As an artist the biggest challenge to me is to not repeat myself. The best work is still tomorrow’s work, not the past
The art of activating the canvas and bringing your painting to life with your own personal lexicon of mark making, expressive gestures and brushwork is nothing short of miraculous.
To create authentic and alive abstract paintings that are unique to you and your own vision is the ultimate attainment for an artist and yet the most elusive.
One issue is that you can get stuck repeating what’s worked before in your work. Another issue is trying to recreate what you love about other artists’ work.
I’ve found myself in both situations. When I finished my residency in psychiatry at Stanford I became fascinated with abstract painting. I felt that it was a mirror into the artist’s inner world, a potent and unique personal expression of the artist.
I loved attending museums and galleries that featured abstract artists, in particular abstract expressionist work. I admired the museum exhibitions with works of Cy Twombley, Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler. I’d feel excited to go home and try to create paintings as raw, immediate and expressive as theirs! I wanted to paint works that astonished me. I wanted my art to mean something.
I wanted to breathe life into my paintings
The day I finished my residency in psychiatry I started creating abstract paintings. I didn’t know what I was doing but I’ve come to learn that this is a good thing. Saying this brings to mind the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind where Shunryu Suzuki said “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” Cultivating an open mind and maintaining the teachable spirit of a beginner is a potent practice for artists at every stage of development.
Being An Artist Is About ‘Not Knowing’
One of the things I’ve learned on this journey is that being an artist is about continually evolving. It’s about searching and finding your way as you create. It’s about experimentation.
Artists are continually stepping into the unknown and seeing what bubbles up from the unconscious. As an artist you’re facing the perils of creating on a daily basis: self doubt, vulnerability, inner criticism, second guessing, overthinking and procrastination to name a few.
As an artist you know you’ve got to be willing to face the dark night of the soul every time you go into your studio. You understand that cultivating an attitude of experimentation is vital to your development. You’re aware that in order to create your deepest work you’ve got to be willing to paint an “ugly painting” because this is often the nascent form of emerging work to be discovered.
And yet the tendency is to fall back into patterns that’ve worked before
We know that as artists we’ve got to keep pushing the envelope, keep searching, keep experimenting in order to evolve and be able to create works that astonish us and yet we can easily devolve into repeating what’s worked before in our paintings.
One artist I know described this as copying herself. I think we keep doing what we’ve done before because it worked or garnered approval. We want to create successful paintings that we love. The path with the grooved ruts is familiar and we fear branching off into unknown territory lest we get lost and our paintings become an ugly, chaotic mess.
We can create a series of paintings and continue evolving the work. There’s a difference between creating a series where each piece is emerging and informs or is related to another piece versus repeating yourself because you’re afraid.
The underbelly of creating a painting or a series of paintings that you love is that you might begin to fear that your next work won’t live up to these illustrious ones. I think this is especially true when you’ve received critical acclaim or when you’ve sold out most of your show or when friends begin liking your work.
You start to play it safe and stay within the bounds of the familiar and before you know it you’re creating the next painting in a way that’s barely distinguishable from the last one.
What’s the risk of copying what’s worked in your art?
We can become stuck in a place of trying to recreate what’s worked in our own work as well as other artists’ work. I think we go through a life cycle as artists where we feel inspired by other artist’s work and we try to create something like that but ultimately this feels derivative or flat. We end up feeling ungratified and bored.
The issue is that you want to create and share work that’s uniquely yours. You want to feel like a real artist where your work comes from inside of you, from your own source.
The problem is you want to finally make work that comes from YOU and the challenge is you’re not quite sure how to do that and you’re here because you want to make that shift.
We can talk about techniques for exploration, experimentation, and shaking things up in order to get out of your rut but the deeper issue that affects everything is your inner landscape, your mindset.
Let’s go deep into the one inner shift that is essential for creating deep and personal art
Let me walk you through a foundational piece threading through all of my work with artists over the years. Follow along and you’ll see that you have the ability to express your own personal marks and gestures. You have your own signature, your own lexicon as an artist.
This secret of the one inner shift is something I learned years ago from my teacher but I forgot about it…only to relearn it again when I started creating abstract paintings
When I was 32 I’d just finished 7 years of internship, residency and fellowship training as a physician and literally the day I finished my psychiatry training I said to myself: “I’m going to study sculpture”.
I wanted to take lessons privately because I’d never had a formal art class. I searched for a teacher and found a 69 year old sculptor named Adrienne Duncan who agreed to teach me at her home studio.
I called Adrienne with trepidation and said: “Adrienne, I don’t know what I’m doing”.
She said: “Great!”
That was the moment I knew I’d found my teacher.
Before I tell you the rest of the story I’d like to guide you through an exercise. I call this the Six Maquette Exercise. You’ll need paper (I like to use a 22″ x 30″ sheet of watercolor paper but any size is fine) a pencil, paint or marker and a brush if you’re using paint.
I’d like you to take a piece of paper of any size and mark off 6 boxes or rectangles on the paper. It doesn’t have to be perfect or measured. Just create 6 boxes or rectangles on your paper.
Now, without thinking, without editing, without censoring yourself, make six moves or marks in each box or rectangle with your pencil, paint or marker. Do it quickly. Don’t think. Make your marks and get out of there!
Now step back and look at your sheet of paper with your spontaneous marks.
I submit to you that these are your marks. These are your gestures. This is your lexicon. This is your personal signature. These marks will thread through everything you do, through all of your work.
So back to the story of my first art lesson. I learned the most important thing of all in that first lesson. I learned to trust myself and to understand that my true expression, the expression beyond thinking and strategizing, is unique to me.
I want this for you too. I want you to experience the uniqueness of your own gestures that comes from the brilliance, experience and the mystery that’s in your body.
In the first lesson with Adrienne I brought in a 50 pound bag of clay. The opening salvo of that first lesson is etched in my mind.
Adrienne instructed me: “Reach in and grab 6 clumps of clay. Now make 6 moves on each clump of clay. Don’t think . Just do it!”
I quickly made 6 moves on 6 clumps of clay.
And just as I’m saying to you today, Adrienne said to me that day: “These are your moves, your gestures. These moves will thread through all your work”.
I never forgot that lesson.
Adrienne’s words have rung true. My initial moves can be seen in all my sculptures over the years.
And I believe that you have your moves, your gestures, your personal lexicon and signature that is unlike anyone else’s in the world.
What we’re talking about here reaches even deeper still…
We’re talking about a more personal and authentic expression of YOU in your art
We’re talking about the holy grail of painting which is the one inner shift to creating paintings that are immediate, wondrous and alive.
This one mindset shift is the thing that will open you up to experimentation, exploration, playfulness, risk taking, searching, finding your way as you create, allowing yourself to step into a place of ‘not knowing’.
It will open you up to wonder. It will help you create raw, spontaneous and intuitive work that delights and astonishes you. It will open channels of creativity and guide you in evolving your work by allowing your expression to come through, including the “ugly” work. It will teach you to value all of your work even the orphaned off pieces that are unfamiliar or uncomfortable.
What is this one inner shift? What is this holy grail?
The holy grail of creating is trusting yourself
This is where your deepest work comes from. This is the most important mindset shift that will affect not just your art but your life. This is the secret to creating your most personal and authentic art.
Stay tuned for more on trusting yourself. In the meantime, if you’d like to explore further the concept of trusting yourself as you create and begin to experiment with mark making in your studio, pair this post with my new introductory course Activating The Canvas. You can read about it here as well as see an example video from the course on Creating 6 Maquettes. Get started activating the canvas and creating abstract art.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about exploring, experimenting and trusting yourself in your studio practice. Please share this post with your friends.
Thank you from my studio to yours!
Also published on Medium.