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Sitting with Disappointment

In a previous blog (Zen and the Art of Art Making) I outlined a number of things art-making has taught me, and many of the ways I have been challenged to grow as an artist.

As any artist or entrepreneur will tell you, there is one challenge which will continue to pop up over your career.


A wise mentor once shared a valuable piece of advice with me, and it seems appropriate to share it. She said, “You will always find yourself disappointed. It’s unavoidable. You will never not be disappointed with one thing or another. How you handle that disappointment is what will make you grow. For this reason, I never, ever toss a failed canvas. I always keep it around. Sometimes I display it very prominently so I can see where the project went wrong. But if you throw it away, you may never learn from your disappointment.”

That wisdom hit home. Perhaps a little too close to home at the time it was gifted to me. I had just made an attempt at a picture and it was a miserable failure. It was, to my eye, ugly in every way a picture could be ugly. I actually still have it.

Some day when my own skills have been developed further and my discipline is stronger, I’ll take another stab at it. Until then, I’ll continue to sit with that disappointment.

More recently, I experienced a bigger disappointment.

At the time I was working on (what I now recognize) was an impossibly tight deadline. Like most professional procrastinators (read: artists), I tend to excel under pressure. I have a high threshold for risk and stress. Finishing a work under the wire feels like the most incredible achievement.

Sometimes all it takes is one accidental mark, a single inch, to completely unravel a block. An unexpected gesture or accidental flick of the brush opens the door. One thing leads to another and you’re finished as if by magic.

I kept hoping, praying for that sort of magic.

Nothing happened.

Ultimately I blew past the deadline and submitted another work altogether. I had never, to this point, missed a deadline. Ever. I resented the picture as if, somehow, the painting were to blame for my personal shortcomings and tendency to procrastinate.

I wanted, with literally every fiber of my being, to toss this canvas. I’d never be able to reuse it—the texture was too prominent to paint over.

That piece was ‘Maverick the Paint Pony’.

The words of my mentor ultimately saved Maverick. I set him aside in a prominent place where I’d see him every day, and I sat with my disappointment. Daily I’d see the flat, dull colors. They had seemed so rich and vibrant when I’d painted him. For a horse named Maverick, he seemed to lack any sense of spirit or dynamism. Something was just...missing.

Weeks went by. Then a month. He sat with me for nearly two months. When I made dinner or worked on other projects, he stared at me. I saw so much potential, he just wasn’t “there” yet. My resentment had much subsided by then, and I didn’t hate him quite as much. I also didn’t blame him for my own character flaws. He presented an insightful opportunity for me to address my bad habits.

One evening I ran to the kitchen to grab a water before a dinner I was supposed to attend. On the counter I had an assortment of some fantastic new colors I found at the art supply store. I looked at Maverick and he looked at me. Something clicked.

What if I do this...and wouldn’t that look cool against that...

I canceled my plans immediately and got to work. Over the course of two days, after sitting with my disappointment for nearly two months, my friend Maverick endeared himself to me as my favorite pony so far. Everything he lacked before, suddenly he possessed. Spirit, personality, dynamism...everything I had been looking for in this work. My satisfaction was so complete I ate dinner that night sitting right in front of him, completely surprised. I wasn’t a bad artist, I just wasn’t “there” yet.

Good artists are critical of their work for a number of reasons—they’re aware of the importance of craftsmanship, composition, balance, and harmony. They understand the marketplace and have a sense of style. They struggle with a piece because they see potential. They try, and perhaps fail several times, because they are pushing the upper limits of their technical abilities.

An artist may be struggling when they’re critical of their work to the point of being paralyzed by their desire for an unattainable or irrational perfection. Expectations have killed the spirit of their work, or a familiar formula limits their ability to innovate something new and exciting.

And a bad artist, though I hesitate to use the word, is so paralyzed by expectation they fail to try at all. They may be consigned to live in a daydream of possibility and never really put brush to canvas for fear of failing.

I cannot put into words just how awful it is to see something so clearly in my mind’s eye and yet be totally unable to bring it to life. In the beginning that feeling defeated me time and time and time again. These days, when I have an exquisite idea, I write it down or sketch it as best I can and save it for the future. It isn’t that I’m a miserable creator or lacking any and all talent, I only need to sit with my dissatisfaction long enough that I’m pushed to grow and evolve once again.

Right now, I am sitting with many disappointments. Things happen. Clients drop out. Pieces stubbornly resist completion. Visions fall flat. Ideas that seemed brilliant at the time turn out to be much better on paper. Absolutely none of this is indicative of your talent as an artist or a businessperson. It just means you aren’t quite “there” yet.

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