View Full Version : What do you do when everything is falling flat?

04-29-2014, 08:06 AM
Hi all

I've been doing pastels for about 18 months. Up until recently, I didn't have a problem with either inspiration, motivation, or subject matter. And, silly me, thought I never would. But recently I've been producing rubbish - several in succession. I haven't posted in a while because of this, and have thrown the last 3 out because they seemed so unworkable or salvagable, (something I thought I would never do), and am deeply disappointed with what I'm producing at the moment. Yet my subject matter hasn't changed, nor technique. I feel like my skills have gone backwards.

To add context, recently my fiance generously offered to get professionally framed and hang on the wall any two of my paintings. I chose the two I thought were the best, and I also know he likes them. They look even better matted and framed than I ever thought they would. I look at one of them and don't believe it was actually me who produced it - I feel so incompetent now compared to that work of a year ago. I found myself resisting doing any pastel work. In order to break this, I had a break for a week where I stopped doing pastels and just did whatever I felt like. I did a silly watercolour, a watercolour pencil that made me wonder why did I ever spend what I did on the pencils, and a miniature pastel that seemed easy (wasn't), but my fiance said he liked anyway (as good spouses do). I really wanted to do an oil painting, but didn't, because I didn't have enough 'technical' knowledge on oils, and I didn't want to slow down the creative process by having to learn about oils again (used once, I know nothing of them).

I then prepared a whole lot of outlines ready to go (I do this to avoid procrastination or saying I don't have anything to work on). This proved temporarily inspiring - having many paintings I could potentially just pick up and colour. I started on one again - enthusiastically - have only got an 1/8 through and once again I think it looks like rubbish. So my questions are: is this a normal part of artistic 'development'? Why am I producing work that is not as good as 12 months ago, even though I haven't really stopped painting? Is this just part of the process? How do I get over this feeling of disgust - something I've not ever had -for my work? Not that I ever thought it was great, I could always see fault, but I didn't feel real disgust like I do now. I feel myself pulling away from pastels, and art, yet I am not ever really in a good space unless I've 'done' some art for the day. Can anyone shed some light or offer suggestions?

04-29-2014, 09:37 AM
Yes, completely normal. In some cases, the more we learn, the more we have to go backwards and re-learn in order to go forward. And there are plateaus and, yes, struggles and dips.

You could also be doing too much. Art every day can easily cause burnout. Don't paint because you feel you have to. Only paint when you want to.

Some thoughts (that you can ignore). Don't prepare paintings by creating outline drawings. Try something different and begin by blocking out the large shapes. Then do the entire painting in one sitting if possible. Try some different subjects - doing the same subject over and over can easily cause burnout and a loss of enthusiasm. Try different papers or different techniques. In my experience, my best paintings occur when I approach a painting as if it is an experiment in some way. If I think about the outcome - the outcome is lousy!

And don't worry about posting or potential critiques you might get here on WC! There can be a lot of pressure to produce "masterpieces" when you become more experienced in painting. As Degas said, "Painting is easy when you don't know how, but very difficult when you do!"

Again, each person is different - so feel free to ignore my comments!


04-29-2014, 10:40 AM
Sage words from Don.

Donna, what you think is rubbish might be a winning painting. We can't be objective about our own work.

But that feeling that everything turns out worse than before, it might be that you're on the brink of stepping up a level. It might take a while, even months, though.

Do you paint more difficult paintings now, those that are slightly beyond your present level? That is one possibility. Just continue to choose more difficult scenes, and maybe rest with an easy one now and then.

Another equally common possiblitiy is that the paintings are too easy and your brain simply doesn't pay attention enough while you paint. The cure for that is to brave more difficult scenes.

And I find that playing with another medium does help. Just having fun with art, no pressure.

04-29-2014, 03:45 PM
This sounds like a mood thing and a tilt of judgment. If it's true that your current paintings aren't as good, that may be a sign of burnout and a need to change subject or medium or reason for drawing or something. Learn something new that takes you out of what is obviously no longer a comfort zone.

I had one point when I really was producing a lot of works lousier than previous ones. I was also overtired and overworked, stressed about making the rent, doing so on art and painting with the focus of "What will sell" instead of "What do I feel like doing?" I wasn't paying attention and didn't produce any that I wanted to keep.

I wound up stopping altogether for some time and then found a situation doing something completely different which paid better and revived my emotional conection with art. The market for my previous style was drying up for factors that the fans just hadn't had any spending money - economy changes. But the market for pastel portraits was very good and I tried it at the start of the best season, with instant success and no transportation costs. I'd been paying for a lot of travel and hotel stays before making the rent on the previous celebrity portraits.

The change to pastel was also learning something I knew intellectually and NEVER had tried.

I got sloppier at the detailed pencil renderings and technical pen ink drawings, made early level mistakes in them but people were saying "it's technically perfect and lacks emotion" because they were impressed with the amount of detail and didn't spot the errors. I didn't spot the real problem with them till much later when I checked proportions. It was a good thing I was doing prints and Xeroxes of them to know that the "Technical perfect and no feeling" was actual "errors of sloppiness and taking short cuts on measuring to get more done and thus sell more." They didn't sell as well because they weren't as good and no one had spending money, a vicious cycle.

Suddenly with pastels I could finish in less than an hour, with very little detail, just key details. I had been moving toward working looser with all the sloppy mistakes. But still detailing like a tight style - those rest on very accurate small measurements. In pastel the errors were literally too small to see and I sketched much bolder and looser, blended more, got expressive and the money problem was solved.

While learning something that's hard, for me loosening up, for you it could be anything from perspective to color to value to whatever, I'd have to see your last-year paintings and new ones to see if I can find any pattern to the changes. But I think if I had those old portfolios now I could sort out and see in the wrecks exactly what principle I was close to grasping and then wound up leaping into by necessity on the pastels.

Try doing stuff that's simpler than your usual subjects. Really simple studies. Lots of little ones that are experiments. Back up to doing some exercises of one sort or another. Try things from books even if they're things you already learned. Playing with other mediums is good.

There is this point of learning where you Got It in mind and especially seeing other people's paintings, but not in your own because eyes and hands haven't learned what the mind knows yet. You're probably right on the edge of a major discovery that's a leap forward, it's an intensely painful self conscious spot. Don't trash your works, no matter how they feel to you. They could be a lot better than you think they are, or easily fixed later on when you understand what went wrong.

Other discoveries of mine that were preceded by "my work is lousy and I don't know why, it's driving me nuts" include:

Making sure all the shadows in a drawing or painting are going the right direction instead of some shadows coming the wrong way, even if working from life or a photo.

Color harmony and handling Green - a breakthrough that came in Colorix's class on Still Life the Colourful Way.

Cat Face proportions as a child.

Human face proportions when I first started doing portraits, up till then I'd only done reptiles, animals and trees without tracing.

Composition, which took me the longest time except for portraits which I just borrowed it. I looked at the portrait photos from professionals and chose the same layout and approximate head size and lighting because if I copied a professional, it'd come out good. It worked but did not leave me any understanding of composition. That came much later.

The times when I felt like that usually came when - something else in life really distracted me from art and I was getting frustrated with results in another sense, a market slump or a school class that I had artistic differnces with. Also because I was learning something that came difficult and was almost on the verge of applying it.

Currently that something is sky holes in trees. I get it intellectually and I get creating contours by carving in from the negative space, but I still forget to do it and so my trees are still all solid blocks of topiary, not lacy living foliage out in the world. They may be well shaped but someone got at them with the clippers before the painting. I will change this! I'm close to getting it, at least I know what I should do even if these little animals on the ends of my wrists don't get it yet.

So take heart and don't throw your transitional stuff away. It's probably better than you think or easily improved. Pastels especially are very easy to rework compared to some other mediums.

04-29-2014, 03:48 PM
Also DAK is right about trying Blocking In and adding detail later rather than doing prepared outline drawings. Those work better for tight detailed realism. Blocking in pastel paintings allows a lot more flexibility and control in later stages. Even if you go for tight realism in the final stage it's a good thing.

I am of course, still telling myself this but so far I've managed it only a couple of times, not yet in pastels.

The pencil drawing of a rose that I did in my Art Journals thread was blocked in before I did the details and that did place it better on the page than some other ones. But not the CP one or the Pan Pastels one, I just did that loose by sketching shadows and keeping them scaled to each other by visual measuring. I will get used to blocking in some time, dang it! But I don't always remember to.

It's a cool thing. Whatever it is that you're building up to a breakthrough, it becomes an insane joy once you get it and a thrill I don't think can be had from any other pleasure in life than learning arts.

04-30-2014, 11:08 PM
Thank you Don and Charlie for your comments and suggestions, they were helpful.
Rob, thank you for your insight, much of what you said resonated with me. I had not made the association between my outer life and the possibility of it affecting my art; usually I am very aware if I am feeling down or 'off' and not interested in painting due to external influences. But your story resonates and you may have hit on something. It is possible that my life circumstances at the moment are affecting my art but I haven't made that association or connection clearly enough.

This is just me telling a story because I've no one to talk to, and perhaps by writing it out I can get some insight.

In February last year I lost my job. The week after, I met my now fiance, who was a friend from the past. At first I didn't mind that I had lost my job, I mean I did Ė being unemployed is a hazard -but I also saw some benefit to it- it gave me time to do art and also establish the relationship, something that I would not have had the time or energy for had I not lost the job.

It was from March last year, a month after I lost the job and establishing a new relationship that my work turned a corner and improved dramatically. However due to the job loss I was unable to pay my CCs anymore Ė and like many people in this situation, I used them to pay bills while I looked for work, but this snowballed into huge debt, which I am still unable to pay and itís now a serious situation. It makes my stomach churn everytime I think about it.

Anyway toward the end of last year my housemate moved out which left me with no one to help pay the rent, so I was facing homelessness as well as unemployment. Except my partner at the time finished a job he was on, and funnily enough he came home exactly the same day that my house-mate moved out, and my partner kindly relieved some pressure by helping with some bills and promised me that as long as he was around, I would not be out on the street. He upheld that promise, and, not seeing the sense in paying rent for a place when I didnít have any need to be in that location because I didnít have a job or outstanding commitments, and because he owned his own house, it made sense not to be paying someone elseís mortgage by paying rent, rather than his own.

So in February 2 months ago he moved me to his house. It is in a regional town, I am no longer in the city. I donít mind, I like it here. However, job opportunities are far fewer. Up until recently, he had a lull in work for a few months and we spent most of this time together, Ďnestingí. We love being together. And I set up a great spot in the house to do art. I loved nothing more than to do art inside while he worked in his shed outside, then prepare a meal and share time together. I loved that parallel play, togetherness, nesting.

We were lucky to have those months together given all the seperations last year. It was the best, happiest of times for me, being with him and doing day to day stuff. But last week his work took him away again, as is the nature of his work. Although he is coming home for the weekend, this project will be going on for some weeks like this, and after that I donít know where he will be planted or for how long. Most of last year when were courting, he was away. So every time we saw each other it was really exciting and emotional. But I craved the steady, day to day stuff, and we fortunately got that when he had a few months over Xmas where there was not a lot of work going on, or the work he did get was close to home so he was home every evening, like most couples do.

But back then, last year, when we had these huge seperations, I was in my own home (even though it was rented) I had some familiarity with my city, and I could see my mother or call a friend or whatever if I got lonely. I still hated the separation. Some of my best artwork happened when I visited him on location and because I had nothing else to do all day or to distract me, all I did was sit in a hotel room and do art and computer stuff.So I produced some of my better work when I had no other distractions during the day and he would be back in the evening.

But here, in this new place, now Iíve become aware of feeling very lonely. Not that I had many friends in my old home, but I am new in a town where I donít know anyone. I tend towards introversion anyway, so I find it harder to push myself to go to things. Though I know this is what I have to do. I donít have a job to go to, so thereí s no structure for my day other than anything I give it. When I look at the jobs advertised, my skills donít match. I donít even know if I want to work in an office anymore, or do what I did before. I had a bad experience with workplace bullying in my last job. And I feel burned from being made redundant.

Yesterday I emailed my former manager asking if he would be a reference for me, in case I get a job, but he has not responded. I donít think he will. Itís not that I did a bad job Ė he liked my work and always promised he would give me a good referenceĖ but he went off the rails and left a few months before I lost my job. Thatís well over 18 months, now. He was the only one there who could vouch for my work, but prior attempts to make contact have failed, he just doesnít respond. I just think he doesnít want anything to do with anyone from that organisation anymore (as I said, he went paranoid and off the rails). This leaves me stuck as I donít have a work reference. Not having a work reference means no one can verify my prior experience or work ethic. I donít know what to do career-wise. I would like to study but I keep changing my mind what I would like to study. I fear failing.

Whenever he was away, I would not drink. I would only drink when we were together. We would share a bottle of wine during the evening. But I wanted that to be an 'us' thing, so I wouldn't drink when he was away. But this last week I have been drinking alone at night just to get myself through. Drinking too much all for the wrong reasons. I feel the pain of his absence, and I feel I shouldnít be feeling this way, that I should be more independent. I can't talk to him about it because it makes him cross - he says he feels bad because there isn't anything he can do about it. He needs to feel that I am coping. Otherwise he just worries and it affects his job. And in the past - last year - before the move - I more or less was coping. I hated the seperations, but I was coping. I did a lot of art then. So when he phones I try and be as cheerful as possible, so I hide what I am feeling right now.

I decided that I need to connect into the local arts community and I have tried to do that, but I got told they are busy with a show at the moment and things wonít be back to normal for a while. So I found a pastel class but it is over an hour away and the trips is via a country highway. I forced myself to go the other night, even though the weather was dodgy. But the rain was so heavy and roads so wet that I had to slow right down, and with trucks whizzing past sloshing water all over the windscreen, I eventually got too anxious, lost my nerve and went back home, not before getting lost in a country town along the way. I never made it to the class. I feel like a failure for getting scared driving and giving up on something that might have helped give my art a boost. I feel anxious all the time and cannot sleep at night with him away. When the morning comes I think, "thank god that's (the night) over". I feel like Iíve lost confidence to get another job, and Iím terrified of it.
Even if I got a job, I worked out the other day that the debt is now way too big to ever pay off on the type of wage I would get, and I already have a black mark against my name simply because I had to put in an application for hardship. I get bullying and harrassing phone calls frequently which I deal with as best I can, though I have burst into tears a few times because of their pressure and feeling shame and helplessness to do anything real about it. Short of winning lotto, there isn't a solution. So I have to take drastic action which will penalise me for life. I have no choice. To add to all this, I have had terrible lower stomach problems and a doctor is suspecting a certain incurable disease and I need to go for tests.

And so lately Ė ever since I moved in February - what I have been producing has been rubbish. And I am starting to feel futile about art, as well as everything else, like, ďWhatís the point, you will never get anywhere with it, and itís not going to get you an income.Ē I used to feel excited and enthusiastic about a painting and get absorbed for hours. Not in the last 2 months. It's an effort. I'm always sort of glad when I do, simply to keep the commitment, but I mostly just criticise the work or say what's the point.

My fiancť has not asked me or requires me to be employed, he says he is happy if I do art or volunteer work or whatever it is that I want. He says money is not an issue. It is more me who thinks I should be employed, even though I would actually rather study and get some more skills. I just feel guilty that he is supporting me, though he has never made any indication that I need to get a job. He says he loves telling people that I am an artist; he is proud of this and to support me in that. I am very, very lucky in this respect, and he loves me very much to offer this. But the price to pay for his generosity and ability to support me is his continual and regular absence. So in many ways I am in the best circumstances in the world-free to do whatever I choose, and yet I feel constantly anxious, lonely, lacking purpose or direction, and a bit of a loser and ashamed about the job loss and the debt. This morning I woke up and didnít want to get out bed Ė it just seemed pointless. I did get up, because I have my pet rats who depend on me, and they make me smile. But I was surprised I felt so listless. Maybe all of this is why my art sucks. thanks for listening,

05-01-2014, 12:15 AM
I did some of what you suggested and I bought some fruit and veggies to paint, I normally paint animals, but I wound up painting my glass of wine instead because rose has gorgeous pink and purple colours through it and you generally donít get to use those colours with animal paintings. Okay, it was more like a doodle than an actual painting, and I got to use a coloured paper that is just gorgeous and makes me happy to look at, but too bright for any kind of background for a Ďseriousí painting.

05-01-2014, 09:11 AM
It is possible that my life circumstances at the moment are affecting my art but I haven't made that association or connection clearly enough.

Not only is it possible - it is inevitable. You have been going through a lot and your emotional state will effect your creativity. I'm going to send you a PM.


05-01-2014, 09:13 PM
Thanks, Don. I was helpful.

05-01-2014, 09:51 PM
Donna, I have also PM'd you (hoping I did it right)

05-04-2014, 11:29 AM
Having a sense of purpose should never be underestimated.

working towards a little exhibition might be a good thing. See if there is a local library in your town which puts on exhibitions from time to time, and if so, perhaps set something up for 6 months' time, or a year. If not a library, then some other public place, a restaurant, an institute, a hospital, friendship club, a cinema/theatre, an equestrian centre, a sports club. It makes so much difference to paint for a reason.

You could also say "sales proceeds to go to Charity". That kinda takes off some pressure too. Give the money you earn to a local charity, or a national one.

Doing volounteer work can be fulfilling....volounteering at a local hospice, old age home, hospital, cattery, kennels ....a place to visit regularly, people to spend time with - these things can help enormously to alleviate loneliness and I think would be really good for you to do.