Hill of Self Doubt

There are times when I want to pursue making art, I want to say something that will make people feel energized, or curious, or poignant…but I can’t get out of my own way. This malaise can go on for days. Among my excuses:

” I can’t find my favorite paint brush that I like to use for this kind of oil painting so I guess I’ll wait until I can find it before I start to paint.”

“That ancient sugar maple tree that I want to paint is too complicated. I’ll never get it right.”

“I really ought to clean this stove first, then I’ll paint.”

“The sun has gone down, I can’t see the colors properly so I am going to have to wait till daylight tomorrow!”

“I’m worn out from thinking about this. I’ll take a nap, then paint.”

Hah! That’s just silly. These excuses are a distraction. For me, what a dry spell is really about is the steep Hill of Self Doubt, which I often need to climb before I can get into the rhythm of making art.

Steep Hill of Self Doubt ACDibble photo
Steep Hill of Self Doubt, photo by Alison C. Dibble

I know the secret to overcome my own trepidations. Just start in. Paint as though nothing matters more on this day. Pick up that brush, put some paint out, and go for it. Suspend the expectation that the end product is going to satisfy me, focus instead on the process.

I had the privilege of co-leading a workshop on sketching recently. Our participants ranged from professional artists to beginners who haven’t drawn for years. A goal for the workshop was to give people a sense of confidence in pursuing their own art. While preparing for this workshop, I contemplated my own motivation, and I had a realization that has continued to resonate.

For many years I was frustrated with my own drawings and paintings. I couldn’t please myself, and I had to either give up, or find help. I was lucky to connect with teachers who helped me realize that making art is like many human activities. If you are to become facile with painting (or playing the violin, or solving chemical equations), you must put in the time, study, hard work, discipline and practice.

Thanks to my teachers, now I can look back at earlier work. With just a glance I know what I must do to improve a painting. Or, it could be a candidate for the burn pile! (But to be ecologically conscious, I try to fix it before I arrive at the Final Solution.) And when I’m about to start on a new series, I know I must develop many sketches, and identify my questions ahead of time. I can’t expect that my off-the-cuff interpretations will be an appropriate foundation for what I will learn when working my way through the series. One thing about climbing a hill: the way to the top is a toil, but at the top there will be a view, and on the way down, there is the advantage of gravity. So when I see that Hill of Self Doubt looming in front of me, I’ve learned to lean toward it, and pick up the brush regardless of my excuses.

You can see some of the results on my web page.

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