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Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Unhappy in your art career?

Envy, covetousness, and false expectations are all ways to guarantee a rotten time as an artist.
Dyce Head in the early morning light, Carol L. Douglas
I haven’t been able to paint for weeks. It seems as if my peers have made fantastic strides in that time. I look at their work on Instagram and Facebook and it’s downright depressing to see the clarity, color, and compositions they’ve achieved while I’m lying on the couch with my feet elevated.

I’m competitive; I’ll admit it. It’s not a good trait. I have a dear friend who is capable of shrugging off the worst jurying news. She isn’t focused on the competition, but on her own development as an artist. If I ever grow up, I’d like to be just like her.

As Ecclesiastes reminds us, “all toil and all skill in work come from a man's envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.” Envy leads to anger and covetousness, but it also burns up the envier. Being competitive is a rush when it’s all going our way, but more often, it just makes us miserable.
Lonely Lighthouse (Parrsboro, NS), Carol L. Douglas
Another great way to kill your joy in painting is to tailor your work too closely to a niche a gallerist has identified for you. Yes, lighthouses sell on the coast of Maine, and they’re fascinating to paint. Do you want to spend all your days churning out pictures of them?

Fitting work to the marketplace is wise. Fitting it to anyone else’s expectations is very foolish. What will sell is not just a matter of content; it’s a combination of that and your approach to the content.

If you’re a young person, you probably seek advice from your parents. Neither of mine were entrepreneurs. Their advice, while grounded in love, was the product of their own experiences.

Cape Spear Road (Newfoundland), Carol L. Douglas. That's not one, but two, lighthouses.
Even though my father taught me to paint, my parents were hardly enthusiastic about an art career for one of their children. I remember my first complete bust of a show. I’d sold nothing and a pastel fell off the wall, damaging the frame. “Well, you gave it a good try,” my mom sighed, thinking I’d get over the idea of a career in the arts.

This isn’t because families are not supportive; it’s because they believe the lie that it is impossible to prosper in the arts. To a degree, they’re right; it’s a lot easier to make a living as a computer programmer. But the arts are not a one-way ticket to poverty, either.
Owls Head Light, Carol L. Douglas
Still, once you decide to follow a career in the arts, you’ve made the decision that money isn’t your paramount value. Why, then, would you let money dictate every small decision you make thereafter? The marketplace is too intelligent to reward this, anyway. Trying to produce work that looks just like someone else’s is a guaranteed path to insignificance.


Paula Banks said...

Thank you for this.
I am getting back into art midlife, after having been actively discouraged and criticized by a parent when I was considering art as an academic orientation. I wish I'd had more of a spine back then.
I do find myself comparing my work constantly to others' and finding it lacking. Your post today was not only opportunely timed for one of my own down moments, but it also reminded me that even accomplished artists like yourself suffer from this «compar-itis.» Recognizing it for what it is is liberating, and makes us more able to identify and parry it when next it raises its ugly head (as it will).
Just last week we were staying in Camden for a couple of nights, and we drove right by your place en route to and from Rockland. I'd never be so bold or audacious to come and knock, but know that I was excited to give a nod to someone who has taught me and inspired me very much, without ever having ever met. For that I thank you.

Carol Douglas said...

What a many-layered comment!

First, next time you're coming by, check my calendar on If I'm in town, I'd love to see you. I think we have lots in common.

Second, thanks for your kind comments. This hasn't been an easy month, following surgery, and you have no idea how much you've bucked me up.

Last, about the spine: I think that's a universal truth. I wish I had pressed them, too. But I didn't, and the path I chose had its own rewards, and continues to inform my work today. The important thing is that you have something to say, and that comes from living.

God bless you.

Elissa Gore said...

Dissatisfaction is a bitter pill but GOOD! I find my paintings lacking almost all of the time. Its what keeps me searching for my own right path. Last week I painted in oil for the first time since January. It was windy wet and cold, but the piece came out better than the last one 12 weeks before. I think you are just suffering aftershock from long cold winter. Give it two weeks!
Especially since oil painting is the hardest thing I can imagine doing..
What would you tell your students? I tell mine that it helps to articulate one quality in that other artist's work that you admire (envy) and to try to emulate it. Turns out it works for me too!
Best, Elissa

Carol Douglas said...

That's a great idea, Elissa. Thanks.