Working everyday has its advantages and its limits. I began my dedicated effort to paint everyday (or almost) in July of 2014 and have painted hundreds of paintings since. Most of those are in a tightly closed drawer and show the frustrations and yearnings of a very inexperienced artist. That drawer doesn’t get opened much because I cringe at my first fumbling efforts in pastel painting. I can pick apart all of them and the harsh words that come to my mind are cruel.
I think about that quite a lot actually. I am the first person to say to others, “you can do it!” “all it takes is practice!” “those mistakes are for your benefit!” but then when I talk to myself it comes out as “you are terrible!” “you’ll never paint another successful piece again” “it’s an accident” “you’ll never succeed” “you should quit” etc. etc. Why are we so quick to help others and quicker to condemn ourselves? I’m not talking about the helpful critiques, the moments when you assess and adjust. I’m talking about the self-deprecating words that gain access not to our heads but to our hearts.
“Do not let arrogance go to your head, and despair to your heart; do not let compliments go to your head, and criticisms to your heart; do not let success go to your head, and failure to your heart.” ` Roy Williams
The head is where decisions happen and where our critical thinking is put on the table. This is where the technique of our work is remembered and the elements of artistic knowledge are stored. The heart is where our love of the work flourishes. Our desires and yearnings, emotions, and feelings melt together with the straight knowledge of the medium. If we’re lucky, these two elements combine and magic happens. If one is dominating, the other may suffer. It’s a gentle dance to create with both the head and the heart and a delicate balance to talk to yourself with firm yet kind critiques.
I don’t know about you, but for me, overly-critical self-talk is a defense mechanism. If I say those words to myself, it will hurt less when someone says them to me. The rub is that no one has ever said those cruel things to me, so why am I believing the lies and letting it affect every aspect of my day? There are many who can separate themselves emotionally from their work. They step back and critique honestly, without the flame-throwing habits I get myself into. I think with my heart which is very common in highly sensitive, artistic people. So much of what I do is from a very personal point of view and I admire those artists who can separate themselves emotionally without losing heart completely. So…how do I do that? How do we stop?
Firstly, if you wouldn’t say it to someone else, don’t say it to yourself. I watched a beautiful video recently of two best friends talking. They wrote down their inner dialogues and then read them to each other. It was heartbreaking and beautiful. They said the meanest things about themselves but when talking to their friend and saying those statements out loud, it became almost impossible for them. Our inner words have power and when we believe them, it is self-harm plain and simple. Those thoughts run through our heads all the time and it is so hard to stop them. The important thing is to not them settle and soak in. If I’m having a particularly rough day and those words of discouragement keep coming in, I try to get outside, step away from what I’m doing and take some deep breaths. This leads to the second tip…
Gratitude. It’s life-changing. Stepping away, getting some perspective. Noticing your surroundings. Seeing your loved ones. Breathing fresh air and feeling the breeze, or the sun, or the crisp Fall air. All of it means we’re alive and capable and loved. I don’t keep a gratitude journal but try to keep a mental one. It helps me to tackle lots of tasks both in my studio and in my day-to-day life. Grateful my laundry pile is huge because that means I have a family who lives and loves. Grateful my studio is a mess and paintings are everywhere because that means I am living my artistic dreams. Grateful this painting didn’t work out because that means I had hands and eyes to paint it in the first place, and can always paint another. Gratitude makes me look at the wider picture and seeing how many, many small blessings greatly overwhelm those tiny little immediate issues. It kind of makes me laugh, changes my mood, which changes my output, which changes my art.
Is this too goody two-shoes? I’ve been accused of that on more than one occasion and you know… I’m totally ok with it. I am a goody-goody and I’ve always been tender and sensitive. Gratitude is the key and sensitivity to others, to the World, and to my very own heart is the open door.
I can still critique without destroying my heart. I can look at things honestly without being mean, cruel, and self-deprecating. It is possible. For those out there who think “nah, being harsh to yourself (and to others) is the reality we live in…to be kind to yourself means you’re not a serious artist” – I say that’s not for me, and that’s not what I’ll do. I won’t let those words take root in me, because then my joy of the work folds and collapses…because my joy in the work lives in my heart! If my heart is infected then so is my art.
So. I blog sometimes not because I’m lecturing anyone out there who may read this. I’m lecturing myself so that someday I’ll look back and remember the encouraging thing I wrote to myself.
Keep painting. Keep learning. Keep smiling. Keep loving.
Remember who you are and take time to look around. Stop every now and then. Take deep breaths. Throw the painting away if you like, it’s ok to waste the paper.
Remember to step back and don’t let the words settle. Think on them but don’t let them take root. Keep creating from a place of joy.
Maybe I’ll open that drawer today and be so grateful to have had the joy of painting everyday. Those first attempts are like a babies first steps. Precious and to be remembered.