One of the most difficult aspects of painting is measuring success. Of course there are the easy methods like how many sales you've had this month, the number of likes you received on the latest social media post, and so on. Those are okay but not a reliable measuring stick as to how your art is improving or deteriorating.
Here's a list for how most measure their success at the easel.
- The quality and quantity of finished art.
- How many rejects they're creating.
- What others are saying about their work.
- How many likes it receives on social media.
- Does it look exactly like the picture, or inspiration image.
Can you see the problem here?
All of these ideas are short-sighted! Success is measured in the moment, and even worse, based on what others think.
There are two areas where I measure success.
In no way am I suggesting that everyone must think as I do. These are just guidelines that have helped me along my creative journey.
Trajectory - In what direction is the art really headed? North, or South? This is often difficult to measure so let me explain what I'm talking about.
It doesn't take much skill to carefully paint a good piece of art. But what's really going on here? Was it created with luck, or on a house of cards? Or, is it created with experience, knowledge and good painting skills?
The Internet is littered with 'paint a sunset along with me' videos. It's no wonder most work out there is trite and lacks personality. This type of learning doesn't necessarily develop an individuals talent.
But many settle for this type of trickery because the painting somehow represents achievement. This is okay perhaps for newbies, but if you're not a beginner it's unacceptable. You may as well be painting by numbers, or coloring in a coloring book.
At some point you have to jump off the bandwagon and start thinking and creating for yourself. When you're on your own with no one there to guide you along it's kind of lonely. And this is where many will hit a wall!
That's because little or no attention has been spent on building foundational skills, developing good habits, techniques, and exploring ideas and methods outside the comfort zone. The focus is only the finished product.
Developing foundational skills will ensure that you are moving upward and forward.
And more importantly they will prevent you from crashing! Time invested here will eliminate the common mistakes and save you hours of heart-ache. Truthfully it's the only way to become independent and brave the art-world on your own.
If you continuously build a strong base for things that matter like composition, design, the various drawing skills(there are many), value, tone, gestural painting, color studies then you will eventually become a self-reliant artist! That's much more powerful than copying what someone is doing.
It's perfectly fine to gather fresh ideas and techniques from others but eventually you have to make them your own. And that means bending what you already know with a twist of new techniques.
The fact is most painters have weak infrastructures. And when it collapses it's difficult to know what went wrong. If the artist had experience with developing quality fundamentals it's much easier to make necessary changes and shifts in the workflow.
That's because they have a wealth of exercises and resources to draw from. When an artist tries to be clever and skip this stage it's impossible to know where to begin. This is what starts a major meltdown!
The Journey - This one is a bit more complicated but I'll do my best to describe what it means.
The road one travels to become great at anything is long and full of challenges. If it were easy everyone would be great! And that's just not reality so let's not paint a picture where everyone's a winner.
Perhaps I can explain this better if I share some of my journey with you.
When I first began painting it was at a time in my life when everything around me collapsed. My relationships were terrible, I didn't eat well or spend time on my health, I worked 70 plus hours a week chasing money and quite frankly wasn't happy. My life was unbalanced and no amount of profit was going to change my life.
Eventually I walked away from the business in order to get my life back on track. I made a promise to myself to have a weekly routine where I get in touch with loved ones, and not just join the gym but to commit to a schedule where I worked out 3-4 days a week. I started eating much healthier and spending time walking and reflecting on the person I had become. And more importantly the person I wanted to be.
Art filled a void. Hours were spent painting. It was an emotional release for a lot of pent-up anger and stress. It helped me through some tough times and eventually I fell in love with it.
Flash forward fifteen years and I'm still painting.
Along the wat I've had a few lulls and perhaps got ahead of myself at times. But somehow I always bounced back and have continued my passion for painting.
Looking back on my art over that period of time has created some incredible memories. Some are triumphant while others are littered with pain.
I can remember vacations to Maine where I packed my art supplies and spent the mornings painting lobster boats along the harbor. Summer afternoons sketching in Richmond, Virginia. Painting cow farms in Suffolk amidst a quiet backdrop of birds and warm Spring breezes.
There were hard times when creating art seemed impossible. Even drawing a stick figure was challenging. I took weeks off when nothing worked so that I could spend time just looking at all the inferior paintings. Trying desperately to find solutions to what was amiss.
There are moments of excitement when I received a huge commission from The Kentucky Derby, an order of new art supplies, having my painting in sitcoms and so on. The joy of opening a jar of cadmium orange, the sheer beauty of Cobalt blue, and the 10 packs of crisp, white watercolor paper.
Then there are times where I'm sitting in a restaurant and I can't stop looking at my environment for the next big thing. Will it be a series of chefs in the kitchen, the people huddled around the table drinking wine and having a conversation? Will it be a nocturnal scene that piqued my interest on the way home?
Over time the lasting impressions start to pile up.
My art isn't about finished paintings, it's about my life. The landscapes represent places I've lived and visited, the abstract cows reflect the time spent plein air painting, the old work boats are connected to time spent commercial fishing. I can see how other artists have influenced my style over the years. It's all there.
These days art puts a roof over my head, allows me quality time to spend with my wife and children, gives me four trips to the gym every week to focus on my health and much more. This is all part of my art journey.
Measuring success is as much about dedication and hard work as it is about the journey. I trust that building quality fundamentals will help keep my work moving in an upward trajectory. The journey is full of adventure, challenges, and new beginnings. These things continue to reward me every day.
When I look at my work from the time I picked up a paintbrush in 2000 to 2019 I see a ton of success. I can look at shorter periods from 2005 to 2008 and see improvement as well.
However, if I look at what I did last week and compare it to yesterday's work I can't see any difference. The things I'm working on now will reward me months, if not years, from now. I trust the process and follow through on whatever it is I'm focusing on. And I'm not so naive to think that improvement will happen today.
So, don't get caught up in the moment. Progress is best seen on a much longer timeline. Remember that short term thinking is very fragile and unreliable. One painting doesn't define success, or failure. Creating quality art is only sustainable if you have rock-solid fundamentals and an amazing journey to back it up!
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