Wednesday, January 18, 2017

"Conference Insider" for the Portrait Society of America

As promised, here is the article I've been working on for the Portrait Society. I think it's worth sharing beyond the audience of the PSOA. :-)

When I was asked to write an edition of the Portrait Society's Conference Insider, I had to think for a moment about what I have to offer as a member of this year's faculty. I could discuss my working methods, studio habits, or some other aspect of art making, but I realized that sometimes the best I can do is simply provide an affirmative nod to my fellow artists that yes-you got this. All technique, creative processes, and art knowledge aside (I know you're working hard on those already!), we artists are really heart-centric creatures who find ourselves needing encouragement on a regular basis.
On Saturday, April 22 at the conference, from 7:30-8:30 a.m., I will be part of a panel hosted by the Cecilia Beaux Forum in which we discuss "establishing and managing a successful art career," and I hope you will join us as we talk in depth about our experiences. For those of you who decide to sleep in instead, I offer here some thoughts about my own personal journey, and I hope it is of some benefit to you.
A couple of days before writing this, I presented a question to the Facebook universe asking, "What does success look like to you?" The hundreds of answers that rolled in were diverse and insightful.
"With success comes responsibility: teaching, passing on what we've been given."
"Feeling true happiness and satisfaction to the depth of your soul. The source and tactical steps differ for each individual, where many of the basic needs are common to all, while higher-level needs become increasingly individualized."
"True, honest effort."
"Freedom to live life on your terms, not to be confused with accumulating wealth."
"Setting goals, reaching them and setting new ones."
"Having work that is creative, satisfying, and contributes to society."
"Doing what feeds your soul."
"The idea of success is not only different for every person, but every person has different concepts of success in different aspects of their life. There's career success, personal life success, and even success or failure with a particular piece you're working on! Additionally, life has shown me that what I believe is success or failure in a situation may end up not being the case at all!"
Girl with Dreadlocks (3-hr alla prima)
12x10", oil on linen panel 
The answers went on and on (thank you to everyone who responded!). My conclusion was that success is an attitude or mindset, not something quantifiable. Success should not be your driving force. It can easily consume you, to a point where the integrity of your life and work are compromised. It can also give a false sense of security and become an idol. And, if you are too busy comparing yourself to the successes of others, you risk losing your authenticity, and your idea of success will become distorted. Success to me is finding a healthy balance between pursuing and achieving my goals, and being at peace with myself and others. It means honoring my Creator by pursuing excellence (not necessarily perfection) in all aspects of life.
For me it was never a question whether or not I would succeed, it was just a matter of how hard I was willing to work in order to get there, and I found my version of "success" by setting goals. One of my goals as a kid was to someday paint presidential portraits (I've since changed my mind about that)...  Another goal I had, which was recently realized, was to paint in the Face-Off at the Portrait Society and be considered a peer by the artists I've always looked up to.
Crystal Standing (3-hr Alla Prima)
16x8", oil on linen panel
Given that I grew up in a very small town in rural Wisconsin amidst a culture of hunting and gathering, with parents who supported me but couldn't afford to send me to a fancy art school, well... the odds weren't exactly in my favor.  I was self taught until college, at which point I took on seasonal jobs to pay for school and worked hard to earn scholarships. I graduated from Hillsdale College in 2007, held a "normal" job for about a year, got married, and moved to Texas in 2008 for my husband's job in engineering. His income was steady enough that I was able to simply paint, and not worry about finding full or part-time work. This came with the caveat, of course, that I would not waste any time. I still remember the first day my husband left for work at his new job, and I sat alone with my little French easel in the giant, empty space that was supposed to be my studio. A few of my college paintings sat up against the walls, but otherwise, I had nothing to show for my claim of being a "serious artist." I began to paint anyway. I painted every single day. I started off with still lifes, and on days that weren't outrageously hot I would venture outdoors for plein air. I took commissions whenever possible, even the difficult ones, and used the funds to purchase more supplies (and better quality ones, too!).  I found a life portrait group to attend every week. I began making friends with other artists, and attending workshops and events, such as the Portrait Society, in order to continue educating myself. I found that these 3-4 day events, several times a year, were exactly what I needed to propel forward. I would come home from each event, my head bursting with newfound knowledge, and the things I learned kept me busy for months at a time. It was a period of great challenges and self discovery. 
Enchanted Blossoms, 20 x 20", oil on linen
I was 23. Nearly ten years later, I have come to realize that "challenges" and "self discovery" are things I'll be faced with for the rest of my life, and that's okay.
In 2014, I had a baby girl, Cecelia (named after the great Cecilia Beaux, of course!). Having a child obviously throws a wrench into things. Many women artists choose not to have children because they don't believe it's compatible with their art. At its worst, motherhood causes you to question everything you're doing, while at its best it elevates your work to heights you never imagined possible. I learned to embrace both extremes for what they could do to help me grow, but I also chose not to dwell too long at the bottom. I will be the first to tell you that motherhood made me a better artist.

Finding one's place in this expansive world of creative talent is not easy, especially as the work just keeps getting better and better. So I keep coming back to painting what I know: the world around me, the people I love-and realizing that maybe it's not popular or trendy right now but it's honest. I have learned to embrace my own unique story in all its beauty and ugliness and its moments of pain and bliss.
So... any advice I have on getting established in one's art career, I offer from my own personal experience. It may or may not work for you, but it's something to consider. Here is a basic and ever-growing checklist of things that have helped me become a modestly successful artist (by the definition I've outlined above). 
  1. Banish fear.  If I could change anything about my path as an artist, it would be to have seized more opportunities... to be less shy when approaching and meeting other artists, to ask more questions, and to stop being so darn afraid! Don't allow fear to control your decision making, or worse... cause you NOT to make a decision. The greatest misfortune of all is to look back on your work and wonder what might have happened if you had seized the day instead of holding back out of fear. Fear causes us to miss opportunities.
  2. Stop worrying about what people think. I'm still working on this one!
  3. Spend as much time at the easel as you can, even if you don't feel like it.
  4. Have a critical eye for your work. If something bothers you, don't let it slide. Does it have impact? (Visual or emotional or preferably both?) How does it read from across the room?
  5. Don't be afraid to take on commissions. Many times we're scared to put ourselves out there, but commissions are the perfect opportunity to get paid to learn. Obviously they can be extremely challenging, but they are invaluable for adding to your technical and creative repertoire. Every commission that I've taken-or actually, every painting that I've done-whether bad or good, has led up to where I am today. For example, I never anticipated that I would become a mom, but previously to that I painted many children, and they were great practice for the work I do now.
  6. Get rid of the extras. I had to learn to let go of a lot of things that were sucking up my painting time, including TV, extraneous commitments, and even some toxic relationships that were holding me back.
  7. Have a strong support system/network. Much of our success depends on the support and belief of others: parents, mentors, friends, spouses, children, peers, etc.
  8. Take care of yourself. Eat right, exercise. Strengthen your mind and heart through Scripture reading, meditation, etc. Spend quality time with your loved ones.
  9. Paint or draw from life as often as possible. We may not be professional athletes, but if we want to be professional ARTISTS we have got to be at the top of our game, and life drawing is essentially the practice of artistic calisthenics.
  10. Don't spend all of your energy on things that will help you make money. If your primary focus is on the quality of your work, money will follow eventually.
  11. Become comfortable with promoting yourself and your work. In this day and age, no one is going to do that for you.
Anna and her daughter, Cecelia, in Anna's studio in Westminster, Colorado

One more thing: the "appearance" of success is very different from real success, and also very dangerous. It's easy to see all the perfectly curated posts on social media and find yourself wondering, "Why doesn't my life and art look that good?"  I can guarantee that every single one of those artists has bad painting days, moments of self doubt, and days where they don't paint at all. Don't worry about it. At the end of the day, it is always about the work.  Pick up your brush and keep giving it your all, and you will reap the hard-earned benefits of a life defined by the pursuit of excellence. 

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