Hello world! Welcome to my blog. I hope to make this a place where you can find inspiration, drive, or a place of understanding where you are not alone in your creative process.
I want to start off with a topic dear to my heart, failure. Something we have all dealt with, something that's crippled me at times, and other times has turned into my ultimate tool for growth.
There are some lessons that, as artists, we have to learn and re-learn repeatedly. I had one instance recently, while working on a piece that turned out to be an utter failure.
Many of us know all too well the disappointment when a piece doesn’t live up to our expectations. We go through the cycle of conceiving it in our minds; inspired, we start creating the finished work. Somehow, the shadowy concept of our newest piece is always immaculate in our minds, devoid of flaws. This time, we are going to make something really great.
This optimism is often dashed once it’s finished (or halfway finished), and we realize it’s fallen short of our perfect mental image.
I talk frequently about this part of an artists’ process, because it’s so vital to our practice. It’s a moment of pain and self-doubt, where the mind is presented with three different options for coping and moving forward; of the three, the one we choose has a massive effect on our future work.
The three potential responses in that moment:
The first: you’re despondent, unable to see beyond the piece’s failures, you need to set your work aside for a while in order to build up your self-confidence again. You jump into the next piece only after having hidden (or destroyed) the failed piece, seeing it as a indictment of your skills. Because you can’t stand to face the work, you don’t learn from it.
I would argue this is by far the most common reaction.
The second: you convince yourself it’s not bad, focus on what you did great, and tell yourself you’re an amazing artist. You fail to learn from the piece and just jump into the next one, making the same mistake over and over again.
The third: you have a more distant perspective on your work, a calculated one in which you measure the piece against your longterm visual goals. You take a minute to brush yourself off from disappointment, then study the piece and see where you fell short. You do follow-up work, determined to learn from your mistakes and apply that learning to your next piece. You improve.
I’m sure you can guess which option I find most effective. But I don’t want to lie to you guys and say I’ve had this process down pat for a while, either. I remember preparing for a show a couple years ago, and I was so upset about this piece, I wanted to call in sick to the opening because I couldn’t handle the thought of standing next to it. Of course, I went in and smiled like I’m supposed to, but on the inside I was burning with shame because of how much I disliked what I had made (by the way, the piece didn’t sell, the gallery dropped me later on, and I cried a lot for a bit).
The urge to beat yourself up for your failures will never go away. You just learn to cope better, with practice.
Why are we so hard on ourselves?
Fundamentally, I believe the first reaction is most common because most of us struggle with self-compassion. We see the work as an indictment of ourselves; after all, it came purely from us, how could we not?
Art is difficult because, in the words of the book Art and Fear, it “helps you see the gap between what you intended to do, and what you actually did”. There is something profoundly painful about trying your absolute best, and failing… To the point where people will spend their whole lives only putting half the effort in, just to protect themselves (“I could do it if I wanted to”). And sadly, they never do - just because they are afraid of letting themselves down.
But have you noticed that approaches one and two, different as they are, both are driven by ego?
Even despondency and self-hate are still about you; the third approach is the only one where you take yourself out of it, and focus instead on your creative goal.
At it’s heart, self-compassion is about “getting yourself out of the way”, it’s about accepting where you are, and not expecting to magically circumvent the process of improvement. It’s about saying “I am enough, where I am”, and turning back to the work to try to see what growth and lessons you can take from it.
It’s important to remember that no one is exempt from the hard work required to make profound art. Even people you perceive as “talented”, I promise you - they have made 10,000 failures before they got where they are now.
To get where we want to go visually, we must be willing to meet ourselves, where we are right now; it’s only through self-compassion and acceptance that we can learn to be honest with ourselves about our work, and what we want from it.