A common characteristic linking the activities of all creatives, whether writers, composers, or visual artists, is that there are virtually never any certainties. Our tools and materials are probably the only true constant we will ever have, although even this cannot always be relied on. Whatever our individual approach, working conditions are rarely just as we would like them and, are we ever really certain about what we are trying to say, or are we likely to ever be entirely satisfied with what we might ultimately produce?
Such apprehension is inevitably part of any creative process, so it is essential that we all learn to adapt to it in our own way. For me, this can sometimes make painting feel like a delicate balancing act, hovering between achieving something that might bring me somewhere near to my original expectations, on the one hand, to complete disappointment and frustration on the other. There are, of course, those rare occasions when we may produce, ‘milestone’ paintings, images that feel somehow to turn out completely ‘right’, seeming to surpass anything we may have produced before. But all too often this is short lived because, in my experience, uncertainty and unpredictability remain the dominating factors. At best, this can serve as a catalyst to open up new and possibly untried approaches, that may never have been considered, had we have remained within the safety of the well tried and tested. At worst, these knock backs to our expectations can overwhelm us and lead towards despondency and possibly even into ‘blank canvas syndrome’, the artists’ equivalent of ‘writers’ block’.
So how might we get ourselves through these rather bleak periods? In reality, our perceived difficulties are all in the mind and can be the result of a multitude of influences, however, retaining a positive outlook under such circumstances can be very hard. Interestingly an article in a recent issue of ‘The Society of Authors Newsletter’ put forward the suggestion that psychological therapy could help writers who might be suffering from such problems. Not surprisingly, it was written by a psychologist and whether this might be a worthwhile route for visual artists, would have to be a matter of individual choice. But what struck me in particular was that such feelings were being seen as a form of disorder, which would benefit from professional intervention, rather than something to be expected as an inevitable part of the creative process. Although the road we travel as artists is rarely straight and probably includes several cul-de-sacs along the way, it has lead us to where we are now, for better, or worse and is the culmination of everything we have done before. The writer Alan Bennett puts this rather more poignantly by suggesting that our ‘style’ of work is, “simply the sum of our defects.”
When we get stuck, more than likely, it has something to do with changes in our working methods, or approach, because logically if we apply the same processes again it should work out, as with those times when we are very productive. I have come to realise that the most effective way for me to deal with these disheartening times is to paint my way out of them. Whilst other artists I know recommend cleaning the car, or going for a walk to clear their heads, I have never found this to be anything other than a temporary respite, because the problem is still there when I come back. Also, any amount of soul searching only serves to increase my inner doubts and, in truth, this can often make things worse. So as a way of getting myself back to feeling good about what I was doing, I put the work to one side: fully accept my situation: never question it: see it as a temporary impasse and I then set myself a different, well defined painting exercise that I produce in a well tried and tested way.
The example below, ‘Come Not Between the Dragon and his Wrath’, depicting the Shakespearean character King Lear, was painted ostensibly as a means of getting me through a period of despondency, when my enthusiasm for what I had been doing had evaporated and I found myself at a standstill. Although the intricacies of portraiture can be difficult, it is an ideal subject because the determinants are clear and the technical challenges of trying to create a lifelike image, with everything in the right place, require my complete concentration, coupled with a methodical approach. To enable me to see the subject in a more abstract way, as shapes and patterns, I painted it upside down, which also prevented me from becoming too distracted by the individual features. The focusing effect of the process is, itself, usually enough to restore the positive mindset from which I have temporarily strayed, which then allows me to be more objective about what I was originally doing and see it with a fresh eye. Maybe this suggestion is rather more analytical than creative, so could the psychologist have a point, when all is lost, maybe a bit of self-analysis can do some good? Or maybe I am advocating a more technical remedy, rather like a musician going back to practicing scales to improve his creative technique, or even a novelist attempting to sharpen his wit by temporarily turning to writing limericks. “There was an young man called Blair….……” On but that’s definitely another story.