the eyes of other folks, too, this can circle back to inspire and delight us in wonderful and unexpected ways.

For example, some of our biggest misfires (as we may think of them) often turn out to be our most popular pieces. We may genuinely believe we’ve faceplanted when, in fact, our stumbles may strike an unexpected chord to find surprising wild success. I can’t tell you how many times the ceramic pieces I thought were the biggest fails ended up selling first and those I thought were the best just sat there! Even the chachki pieces I disliked the most ended up being the most loved by others. Seriously — it’s such a common phenomenon among artists, it’s wild! Similarly, those pieces you believe will be the hardest sells, those that you believed would flop, often become the most well-received in ways you couldn’t have predicted. Stormwatch was that way for me. I genuinely believed he would completely fail, but I sculpted him anyway and look what happened! And this happens all the time with artists. And I’ve known plenty of pieces over the years I would have bet on to be crazy successes completely nosedive, often for reasons I can’t fathom.

Don’t let this ironic twist of Fate go unnoticed — pay attention and learn. In those moments lie gems of insight about yourself, your artistic direction, your creative motivations, and how your work is perceived. Even more, it can help us loosen up creatively and learn to lean into our inspirations more for their own sake rather than worrying about how our pieces will resonate. If we can embrace irony more, the more we learn to create for ourselves and so our work becomes more genuine and distinctive. Even more though, we disconnect our expectations from disillusionment because we just throw everything into the wind. Truly, without fixed expectations but by staying open and responsive, disillusionment has a hard time clinging to our experience.

Above all though, cultivate a healthy sense of humor. Learn to smile as a first reaction rather than grumble. It’s fun to be pleasantly surprised, isn’t it? And it’s curious to be taken aback. Honestly, if there’s one thing that’s always surprising, it’s how the folks react to each new piece. Truly, more often than not, creating art is laden with irony.

Build Bonds 

Since being an artist is a solitary endeavor, we often long to reach out to like-minded peers for encouragement, support, and community. So find a supportive social group that’s healthy for you and your expectations and engage. 

This isn’t the easiest thing to do though. While the obvious choice would be a large public forum, this rarely pans out well for an artist. Most public forums don’t filter members and many are unmoderated (or poorly moderated), and while other artists may be there, there’s probably many more non-artists there, too. Public forums usually aren’t limited to only professionals, either, so a significant proportion of the participants aren’t beholden to a certain standard of behavior. This jumbled mix seldom creates a balanced place for an artist since you become a target to a percentage of people. Plus, not being artists, let alone a working artist, they have difficulty seeing the world from your point of view. More extreme, some may view an artist as “other” which can inevitably meet with negative consequences with that sort of objectification. Indeed, I’ve known so many artists becoming very disillusioned with their work and with the community in general through exactly this mechanism. The moment you feel an “ick factor” on a public forum then — leave. No forum is worth sacrificing your joy.

Rather, look for social media, organizations, clubs, groups, or forums dedicated to artists or the large percentage of them are artists. They are out there. This is where you’ll find folks who already share many commonalities with you whether or not they work in your same discipline. You’ll also find a different standard of behavior, not just because many of them are professionals, but because they already see the world through the same lens. You’ll also find many opportunities and insights there that can keep you interested and growing in your creativity in more targeted ways. 

Another option is a small private mailing list of close friends or family, whether involved in your art or not. You can create such a list or be lucky enough to join one. Small, private forums often are much better than large and public ones because when you have a private party with close friends, it’s less likely to implode. 

We all need encouragement and support from time to time so find the right place, invest yourself, and you can reconcile your isolation as an artist while also absorbing inspiration from other dynamic minds. This one-two punch is a clean shot to knocking out disillusionment!


We cannot create in a vacuum. If we don’t keep tabs on our development, we can go sideways which invites eventual disillusion through frustration and discouragement. We need reference points to measure where we’ve come from, where we are, and where we’re going because while artistic evolution can be rather chaotic, making sense of our progress needs a bit more order all the same. So take periodic stock of your body of work and analyze it with a cool, objective eye. Notice the things you still like about it as well as those things you’d rather change, and especially those things you regard as learning experiences. Sometimes, if we’re very lucky, we’re even able to notice a previous blindspot, too. Absolutely, the ability to objectively analyze your work is crucial. And it’s not just for your own journey, either. Others are assessing your work, and with differing degrees of insight, so if you’re unable to defend it, disillusionment isn’t far behind. In short, you need your own rock to stand on in order to expertly manage feedback as well as know where you want to take your goals.

Above all, maintain quality, even in work you may regard as “quickies.” Quality never goes out of style! Use quality materials with sound methods and work on meticulous craftsmanship to ensure a collector’s investment. When we take pride in our processes, we validate our sense of self-worth and that the time we devote to our craft is time well spent. However, quality doesn’t mean just good quality materials — it also means good quality interpretations. Remember that realism is constantly being pushed out farther and farther so unless you’re staying current with the evolving standards, you can become frustrated by the reception of your work over time. 

Don’t take praise at face value. Decide for yourself what excellence is and challenge yourself to meet those standards. So consider setting new quality goals from time to time because the process of reevaluation should ultimately result in stretching yourself artistically. But also cultivate humility. Only by jettisoning our pretense can we recognize our hiccups while also valuing our successes without letting them go to our heads. 

Every new painting starts out as a comeback. 

— Joseph P. Blodgett

Boiled down, good work earns genuine and enthusiastic approval, and therefore self-generates success. When you stay on top of your game, your sense of satisfaction stays high and your motivation is always primed. Plus, you’re able to indulge your whims and new directions more than if you’re always scrambling. In short, good work makes an artist’s life much happier. 

I don’t think of myself as making art. I do what I do because I want to, because painting is the best way I’ve found to get along with myself. 

— Robert Rauschenberg

Dating or Marriage? 

It’s helpful to have a clear understanding of why you chose equine realism as an art form. It’s not enough to say, “Because I like it,” either. It’s no easy discipline and so a compass fixed on deeper meanings will help us boldly forge ahead on track despite the potholes. So dig deep. Once you’ve nabbed it then, revisit it from time to time to affirm your commitment because it’s deceptively easy to get sidetracked in this genre. Also take stock of your goals — do they further your commitment or contradict it as you grow? The more they diverge over time, the more it becomes time to rethink your reasons why.

The day is coming when a single carrot, freshly observed, will set off a revolution. 

— Paul Cezanne

You also need to decide if you’re creating within this art form just for casual fun and a low-key hobby, or more as a hardcore personal challenge, even as a profession. Whichever motivates you will determine how intense your involvement will be which has a direct bearing on how you manage disillusionment. 

For example, if it’s just for fun and frustration erupts, it’s much easier to walk away because the level of investment is far less. In a sense, it’s more like dating than a marriage. On the other hand, invested dedication requires far more energy and commitment like a marriage. More is on the line and so our creative undertakings take on a heavier weight because the stakes are higher and the standards more intense. While this focus can propel our progress to dizzying heights when it’s a healthy relationship, it has the potential to leave us vulnerable to disillusion if the relationship turns sour. Therefore, “married” artists sometimes have to work harder to keep the relationship a happy one. In other words, if more invested folks don’t actively strategize to keep disillusion at bay, they’re going to suffer burn out, psychological fatigue, resentment, frustration, despondency, even strong feelings of inadequacy. Intense investment simply means more intense tactics to combat the side effects.

Yet while all this may seem an obvious realization that comes with the territory, too many artists neglect make this kind of distinction. Inevitably then, they end up in the wrong kind of “relationship” which has only one outcome — disillusion. For instance, some want the fame that comes with “marriage-level” work but are unable or unwilling to dedicate themselves to that kind of intensity. As a result, for example, we can hear the frustration in the complaint, “I guess I just don’t have what it takes to create top quality work!” Conversely, other artists may have achieved “marriage-level” status but revert back to “dating” for whatever reason and then wonder why their reputation suffers. This outcome can be heard in the embittered comment, “People used to like my work — what do people want nowadays? People are just stupid!” 

There’s no shame in choosing a more casual involvement over an intense one — one isn’t better than the other, only different. And there’s loads of room of all sorts of motivations of all kinds! The point is to be very clear of what you want to invest and if your expectations align or disillusion isn’t far behind. So whether you want to take your commitment to the next level, ratchet it down a notch, or even get a divorce is up to you. Just understand that how people respond to your work often mirrors your relationship with it. 

You can accelerate your development by giving yourself a fresh set of challenges, or the same set viewed from a different angle, every day. Explore a different path – if it’s a dead end, explore another. 

— Paul Foxton 

Value Yourself 

Don’t minimize your efforts or talents! Respect yourself and your abilities. Value what works in your art and seek to make it truly bloom. And there are small miracles in every piece so learn to recognize them to give you something to build on. Because really, if all you do is find fault with your work (or fault in other’s work), you’re creating a worrisome feedback loop. That kind of downer grind isn’t only unhelpful on many levels, but it tends to attract people who have nothing positive to offer which only feeds a negative vibe towards disillusionment. 

Now on that note — yes — practice makes perfect, that doesn’t mean you have to kill yourself in the process, does it? No! When it comes to art, things come in their own time and cannot be forced. Just let it happen and don’t be so hard on yourself. We can only tackle what we’re ready to tackle and only absorb what we’re ready to absorb at that moment. Knowledge bases and skillsets take time to develop and everything is a process of building blocks. Be patient and kind to yourself. As my good friend, Ed Gonzales says, “each horse is practice for the next.” 

Likewise, practice patting yourself on the back. No — seriously. Learn to recognize what you got right or what challenges you tackled and take a moment to appreciate that. It’s through stretching our skills that we find motivating progress so feed that with some self-congratulations and — yes — even if we got too enthusiastic and bit of more than we could chew and faceplanted. Especially then! Hey — it happens to all of us at some point so don’t beat yourself up so much. Take note, be proud that you were so bold and forward-thinking, and simply rethink the problem in another way. Who knows, maybe that will switch on a new light bulb! Progress and innovation may require pushing envelopes to the breaking point, but they’re also full of beneficial sideways surprises so don’t let discouragement keep them from you. 

Nevertheless, don’t let weak areas slide for the sake of your self-esteem either. Doing so really isn’t a means to prop yourself up but a surefire way to be disappointed on some level later. Sure, it’s easier to say, “Oh well, my body shading is nice enough to make up for the blobby white markings,” but if you don’t attend to habitual problem areas in your work, that can erode your self-esteem over time. So don’t shortchange yourself. Give yourself the opportunity to wow yourself with how talented you truly are! 

Welcome Change 

As we grow as artists, not only does our art evolve, but we should expect our goals and interests to evolve, too. This is normal. Don’t be afraid of it! Really, just because what you did in the past was a winning combination doesn’t mean that evolution will lead to ruin of your reputation, customer base, or livelihood. And if you do lose a few collectors as a result, chances are you’ll gain others anyway, right? And maybe a couple of collectors may grumble, but is your artistic journey about you or them? Creating art is a kind of Schrödinger’s Cat situation: You won’t know if change is good or bad until you actually open that box, so to speak. So open it! With art, change is good more times than not so why deny yourself an unrealized potential because of anxiety? And worry over what? Be true to your big ideas — you had them for a reason! And the truth is if you’re fearful and resistant to growth, you risk plateauing and eventual disillusionment isn’t far behind. Explore, expand, experiment, imagine, reimagine, and stretch as you wish — it’s good for you and your work. 

When you are through changing, you are through. 

— Bruce Barton

Explore and Seek 

To that end — actively explore! Try creating work in entirely different styles, genres, or with other subject matter. We can’t ignore how demanding and sometimes confining equine realism can be and our Muse may need variety every so often so set out a buffet.

Along with that, consider some field study and field trips. Attend horse shows and stables, even snap some reference photos. Visit galleries, museum exhibits, and art shows. Go on studio tours or visit foundries. Attend or host retreats, classes, and workshops. Try other art forms and experiment with new media. For example, try sculpting a bust or bas-relief if all you’ve done is full-body sculptures, or try pastels or color pencil if you’ve only worked in oils or acrylics. Sculpt a dog or antelope, or maybe even a Pegasus or Unicorn! Think outside the box! And hey — take some art classes, even in some creative outlet, interpretation, or skillset totally different than equine realism.

Nothing changes until something moves. 

— Albert Einstein

Because here’s the thing: Expanding your creative options can recharge your motivation and refresh your eye in exciting and unexpected ways. You may discover a lot about yourself, too, which certainly is a big boost to your motivation. Don’t be afraid then of getting a little crazy with exploring wildly different creative outlets because there’s no wrong choice here. Whatever tickles your fancy — pursue it! Truly, everything you experience will inform your studio!

Most of all, don’t be concerned if your attention becomes increasingly drawn to these new options — there’s nothing wrong with that! In fact, you may find a need to develop these other options parallel to your realistic work to keep your creative energy burying the needle. And it’s okay to “leave home” to return later — nothing has to be permanent. That’s the exciting prospect of learning and art — we don’t only have to stay open-minded about our art but about ourselves, too! You have a tremendous amount of potential locked up on there — let it out!

Not in the shouts and plaudits of the throng, but in ourselves, are triumph and defeat. 

— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Baby Steppin’ 

If you find yourself daunted or unmotivated in your studio, rethink your work load. Perhaps just shuffling pieces around may be the trick. Really, sometimes it’s better to put aside the piece that’s really hairing you out and work instead on a less stressful thing. Think about it — you can either waste time procrastinating or endlessly fighting a problem piece, or better use that time and energy to work on something else more productive at the moment. Heck, just picking up something more inviting to work on can be enough to get us over a hump. Pace yourself. Work your way up to those pieces that make you want to scream and only when you’re ready with a positive frame of mind. If we try to slog though a troublesome completion, we’re just conditioning ourselves for disillusionment.

So consider having lots of little sideline projects waiting in the wings to fiddle with when you need an injection of low-pressure or experimentation. Maintaining the sense of fun in the studio is great in so many ways, especially to keep our spirits up and creativity geared forwards. A happy studio is a productive studio! In a nutshell then, if you reach a road block, don’t stop! Simply take a detour and explore the new path. Whatever it takes, just keep moving! For instance, when I get exasperated with a piece, I’ll detour and work on illustrations, writing, sketches, or artistic exercises. I’ll explore my references and horse books, looking for more inspiration. I just switch gears in the knowing I’ll return later with a fresh eye and renewed enthusiasm.

To look backward for a while is to refresh the eye, to restore it, and to render it the more fit for its prime function of looking forward. 

— Margaret Fairless Barber

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder 

Sometimes all you need is a vacation from the studio. Let’s be honest with ourselves — as artists we tend towards a workaholic attitude, don’t we? What’s better than doing what we love to do? Well, doing more of it! Yet this can inadvertently cause burn out or a frazzled state of mind because we all need a break from time to time, right? Taking periodic steps away really does help to maintain a strong sense of motivation by creating a healthy balance between you and your art. Thusly refreshed then, your head is often swimming with new creative ideas because your subroutines just needed to work outside of a single-minded focus. This means our downtime is just as important as our active time! It’s a little counter-intuitive but so true that applying our mind to other interests can often result in better work later. 

Getting Out Of The Studio 

Similarly, don’t sacrifice other facets of your life for your art — your “other” self is as important as the self in your studio. Family, friends, pets, extra-curricular activities, and even travel all play significant parts in your life that support your art life in systemic ways, practically and emotionally. Indeed, a well-balanced life contributes to reinforced artistic motivation because balance offers distance and perspective which are essential for mediating disillusionment. Balance also provides inspiration and new ideas, infusing freshness and innovation into our body of work. And most of all, balance reminds us that while we may be artists, we’re also so much more than that, too! We’re multi-faceted, fascinating individuals with vibrant, interesting lives and so our identity is so much more complex than just the life in our studio. So basically, balance pulls us out of our art-heads so we can reorient our identities and ambitions to remember all the good stuff that motivates us so well. Truly, working in your studio with blinders on and without breaks only gives disillusionment the opportunity burn you out, numb your Eye, exhaust you psychologically, or push you into creative fatigue. So go out and experience life with loved ones! There’s no better cure for a funk! 

Pulling Into The Station — We Survived!

Being prepared and ever-vigilant against the quiet intrusion of disillusionment is active duty. And it can take a lot of honesty and introspection to stay aware enough to spot those moments it can pounce. Because know it or not, every day in our studio is actually a series of motivation-induced moments strung together by a continuum of passion. Each moment inspires the next and so it goes until we complete our piece. Good strategy works to protect that delicate chain of emotional events to keep them tumbling forwards with love and zeal. And while each of us experiences disillusionment periodically, how we work to reclaim our happiness speaks a lot about our dedication. Truly, we reaffirm our commitment with each new piece we complete and in this way, each completion is a statement of sorts. Yet there’s no shame in admitting you may no longer find inspiration in equine realism for a time or even permanently. Just don’t let disillusionment keep you from being creative altogether! 

Art is a very joyous obsession that has one large drawback – the frustration that is involved with the middle of the process, when things can go either way. 

— Travis Bowles

Just remember the yin and yang. Our darkest moments give us the opportunity to take pause and change our direction to see ourselves and our art in a new light. In reality then, our disillusion really is a kind of gift without which we may never be given that moment to grow. So when we feel at our weakest that’s really our moment when we can find our true strength! Don’t be afraid to reach deep down to rediscover yourself and your art. There are great things in store for you if you’re willing to see The Big Picture and reconsider your strategies. Creativity is really about movement, of “moving around” in our ideas, skills, and expectations so the moment we “sit still” is the moment we open the door to disillusionment through plateaus, creative fatigue, burn out, and all the rest. Keep moving!

Ultimately though, the best strategy to squish disillusionment is fully understanding yourself as an artist — knowing what keeps you motivated, engineering a studio life that cultivates those motivations, and then bounding after those carrots in earnest. This will lead you always to artistic happiness and enthusiasm, or as Elizabeth Gilbert would put it, you’ll always “find your way home.” If there’s one thing that can conquer disillusion then, it’s holding the love for creativity and our subject closest to our hearts. Love always points the way so follow where it leads because believe it or not, you’ll love where it takes you and so will we!

Happiness is inward and not outward, and so it does not depend on what we have, but on what we are. 

— Henry Van Dyke


Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Taking Off The Blindfold


Here’s the inescapable truth: We all make unavoidable mistakes in our work. We’re human, right? We could be at this for years, be highly schooled, famous and super skilled, and still make them. Sometimes they’re a function of our style and sometimes a function of our skillset and sometimes a function of our knowledge base, but any which way, they’ll always be linger in our clay or pigment. How does this happen? If all we have to do is simply sculpt or paint what’s there — a direct translation — how could errors even happen, especially with all that experience, knowledge, and skill behind us? It’s our blindspots and plateaus at work against us, that’s how. The pesky little gremlins that haunt our efforts, we all have them and always since they’re simply a byproduct of how the human mind works. But while they’re inevitable, still, the key here isn’t giving up in fatalistic surrender but about strategy, a game plan. So how do we do that?


Well, first, we need to fully grasp the STEM of realistic art. Yes, it’s a thing! It stands for Seeing, Translation, Evaluation, and Memory, the four components that form the foundation of all our efforts. Each is essential and cannot compensate for the other which is why the more they’re developed and work as a team, the better our work becomes.

So what’s the deal here? Well, know it or not, looking at our references, judging our piece, making our corrections, and growing from it are all separate, learned skills. It takes experience and training to synch them up as a coordinated unit, but once that happens, creating becomes easier, faster, and more advanced. Now — yes — some folks do have a knack for STEM right out of the gate, what we’d refer to as “natural talent,” but these factors can always be refined regardless. But it’s a direct equation: The better our STEM, the faster our progress.

“A good system shortens the road to the goal.”

— Orison Sweet Marden

Now the key to understanding STEM is recognizing that it rests entirely on our perception, that powerful “reality filter” that interprets the world around us. And our perception isn’t infallible. Indeed, everyone has a different perception and so perceives reality differently, each as valid and vibrant as our own. Nonetheless, we have to start somewhere, right? That’s where STEM comes in….

Most people just look at the world, but an artist must See the world with a depth of observational skills that are factors more intense. In other words, an artist has to See what’s actually there down to the teensy details instead of just what their brain wants to see with all that filtering going on. And — wow — that filtering is a powerful editor! For instance, the average person will just see a blade of grass. But an artist will note the hue and how it changes over the blade, the striations and veins, the ruffled edges, the browned areas, the curve and shape from root to tip, how the light reflects over it and shines through it, and on and on. When it comes to our art form in particular, our Eye should become like a laser scanner, moving over every inch to remember that for the work. And the more intense the laser, the more data gathered. Indeed, equine realism demands an acuity that transcends not only most other equine professions, but also many other art forms. By blending science and art, reality and illusion, fact and fantasy, biology and aesthetic, we're drawing from technicality and creativity simultaneously. In turn, this obliges us to faculties and prerogatives often unnecessary in other professions or genres. For instance, real horse folks simply have to know if a hock, for example, is odd looking to identify injury or poor conformation. However, we have to determine if it’s odd looking to also identify an error in realism. Very different things! And the latter is exponentially more detailed, nuanced, and complicated. Luckily though, most of Seeing is a learned skill that can be improved with training. That is to say, it takes work, curiosity, exploration, and lots of artistic exercises.

"The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend." 

— Henri Bergson

However, artists also have an extra factor in this equation: Our hands. We not only have to See, we have to accurately Translate with our hands what we See into our media. Because our job isn’t just a matter of looking at something, is it? We have to render it into our media and that’s a very different skill. It’s tricky too, being a soft pathway, it’s easily and strongly influenced by our blindspots and plateaus. Indeedy, we may see something correct in our heads, but our hands can’t seem to bang it out, which can become immensely frustrating. “I just can’t get my hands to do what I want!” Or, “I see the photo, but how do I actually do that?” When we hit this wall, it’s an indicator that our Translation skills need work. Enter artistic exercises that focus on abstraction, strategy, study and research into structure and effect, and making lots of comparisons among groups of like things. It could also be the time to learn new techniques, materials, and equipment since the Translation problem may not be us, but what we’re using and how we’re using it. Luckily for us though, Translation is the easiest to amend since it rests a lot on logistics. For instance, one simple way to render complicated shapes is to simplify them as blocked-in shapes. Like the nostril can be thought of as an inverted “9” or “6” (depending on which side you’re looking at) or the hoof as a cone cut at an angle. If we can deconstruct complex biological structures into things more easily applied to sculpture or painting, our Translation abilities just got kicked up a notch. Simplify! Simplify! Simplify! Deconstruct! Strategize! Find alignments and relationships! Even imagine the tool strokes necessary to achieve those shapes as you study the references. Everything about this animal can be abstracted into simpler forms and associations to make our Translative stages far easier and more accurate. In fact, this is exactly where our knowledge of anatomy or color genetics can have the most bang since they’re their own form of abstraction of structure and function in a way.

“Everything must be made as simple as possible. But not simpler.” 

Albert Einstein

Now once we’ve Seen and Translated, we have to judge what we’ve done, right? Always after the fact, this is Evaluation, the moment when we step back and regard what we just did, comparing against our references, sketches, measurements, knowledge base, and expectations with our calipers, protractors, programs, and whatnot. And, boy — it’s amazing just how quickly things can go haywire! It’s here where we have to exercise our most clinical, objective Eye, where it needs the most acuity and clarity. And we have to be a bit brutal, don’t we? Nothing is precious — everything is game for re-doing if warranted. (This is also where symmetry can become a real bugger, so just slog through it.) But the point is here — Evaluate often. Try not to go for long periods of working to then stop to Evaluate. Check check check! See, the more we work without checking ourselves, the more power our blindspots have, giving them more license to create systemic skews that can become a real trouble to fix later when an early check could have prevented the whole mess in the first place. Also use landmarks or blocking-in to set guiding parameters to help dampen the effect of blindspot or plateau skews. But we have a conflict of interest loop here though, don’t we? We have to evaluate our own work, right? Now on some levels, we’ll never have a more honest, accurate Evaluation of our own work that from ourselves. We’re typically our most searing critics, aren’t we? And if our checking methods are sound, we can rely on them pretty well. But at the same time, we’re still in a closed system so if we get really stuck and feel the need, this is where outside critique can be handy to Evaluate our work with a new set of eyes, i.e. a new set of blindspots that may not include the ones we have. But overall, Evaluation is perhaps our most crucial step and the primary place where our blindspots can be checked and stopped in their tracks in a practical sense.

Then finally we have our Memory, our mental library, what we draw from to fill in the gaps to smooth out the logistical process through a go-to foundation of skills and understanding. It’s the accumulation of all our experience, study, explorations, rethinking, and just as importantly, our mistakes. In the most real sense then, Memory is the foundation and command central of STEM, being the pool that Seeing, Translation, and Evaluation draw from to function. Just know, however, that our memory is entirely founded on our perception, which is exactly where our blindspots and plateaus reside, so target that and we target Memory at the same time, or visa versa. Pretty handy! But absolutely, if our database is flawed, so will be our work. As such, we can use artistic exercises to reprogram our Memory with new data — and new mistakes. And let me reiterate that: New mistakes. It cannot be overstated how important mistakes are for our work to improve! If we fear them, we’re not going to progress, or worse, not even start out of anxiety and insecurity. Be bold! Always then, our Memory should be accumulating and evolving with every Seeing-Translation-Evaulation cycle to process new knowledge. And hey, if we were very lucky, we might even have rooted out a blindspot or two. Never let Memory become static and inert, and more importantly encourage it to be adaptive, flexible, and open-minded since new data will challenge and may even reverse everything we know. Staying pliable, curious, and as ego-free as possible is great for this and, in fact, people may blast artists for having “big egos” but it’s precisely those with small ones who progress most.


So that’s STEM! An integrated system that’ll propel any piece to competition with as much accuracy as we can muster at that moment. And that’s an important thing to remember: We can only produce as good as we can at that specific moment — that’s it, that’s all. Our STEM only works in the here and now which is why feeding it constantly with more data is so crucial to create new potential. Always stay on a learning curve since the moment we stop is the moment our blindspots take over and we plateau, and that’s a big problem in an art form that’s constantly pushing the boundaries. So boil it all down and every step in our process is actually just a sequence of Seeing-Translation-Evaluation-Memory (STEM). As we develop our STEM then, so does our work progress which is why in the highly trained artists, these four things merge into one action and why they can pump out what they do so seemingly easily and quickly. But the thing to remember is this: This is the product of practice, training, and experience, and all of those things are available to everyone. Just know though that as we attend to our STEM, our style may evolve as well and there’s nothing wrong with that. Our perception establishes our creative fingerprint, yet it’ll change as we grow and so our style doesn’t have to remain the same either. Let things unfold.

“Idris: Are all people like this?

The Doctor: Like what?

Idris: So much bigger on the inside.” 

Neil Gaiman

Yet despite all this, never forget that our sculpting and painting are the sum of their parts,  those parts we can See and those parts we can’t See — and here’s the kicker, those parts we can’t See have more power in realism, those being our blindspots and plateaus. It’s our STEM then that teases out them out in and tells us the missing information we need to chase. So if our blind spots and plateaus exert that much influence, let’s talk about them…


So what the heck is a blindspot? Well, it’s an invisible knowledge, interpretive, or skill gap that operates under our radar. Born in our perception, bindspots are just some facet of reality we miss only we don’t know we’re missing it. Subsequently, we can finish something and it “looks right” to us, but in fact, there are portions that are wrong only they’re invisible to us — a blindspot. For example, the placement of the eye may be habitually too low on our sculptures or our appaloosa spots are typically misplaced, only we don't interpret those as errors since, being blindspots, they look "right" to us. However, to someone else who doesn’t have that particular blindspot, those errors are really obvious. And that’s because our blindspots are unique to each of us; we each have our own individual set. There are common ones that are often shared — because the equine is really that difficult to render realistically — but we each have rather esoteric ones distinct to each of us, like a fingerprint, and which can sometimes get wrapped up in our style. The more advanced we get, too, the more advanced our blindspots become as well, evolving with us to very subtle levels. More can also pop into existence as we develop, potentially accumulating and compounding if we aren't careful. This effect, for instance, can sometimes be seen on customs that become more extreme as the artist ventures out more on their own then we’ll see them start to self-correct. That leap in scope came with it a host of blindspots that progressively got carved out, a clear indicator of happy improvement. But even in a hyper-realistic painting or sculpture, if we compare to the inspiring reference, we can still see the differences no matter how subtle, largely because we don’t have the same blindspots as the artist did. 

But it’s our blindspots that hold our work back and, operating under our radar, they do so with efficient sneakiness. In a very real sense then, improvement isn’t really about beefing up our skillset, it’s actually about purging ever more blindspots from our work — the more we remove, the more accurate and refined our work becomes. And very few blindspots can prevail with an aggressive and adroit application of STEM — though some always will — allowing us to just soak in lots more accurate data from the living subject, our work, our references, and for our troubleshooting.

“Any fool can know. The point is to understand.” 

— Albert Einstein

That said, not all blindspots are bad! They can help to make our work distinct, they add to the diversity of the art form to keep it vibrant, they appeal to different collectors, and they help to make art, art. Most of all though, they keep us hungry for more, don’t they? So admitting we have blindpots isn’t the end of the world — it’s actually the only pathway to progress and to stay challenged and engaged. In fact, the key really is to identify those blindspots that sabotage our work from those that add that special, unique touch. Put another way, bring as many of our blindspots into focus so we can consciously decide whether to purge or preserve them. Because realism is still art after all; our style and our Voice are just as important as all the facts. Honestly, it’s our quirks that help to transform realism into something that communicates and connects rather than just clinically represents, so it's important to keep some of "us" in our work, too. Because remember, each person interprets reality differently even when it comes to realism — especially when it comes to realism. This does beg the question of whether there’s actually an objective reality at all. (Personally, I don’t think there is for the record.) It’s fun to think about…but anyway…this is precisely why we may quickly See how those eyes may be too low or those appy spots are skewed in another artist’s work, but be blind to the errors in ours. It's also why we may cringe at our earlier work, when our blindspots ran more rampant. And it's also why some people may like an artist's work while others don't. Each of us just ping reality differently and so respond to blindspots differently, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Blindspots are also the underpinning of critique: We're looking for a new point of view to help us See our sculpture in new ways, right? Or rather, we’re seeking another perspective that may not have the same blindspots we do (just remember they have their own). And if we get a really good critique, we also get empirical techniques to identify more blindspots on our own.

What we can change is our perceptions, which have the effect of changing everything. 

— Donna Quesada

So if achieving more realism is really about uprooting our blindspots, how do we actually do that? Well, first, we need to tweak our perception to pop them out — we must change the way we view reality in order to See were we’ve veered off track. Well, there are artistic exercises for that like “insta-art.” In this, sketch out or quickly sculpt or paint something, just as a rudimentary blocking. If sculpting, I recommend using an open medium like Sculpey or oil clay. If painting, using something quick drying like acrylic or gauche (you can do this on a junker model or on paper). Now quickly work, working entirely off your mental library — no references! No peeking! No taking your time! Fast fast fast! We want to scoop out only what you actually know and what you draw from first, what immediately “looks right” to you and get that down. Done? Excellent! Now compare that to direct good references of the living subject. Identify what you got right and pat yourself on the back. Good job, you! But now identify what you got wrong — those are your blindspots. Do overlays in Photoshop if you want to really make them jump out. So how did it specifically go wrong? Was it a misunderstanding of the underlying structure or effect? Was it an ineffective method or tool? Is it a proportional or scale issue? Was it a skewed stylistic preference that went just a little bit too off par? Do this as a regular exercise and we begin to refine our Sight. Another exercise is to sculpt or paint upside down with an upside down reference. This objectifies things which can help highlight our skews when we turn them right side up. Yet another is to use a photo editing program to invert a reference to allow us to see it from a totally new perspective. This is especially helpful with coat patterns such as dapples, ticking, or spots. Be sure to snap pix of your piece, too, and do the same then compare. Also consider flipping your work over horizontally in a photo editing program to see your work from another point of view, or use a mirror to see the piece and references backwards, a quick, handy trick. Or simply snap a photo of your piece, pop it into an editing program like Photoshop and see it objectified by the lens, then you can troubleshoot right there by painting on top of it or cutting it apart and repasting things together. Now you have a game plan for your actual piece without ever having to do all that work for real. Gosh — phone cameras are handy! Consider this exercise too — the “peek-a-boo window.” Here, take a piece of white paper and cut a 1” square or circle in the middle. Place it over your reference photo in the area you’re sculpting. Now study that area closely, looking for all manner of things to inform your sculpting or painting down to the tiniest detail. This removal of distraction can really make things pop out a lot more that would have otherwise been more invisible. You can make this window as big as you want really to take in larger areas, something needed perhaps more for sculpting. Another method is to really understand proportional relationships, scale relationships, structural relationships, and pattern relationships to identify landmarks or sound reference points — and more importantly, to develop reliable methods to measure them, then use them religiously throughout the process. And employing regular exercises such as these is pretty important because if our blindspots go unchallenged and unattended, it’s through them we’ll plateau, so let’s get to…


A plateau that’s an accumulation of blindspots that have become so entrenched, they’re now our comfort zone and so we stay there, content, comfortable, and complacent with the familiar, routine, habitual, and what “looks right” to us. It’s our stasis zone, our default, our status quo, our constellation of habits and predilections that define our work. A plateau then isn’t necessarily a bad thing — we’re all going to plateau at some point, in some ways permanently. It’s simply a function of being a human creating art. I mean, each of our portfolios is distinct, right? What creates that distinction is essentially a kind of plateau — the fingerprint created by the amalgam of all our artistic qualities. Put another way, “plateau” is just another way of saying “artistic style.” But sometimes a plateau can be problematic when it holds us back rather than supporting our uniqueness — and that can happen a lot faster than we know. This is a rut in our interpretation, development, scope, or focus that actually causes us to fall behind the overall progress the rest of the genre is making. And it’s alarmingly easy to get stuck on a plateau and stay there…for years. I’ve seen many artists in many fields get trapped on one and so their work literally is the same for decades with no growth or progress. You can’t even tell which one was created twenty years ago or today. I know one artist who has painted the same ocean scene for 30 years, exactly the same way with no tangible evolution in technique or scope! Now this is perfectly fine if we’re okay with that — don’t get me wrong. Art must first be about enjoyment and pleasure, and if this pleases us — right on! But if this is something we’d rather blast through, we have our work cut out for us because we’ll literally be working against ourselves.

“It isn't where you came from; it's where you're going that counts.” 

Ella Fitzgerald

But don’t feel too bad— all of us will hit plateaus at some point thanks to our blindspots, formulas, routines, techniques, and habits, and despite our natural talents, earnest efforts, attentive mentors, spanning experience, or enthusiastic goals. So the trick is to identify more of them out so we can make conscious decisions about them. That’s the goal — becoming aware enough to make informed choices about where we want to take our work.


But plateaus aren’t all bad either! Think about it…can’t they also be the end of the road for what's working for us? A bottleneck of our abilities? Or maybe even a staging point, a pause before a new stage of growth? A springboard then? The only tricky part is that plateaus are comfortable. They’re easy and familiar, safe and predictable. We like our habits, our routine way of doing things, and that includes the familiar ways we interpret reality. And if our plateaued stage has earned us kudos and good fortune, daring to leap off into the unknown may seem almost like lunacy. So it’s very easy to get stuck up there. But becoming too comfortable in this niche art form can be riskier than we know. Slipping into the trap of complacency, of believing that our strengths can continue to compensate for our hiccups, to remain satisfied with “that’s good enough” is a dangerous game. Because the truth is — our strengths can’t compensate forever, especially in an ever-evolving art form. Our strengths simply coexist with our hiccups, that's all. That means the more hiccups we leave unattended, the more our strengths must carry the weight as everyone else evolves forwards, heaping more weight onto our strengths — and that strategy will fail at some point. So we’ll be left behind, wondering why everyone else seems to be excelling but we’ve stalled, and there’s only one place to go with that — frustration, envy, and resentment. Don’t get stuck there — that’s another plateau! We must evolve. It doesn’t always have to be in ginormous leaps either as little steps here and there are just fine. Because the more hiccups we jettison — no matter how we do it — we actually give ourselves the opportunity to forge new strengths, don’t we? Growth. Evolution. Improvement. Transition. Metamorphosis. Progress. Call it whatever you want — it must happen or we risk getting stuck on a plateau.

“It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” 

— Harry S. Truman

So learning how to identify a plateau in our work is critical, but how do we know when we’ve plateaued? Well, to ring it all up, it’s when when our STEM relaxes and stagnates and so we fall into a rut in our understanding and interpretations. Truly, if we ever come to believe, “I know enough to be proficient,” that’s the surefire indication of a plateau mentality. But STEM must always remain in high gear! Never neglect pro-active education, skills development, and expanding artistic horizons. Stay curious! Keep evolving in those directions that ignite it and chase that relentlessly — plummet down rabbit holes! Because knowing how to leap from a plateau is even more important! But how do we do this? Well, first, again, by attending to our perception of reality — we have to put our Sight to the test. So here artistic exercises are again critical as is the use of protractors, mirrors, calipers, and other techniques, both digital and analog, that help our Sight push us off that plateau. For instance, compare your present work to that of 2-5-10-20 years ago. Can you see some strong differences? If you can, you’re doing just fine. But if things are fundamentally the same — especially if identical — we have a problem, particularly the further back we go in our portfolio. Now this doesn’t mean that using the same media and process is the wrong thing to do. Hey — if it works, it works, right? Rather, it’s to say that we must evolve within our media, art form, scope, interpretations, and processes or switch or integrate new ones if our habitual ones hold our evolution back. One trick is to do transparent overlays of your past work onto your present work. For example, compare your heads, legs, and ears, in particular. If you’re staying off plateaus, those portions are the key indicators, like canaries in a cage, because if they’re evolving, you can be sure you’re making significant improvements elsewhere. Another trick is to compare your past work to your present work backwards in a mirror again or in photos, which objectifies both. How are they different? How are they similar? How did this change happen? Can we duplicate those conditions? What things did you do that initiated a leap from your current manifestation of work? Can you do them again? Another highly effective way way leap from a plateau is to dive into completely different types or styles of work. For example, work in abstracts, stylized caricatures or illustrations, or a completely different type of artwork like flatwork or fabric sculpture. For example, my Cave Ponies, Dancing Horses, and Imperial Unicorns have greatly bounced my paradigm around lately. Or heck — try a completely different media, tools, or technique! Like if you work in acrylics, try pastels or oils. If you use epoxy clay, try oil clay or Sculpey. If you have a favorite sculpting tools, try others to get the job done. Expand your toolbox because often that simple switch can really cause a significant enough challenge to our status quo to jostle it loose. There’s this too — why not study the work of others to see how they tackled the same creative challenges? How did they interpret structure, color, or effect? Are we able to determine — or more importantly, can we admit — if it was better than ours and what can we learn from that? Remember, everyone interprets reality differently and studying the unique reality expressions created by others can be incredibly illuminating and instructive! And absolutely, workshops and classes are a brilliant way to rattle our plateau cage. Talk about adding data to our STEM! And they don’t even have to be in our art form as even one in basketweaving or glassblowing can have hidden benefits.

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” 

— Alvin Toffler

At the foundation of being motivated to jump off a plateau in the first place though is the understanding that a recognizable horse and an actual horse are two different things when it comes to our art form. Put another way, a “good convince” is different from a more technically accurate rendering. Neither is better than the other as it all depends on our ambitions, goals, choices, styles, and skill levels — they’re just different. But if we want to achieve more realism, we must first determine if our plateau has compelled us to create good convinces, or in other words, has what’s so comfortable for us blinded us to what is truly actual? Because if we’ve plateaued early, chances are we’ve been stuck creating good convinces as the rest of the art form has been progressing towards more actuality.

“It is what we know already that often prevents us from learning.” 

— Claude Bernard


Because our blindspots and plateaus have more power in our work than our strengths, this realization does put us on the path to Awareness. What the heck is that? Well, Awareness can mean many different things. For one, it can be that mind state that allows us to bring our unconscious habits into our consciousness so we can make deliberate decisions about them based on our goals and motivations. Awareness can also mean constantly being vigilant as we work, understanding that blindspots are operating right under our noses all the time and so we use our tools, tricks, and techniques religiously to help dampen them. And Awareness can ultimately mean that we understand we’re fallible human beings and so we’ll make mistakes — and that’s okay. When we can reconcile this we open the door to not only a lot more objectivity, but also ton more inflected kindness, something critically important in this relentless taskmaster of an art form. Because — gosh — it sure is easy to beat ourselves up for making mistakes born of our blindspots and plateaus, isn’t it? But mash it altogether, and perhaps Awareness is best described as simply the ability to root out our unwanted habits and obsolete approaches with increasing accuracy to then make informed decisions about whether to keep, modify, or jettison them. Absolutely, there’s an enormous difference between an unconscious skew and a deliberate decision since we gain the power to take our work anywhere we want, and that’s always the better option. It’s all about empowerment!

So because Awareness lets us "self–educate" ourselves in a continued and unafraid way with greater precision and effectiveness, to brass tacks it then, it’s really this ability that’s the hallmark of an advanced artist. It’s not necessarily the quality of work that's the giveaway then, but the ability to consciously evolve, create, and troubleshoot that demonstrates true mastery. It’s more about expert control gifted by deliberate decisions rather than running ramshot, totally unaware.

Your chances of creating deeply hinge on the quality of your awareness state.

— Eric Maisel

So perhaps the biggest favor we can do ourselves is learning how to remain a "damp sponge” because a damp one absorbs more than a dry one, right? So why is this important? Well, remaining as a damp sponge keeps us learners which fuels more proactive and self–sustaining progress which is highly effective for flushing out our blindspots and breaking through plateaus. A plus though, we also come to free ourselves from the baggage of criticism, public opinion, misinformation, and even our own doubts and insecurities as we gain more confidence and more defensible positions for our work. Likewise, we become less grasping of conventional ideas, habits, and formulas as we morph into something more adaptive and pliable in our skills and interpretations. Ultimately, we gain the autonomous means to See with greater scope and depth, exactly what’s needed to dredge up blindspots and bust through plateaus all on our own at any time.

Reorienting our Values

When we experience the changes inherent in the journey of purging blindspots and jumping off plateaus, we're changed, too. When we open ourselves up to other potentialities, we actually help to stave off more blindspots and plateaus, and may even find ourselves rethinking what motivates us — and that's rather important. Why?

Well, for one, realism has such a high standard, one weighable against the living example—and that's a hard act to follow! And despite all our work, none of us are going to attain 100% objective reality in our clay or pigment or printsand maybe that's a good thing. Think about it. Because how we handle this Don Quixote dilemma can be framed as a measure of ourselves if we find that meaningful, offering us a never-ending challenge and brass ring to stretch for. Now this also isn’t to say that our individuality expressed in our work excuses technical errors — nope! It’s to suggest that we acknowledge and value the stylistic touches and creative decisions unique to each artist which make their work distinct and special. Indeed, there are many different ways to express realism accurately. There is no One Right Way.

Second, traps are set for us — the trap of frustration, the trap of envy, the trap of resentment, the trap of rivalry, just to name a few. But when we've truly learned the lesson of purging unwanted obsolete concepts, we cease to compete against each other to instead turn our attention onto ourselves and our own goals, working to establish our own standards and ambitions, and setting out to reach them. Because giving 100% to any piece is all we can ask of ourselves, right? So if we stretch, reconsider, scrutinize, and practice to the very edge of our abilities — and that includes challenging our blindspots and plateaus — that will keep our work dynamic, evolving, and engaging and our portfolio diverse and interesting. In doing so, we also become less inclined to compare our work and successes with others, better preserving our joy and enthusiasm in what we’re doing. Absolutely, there are few things that can kill off our motivation more efficiently than comparing ourselves to others. Stay on target and value your work without apology. Stake your claim and be proud of it — it’s uniquely yours! Other artists’ magic isn’t yours — and you don’t need it. Your magic is wholly unique to you in all the Universe — embrace it, cultivate it, exalt in it!

Comparison is the death of joy.

— Mark Twain

Third, given the nature of realism, we're going to get stuck on a plateau at some point and we'll have to somehow scramble our way off. Indeed, if we're approaching our work in a proactive way, each piece will be underscored by a drive to understand more than before, if even just a little bit. Our same ol' modus operandi isn’t going to help us move forward, will it? How could it? We need something new that would boot us out of our self–made status quo. This quote comes to mind, “Insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Never forget that this art form is constantly evolving forwards so unless we keep pace, we’re going to get left behind. To dodge this, periodically kicking our own status quo to the curb to stretch, explore, challenge, and confront our own conventions is critical. It’s so darned easy to lean too much on familiar formulas and comfortable ways of interpretation, isn’t it? But with all that also comes our habitual blindspots and plateaus, and so we’ll just keep making the same ol’ mistakes over and over again. We gotta rock our own boat! So think about ways to reinterpret our subject such as exploring new ways to express musculature, pose, hair, expression, or use new media or new artistic styles. Actively and deliberately reach out for possibilities rather than fall back on what’s familiar, and often the more radical the change, the greater the benefit.

Fourth, know that perception is a one–way circuit in that change happens first in our perception to then flow into our work, not the other way 'round. So if we want to fix anything in the way we See, i.e. the type of work we create, we have to target our perception first. Change that and we change our work. Even more though, this also means that our magic wand lies within us! And we each have one — one unique just to us! So if we can accept that we always have a lot more to learn — a lot more opportunities to See differently — we gain a lot more responsiveness and traction in our growth. Hard talk here — it doesn't matter if we believe our methods have worked for us in the past to bring us fame, fortune, and a place in the pantheon of our art form. That may be so! But a plateau is always waiting for those who get too comfortable. The real measure of success, I think, is our ability to continue evolving no matter how long we’ve at at this.

Human beings, by change, renew, rejuvenate ourselves; otherwise we harden.

— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Fifth, to accept fallibility and to therefore stay open to possibility helps us to continually challenge our own conventional thinking to feed a drive for discovery so critical for growth. Keep our mind open then, especially about our own potential, and our work will always remain fresh and innovative. Stay curious and always question, especially when it comes to what we’re doing and creating! Because if we don’t, a remote plateau populated by a horde of blindspots waits for us, stuck up there without some radical shift in our paradigm.

But know that you aren’t alone. We’ve all been there. It’s all just a natural byproduct of learning to then unlearn to then relearn, repeat. And we all have to start somewhere right? Or in the truest sense, we have to constantly restart somewhere. And the platform we jump from each and every time is our habitual way of doing things, our momentary plateaus. So if we can ensure they stay temporary, they become springboards that launch us to the next stage rather than mesas we get stuck on, frustrated and confused. Never underestimate the power of rethinking, reimagining, reevaluating, or the moxie to introduce the unfamiliar, maybe even the radical, into our work. Be bold! Be brave! Believe in yourself! If our blindspots and plateaus live inside us, aren’t we then our greatest obstacle? But then we’re also our greatest ally? A most brilliant ally! Lean into that aspect and we got this!

Skill is less important than awareness. 

— Graham Collier

Whackin’ That Piñata

Learning to develop our artistic STEM isn’t just a basic step forwards, it’s the foundation for all our steps forwards, one that will always sustain our growth and support our every direction we choose. Learning to See more effectively, to Translate with greater accuracy, to Evaluate with more acuity, and to drawn from a Memory with more scope and depth will never steer us wrong! And the more we develop them, the greater their benefits, including keeping blindspots and plateaus in their place — in our consciousness for management. In turn, we can become more fearless and more boldly rethink what we believe to be self–evident with our work. Now we won’t ever get all our blindspots or avoid all plateaus, but we can certainly find value in striving to root out more of them because that journey is full of fascination, exploration, potential, and personal fulfillment. And that’s really a sideways gift of our blindspots and plateaus, isn’t it? Always dangling that carrot, we can find purpose and self-generating inspiration as we leap to each challenge with zest and curiosity. But perhaps most wonderful is the gift of graciousness with ourselves and others. Understanding our own struggle helps us embrace those of others, and so we may find more appreciation for their efforts and art, even finding a kind of kinship that can foster relationships and connections. Hey, we’re all in the same boat!

Either which way, our blindspots and plateaus may be a double-edged sword, but they’re a part of creating art all the same. Once we learn to accept and reconcile with them, we’ll find a lot more freedom and relaxation in our efforts and that means only one thing — more joy, enthusiasm, and boldness in our work. And that’s one heckuva great plateau to get stuck on!

“You learn something valuable from all of the significant events and people, but you never touch your true potential until you challenge yourself to go beyond imposed limitations.” 

Roy T. Bennett

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