Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Demonslaying 101 Part V

We’re back again in Part V of Demonslaying 101, a discussion on those psychological challenges artists face when creating their art and presenting it to the public. This is a rather complicated set of issues to be sure, but they do tend to distill down to similar ingredients only because creating art boils down to similar ingredients. So let’s explore more in this Part V…

Now let’s talk about the white elephant in the room: Competition. Our niche is wholly unique, isn’t it? There’s just nothing else like it and that’s pretty cool! But the mere act of injecting competition into our arts places an enormous — one could say ominous — weight of pressure on our artists. Not that’s there’s anything wrong with competition! It’s done a lot of amazing things for our arts and people really enjoy that aspect of it, which is awesome. The point is then that we need a firm grasp of the realities involved and an arsenal of coping mechanisms or we’re going to get into big trouble fast. Because here’s the deal: Humans are competitive by nature. Know it or not, even the non-competitive really are. That’s because the drive that feeds competition can take many forms from competing with others to just stretching a little farther in our knowledge base. That drive to seek more, to achieve more is even at the root of our curiosity, for example. “How far down the rabbit hole can I take this?” is really just another way of saying, “I want more.” Many direct that drive into formalized competition like we see in our genre, but some artists aren’t so well served by adopting that for themselves all the time, and for some, not at all. See, turning our colleagues into competitors, into opponents, begs problematic outcomes if we aren’t very careful. For one, it can create an antagonistic environment for creativity and social interaction. When our aim is to blast away our peers with armfuls of ribbons to find self-worth — even in good fun — we’ve gone down a darker path. And what happens when that fails to happen? What happens when we’re the ones being blasted? It cannot be overstated how important it is to disconnect our self-worth from a ribbon, as counter-intuitive as that may seem in our genre. Honestly, when our system has no consensual standards is reason enough, when there’s no judge training is another. The real crux is this though: Ribbons are just manifestations of someone’s mercurial opinion which may have nothing in common with our knowledge base, our Eye, our goals, our artistic sensibilities, or a care for our journey. Again, placing our self-worth into the cheese grater of public validation only invites disappointment at some point. Can we process that well enough? Second, competition brings with it the inevitable outcome of comparing our achievements with those of others. We can see their awards stack up, can’t we? We can see the fanfare over their wins as the crowd heaps on kudos, all of which makes the lack of these things for us howl even louder. In turn, believing that we’re overlooked and ignored can lead to resentment, anger, and bitterness — how could it not? And it’s depressing if we come to believe we’re simply not as talented as our peers. What a toxic brew! Unless we can navigate our way through these reactions then — particularly with shows that really matter to us — our arting is a train wreck waiting to happen. And third, defeat is always inevitable. Nothing wins all the time, forever. There will always come a time when our work won’t win, or even place well…or even place at all. What then? What will we have to fall back on when that happens? When our self-worth is founded on public opinion — sure — that can fuel us for a time, but it’ll inevitably backfire. Are we prepared to cope with that? Then fourth, building our self-worth on competition is a slippery slope since every opinion out there has a different idea of what our best work actually is. What’s more, our own opinion of what our best work is may not jive with public sentiments, and lemme tell ya, that’s an odd place to be! So add it all up, if we can seat our self-worth into a form of competition that serves us more directly — such as competition with ourselves — we’ve gained a measure of poise and control. Yes, we may like to show our work as a means for feedback, which can definitely be useful, just be sure to maintain a healthy perspective on the nature of that feedback — it’s not gospel, it’s not written in stone, it’s not the end all and be all of the world. It’s just one opinion. So always keep things in perspective and learn to glean what useful tidbits can be found, and let the rest slough away.

Now — yes — certain pieces and certain artists tend to rise to the top. There is some measure of consistency at times. Yet in the grand scheme of things today, these are more rolls of the dice than bankable outcomes, aren’t they? Plenty of extraordinary pieces by esteemed artists don’t win or even place, and with quality so high today, it’s becoming harder and harder to predict which will win the big satin. Again, many artists find it better to inflect competition inwardly so they’re really competing against their past work, against themselves. Then meditating on their relationship with their work, the nature of it, the making of it, the purpose of it, the advancement of it brings with it a more trusty, positive support system because it addresses why we’re doing all this in the first place. Seating our self-worth into our journey instead of someone else’s journey — through their opinion — just seems a much better prospect, doesn’t it? Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consider theirs when it serves us — because it can — just maintain perspective. Regard everything from a step back. The fact is, too, that our work is 100% truthful. It’ll clearly show when we’re lazy, hurried, or struggling, when we hold back or go full bore, when we hesitate or jump in recklessly, when we’re confused or confident, when we’ve made developmental leaps or our knowledge base has gaps — it’ll show the truth of our process over every inch. Pay attention to our past work along with our references, artistic exercises, solicited critiques, and pro-active education, and we gain everything we need for useful feedback.

“To the critic, art is a noun…To the artist, art is a verb.”

~ David Bayles

Each artist throughout history could write a library of personal journals on the making of their art. There’s just so much stuff to that experience, it would fill page after page if we were so inclined. To pare it all down really then, all art is autobiographical — every tool stroke, every creative choice, every bend to a leg speaks of the artist’s internal landscape. Yet at no point will a critic (or judge) truly know the full breadth of that landscape with any given piece. Ultimately, they’re only ever interested in the finished product and how it’s seated in The Grand Scheme of Things. To the critic, our art is an object, a personally-removed thing plunked down in front of them for evaluation against their own sensibilities and prerogatives, their own independent measuring sticks. As such, the artist and the critic exist in very different worlds that while they do have some overlap, they’re essentially at odds with each other. Consequently, we can make the mistake of assuming that the artist’s opinion on their work is subjective whereas the critics’s opinion is objective, but the truth is far more complicated. We’re human. Biases, knowledge gaps, sensibilities, prejudices, fixations, obsessions, tastes, and any number of factors all influence the nature of an opinion, even that of the critic. Indeed, if the purpose of the critic is to evaluate a given work without the full backstory of its process, then by definition that opinion is incomplete at best, or arbitrary at worst, right? Now it could be said that this is all but inevitable for the critic’s position — and that’s true — as scooping up the full backstories on each piece in a show would be a monumental task that would simply bring it all to a screeching halt. The critic has to pare things down just to get their job done. What’s the takeaway then? To keep all this in mind when our work is judged. They don’t know the whole story, do they? And perhaps we don’t want them to know it all. Sometimes the artist wants to keep some things for themselves. Plus, if the audience is largely only interested in the finished product, so shouldn’t the critic who serves it? We also have to consider this — people will like or dislike our work for their own reasons. It’ll simply affect people based on their own sensibilities, not ours, and that’s a fine thing. So think about leaving the door open for people to interpret our art on their own terms — learn to let go of our experience so others can have theirs. In many ways then, being an artist asks us to clutch tightly onto each work in the very act of creating it but when it comes to display, we’re asked to let it go. This strange place we’re plopped into time and again can never be truly reconciled, only tolerated. Like with Stormwatch. His narrative was thusly: He’s an escaped nondescript ranch horse which is why he’s a gelding and his feet are reforming into their wild form. He’s an old soul in transition, attuning to his new-found freedom and power symbolized by the wildness and force of the storm winds whipping around him, so many possibilities swirling around him now. But his freedom comes at a price — he’s responsible for his own wellbeing now, that daunting prospect rumbling in the dark storm clouds above. Is he shook? Nope. He’s Mr. Cool Cucumber, taking it all in stride. His time with humans has taught him a level-headed stoicism that will serve him well in his new life. And a curious new life it’ll be as he won’t fit into either a bachelor band or a family herd. Will he be forever a loner? Or perhaps he’ll find new friends in unlikely places? Maybe. But he’s not a Mustang. He's not a Brumby. Never was. Yet some people have ignored his actual narrative by insisting he is, even turning him into a stallion to force the issue. The true nuance of the piece has been completely lost on some — and I have to let that go. I know what Stormy means to me, but I have to let him mean other things for other people. It’s not easy, but there it is. And so it is and will be with each piece we ever create.


On that note, writer Henry James formed three questions in relation to an artist’s work. What was the artist trying to achieve with their piece? Were they successful in this? And finally the whomper: Was it worthwhile? Yikes! To have it all distilled to this is rather daunting, but the truth is this is exactly what we need to be asking ourselves with the completion of each piece as a means for improvement and introspection. We’ll have our own answers, of course, but here’s a tip — let some time pass before applying these questions. When we’ve just completed a new piece, bask in the awesomeness of that! We’ve earned it so wallow in the achievement! Then as the weeks, months, or even years go by, reconsider it. It can be hard, but applying those questions — with some distance — will do our growth good. This exercise also reaffirms our commitment to our art, a sentiment we’ll definitely need to lean on during tough times in the studio. Indeed, if there’s one thing a demon hates most, it’s us remembering and embracing our dedication to our art.

Our chosen art form is founded on technical accuracy by definition, which is quite the challenge, of course, but learnable with study, practice, curiosity, discipline, and keen observation. It’s also a fascinating dance between abstract interpretation and organic reality since how our subject appears in real life can be quite different from how he appears on an anatomy chart. (And for a discussion on those issues, check out my blog posts Now About Those Anatomy Charts Parts I & II.) That’s because in life, anatomy is messy and surprising, full of curiosities and novelty as organic structures leverage and articulate, morph and jiggle, stretch and pull, smoosh and goo, pooch and squish, and twist and bend. So while —  yes — the skeleton can only articulate within set parameters, when it comes to flesh, we’re talking about smooshy, organic, responsive variability. Likewise with color and pattern, there are genetic tendencies and markers — yes — but there’s also a lot of surprising life in between! This means we have to learn the biological rules and also how to bend them — which is a lot to juggle — but it’s a dance that’ll get lost on some folks. The truth is some just won’t notice all the little touches we put into our work in this regard — they don’t See them on the living subject and so won’t See them in our work, or worse, they may assume our work is wrong because of it. This is particularly true of work that portrays life’s eccentricities, serendipities, or moments since prevailing sensibilities tend to be rather conservative and conventional, “safer.” Our audience has actually been conditioned to favor conventional formula, a baseline version of “what looks right” as a default. It’s totally understandable though because life is, well…it’s a big subject. For example, the preferred way to convey anatomical structure is with smooth surfaces and highly defined, formulaic musculature even though this is an artistic style among others. Anyway, so there isn’t too much room for options or even portrayals that hug realism closer like, for example, with hide textures (butt wrinkles, anyone?). Moreover, that watered down version also has a hard time perceiving the highly technical precision needed for areas like the joints, legs, hooves, or head, or all the little details and esoterics that add so much life and factuality. Only a geek looking for these things is going to infuse them into their work as something of value and really only another geek is going to See them. But that’s the thing we’re going to have to reconcile: We may geek out on anatomy or color and pattern or breed characteristics or whatever, but some folks just won’t See it. Oh, they have some inkling that something might look right or wrong, but for the finer points of it all, it’ll go right over their head. Some may even pushback. And that’s fine! It’s okay to geek out and it’s okay that others don’t get it. That’s life, right? It’s an educational opportunity really if we think about it, and it’s a chance to push boundaries out even more. But — yes — it can be frustrating to put so much effort into all those little touches that add so much flavor and realism to then have our work misunderstood. But again — who are we creating for? An authentic artist will create the work they’re called to create despite it all. It’s not easy, but creating disingenuously is even harder to live with.

Now as for our past work — which can often cause those demons to really screech — don’t worry, it’s common to cringe at our earlier pieces. It’s normal, natural, and expected. New work is supposed to supplant the old and supposed to show our past newbness. Just remember this: As much as our old work may make us shudder, there’s always — always — someone out there who absolutely loves it for their own reasons. Let them enjoy it untarnished. And hey — we should be kind to other artists, right? Well, that includes our younger selves too! We were very different artists back then who deserve just as much courtesy and compassion as we show others now. There’s this as well — every single piece we did, good or bad, was a stepping stone to where we are today. Each one contained essential lessons for placing us exactly in our current learning curve and that’s worth some respect, right? Let’s face it, the learning curve for this art form is massive and unending, convoluted and complicated, and asks a heckuva lot of us every single time. So be kind to ourselves every step of the way. And here’s the truth of it: Only we can create the art we do. Since the Big Bang, no one has existed just like us — we are wholly unique therefore so is our art. No one — even if they studied our work and tried to duplicate it — could ever create it exactly as we do. Only ever a facsimile, they cannot make the same choices in the moment, the same tool strokes, act on the same spontaneous whims like we would. Our work is wholly us and will only ever exist if we create it. That’s important. When those demons try to convince us of all the awful things they insist then, remember that and hold it close as impetus to keep going.

Our demons thrive on isolation, that is to say, they wield more power if they can convince us that we’re alone in our struggles. But they’re liars! The truth is that every artist shares them in some form. And though we may be a captive audience, that doesn’t mean we can’t yell back or, even better, that we can’t muffle them. Now granted, that’s not so easy as our demons intimately know all our most vulnerable fragilities, those hottest buttons to push and they push them enthusiastically at the slightest provocation. But just remember this: Whatever they’re screeching to us, they’re screeching to someone else, too. Probably many others, in fact. And doesn’t simply knowing that shift the balance of power back into our hands quite a bit? Strength can be found in solidarity! Really, their power is definitely diluted if we know it’s the same old sad song for pretty much everyone. For example, when they sneer that we’re a failure because we made a mistake…well…so what? Everyone fails! Everyone makes mistakes! And everyone has a little voice in their head that’s going to belittle them for it on some level. Heck, I can guarantee Leonardo da Vinci had to bark back at his! Or when our demons try to convince us that we’re just not as talented as so-and-so, know that everyone — even the most gifted among us — looks up to someone else’s work as an unattainable goal. Yearning to have someone else’s gifts is a universal and very human thing to do. Similarly, our demons can torment our muse, leaving our inspiration tattered and floundering as we struggle with motivation. Yet every artist’s muse fluctuates during the process every now and again — it’s just a normal part of arting. Those demons can also be quite convincing when trying to get us to quit, when they beat us down so much, we just want to give up. But we’ve all been pushed to the brink at some point, even those who seem to create so effortlessly. Now what does all this mean? It means that we’re always one decision away from blasting past our demons because so many prove it is doable every day. If we need to reach out for support then, there are many out there who fully understand our struggling headspace. We’re all sailing the same sea! Time for a yacht party?

Let’s end it here for Part V then in Part VI, we’ll take what we’ve discussed and reconsider these demons in a new context. It’s interesting how just a little bit of a spin actually results in some welcome and surprising new interpretations! In the meantime then… Party on, Garth!

“Have no fear of perfection, you’ll never reach it.”

~ Salvador Dali


Friday, June 25, 2021

Demonslaying 101 Part IV


Welcome back to Demon Slaying 101, a discussion about the internal battles artists can face when creating their art. We’ve covered quite a bit of ground already so let’s just careen in for more in this Part IV! Let’s go!…

From the near beginning, humans have made art. Before just about every other artifice of human endeavor, there was art. We’re driven to create because we’re a creator species. And though our art will never be perfect, there’s something about making art that feeds us, suggesting that our vulnerabilities are part of our creative process, too. They’re not separate factors to be deliberately carved out but to be folded in as part of our Voice and what helps to make our art so special. In this sense then, our vulnerabilities are really strengths, aren’t they? As Brené Brown observes, “To create is to make something that has never existed before. There’s nothing more vulnerable than that.” So to realize that making art is an act of tremendous vulnerability is to accept the imperfections in our art and, in so doing, also realize the fragility of the creative experience. In this, only those artists who can make themselves vulnerable, who lay themselves bone bare each and every time, will be the ones to grow. What does this mean? It means taking risks again and again, in whatever form that may mean to us. It’s also an affirmation that it takes a lot of courage to present our work to the world which is probably why every artist — no matter how successful — takes a deep breath before a debut, the normal, rational reaction to this act of laying ourselves bare. Without a doubt, established artists are a tough, plucky, scrappy bunch, able to take a brutal beating every single time to get up and do it all over again and again. So isn’t this a call for our niche to be kinder? More thoughtful with our words and reactions? If we want our artists to advance and our arts to thrive and innovate, we need to give them a safer space to be vulnerable. What does this mean? Perhaps chill on the harsh or careless commentary and call out those who do it. Maybe encourage more non-competitive outlets for sharing their creations. Ease up on the uninvited “critiques” that can compromise their confidence and sense of safety. Think about cutting them more slack and giving them more space outside of our own expectations. Remember, too, that like beauty, perfection is in the eye of the beholder so just because a piece may not be our cup of tea doesn't mean it’s a bad piece.

“There’s a myth among amateurs, optimists and fools that beyond a certain level of achievement, famous artists retire to some kind of Elysium where criticism no longer wounds and work materializes without their effort.”

~ Mark Matousek

Now let’s talk about another misconception — that great art and great artists have a mysterious magical ingredient that elevates them to high achievement. Now while this is absolutely true, here’s the deeper truth of it: That magical ingredient isn’t universal, it’s not the same for every artist or work. The fact is each art work and each artist contain their own unique magic, a magic specific to them and only them. The magic of another artist wouldn’t work for us because its not our magic and ours wouldn’t work for them, it’s not theirs. We should stop comparing ourselves to other artists and their achievements then because their magic and journey are meant for them — and only them — and have nothing to do with us, and ours has nothing to do with them. We don’t lack their magic and we don’t need it. We have ours and it’s special and beautiful and no less important. Embrace our magic — it’s ours alone.  

“Comparison is the death of joy.”

~ Mark Twain

Now yes — yes — it’s really hard to keep from comparing ourselves to others, there’s no doubt about that, especially in our comparison-based genre which is founded on reference materials and comparative placings. But here’s what’s happening in our heads: It’s our demons, our worst aspects, that are compelling us to do this because it feeds them so well (and there’s that negative bias again!). Indeed, don’t our worst emotions emanate and amplify from doing this? So why appeal to our worst aspects when there’s so much more to us than that! We have our great attributes, right? We have our passion, our enthusiasm, our eagerness to learn and improve, our joy when creating, our enthusiasm for helping others, our happiness in seeing others succeed, and any number of positives dwelling inside us, too often untapped. Why not feed those instead? So when our demons start making us think, “So-and-so’s paint job looks so much better than mine, my work sucks,” or “I’m such a loser because I didn’t get into that contest,” or “People like Suzy’s work so much more than mine — they’re so stupid and I hate her!,” or “Why can’t my work be as good as so and so, I’m just not talented enough,” and on and on…and on…it’s time to switch it up. Instead frame things this way, “So-and-so’s paint job looks so much better than mine, I wonder what I can learn from it,” or “I didn’t get into such and such contest because the jury was looking for other things than I was interested in creating, oh well, I had fun making it,” or “People like Suzy’s work a lot, isn’t that great for her and what can I learn from it?,” or “My talents need a bit of a tune up to take me to the next level, what can I do to get there?” Make the conscious decision to reframe our experience and make this a habit, and “snap the job’s a game!” Because here’s the secret: If magic isn’t universal but instead unique to each of us, then fixating on making another's magic ours is an imaginary futile goal. It’s going to fall short eventually, even blow up in our face. Instead then, we’re better served by focusing on things that are real — our magic — and seeing what we can do with it. So when we feel second rate — and we all do at times, it’s perfectly normal — dive into our magic with greater enthusiasm and find ways to tap into its well to make it burst forth with even more power. So the answer to this problem? Well, we’ve had it all along! We’ve always had those ruby slippers. And like Elizabeth Gilbert would say, “There’s no place like home.”

Similarly, it’s smart to be careful with our own expectations. Each time we start a new piece, we have this envisioned notion of it — our perfect concept — and throughout the rest of the process, we chase it with our materials and skills. That’s our job, right? But what we do have to be careful with is how we expect our process to flow and how the outcome will pan out. Maybe we wish it to be effortless and that the piece literally creates itself — and maybe it has in the past. Maybe we expect our vision to be realized with 100% faithfulness — and maybe it has in the past. Maybe we predict that our work will meet with wild acclaim and success — and maybe it has in the past. Yet efforts built on one-sided expectations can lead to disillusionment and frustration so stay open to all the possibilities, even the painful ones, to remain grounded. And, truth be told, the proof is in the work, isn’t it? Everything we need to know to improve our skills exists as an open book in our portfolio if we can approach it objectively, without emotion, fear, or judgement — emotional expectation. Further still, the lessons we’re meant to learn are contained only in our work, each piece pointing the way, with our last piece pointing most true. So if we can clearly study our portfolio without emotional expectations, we can ferret out what our work needs to perhaps prepare ourselves a little bit better.

Now can we talk about the myth of “not taking criticism personally”? As much as this is offered as a balm, it’s actually problematic because it's disconnected from the reality of creating art, it ignores the human condition, and it shores up bad behavior. Here’s the deal: Artists are hard enough on themselves already with their inner demons constantly yappin’ in their heads which makes for a lot of noise between their ears. And with all that incoming commentary, well…art by committee rarely pans out well. So adding more distraction into an already cacophonous situation isn’t necessarily helpful but hurtful, and it can actually demoralize an artist if bad enough. Yet we see it over and over — when an artist is at their most vulnerable sharing their piece, in jump the self-important critics trying to “help” or the careless comments that just get blathered out. Wrong! This can beat down an artist so much, they may dump the piece altogether. The thing is, no one ever fully knows an artist’s headspace with that piece so usually the best policy is to just provide a safe, positive space for them to share it. The public already has such never-to-be-pleased expectations of an artist’s efforts so why add to the racket? Because — yeah — the act of creating and displaying our art is an act of tremendous vulnerability, so how in the world are we not supposed to take criticism personally?! As such, it’s typically better to keep criticism to ourselves unless specifically and personally prompted by the artist at that moment; otherwise, only offer positives. (And in the case of a constructive critique, there’s a very specific set of parameters for delivery and unless we practice them, just keep mum.) Preserving an artist’s untarnished joy in their process is more important than “correcting” any flaws. Why? Well, chances are our unsolicited “correction” will come when they’re not ready for it which can jam their anxiety and tension into overdrive, a state that will actually compromise their long-term progress. Odds are though that they’re going to figure things out on their own in their own time — when they're ready for it — so if we give them the safe space to do that on their own terms, their enthusiasm is preserved to keep them happily moving in that direction. Because here’s the thing: If they routinely get bonked when they share their work, that negative feedback loop can be crushing and guess what some are going to stop doing? A positive feedback loop in a safe place, on the other hand, preserves a more open emotional landscape making them not only more enthusiastic in their work, but also more at ease with rethinking and reevaluation for improvement. Truly, if they know they’re safe “out there,”' they tend to take more risks in their studios. And hey — if we think the piece has flaws and could be better, the solution is an easy one: Create one ourselves according to our own vision. Don’t like it? Do it yourself. And we’ll learn really fast what life is like on the other side of the door. (For more discussion on the artistic temperament and criticism, check out my blog post, Pickled Art.) So artists, don’t be afraid to set boundaries and expect others to respect them. Because — yes — we deserve boundaries and, in fact, staying creative may demand it. Now if anyone gives us a hard time for that, ignore them and stick to our guns. Chances are, it’s precisely those malcontents who would have become social blisters anyway, right? So while having our own rules of engagement will mean that we’re selective, it will protect our mental wellbeing and keep us happily arting. Through these rules, too, we learn to avoid those social spaces notorious for being toxic even if they’re immensely popular. We’ll also actively curate our social media to block or boot the tone deaf, presumptuous, or destructive. Our rules also inspire us to be quick with praise and encouragement to become a cheerleader for creativity and likewise role model to help set the tone for our community. Now — yes — there will always be “that guy” in every crowd and sharing our work will inevitably bring with it criticism and careless talk. That’s just life and art, and learning how to process that is a necessary skill, too. Even so, we can still build safer spaces for ourselves that are supportive and compassionate, and full of those who recognize our humanity rather than objectify us.

In kind with this, we learn at an early age that others have the power to strip us of our humanity, leaving us open to bullying, ridicule, baiting, or other dehumanizing treatment. As artists, we re-learn this hard lesson again and again but with ten times more power, especially in this niche which has a lingering propensity for objectifying its arts and therefore its artists, turning them into “things” to be talked about and treated without any real courtesy for the human beings involved. Honestly, people can talk as though we aren’t even there, saying whatever they want without a care for our feelings, hardships, realities, or triggers. So we pour ourselves into our work with the pesky suspicion that it may never be accepted or understood, or even worse, that it’ll be blasted without a thought for us hearing it all in the background. Or on the other hand, if we take risks, if we push convention, formula, or standard expectations, be ready for vocal pushback and disapproval. This can cause some artists to believe they’re actually considered a joke, or that their work is unwanted or subpar, even in decline, when in fact the opposite is true. There’s this effect, too — every artist has a bad art day; every artist will create pieces that aren’t as good as the rest of their portfolio. Even the most talented among us. That’s just part of being human and the nature of creating art. Yet how people react to that one wanting piece can nearly break some artists, even compromise their desire to create in our niche at all. So please give artists room for their vulnerabilities since a lot more may be riding on any given piece than we know, or that piece’s creative circumstances may have been especially difficult. Because we all yearn for understanding and acceptance, yet every time we display our work, we hand over that power to an audience prone to deny it, even pile on dissatisfaction. It’s a terrible Catch-22. Honestly, sometimes an artist can feel like a beaten dog at times. So artists, what’s the solution? Well, just keep making our art on our own terms. Strange how that works, but there it is. Our work may be the target, but it can also be our sanctuary, so lean into it and try to ignore the rest the best we can. How do we do that? Again, nestle deeper into our arting, letting our journey become the loudest part in our heads. If our art is the full expression of our humanity, just keep expressing it stronger through our work when others try to pry it off. Just “art out loud” louder. In the end, we’ll attract a base that appreciates our authenticity and we can focus on them instead. And never forget that there’s always someone out there who adores our “flawed” work all the same. Hold that close to heart. And keep this in mind: Obnoxious toxicity is loud and aggressive by nature, making it seem like the majority opinion out there. It’s not. So for every bit of ugliness we encounter, know that there are many others who love our work who aren’t speaking up or “yelling” as loudly. Trust that they’re there.

Similarly, catering to the opinions of others can fill our head with other voices (often conflicting voices), the dreams and imaginations of others, the priorities of others, and the vision of others. As such, our authenticity and trueness to our vision, precisely what’s needed for our own creative well-being and distinctiveness, can be spun off course or diluted. In this way, too, the diversity and innovation of our art form can be compromised, even homogenized as the demand to conform to conventional tastes of what “looks right” or what "should be” can be quite strong. Too many cooks in the kitchen and committees making camels and all that, and often with conventional ideas that don’t account for reality’s eccentricities, moments, or possibilities. To tell the truth, our community’s tastes can lean sharply towards convention when it comes to such things, like the expression of anatomy, conformation, style, and whatnot, for three primary reasons. First, many have been conditioned by OFs that — by their nature — have to conform to certain baselines for mass production and for marketing to the widest audience. This conditioning also favors certain stylistic interpretations — like smooth, even surfaces and sharply defined musculature — as “correct” when in fact they’re just possibilities within a spectrum. Second, the horseworld tends to be quite conservative in how it likes horses portrayed. We just have to look through breed mags for a good sampling of this effect. And though that makes sense from a real horse standpoint, this influence in our niche can be strong at times and cause some creative friction. Third, even after all this time, general anatomical knowledge still has a ways to go and so some folks tend to default to familiar territory, the safest portrayal, as a means to feel confident. And that’s fine! Technicalities are tricky and can be really intimidating and confusing. But it does mean that, put it all together, other possibilities and the “moment” can get lost on some or worse, rejected as “wrong,” “weird,” or “ugly.” What’s the takeaway here? Artists, take it all with a grain of salt and stick to your guns. Do what inspires you and do it whole-heartedly. Because here’s the thing — if we build it well, the people who “get it” will come all the same and they’re the ones we’re meant to focus on. For everyone else then, leave an artist’s vision alone. It’s ok to offer corrections (when specifically prompted) but we shouldn’t insinuate our vision onto that of another. Respect an artist’s authenticity rather than try to shoehorn them into our own vision with a “it would be better this way,” or “I’d like it to be,” or “that’s now how I’d like it” comment. It’s not your piece, it’s not your vision. Again, if we want a piece a certain way, we should create it ourselves.

Along those lines, there’s a popular belief that if we keep plowing ahead in our authentic Voice that sooner or later the world will reward it. Persevere and acceptance will come our way eventually. And this is often true! The problem arises though when this takes an inordinately long time. Here’s the thing: The audience can be most supportive of those things that fit inside its conventional ideas and can pushback on those that challenge them — and it can also be slow to finally realize that this new thing is actually pretty cool! We see this phenomenon at times in our genre. For example, when I started creating medallions so many years ago, I was criticized as people were confused, resistant, and openly wondered why I was wasting my time with these things. I even had people actually try to convince me to stop. But look at today! There’s also been another artist who chose to depict an atypical phase of a gait for an iconic breed and got a lot of pressure to put it into the conventional pose. She stuck to her guns and banged out a stellar piece all the same. And right now, we’re in the midst of another shift as even the demand for realism is being challenged and so we’re seeing fantasy equines and artistic colors rise to the top — after years of resistance — and it’s freaking brilliant! What a a healthy, freeing development! So the point being we should cherish our Voice — nurture it, let it grow wild and free and unafraid. Don’t let anyone dictate what our vision should be — it’s ours and we should realize it in all its wonderful purity and power. To quote Joseph Campbell, “follow your bliss” no matter what. And trust me — build it and build it well and they will come. So seek to live our Truth to the fullest in our art even if it won’t immediately be understood or accepted. That’s okay. Create our work for ourselves, first and foremost, and tune everything else out as the noise it is.

Artists are always seeking evolution, growth, innovation, and expansion of their skills and scope, which can keep the creative process fresh and fun. And when we try new things, we expect to screw up in the beginning, right? Yet this can be a particular challenge with great success. We see it all the time with music bands, for example. A band becomes famous for a particular style but the moment they want to evolve, they meet with crickets or worse, rejection. So that band is literally forced to stay the same, churning the same old-same old simply to please their fan base. Is it any wonder why so many break up? Or why so many have side projects or take on solo careers? This pressure to conform to accepted expectations is stifling and intrinsically at odds with the creative mind that by nature is exploratory, spontaneous, and curious. And we see it with artists, too — they become famous for a particular work and then every single piece of theirs before or after gets judged against it in the court of public opinion. This is understandable, but nevertheless this sort of comparison can be a problem. Why? Well, it heaps on a new suffocating layer of expectation — another stifling demand to conform — that can cause friction with any new directions that artist takes throughout their career, and which have now been tarnished with hesitation and anxiety. Honestly, fear of the unknown is enough, but fear of the unknown with the suspicion that we’ll be chronically disappointing people at the same time is a lot to bear. The best policy then is to welcome each new piece on its own terms as though it was a total stand alone in their portfolio. The past is gone, it’s over — let the artist have their future in the full breath they’re meant to have it unfettered by comparisons or “but I wish it was more like,” or “I wish you'd do something like X again” yearnings. Trust me — the results will be well worth it in the long run! In turn, artists are best served by following through on their inspirations, whatever they might be, even if they’re straight out of left field. We’ve got to feed our creative explorations first because that keeps us inspired and energized. It’s easy to weigh ourselves down by chasing other people’s expectations, but we really should always start fresh in the right now, present in the creative moment, clean-slating our experience so we can be open to the inspirations that are coming.

Likewise, there’s a fine line between approval and disappointment so be careful with this want for approval, even when it comes from our peers. Why? Because no matter where we seek it, this puts a perilous amount of power into someone else’s hands. Is that really the smartest strategy all the time? Here's the kicker, too: Their aesthetic, vision, priorities, goals, and Eye are still different from ours, even if a closely matched peer. The truth is our dialogue is most pure between us and our work. Sure, it’s not a bad idea to get a critique from a trusted someone, but their reality is still different from ours, and there’s no guarantee their perspective is right either. Remember that everyone has their blindspots! So work to develop a more analytical, objective eye for our subject, our references, our materials, and our piece first before seeking outside input; otherwise we’re going to get lost in the critiquing process. Because here’s what’s not often mentioned with critiques: We should have our feet firmly on our own ground first before any critique can truly help us. What does that mean? Well, to have some kind of vantage point with our own work first, a firm grip of our aesthetic, knowledge base, and goals, or even a critique from the most learned person can confuse us and possibly cause our demons to bellow louder. A firm vantage point also gifts us with clarity, something we’ll need to infuse their points effectively. Because it’s not enough to know, we also have to do, right? The clearer we can See our piece then, the more of their knowledge base we can utilize — or chose not to, which is just as important a decision. Because if we don’t have that vantage point, it’s shockingly easy to get lost in the critiquing process especially if we have more than one critiquing source, and there’s only one place to go after that: Confusion and frustration, two things that feed our demons well.

On that note, like it or not, social media in our genre isn’t necessarily the healthiest place for artists to frequent indiscriminately. And the more popular our work becomes, the more this becomes true. The thing is, nearly all our forums, pages, groups and whatnot are actually more like a comments section we can’t turn off. And what does everyone say about not reading the comments section to well,…anything?! Yeah, that. Only it’s everywhere all the time, and lordy does it tend to be careless and brutal, with zero cares given about the human being behind the art in question. And even if it’s not about us, that’s still a lot of ugliness piling up in our psyche that’s going to fill our head with anxieties. Because artists are masters at internalizing things. We can’t help it — it’s part of what makes us artists. So we should be careful what we expose ourselves to and understand that being selective with our online interactions can actually be a survival tactic. For instance, actively curate our studio pages to weed out unpleasant behavior and don’t be shy with the delete, unfriend, or block button. Take control early and quickly, and keep an eye on it. As for the rest of it, it can actually get so bad out there that just staying away from the major gathering spaces altogether can often be the best decision. Yes, that’s a bit of a bummer, but the truth is our energies are best spent in our studio working or focused on those platforms that are adeptly moderated.

And finally, never forget the power of negative bias! We’ve already discussed how it can skew how we weight commentary, but it works even more insidiously in our studio by doubling its power in a tricksie way. How? Well, it directly colors how we see our piece by amplifying its perceived flaws while ignoring the positives. The parts we dislike are simply going to jump out at us harder and bug us out of proportion to the rest of our efforts. But the thing is, amending those areas we don’t like is exactly how we hone a piece to completion, right? In other words, a finished piece has literally been refined until no parts bug us which is exactly what makes it finished. So great! — we’ve put negative bias to good use. But here’s the tricksie part — when we’ve been working on a piece for a long time, chances are we’re having some frustrations with it. There are parts that just resist “clicking into place” either due to knowledge gaps, skill gaps, or it’s simply not our day (it happens), and so our negative bias feeds on those frustrations to pollute everything like a slow poison, turning our Eye “old and cynical.” When this happens, our piece loses its magic and starts to look strange and awkward — and lemme tell ya, that’s a very odd place to be! It feels more like a cold foreign object than something lovingly made by our own hands, and — boy — can we flip against it quickly at this point! This effect can actually be so strong, we can imagine errors where none exist, amplifying our frustration to 11 and breaking the knob off. At this point, we can dump our piece unjustly or even start to question our talents. In short, the piece falls apart. How many “bad” pieces have been trashed just for this reason? But here’s the thing — none of these flaws register on anyone else’s radar! They’ll think our piece is beautiful and wonderful! Fresh Eyes simply see our piece in a very different light, a way that’s just as valid and truthful as what we’ve come to believe. Now — yes — some pieces just morph beyond rescue and starting over is the best strategy, but there are times when this metamorphosis is more a function of our unchecked negative bias than a truthful reflection of reality. The solution? Renew the magic to refresh our Eyes. Now every artist has strategies for this (which are beyond the scope of this series), but the point being: When we get here, remember that it’s our negative bias at work and so we need to trust ourselves, trust our magic, trust our process, and trust our piece…and keep going. Gut it out. Negative bias makes it all seem like reality, makes it seem so factual and obvious, but it’s really spin, being incomplete at best or a lie at worst. It’s a bad simulation. It’s not the truth, so resist it. Reboot! It takes a lot of mental work — yes — and it’s going to test us, but gut it out, and it’s uncanny, but we’ll surprise ourselves in some happy way on the other side!

So this is the end of Part IV and in Part V we’ll continue with such issues as they relate to creating art in our unique niche art form. Until next time then…keep slaying!

“Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.” 

~ Andy Warhol


Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Demonslaying 101 Part III


We’re back with Demon Slaying 101, our exploration of some things that can internally plague an artist on an emotional level to make their arting a really difficult experience. So let’s get back at it with Part III…

We may envy those who seem to have the touch of genius we lack, the innate talent that we feel eludes us, yet the truth is artmarking is a really set of learned skills that even the most seemingly gifted individual still has to spend years honing. Honestly, if we speak with our own creative Voice from our heart and guts, we’re already an artist, just one in the rough and that’s polished with training and experience. And how does that come? By pro-active learning, workshops, retreats, and classes, and with the completion of so so soooo many pieces. Oodles of pieces. Pieces coming out of our ears! And mistakes — so many mistakes! Without a doubt, failing greatly and failing forwards are some of our best pathways for progress. So if we’re afraid of making mistakes, become paralyzed by the prospect or spin our wheels trying to chase perfection, we’ve missed the point. We’ve misinterpreted how the arting process works and how the human brain learns because, absolutely, it’s the artist who finishes herds of pieces — with all the mistakes — who’ll rocket ahead of the one who futzes and fiddles trying to get things perfectly right with just a few. It seems counterintuitive, but that’s how perfecting a skillset works.

Come to understand the dichotomy of realities between the artist’s experience and that of the viewer. In other words, our concerns, priorities, and journey will never be the same. Artists make art for their own deeply personal reasons and have their own struggles doing that, but all the viewer will really be concerned with is the finished product and whether they’re moved by it, intrigued or amused by it, repulsed by it, make a bundle off it, or love it. Our job is to create art and the viewer’s job is to respond to it. Now some may care about our journey and love to hear about the process — which is so awesome — but in the end it’s all about the finished product with most, and that’s okay. Indeed, our journey was for us alone. Know it or not, too, but making art is really a solitary endeavor. Sure, we can create our pieces in a crowded room, but in the end, it’s about us in the isolated moment with our piece, with reality siphoning away except for a singular point of concentration. No one will ever exist in that moment with us — we are alone in there, as it should be. Indeed, this can be one of the most beautiful inner spaces in our lives, so nestle in there content knowing that our experience as we art is just as important as that of the viewer as they oogle.

Understand that a lot of our work is actually training us for the creation of the stellar Blue Moon piece that, for mysterious reasons, simply sings loudest. No matter how exceptional our work is otherwise, there will always be those unexpected pieces that just seem to soar higher than the rest of our portfolio. Maybe the planets aligned, maybe our Muse showed up, maybe the laylines harmonized, maybe we tapped a hidden well of uncommon inspiration, maybe we unwittingly struck a cord with the audience — who knows — but it’s a phenomenon with all artists. Just as each of us will create a failure now and again then, so each of us will create a triumph now and again, and often by surprise. Truly then, our failures and “almost theres” are as essential to our progress as our greatest triumphs. In fact, they’re necessary for our greatest triumphs. One can even go so far as to say there's no failure in art, only insight. Sure, it hurts like hell to stumble, to fall short of where we wanted to land. It seriously sucks. It’s also embarrassing, frustrating, confusing, demoralizing, and depressing. But once we pull that out — and it can take time and distance to lift that off — what we have is a goldmine of insights for that Blue Moon piece to be created. Indeed, if we stop because of our pain, that opportunity is gone forever, right? We have to keep going even when things seem awful — we have to give our talent the opportunity to keep trying and learning, and more importantly, to give it the chance to make unexpected magic happen. We have to gut it out. As my buddy Ed Gonzales would say, “Each horse is practice for the next.”

Because — yes — accept that there will be pieces we create that, no matter how hard we tried, simply won’t live up to expectations, ours or otherwise. Every artist — even the most gifted — will have a “bad art day.” That’s just part and parcel of making art. When this happens, it’s so important to show kindness to ourselves because it will feel like a failure, but remember, if it was, it as a necessary one. Trust that at some point, somehow, it’ll show us its vital lesson that will propel us forwards. And just because this happens doesn’t mean we’re a loser or that we’ve lost our touch or any number of other negatives we can inflict on ourselves. It's normal, natural, expected, and a phenomenon that happens to every single artist periodically in their careers. It just happens to be our day. Work through it, learn from it, accept it, and know that it’s proof we’re actually progressing and evolving. Just as importantly too though, understand that when some in the community latch onto that piece and single it out — for whatever reason — it means they just don’t “get” the process of making art and they aren’t even willing to meet us halfway. Really, it’s a worse reflection on them than it could ever be on us and our work. Don’t sweat it — we’ll have the last laugh later.

In the end though, you know what actually makes us a successful artist? Doing the work. Not waiting around for inspiration — doing the work. Not sitting around daydreaming about it — doing the work. Not sketching out or mocking up concept after concept — doing the work. Not reading up on technique upon technique trying to decide which is best — doing the work. And do a lot of it. Over and over and over again. Yes — we’re going to create errors, probably big ones. Yes — we’re going to have to start all over again sometimes. Yes — we’re going to get stuck and confused at times. Yet each of those conditions is an opportunity, an open door, not a failure, not a dead end. This is because the human brain is designed to learn from repeated doing and from making mistakes, so we need to allow it to do just that. As RuPaul said, “You betta work!”

So let’s talk about stopping making our art. We’ve had it with setbacks and disappointments, with feeling unappreciated and ignored, of failure after failure. Here’s the thing though — from the outside, both those artists who’ve stopped and those who keep going share feelings that are virtually indistinguishable. Yes, it’s true. The feelings, experiences, and struggles of all artists are really quite similar because making art entails similar challenges. So why do some stop while some keep going? Well, in a nutshell, those who keep going have learned how not to quit. How? For starters, they’ve learned how to create within the intrinsic discomfort of the artistic reality, the inherent psychological distress our demons introduce into the experience and not because they deny them, but they’ve learned to manage, mute, or manipulate them. They’ve also learned how to stop — to take breaks to regroup or reflect — without ever quitting outright. Maybe they work on other things to later circle back, sometimes decidedly different things. The trick is to keep the creative momentum going even if that means going sideways for a time. In short, they’ve learned how to always “come home,” to quote Elizabeth Gilbert. They’ve realized that the love of making their art is stronger than the pain associated with its failures, and that becomes the fuel for slogging ahead despite it all. What also seems to distinguish those artists is a willingness to challenge their demons; those who challenge their fears continue whereas those who don’t, quit. And each step in the arting process will test that resolve. In a very real sense then, each piece is truly earned.

“Talent is cheap — you have to be obsessed otherwise you are going to give up.” 

~ John Baldessari

When it comes to talent, we think of it as something that makes great work come easily, right? Natural geniuses just seem to pull awesomeness out of the ether gracefully and effortlessly like it was magic. But the truth is making art isn’t easy for anyone, all the time. Those who seem gifted just make the struggle appear more seamless and smooth, that’s all. A lot of it, too, is the memory of experience, the knowledge base earned from finishing a lot of different kinds of work which brings with it more confident tool strokes and stronger concepts. But trust me — even natural talents struggle in their own way. So here’s a secret: Talent is cheap. Dirt cheap. Less than a dime a dozen. Honestly, if talent was a prerequisite for great work, that work would have been a snap to materialize, right? Banged out perfectly first try, yes? But betcha it wasn’t. And every artist goes through productive periods and dry spells, leaps ahead and false starts, changes their mind midway, gets frustrated and lost during the process, re-energizes inspiration or becomes demoralized, finds perfect clarity or frustrating confusion, fighting their own demons every step of the way. Every artist, even those who are tremendously popular and successful. And — yes — sure, natural talent does exist and it does make things a bit easier, but it’s not the pre-determiner of success. If it did, all those child prodigies would have turned into Beethovens, Annie Leibovitzs, Van Goghs, and Georgia O’Keeffes, right? The world is full of those with tremendous natural gifts who still fall short or even achieve nothing with that talent whatsoever. So yeah, plenty of people have natural talent but, well…so what? What’s the game changer here then? It’s working on working, on learning from the work, on improving and growing and practicing the discipline needed to progress in our skills. That’s the determiner of success! And the good news is that anyone can do this, natural talent or not. The idea that great artists are these magical Unicorns imbued with god-like gifts is a romantic one, but incomplete. It’s also destructive because it convinces people they’re not suitable for creativity perfectly within their reach. Anyone can make art, and anyone willing to put in the work can make good art, and anyone willing to put in their heart, soul, and guts can make great art. Just remember that art making is never easy so what’s really the important part is how much hard work, dedication, and passion we pour into it that generates our wonderful leaps in ability and concept. So — yes — talent can make it easier but it’s always a bumpy road getting there, and eventually talent will be matched by experience and moxie. What’s more, natural talent can actually make an artist lazy, blasé, or neglectful in the long run because it can turn too much into a crutch of overconfidence. Yet there are those who are hungrier who’ll go shooting past because they’re more apt to really dig in to refine their skills and excel where natural talent left off. The lesson here is: Don’t rely on natural talent and don’t put too much credence in it either. It’s incidental, not the pre-determiner of success. It also doesn’t mean that those “without natural talent” are inherently inferior either. It just means they just have to work a little bit harder to coax out their gifts which actually sets them up for much better habits and attitudes that help them so much throughout their career.

It’s important to have ever-evolving, moving goals. One doesn’t have to be greater than the previous, but they should be diverse and expanding. See, the thing is, if we establish an end all-be all, all-encompassing goal, that’s great and all, but what happens when we reach it? What then? What will our next measure of achievement be? Having big goals is important for making art, yet we have to be careful in how we cultivate them and to stay open to their evolution as we evolve. Truly, what was meaningful last year may no longer be and that’s okay. Truth be told, too, the best goals are deeply personal ones, those that move us as artists on our journey rather than as validation fests or popularity contests. Yet ask this, too — in the absence of viewership, of commentary, of exhibition, of encouragement, would we still create? How many quit simply because the outlet for their work has shifted or evaporated? How many quit when a support system bottoms out for them? On the other hand, how many keep going despite this? This does imply one thing though — art usually likes to be shared, it likes to be seen and seeks to be understood. It’s an interactive, shared experience for the most part. So find conduits to do just that, like supportive ones on social media and likeminded friends and colleagues who can serve as wonderful reservoirs of sharing and support. The point is there are other forms of validation that don’t come with a prize that are enriching and meaningful, too.

It’s helpful to realize that fear can take many forms…procrastination, avoiding deadlines, distraction by the success of others, complaining about materials or methods, overindulgence of social media, and actually anything that keeps us from giving the piece our most is really an avoidance, a manifestation of fear. Yet the call to our art is a high endeavor. It gives meaning and purpose to our life, enriching it with experience and memory. In this big lofty idea then, aren’t our fears more of an annoying distraction than a reflection of reality? The truth is our fears have more to do with what’s going on in our heads than with our actual artworks, that our art is probably much nicer than we believe only we’re wearing self-stabbing glasses every time we look at it. Try learning to take them off every so often.

Have we ever lamented that the idea in our head looks so much better imagined than realized by our hands? Many beginners already accept this since they’re aware their skills aren’t so highly developed yet, but this can be a real pebble in the shoe of more advanced artists who can be plagued by the cascade of frustrations this disconnection can cause. Here’s a secret though: This is totally normal even when we’ve been at this successfully for years. Truly, no matter how talented and experienced we are, what’s in our head can sometimes just be better than what we’ve created with our hands no matter how hard we tried. As it should be though. Our vision should periodically outpace our abilities, sensibilities, and perceptions because it keeps us stretching and reaching for more. Here uncertainty is a positive then, isn’t it? In the not knowing, we challenge ourselves, imagine bigger ambitions and become bolder in our choices. But the thing is, too, every piece is an edited progression in concept from generality to specificity. As David Bayles in the book Art & Fear observes, from the first stroke that could fit onto many pieces to the very last one which could only fit onto that one piece, a finished work is an amalgam of diminishing possibilities as it’s honed to its final state until it can be honed no further and so it’s done. In kind, our frustration between the concept and reality can be a kind of mourning for all those lost possibilities that got cut out in the editing process of creation. Every other form that piece could have been is gone, right? Along those lines, the concept in our head is always like a perfect dream — things just seem inexplicably better in our vision because they’re idealized by the energy of its inspiration. But holding onto that perfection gets harder and harder as the piece transforms into reality, doesn’t it? Add all this up and, oddly enough, the finished piece will often just be a sideways step from the one we envisioned in our heads as it took on a life of its own in creation. This isn’t a failure, this is an inevitable and natural outcome of arting, just a reality of the process. And it’s not such a bad thing, is it? Letting a piece create itself typically leads to stronger work, and learning to let go during the process is often a healthier attitude. Plus, this effect also leaves the door open for a variation within a series, right? And it keeps our imaginations pliable and yearning which feeds into our inspiration and ambition. It may also explain why artists may return to previous concepts to reimagine them.

Like it or not then, uncertainty is part and parcel to making art. Do we have the skills to make this a go? Are we making sound choices? Will people like this piece at all? Heck, will we ever be satisfied with anything we create? The fact is we literally won’t know the outcome until the piece is finally complete. Yet our clay and our paint will only ever do what our hands make them do — they can do nothing other than that. Our materials are simply potential, nothing more. So uncertainty and unpredictability are normal, expected, part of the process again, not a failure. And it’s okay to change our minds at any time! Heck, maybe it’s that curious moment when the reality ends up being better than the concept — go with it! Leave space for the piece to create itself, and curiously enough, great pieces take control very quickly. Actually, in many ways, we’re obliged to allow that to happen despite our own ideas. Sometimes we just have to let go to grab the tail of that magical Blue Moon piece. But the point is that many brilliant pieces were mere moments away from total failure at any point before they were finished. Had the artist not gutted it out and remained determined and open to the possibilities, who knows what pieces would have been scrapped? The creative process always exists on a razor’s edge of improbability.

Likewise, another handy idea is to understand that, ironically, even in our highly controlled, technical art form, a high degree of control isn’t always the best solution to the challenge at hand. Really, the paradox is that if we apply more rigidity to a problem, things can actually spin out of control even more. Instead, relinquishing control, of remaining open and adaptive to happy accidents, new ideas, or changes, of rolling with mistakes and backtracking to start again at any point, and of letting the piece lead the process is usually the strategy that mediates this. Yes, that’s unpredictable, yet it’s those artists who embrace uncertainty, who learn to let go of the tyrant of rigid expectation — of theirs and that of others — who tend to tumble fastest forwards. The chaos of the unknown within the gap between concept and reality isn’t something to be feared and it’s not something to be locked down in a controlling vise either. It’s to be embraced as the energy source, the nucleus of creative potential our piece will draw from to create itself. And that’s a funny thing with the unexpected — we don’t often see our gifts at work because we could have created so instinctively, our conscious mind still hasn’t caught up yet. You know how it is when you create something amazing on autopilot! Or maybe our perception is skewed away from seeing all the things we got right in our finished piece and all the things we got wrong in our Vision. So stay open. Try to resist rigidity in the process of making art. Hard black and white answers aren't necessarily the right ones.

Learn to accept that fear and making art go hand in hand, even with the most experienced and confident artists. It’s handy to know though that fear usually distills into two categories: Fear about our own experience making our art and fear about how our work will be received by others. Inwards fear usually prevents us from doing our best work whereas outwards fear typically prevents us from making the bold, unique choices only we could make, or said another way, from using our own Voice fully and confidently. We’re going to fight on two fronts — that’s just the way of it. We can tell our selves to ignore the bombs coming from all sides then, but the truth is no artist is fully capable of that. Oh, we can con ourselves into thinking we’re immune for a time, but in the end, it all impacts us on some level to compound deep down. So instead of denying that energy, morph the fear into a challenge and an insight to get ahead of it. For instance, accept that our anxieties in part help us become more thoughtful and conscientious artists by keeping us open to the lessons of experience, emotion, innovation, and inspiration. Indeed, without that sensitivity, our work can stagnate rather quickly out of false confidence. On the other hand, if we worry about how others will react to our piece, try to focus on validations that come from within. What are we enjoying about our process? Are there particular aspects of our piece we really like? What sort of new things are we learning? What kind of triumph did we win on this piece? Is the inspiration fueling this piece especially fun to channel? And every once and awhile, sit back and marvel at the fact that we’re pulling this thing out of the ether that never existed before — we’re doing this — and isn't that wonderful? Don’t forget to leave room for all the amazingness we’re doing because it’s okay — in fact it’s really beneficial — to pat ourselves on the back every so often.

On that note, it’s incredibly important to realize that the concept of perfection is a dangerous trap. The typical idea most folks have is that good work is perfect work, right? But here’s the kicker — all human-made work is imperfect because humans are imperfect. The idea that perfection is achieved by creating a flawless piece then is ignoring the fact that this would disqualify even the most highly esteemed artists and art works. Truly, all work is flawed, even that by exquisitely gifted geniuses. And when we’re talking about our highly technical art form, the chance for error is to be expected — so be it. It is what it is. Yet it’s a nice lofty goal that keeps us stretching and that’s fantastic! An unreachable, pinnacle grail keeps things lively! But that’s just it, right? Keep it as a tool, a mechanism for learning, a means to an end rather than the end-all itself. Indeed, being able to let go of perfection — even in our technical genre — is so critical on so many levels! This is because perfection can stunt our development by compelling us to putter on a piece, never finishing to move onto the next. Perfectionism also generates an inevitable cycle of procrastination because not creating means not making mistakes, right? It’s avoidance. Perfection is also immensely intimidating, isn’t it? It can demoralize or paralyze an artist even before they begin! And there’s only one place to go with all this, isn’t there? Yes — not making art. But setting that heady goal of perfection isn’t the whole problem in itself as it’s also the unforgiveness we show ourselves when we fall short. We gotta stop doing that! It’s important to give ourselves room to be human. In this we should also fully understand this reality: Before we get good at something, we’re going to be awful at it. Isn’t that fantastic?! So much room for growth and discovery! We should also celebrate the fact that — yes — we’re going to make very public mistakes. People are going to see the blunders we create, there’ll be no hiding them. Yet this isn’t something to be horrified over and avoid or hide. It’s to be fully embraced without shame or reservation! Why? Well, it means we’re “showing up,” we’re doing something incredible and creating something that’s never existed before, and we’re trying our best, pouring our love into this wonderful thing. If anyone takes issue with that — hey — the problem is theirs and, boy, does that reflect badly on them! Take pride in our effort and even more in the journey we’ve started — it’s a brilliant thing! Now this isn’t to say we willy-nilly all the technical things in realism because we can’t — we have rules to follow. But even so, we do have to accept our human foibles as a counterbalance to this relentless taskmaster. Because there’s this as well — it’s around our imperfections where our humanity is to be found, too, the very thing we need most to create our work in the first place. In addition to all this, one thing to remind ourselves of often is that errors keep us hungry and evolving, keep our art form innovating and advancing, keep our expectations energized and curious, and push our dreams and inspirations past boundaries. Flaws are really our guides then, aren’t they? They point the way, mark the path, and show us the next horizon. Learn to embrace mistakes and we start to chip away at the paralysis of perfection to find new creative traction. This is difficult to accept — yes — but it’s precisely those who embrace imperfection who evolve, progress, and achieve so much. 

Now diving off from that, think about this…our ego. Look, we all have an ego. All of us. It’s just a function of the human psyche. So rather than deny it or try to carve it out, use it. Put it to work! Because here’s the thing, if we lash that ego onto something so ideal it’s a problem, even ultimately unattainable — like always having being to be right or always creating perfection — we’re going to run smack dab into a wall pretty quickly. It’s just going to end our joy in short order, and even paralyze us, make us miss opportunities, distort our thinking, and maybe threaten our relationships and professional ties. It’s just a bad place to be. So instead, tie our ego to something constructive and empowering like being a learner, a perpetual student who literally knows nothing and so stays open to new lessons — all the time. Even if we know tons already, stay a learner. The fact of the matter is that the only one who knows everything about equines and their structure and colors and patterns — and all the possibilities and potentials — is Nature itself, and it always has the last word. So let that need go. Just let it go. It does nothing but shut us off from potential. In contrast, staying a learner keeps pace with Nature though quite a few strides back. But that’s good, right? Otherwise, there’d be nothing new to learn! Staying a learner also accepts that failure is a part of the process and so contains within it the power to make strategic decisions that will clear new paths for us. Anyway, point being what we tie our ego onto will pre-determine our outcome, even our entire life, so try to more consciously direct it to things that serve our goals better than simply blindly following it. On that note, also try not to ego-shame others. We’re all our own journey of self-discovery through our art, and their art hasn’t gotten to that lesson yet. Instead then, try to show compassion as a guide when possible so they can eventually release themselves from the grasping clutches of a misdirected ego. But they have to come to it on their own terms so let them walk that path in their own way.

Also try to embrace this reality: Artistic confidence isn’t an end-all outcome, that once we have it, we’ll be creating amazing work. That’s not how it works. Rather, confidence is a tool, a way, a practice we use to keep us going through our mistakes and detours. It’s our foundation that shores us up when it all comes crashing down. Really, if we have a solid foundation, we just rebuild, right? Confidence is also our foundation for education and exploration because with it, we can let go of old information to make room for the new, we can evolve without fearful reactions. In other words, confidence helps us to manage our fears so much better by not only counterbalancing them outright, but by helping us manage our fear-driven outbursts because despite it all, we’re all going to have periodic outbursts, we’re human. In this, confidence will help us straighten up, take a deep breath, lock our eyes on the prize, and take one more step forwards. Smoosh it all together then, it’s through confidence we build competence and through competence we achieve our goals. How do we build confidence then? We do the work. We work on working. And ruminate on all the points discussed in this blog series because, in all honestly, it’s really about how to build our artistic confidence even in the presence of bitter demons who try to break it apart. So deep breath, now…

With that, think about this: When your brain tells you to give up, when you’ve had enough and want to quit, I want you to do just one thing. Just one. Try one more time. Breakthroughs do happen, miracles can happen, enlightenment will happen…with one more time. I know what it’s like, truly I do. In fact, Stormwatch was almost scrapped for just this reason and had I not tried one more time, he would’t exist. So deep breath and just one more time.

Let’s end Part III here. We’ll come back in Part IV with more coping insights and observations that can help us compartmentalize these struggles in a way that can actually turn the negatives into positives. So until next time…straighten up, breath deep, eyes forward, and happy slaying!

“Creativity takes courage.” ~ Henri Matisse


Saturday, June 19, 2021

Demonslaying 101 Part II


We’re back with Part II of Demon Slaying 101, a discussion about our internal battles when we create our art. In particular, we have to wrestle with three especially nasty demons — imposter syndrome, negative bias, and self-doubt. These three are so strong, in fact, that they may also be the root of many other psychological blocks that can tarnish our creativity. In this Part II then we’ll start our discussion with some insights on all this to better cultivate and preserve our joy and confidence despite them. So let’s dive right in!…

To begin with, it’s helpful to remind ourselves that negative bias is a big trigger because once we recognize that it’s an instinctive hardwired reflex designed to spin, we can talk ourselves down. Because — hey — if it’s a prejudiced filter, there’s a lot being scooped out…all the good stuff! For example, take heart in the fact that for every jerky or careless comment, there are many others who are supportive, thoughtful, and encouraging (even if they don’t speak up), so focus on them instead and trust that they’re there. Put more energy into those who are generous and encouraging — we have to work at it, mind you — and let the rest fall away. Remind ourselves, too, that it’s just the noise associated with those who find more joy in tearing someone down or want to feel self-important than in truly wanting to understand and appreciate our efforts. Some people are just careless, thoughtless, or mean, or just derive their life force from negativity. Let’s be frank, too, there’s a lot of self-important, boorish, insensitive clods out there who just don’t care. Everyone sees a piece of art differently, too, and in our genre, that’s a loaded question because of all the technicalities involved. Really, not everyone’s knowledge base is more fully informed or objective, or even open to the unconventional aspects of reality. Their priorities and goals may be different from ours, too. So work to focus on the positive encouragement more deliberately and enthusiastically, exercise gratitude and remind ourselves that not everyone has our same creative sensibilities — and that’s okay — and try to find some peace in that.

Remember that everyone has to deal with negative bias in their own reality. That’s to say many folks shred work because they’re fundamentally unaware this hardwired tendency is compelling them to fixate on the perceived negatives rather than step back, take a breath, and re-evaluate the reality of a piece with more objective, informed, or compassionate eyes. What’s more, the negatives in their lives — we don’t know what emotional and psychological struggles they’re enduring — can compel them to displace that anguish onto others. Indeed, some people’s pain morphs into ugly behavior that’s spewed all over the place, particularly on those who are easy targets like artists. In a sense then, they’re victims of their own wiring and in being so, victimize others.

Consider the source. Is negative input coming from those we admire and trust? Is it coming from others whose goals and priorities align with ours? Are they our collectors or those who have no vested interest in our work? Are they coming from someone notorious for being obnoxious, callous, or careless? All this will tell us how much those opinions are actually worth. And if they aren’t worthwhile, we’re going to have to work a little bit to remind ourselves that…repeatedly. If we have doubts anyway as a result — which is normal — seek advice from trusted friends or colleagues, or do some pro-active research to dig into the matter of things. Find a way to ease those introduced doubts either through more facts or the ability to recognize that, again, not everyone has our best interests at heart or is savvy enough with either their knowledge or social skills.

Try to work on developing a “devil may care” attitude by realizing five things. First, that we’re truly into arting for our own enjoyment and the enrichment of our own Voice, experience, and inspirations. To create for the validation of others is only begging for those demons to shriek even louder. Second, we’ll never please everyone. No matter how we try or how many critiques we input, not everyone is going to like our work, and that’s fine. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and folks are entitled to their tastes. This also makes sure that many styles have a place in our niche by appealing to all those different tastes, so it’s really a positive. Just remember there’s really only one person to please — ourselves. Third, conversely, know that there’s always — always — someone out there who loves our work like nobody’s business. Keep our focus on them, not to have an echo chamber, but to help counterbalance our distracting demons. Fourth, there’s always “that guy” in every crowd. No matter how we curate our social media or our social interactions, there’s always going to be a clanging note at some point, some person who just cannot be thoughtful, careful, or sensitive with our efforts and feelings, or respectful of the bravery it takes to even present our work to the public in the first place. And fifth, the truth is — believe it or not — our work is better than we think and more people love it than we suspect. So trust in that seemingly unlikely scenario knowing that our demons are always working to convince us otherwise.

Another way to transform the negative to the positive is to turn every “failure” into a learning experience. In many ways, this is a choice — we have to decide to morph the situation with every single piece, and especially with those that wind up in the middle of a disappointment. Yet make it a habit and we become better artists as well as better people. Really, if we can find the lesson in every outcome, we can regain our footing pretty quickly. We can also come to better appreciate the realities of other artists to develop more camaraderie in a shared experience. And that applies to ourselves, too! Be gentle with our own heart, extend that same compassion to ourselves as we would to others.

In line with that, it’s helpful to recognize that artistic evolution can usher in a particularly crushing brand of self-doubt as a side effect. Or said another way, artistic evolution can be camouflaged by self-doubt and if we aren’t obsessively dedicated to slogging through it, we’re going to make the mistake of quitting. That’s because sometimes certain pieces come into our inspiration with lessons for us, lessons so pivotal they promise to change the way we do things forever — only we don’t know it yet. If we have a hard time absorbing those lessons and especially if we fight them, however, we’re in for a world of hurt in the doubt department. For example, if we have interpretive habits that look right to us but our piece’s references show us that they’re wrong, a major shift has to happen. But it doesn’t usually happen so easily since our piece will try to yank us forwards only we’re stuck where we are. Being so, pressure and friction will build up like between tectonic plates, often making this situation an excruciatingly frustrating, confusing, and anxiety-ridden kind of smackdown. What are some symptoms? Trying to get something right and either continually screwing it up or always coming up short. Re-doing areas but we keep sliding back into our habits despite our best efforts otherwise. Being completely inspired by our concept, yet perpetually “not feeling” what we’re doing. Creating in a very uncomfortable “space” because this new thing we’re doing just seems so wrong. Sculpting or painting the area accurately in form, but it’s somehow flawed like being skewed off proper placement, out of scale, or angled improperly — we’re “halfway there” but not at home base yet. And all this? Maddening as all get out! Even paralyzing. Truthfully, the grind of self-doubt this generates can be so powerful and dangerous, it can even drag us to the notion of quitting outright because we start to believe that we’ve permanently plateaued or, worse, that we’ve lost our abilities, talents, or our muse. And there are few things that can destroy joy in a passionate artist faster than the belief we’ve gone as far as we can go in our abilities. However, if we can remind ourselves that this situation isn’t a lack of talent or the wall of a plateau, that we’re on the cusp of an evolution, we can get the upper hand here. So gut it out. Keep trying! Even if we want to bang our head on wall. We have to give our mind, hand, Eye, and skills the time, practice, and opportunity to finally all click into place and learn the lesson. And remember, we have to make those mistakes to learn! Then lemme tell ya, when that shift happens, it’s like an ecstatic tectonic jolt, an artistic earthquake, and nothing will ever be the same again. But trust that it’ll happen — trust yourself, trust the moment, trust the opportunity the piece presents. Evolution will come, but only if we’re engaging our process.

Without a doubt, the more established and successful an artist becomes, the more pronounced the pressure on ourselves and so the greater the weight of failures. There’s just so much expectation piled on a successful artist to keep topping themselves! Yet artists need the room, the safe zone to go back and forth, to hit or miss, to stretch and snap back. But if the audience keeps expecting an artist to just keep going up up up, at some point they’re going to kill the golden goose by psychologically paralyzing them. We can’t back a creative mind into a corner of expectation! Remember they’re heaping mountains of expectations on themselves already, too! Instead, give them the complete freedom to explore, risk, fail, learn, grow, discover, and just chillax in their work. Let them have their creative space. Honestly, art is best when it’s based on freedom to some degree and, similarly, experimentation and exploration inject a sense of adventure into it all. It does an artist good then to focus on that rather than living in a pressure cooker of public expectation. Never forget to have fun, first and foremost!

Making art isn’t only hard, it can hurt. Disappointments, resentments, envy, frustrations, regrets, embarrassments, anxieties, anger, and any number of other negatives can tarnish our creative experience. Indeed, some artists stop outright because of it. So try to always remember the driving reasons why we make art — the meaning, the joy, the inspiration, the satisfaction, the thrill, the exploration, the peace of the soul. Whatever it is, hold onto it very closely and lean into it if things start to go haywire. It can be our rock for weathering a storm or a jumpstart to prime the pump after a dry spell.

Toxic positivity is a thing just as there’s toxic negativity. It’s nice to say that the ideal condition then is in the middle, but honestly, that’s a rather milquetoast place, a flatline that can leave us too satisfied and content. Really, it’s not such a bad thing for an artist to stay a little shook because it keeps us hungry and more objective. Now everyone is different, but for me the ideal place is just offset from center towards the positive — by choice. Because it takes work and we may have to actively remind ourselves when we backslide. Even if we have to speak it aloud or getting it down in a journal, reinforcing our efforts with positive affirmations can go far to making this continual choice easier and easier, too.

We have to accept that we may be doing something no one will care about, that will never find reward, or at least to the degree we hope it will. It’s always an uncertainty and to be frank, there’s rarely rhyme or reason as to what the audience gravitates towards one minute to the next; it likes what it likes at that moment, and that’s that. We should just keep at it though and create for our own reasons. And that’s actually a pretty freeing place to create when ya think about it! Also consider marketing strategies as they may be sabotaging our efforts for exposure. Who knows — it may be time for a solid social media and advertising campaign! On that note, don’t put too much credence into any single win or loss. There are plenty of enormously talented artists who don’t place or get juried into a show, and it just happens to be our day. Really, thinking about it, with all the quality out there today, those planets have to align in a pretty crazy way for any piece to place! Yeah, we could make placings based almost solely on quality alone in the past — not so today. Today the quality is so consistent and extraordinary, it comes down to other things, things that can rely heavily on the moment and mercurial tastes, or the knowledge strengths or gaps of the judge. Today there are truly those pieces that are of equal quality.

So we’ll end Part II here and in Part III then, we’ll continue our discussion on such things. Being able to openly discuss these issues is important to learn new coping insights from others and to raise awareness. Our demons only have as much power as we’re willing to give them, and with new ways of manipulating them, we can deny them quite a bit of it!

“The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize.” ~ Robert Hughes

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