The Winter of Discontent

Self-Portrait by Katsushika Hokusai, 1760-1849

Self-Portrait by Katsushika Hokusai, 1760-1849

Six weeks into a semester a student expressed to me her observation that she “wasn’t getting any better.” Students often believe that their frustration is unique to them; that their struggle is evidence of a lack of “talent.” In the journey we make as artists there are many well-known landmarks. Frustration with our seeming lack of progress after an optimistic beginning is a big one. Let’s just borrow from William Shakespeare and call that one “the winter of our discontent.”

We enter this barren landscape typically at those times when we are taking on new concepts, new images, and new practices. These strangers in the room challenge our comfortable, familiar habits; they upset what we thought we were doing. Lurking behind the curtains of consciousness, ready to spring forth in judgement of the child that lies at the heart of every artist there is often a soured, old, adult intelligence, even in very young people. Our rational intelligence is no help; in fact it’s the problem. A great pianist doesn’t “think” about every note in the moment of playing it. The dancer at the barre is not the dance. The pianist playing scales is not the concert. Larger patterns and instincts guide the artist and only practice can develop these instincts. Practice is not sexy, but it’s crucial because only by ritual application to the problem of taking materials in hand and attempting another drawing does the process become familiar enough for it to seep down into the subconscious.  I’ve noticed that progress in making art does not happen gradually. It happens in quantum leaps, not unlike the way seeds grow, invisible to the eye, under a hard crust of earth until a soaking rain softens the ground and seemingly overnight, the field is green with new growth.

“I have drawn things since I was six. All that I made before the age of sixty-five is not worth counting. At seventy-three I began to understand the true construction of animals, plants, trees, birds, fishes, and insects. At ninety I will enter into the secret of things. At a hundred and ten, everything–every dot, every dash–will live”
― Hokusai Katsushika   (from Anne Harris, fb)

“It’s as simple and complicated as this: if we want to make our best work, we must believe that what we have to say matters. We must believe wholeheartedly in our own vision of the world. We must be willing to be imperfect, vulnerable, playful, uncertain, and authentic. Doing is the creative habit that separates those who go places from those who spin their wheels.” Sol LeWitt, in a letter to Eva Hesse (from Alan Rushing, FB)


Filed under Artists on Art, Practice

4 responses to “The Winter of Discontent

  1. With apologies for the length of this quotation, but I thought you might like it, and it seems relevant. It’s from Preparation for Painting by Lynton Lamb, 1953: ‘It is inadvisable to lay down rules about drawing methods. They can be successfully broken, or most unsuccessfully observed. A drawing is an intimate piece of evidence of the mind’s working….However consciously we may acquire this skill, in execution we are probably as unconscious of it as we are of the modulation of our lips when we are whistling….Drawings are lines put round an idea…An artist’s achievement is sometimes greater than his [sic] intention; it is sometimes not his intention at all, but a by-product of it….he cannot avoid the deviations of human judgement. Between question and answer lies an incalculable area of search. So there is in all good drawing an element of discovery, a twist away from the expected, an aspect of truth that looks like distortion….This effort for accuracy is essential to all drawing irrespective of what one wishes to be accurate about….accuracy is not “detail” rather than “freedom”, or representation rather than invention. It is concentration rather than wool-gathering: saying what one means rather than not meaning what one says: it is trying to draw rather than not really trying at all.’

    • Belated thanks for the quote from Lamb. I chanced on an old, worn paperback volume of Preparation for Painting in a used bookstore sometime back in the ’90s and loved it.

      • I posted this quote on my own blog after commenting here and it gets more visitors than most (if not all) of my posts – which tend to sink without trace! My copy of the book was a gift from a friend who spends a lot of time browsing used book shops.

  2. Bill White

    The road to progress in the studio is often slow and fraught with diversions along the way as we experiment with this and that. Learning how to shape the medium at hand and how to shape the forms we make are dependent on the openness we have to trial and error. I know I learn more from the works that have not worked as anticipated than those that seem to come easily. Accepting uncertainty and remaining open to the process of discovery is the key ingredient in the studio. Having taught for 4 decades I know all too well that a novice expects progress to arrive with each new drawing, which is rarely the case. Talent is OK but persistence is much more important in the studio. So stay at it, and learn something from everything you do. Over time, as you look back over the body of work one can see the developments that were invisible during their making.

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