I’m working on the painting above for a class. This photo was taken after my second pass at it. When I had finished my first pass, I took one look at it and thought ‘blech‘. I was ready to drop it, paint over it and use the board again. Then I realized something…
Hating the piece gave me permission to be reckless.
Suddenly I felt totally free. I couldn’t wreck this piece – it was already awful! I could do anything, try anything. I felt like a little kid with big messy markers who just wanted to go for it! Scribble, scribble! Glop, glop! If I was going to paint over it anyway, why not experiment? And that thought revealed the second gift of creating a piece you don’t like.
Let the unloved piece be your teacher.
The feeling of disliking our own work is so uncomfortable that we mostly want to just walk away. We want to forget we made anything so hideous! We’re afraid of what it means about us. We’re afraid it signals to ourselves and, now that it’s visible, to others that we’re not artists at all. We’ve been fooling ourselves. I mean… look at it!! Would an artist get it so completely wrong?!? The answer is yes. Artists get it wrong all the time and one piece is never the sum total of you. If you can calm your nervous system and not believe its hype, a piece you don’t like can be a tremendous teacher.
With this piece the turning point for me came when I showed the work to my sister Shannon, who I know to be a perfectly safe person to discuss my bad art with. I was able to talk out what I thought wasn’t working and find my way back in.
Here are some questions for when you don’t like a piece:
- What specifically isn’t working?
- What might be a resolution for that? (Bonus points if you try it!)
- What do you like?
- How can you build on that?
Give It Time
Sometimes we may need a break to really see our work. First, to soothe and remind ourselves that all is well and our artist’s life is not over because of this piece. Second, to give ourselves perspective. Artist Lynda Barry says it best, “There’s the drawing you are trying to make and the drawing that is actually being made – and you can’t see it until you forget what you are trying to do.” What would be different if you let the work be what it is?
Honour the Work
Honestly, I always feel uncomfortable when we generate ill will towards our work, like we’re berating a child for not living up to our expectations.* It also seems to me that it’s going to frighten away the next piece. I mean, who would want to arrive to that kind of reception?
I’m certainly not saying that you have to like all of your work. I sure don’t like all of mine, the above piece included. But I do believe that in order to move forward as an artist, to find our way and our work, we must respect each piece for what it is – maybe our teacher, maybe a step, maybe something whose value we are yet to discover.
Instead of chucking out your piece with despair, anger or frustration, ask yourself what creating it has contributed to your artistic journey, offer it your sincere gratitude and then go ahead and bin it!
(Note: This is originally from my Sunday morning Letters from the Studio. Subscribe here if you want inspiration, Studio news and discounts!)