Thursday, July 30, 2020

How do you force yourself to improve?

Comando Speciales on YouTube asks: "How do you force yourself to improve? I'm a fine arts student and every time I try to paint or draw I get absolutely frustrated and feel like quitting. I like it and want to get better at it, but there's like a mental barrier. I know that we all have to start at some point to improve, but I feel like I'm old and after many years of doing this I simply can't get better at it."

My answer: Don't worry too much about improving, especially if you're forcing yourself. You'll improve if you keep experimenting and having fun. 

All through my career I have had plenty of moments of frustration. When I feel that way, I tell myself that all problems yield to effort. There's no shame in starting over, scrubbing off a lay-in, or trying a new material. Good paintings often have difficult births.

There's also nothing wrong with being frustrated. John Singer Sargent was like a boiling teakettle during every painting. He muttered "Demons, demons!" under his breath all the time. Embrace frustration; it's really your friend. It's good to intentionally pursue difficult challenges.

The person I worry about is the one who is too satisfied and never tries anything new. You've seen this person at sketch groups. They always use the same materials, same methods. They get the same results and they never get better.

If you have an insurmountable challenge, break the big problem into smaller parts that you can master. If you're painting an elk, take an hour in your sketchbook to draw elk antlers from various angles. If you're animating for a 1930s style video game, copy some character designs from that era. 

And don't worry about being too old. Your brain is capable of learning and growing at any age.

10 comments:

Stephen and Nyree said...

Also try working outside. Science has shown that being near trees will cause you to feel more calm and increase internal organ function and regeneration, it can help people heal faster after surgery etc. Relax, take your painting out under the shade of a nice tree and give it another go.

Bill Marshall said...

Sound advice, James. Especially your comment about never being completely satisfied in order to stay motivated to improve. As a professional, there can also be pressure from your clients, galleries, manager, etc. to keep doing the same thing for its popularity, and sales. Tough to resist when you are making a living solely from those sales, but worth the effort in the long run.

Katharine said...

Thanks James, I needed to hear this one today.

GeraldS said...

There was a period where I was kicking the tires of my Art journey as well. I'm 54 and not in anyway a success in the Art world. I accept that no matter what I simply cannot imagine myself not painting, or drawing or dreaming. This has guided me the last few years into no stop study and experimenting. The other day a neighbor stopped by and had never seen my work. She was captivated by a painting that I never would consider to be my best work. When I asked what she liked about it she said "It just looks like you loved what you painted, I can really feel that" This is why I have no choice but to be an Artist.

Unknown said...

Damn this hits home..thank you sir.

Karen Eade said...

Thank you for this very helpful and reassuring post. One thing I have found has helped get me out of the “force myself to improve” death spiral is to buy a big bunch of very small supports - 8x6 or less - and to paint one a day to a deadline - say, 2 hours (I’m not always strict about this, though) with the idea only of working my way through the whole pile of supports - not sharing or showing or selling. I don’t know how I improve doing this, but I do! It is also good for morale.
Another thing I have read is to try to be kind to yourself. Don’t beat yourself up, berate yourself etc. Be kind. It’s only paint - why so serious? This is something Daniel Edmondson says. You wouldn’t berate someone else for “failing to improve” - you would find something nice to say and encourage them. So do yourself the same favour.

Unknown said...

It has always been my experience in both watercolor and oil painting, just about the time you feel your painting is a worthless piece of crap destined for the trash and you are right on the cusp of giving up, suddenly your painting comes together and everything is okay! Personally I feel it works out this way just because you decided it was worthless, at that point of giving up you stepped aside, gave yourself permission to fail, then suddenly you see things in a new light, my mind see's new ideas and possibilities.

Stephen and Nyree said...

Karen, you got on a great point. People are to adopt to be unkind to themselves, and too hard on themselves. Sadly sometimes it seems as a world we tend to be too harsh on everyone these days. A little more kindness would go a long way.

Peter Brown said...

I can usually find one or two areas within a painting that I'm pleased with, regardless of how I rate the painting as a whole. They're a reminder that I'm doing something right, but it's balanced by the other less pleasing areas that motivate me to problem-solve and improve.

DougInNC said...

I used to be very hard on myself, to the point where nothing was ever good enough to keep or convince me to keep trying. Somewhere along the way I have developed the ability to view my painting as a lifetime learning experience, which I am all for. Now, I'm thankful for those areas of my work that aren't "perfect" yet because it means I haven't reached the end of my learning journey yet. Still more fun ahead.