Sunday, February 1, 2015

Confidence, Art and Life

I have a weird attitude. I may be giving bad advice sometimes by coming from a completely different perspective. Or I may be giving good advice where it's needed most. I could be doing both in the same paragraph, depending on who's reading it. So take this as an essay both in general about art and specifically on pastels, because pastel has become my heart-medium.

Pastels are instant gratification. I want to paint it, bang, I do. There it is. Big and bold and visible across the room. I paint small for a pastelist except on very good days but pastels make it possible for me to paint at all most times, because of that speed and power.

This essay is in answer to a forum post where a new friend said something that made me think. I had mentioned I didn't have the space to paint large complex still lifes, so I've been doing small simple studies. I'm drifting into the 6" square format of the Daily Painters and thoroughly enjoying it. This friend compared that to my dipping my toe in the pool, then wrapping the towel around my hips and walking away calling that my daily swim.

Well yeah, actually that is my daily swim. The fact that I was able to do it at all makes it a good day. On a bad day my daily swim would be a two inch long gesture sketch of my cat while he sleeps, something I could probably do without even looking at him because I've done it hundreds of times. He said it was a mystery because other painters with even less space managed to do larger, complex still lifes.

Well, the mystery is solved. I did answer and tell him it wasn't just space but disability. Because he's right. If I was abled, I wouldn't mind getting up and sweeping ALL the food stuff off the dresser, set up a still life, sketch and photo it, live out of boxes for eating for a while till the painting's done (or just work from the photo) and then put all the food back. About like the kind of vigorous housemate who lets the apartment turn into a wreck and then every month or two blitz cleans it over one weekend - and saves time for video gaming overall because that blitz was relatively easy for him.

Heck, I might still live in a place too small for complex still life and just go out to sit on the sidewalk and paint a window display in a shop instead, because that caught my eye. Even make more than one bus trip to get back to the antique shop to do that. There's more than one way to scan a cat.

I adapted to physical disabilities before I knew I had them. This has shaped my attitudes about everything in life and I was constructively lazy for most of it so far. Everything I do to make myself comfortable has an immediate self rewarding effect that I'll actually do more. Someone abled and overworked might find comfort irresistible and prefer to sleep or watch TV or socialize when they could be painting and would enjoy painting if they gave themselves a bit of a push to do it. But someone who's always in pain and usually too tired to live is bored stiff with just watching movies or laying in bed and seizes on any moment when activity's possible as a break in the misery. This is the truth of my life and why I always dive for my Comfort Zone.

It's in my Comfort Zone that I'm able to do anything at all. Add extra challenges onto the logistics of trying to live in my body and chances are I'll wind up using up what little body energy I have in creating the setup or getting out the materials.

So maybe Comfort Zone is a problem like weight loss. Many people are a little over and could stand to lose a few pounds, but you really do not want to suggest that to an anorexic. They might push it to the point of death if you do. It's never a temptation to just do nothing, it's always an unpleasant frustration. I cannot keep the pace of the abled and I find my limits in unexpected and unhappy ways if I don't follow my intuition on what I can do right now, this day, this hour, this weather and what I ate and who said what to me online earlier.

Stress comes into it too. Stress isn't good for people in general, but most people need a certain amount of it to be happy, a comfortable pace. Some people actually thrive on a moderately high level of stress and excitement, depends on personality and metabolism and culture.

Fibromyalgia means that emotional stress, even something like reading the wrong news story at the wrong time when it gives me a shock, will knock me into total exhaustion and physical agony. Crippling pain washes over me. This will also blur my vision, wreck my memory to the point I sound like an Alzheimers patient, leave me forgetting my phone number or not finding something right in front of me. In that state I don't paint well even if I push myself hard and try to paint.

There were some kinds of work I could do in that state but all were left-brained rote activities. The entire 1980s were my "pain robot" years.

That said, I think there's something strange that goes on between attitude and confidence.

I'm continually surprised at how the level of confidence painters have is almost disconnected from their skills. It's not like the best painters beat themselves up more than beginners. It's more that some people are really happy with their own art and others not.

I am usually happy with my art even when it's flawed, because there'll be something about it that I like. I may want to redo it later but probably not by reworking on the same piece. I'll probably apply the critique later to some completely different subject, but if I'm not happy with something I am as likely to be wrong as when I'm thrilled with it.

But I have also got other challenges in life a lot heavier than whether a painting works or whether it's finite perfection. I strive to improve overall so that my worst come out pretty well and someone will like them. I reached a point of liking my own drawings very early in childhood after a long life study of one pet and from there just assumed I'd keep getting better at difficult subjects, but I approach them slowly. I also don't even do them until I've got all the tools I need to do it right sometimes.

But, back to the physical. When I paint, it makes me happy. Especially when I go right into my Comfort Zone and choose a subject with bright colors like a macaw or hummingbird or flower or fruit, or a cat, any cat, a landscape without any other people in it or signs of human habitation where I know I'm not going to get hassled by anyone and can amble through at my own pace without running into those abled hikers with their huge backpacks warbling about "It's only another mile or so" to the water. Better not be or I'm dead. I like to see the water right in the scene.

I like those moments with wildlife where sitting still long enough lets them relax and understand I'm not hunting them, so they wander out and show themselves close. Wild cats especially but most wildlife too. I didn't get to do it often but I have had some moments to remember and love documentaries.

What happened is that because I couldn't run and play as a little boy, I got very good at reading, writing and drawing, the things that were still fun when you sit still for a long time. I did and do lots of little drawings that can be finished before I'm too tired to do it well. I learn a lot and over the past few years have learned so much more than I ever expected, WC is tremendously stimulating.

I get decisive when I paint. A mark is there when I've done it. Removing marks in any medium takes a lot more time and effort than just taking it for what it is and moving on, dealing with it by changing what I do next. That's just a physical fact. Anything that makes it slower and harder to finish a painting means I'm less likely to even manage to do that painting, so my reworking paintings usually isn't cost effective.

I have seen great painters brag about throwing away 19 out of 20 paintings they do. This makes me cringe. I can't count the number of times I hated something I finished, but other people loved it, and then years later I found out why and that what I thought was my worst was actually my best because I'd leaped beyond myself and intuitively practiced a principle I didn't consciously understand at the time.

The thought of wasting that much effort is horrifying too, but on body energy I'm on a budget something like a single parent of five kids working a part time Wal-Mart job. All physical activity takes five times the body energy given my skeleton, that's a limit I had from birth. I took much longer learning to walk than other children and was extremely clumsy being cross eyed on top of it, the eye operation helped but didn't change all of it.

So if I had to cross the room to get more paper, I did so five times. If I have to get out a different box of pastels, I did it five times. If I set up the easel or stand at it, I did it for five times as long and my scoliosis kicks in. Between pain and spasms, I can get too excited and push my back to where I'm stuck with days of bed rest. I have to stop at the first twinge, so slight it doesn't even register as pain, or I will pay bitterly later on.

But maybe for someone passionate and physically vigorous, brushing off a huge piece of Kitty Wallis paper 20 times till they're emotionally satisfied isn't a big deal.

I am currently trying to settle in and rearrange my life to be able to paint more, paint better, paint larger someday. That's a slow process and a good deal of it is a matter of literally rearranging furniture with the help of home care workers. I manage to paint when I can't even take a bath without help, because having help in the bath means I have some energy left to paint the next day. Literally the actions involved in scrubbing my body are sit-ups my back won't tolerate. I can manage two to wash my hair and if it ever gets so bad I can't keep that up, I'll get them shaving my head because I dislike other people washing my hair.

I live on disability for a reason. I'm hoping to get back to painting for a living, or more realistically supplementing old age Social Security by painting on the side. If I wasn't disabled at all, I would have made a good living as a painter probably from the time I was 20 and started getting cash money for little pen and ink dragon drawings. I'd have had the energy to do enough of them and most of all, paint them bigger and colorful and get to enough conventions, do the full sheet starscape and nebula beyond craggy moonscape astronomicals too, live in the sci-fi fandom but drift toward fine art on the side.

It's also screamingly funny to me to look at different art markets like the museums-gallery fine art circuit, the sci-fi fantasy fandom, the graphic novels and murals style of modern art, and see that each one has its own expectations about subject and ideas and "originality" which usually means "Do some old familiar favorite really well and be good enough at this style we can tell it's you without the signature. Share what the dragon or water lilies or mountain goat means to you."

Some people here like tough critique and most of all prefer to see flaws pointed out, because they are tired of compliments and lean toward perfectionist, get disgusted if they feel something's wrong and can't put their finger on why. Or don't trust it if it looks good.

Others blossom under the support. WC excels at both, the critique guidelines here are just broad enough to make it very comfortable for both the tough-critique "exciting challenge" crowd or those that thrive on support and encouragement. I got a lot of encouragement as a kid because sitting still made me get way ahead of any healthy child. I had the time and boredom to do it.

So what works for me may not work for you. Or it may work well for you. Please don't throw away your paintings! Just sell them to other people who like them, they may be right, they sure are for themselves and it'll make them happy. Let it go and use the money to get more paper. Remember that your worst is still way beyond what a lot of people can do at all and they'll still love it as much - just as they do still love the one they bought a decade ago that's not as good as what you do now.

There are always better painters. It's open ended. If you're up in that range you're already so specialized in your own style that the others that great are doing things you'd never think of doing, and so there's something cool to learn, including what you'll invent tomorrow. Or what happens when some chemist creates a new pigment or manufacturer an entirely new medium. There is more to learn about painting even in one medium than any one artist could learn in a human lifetime or even a dozen lifetimes because all of us are also always inventing. Art is not a zero sum game.

I think some ideas, like ranking it best and worst, are bad when applied to it because it gets so subjective and holistic. Your personal taste is going to apply to all of it and so does that of your buyer or gift recipient. Your skill at communicating with those art viewers is only going to increase, though sadly physical illness, pain and injury can reduce it. But that can be worked around. Skill can compensate for lost capacities.

I might get more detailed again if I got prescription glasses. Or I might not because I'm coming to enjoy working loose and concise. It's all fun.

What's the point of this essay? You have to judge for yourself. It's real obvious to me now that yeah, I don't do things the way other people do. What's easy for you is nearly impossible for me, but some things that would be hard for you are stone easy for me. I've had one major still life painting planned for almost a decade now and may well paint it someday - little by little by little and without actually owning any of the objects. It involves an expensive wooden sideboard, a lot of lovely crystal and glass, a mirror and a beautiful white cat sound asleep in the middle of it. Which of these things is going to destroy all the others? Guess!

If I had that stuff I sure wouldn't pose the cat in the middle of it but I may get good enough at planning paintings and rendering those objects to put it together entirely by design, capture my Siamese in the right pose, work out the reflected colors on the white fur and remember the exact hue all of it gets in the mirror because the slightly greenish glass cools everything. It'd be a fun painting. It won't be watercolor even if it'd work in watercolor because Getting Older is not going to make me more capable of stretching a full sheet of watercolor paper. Its most likely going to be pastel on sanded paper. It won't be realism. It will be impressionism.

It's simultaneously going to wow with its beauty and shock you with the thought of all that broken glass a moment later, make you want to reach in and gently catch the pitcher, pick up the kitty fast, if I do it right you will have about a 50-50 chance of saving the situation provided you know cats and that cat trusts you like your cat does. I could remove Ari from a pile of breakables on a good day and I'd move the at-risk pitcher before removing him - in that direction in case he decides it's Rowdy Cat Play Time.

But that's the fun of it. I see that paintin gin my mind and slides of it in watercolor, in oils, in oil pastels, oil sticks, oils by painting knife, pastel realism, pastel impressionism, all different ways, exist where you can't see them. And someday I'll have the skills to do it. Then sketch. Then get to work on it about once or twice a year till it's finally done. Not something I can live on, but it will get done or I'll die first. And that's how my life is shaped.

Know yourself. Know what you do and what you don't and why. Stop beating yourself up. Neither you nor your art has to be perfect. Perfection only exists in finite unliving things and art that's too perfect isn't, because good art has and shows the imperfections in life. Compensate for your barriers and weaknesses, play to your strengths and do what's right for you, because that's also where your style comes from. Past a moderate level of skill, others who know you can tell it's yours before you sign it.


  1. Well, Rob your descriptive skills are such that I'm seeing your "Cat Among the Breakables" painting and you haven't even done it yet! Of course, I also have A Cat, white, who skirts things delicately most of the time, so I know the associated fears. I like that you've found your life largely in art, that it's been good for you. My father took up art when his childhood illness (osteomylitis) shifted his farmboy ramblings to being bedbound. He, too, overcame limitations others placed on him; last thing he did before taking his last nap was to put down his sketchbook and pencil. At age 96. Keep at it - your way!

    1. Oh that is wonderful! It was inspired a decade ago by a lovely colored pencils painting of a small black cat sitting demurely in Bast pose surrounded by large breakable vases. The artist, Bet Borgeson, explained how she'd used one vase to design all the vases and put the whole thing together in her sketch to create the image. I looked at her painting and laughed. There was no way a cat would sit that perfectly among all those round rolling things without gleefully swatting or leaning on them and starting the domino crash. So I thought of my version - white cat, delicate crystal, see the pink paw pads through the crystal - and a real moment of seeing my own cat stretch and lean on a box of pastels gently shoving it toward the edge of the drafting table. Cat didn't even notice how far it was teetering, was just stretching and pressing on the box for leverage.

      But if I get it right the distance from the scene is just enough you get the jolt of maybe being able to gently catch the pitcher and remove the cat carefully! Provided she trusts you. I'll still need the right model. Some paintings get literal years of premeditation because theyre complex.

    2. And your dad rocked, that's the way to go! Too cool! I bet he sketched beautifully.

  2. Invisible diseases rob us of so much, but so many don't comprehend the theft we experience. Thank you for sharing, Rob.

    Wishing you lots of happiness in lots of little increments!

    - Barb

    1. Purr thank you. I'm having a good time here, my life's better than it's ever been because at last I have treatment for it, medicaion, home health care and not desperately moving across the country to stay with anyone who can spare a room to someone with no income. Ten years of homelessness much of it without access to my prescriptions is enough to leave me very glad to have what I do.

  3. Invisible diseases rob us of so much, but so many don't comprehend the theft we experience. Thank you for sharing, Rob.

    Wishing you lots of happiness in lots of little increments!

    - Barb

  4. I can relate to many things in your essay, Robert, especially your description of living with a disability and finding solace, joy, and a sense of accomplishment within your comfort zone. I work around physical, sometimes disabling, pain (fibro and mixed connective tissue disease), and I do not know what I would do if I could not make my art. I happen to love and appreciate small format art, so I would be the last person to lecture anyone about "going large". Simple art can be elegant, small art can make a huge statement. Your forum buddy must be a major fan of the large format!

    1. Oh very much! He's a retiree who's been improving fast over the past year, leaping right in and doing very complex still lifes and landscapes with pastels. Another dear friend thinks doing 18" x 24" is small! So there are all sorts. Some big picture artists have trouble sitting to paint small.

  5. I love the stuff you post on Wet Canvas pen and ink, and as a long retired graphic artist and writer/editor I want to politely point out that 3,033 words is simply too much for any single blog post. You write well, but must learn to express your thoughts in 500-600 words or less. A blog post of such length needs to be broken up with sub-heads as a minimum requirement. In this age of diminished attention span, your well written and highly personal thoughts will lose you readers before they cursor down. All this is written with respect.