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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Why aren't I getting better????

Getting over the hump.

Lunch 8 x 10 Oil
What seems to happen a lot when you are studying painting is that at first the progress can be depressingly slow and hard coming. And then, all of a sudden, bam, you start making huge strides. Finally, you complete something you could even frame! You feel enormously grateful. And boy, does that hard won success fuel your desire to work harder and longer. Laundry Schmandry! You've got masterpieces to create!

And yet, for all that time and effort following your hard won breakthrough, your rewards yet again seem pitiful. Oh, sure, you can identify a color without looking at the tube, even the more obscure ones. "Why, there's my quinacridone red," you might mutter in front of a newbie at art class. You know your filbert from your flat. Your OMS from your turp.

And yet aside from your impressive art vocab, your paintings kinda look the same in terms of quality from the year before. So you paint longer hours. Your laundry piles are growing larger and you keep your garage door closed at all times so the neighbors don't see the out of control mess. But your paintings? They aren't getting better. Not at all. You find yourself thinking a horrifying thought.  Is this as good as I can get? Yikes, that's not very good.

No. That is not as good as you're going to get. You're just in a rut. Step back and reflect on what you're doing that's keeping you stuck. For starters, you might be trance painting. Trance painting happens A LOT. Especially when  painters stick to painting objects they feel they paint well. Which makes sense. You should, up to a point. Until and unless you find yourself trance painting, or phoning it in.

For example you might discover you paint apples so proficiently that one could reach over and pick them off the canvas...and you start painting apples like they're falling off the trees. Next thing you know, you've painted them so often, you end up painting them without really thinking about what you're doing. You might even brag to friends, Apples? I could paint 'em in my sleep! Which is sadly, what you're kind of doing without knowing. And how are you going to get better if you're doing something you could do in your sleep!

What's tricky about trance painting is that it is difficult to spot yourself doing it, as is all unconscious behavior. So how can you tell? A little self reflection works. For me, it's realizing I'm following the NPR segment playing in the background; waiting for the answer to Terry Gross's question. And if I'm following along with something in the background, it means I'm not fully engaged in what I'm painting.

And not being fully engaged can lead to your other paintings outside of your brilliant apples. You can phone it in even if your subject matter is varied if you're sticking to the exact methodology every painting. To get back into the zone you have to create ways to get your brain off of auto pilot.

Such as? Pick a new subject. That's why I like to continue my series of small paintings. I'll paint anything including my lunch. Another effective method is switching up how you start your paintings. If you usual start with an underpainting, don't, and use a blocking in of local color instead. If you never start your work with an underpainting, do. Or use a different palette. Put away the brushes and use a palette knife only.

If you're still stuck, force yourself not to paint for a few days and sketch with pencil or charcoal (and you should be sketching every week anyway).  Or take a class which explores a difficult process that you can't teach yourself. Venetian painting. Egg tempera. That brain will turn back on in no time faced with a challenge like a new multi step process.

Other ways to get out of a rut: Clean up your workspace and make sure you're not surrounded by so much clutter you can't possibly think clearly. Put anything away you're not using so that the area produces a calm, not chaotic mood. That works like magic for me. Use a different type of canvas. Turn off NPR, and turn on some classical or jazz. Are you stepping away from your canvas every fifteen minutes?

Yet another way to get unstuck is to watch someone else who's better than you paint. Rent, borrow or buy a video of by an artist whose work you admire. I've said it before and I'll say it again: watching someone who knows what they're doing is the BEST education of all and is a very effective "getting out of a rut" method.

Again, this is not as good as you can get. There's no end to improvement as long as there's a will to improve.

Keep painting ;)