No artistic talent or not enough practise?
April 2, 2018 10:38 PM   Subscribe

I have the most beautiful paintings in my mind's eye but I don't have the technical ability to paint them.

It's definitely not a lack of inspiration. I know exactly what I want to paint. When I look at artists who work in the kind of style I desire to produce, I worry that I would never be able to produce the kind of technically complex paintings they produce because I don't have what it takes.

I know there are artists who achieve success with simplicity but I love paintings with complex backgrounds and lush interiors, finely detailed figures and nuanced use of color and shading.

Every time I get over my self-discipline and procrastination issues to produce something, I get paintings so ugly I'm ashamed to show them to anyone and I get discouraged and procrastinate even more. It's a vicious cycle.

I promised to submit a painting to something curated and I have already missed a deadline. I don't want to miss another one because I would look like a flake to other people (which is admittedly what I am) and I won't be able to live with myself. But I'm afraid I won't produce something up to scratch and it would be rejected and then I would be humiliated and be convinced I have no talent and quit painting.

I know I don't practice enough, partly because I have a lack of time and lack of space. How do I get over the huge "ugly painting" hump until I can develop the skills I need? I don't know how long this hump will last or if I will ever reach the standard required.

To make matters worse, I just found out a talented acquaintance I met years ago when she was just starting to gain attention is now an famous artist based in New York. I am the kind of insecure person that gets envious easily. She is younger than I am and from the exact kind of privileged family background I covet but will never have. She is not the first person I have been envious of and she will not be the last. This just triggers off my usual feelings of inferiority, fears of aging, death, failure, depression and so on. I know this is not about whichever person I am envious of at the moment but all in my head. I even manage to be envious of people who are successful but in industries I have no desire to be in and whose work requires living in places I know I would hate. It's just that they're famous, rich and successful! Which is ridiculous.

Deep down, I feel I am less worthy as a human being just because I am old, poor and unsuccessful career-wise. I told my close friend that I felt that if I was on a sinking boat with Famous Artist Acquaintance and an objective person could only save one person, I would probably be chosen to drown because it makes more sense to save the younger, talented and accomplished person as opposed to me, a literal waste of space and resources. I literally feel I don't deserve to live.

How do I get over all of the above to produce a good painting by the deadline? The clock is ticking as I type...
posted by whitelotus to Media & Arts (20 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: 1)

The problem is that you are trying to make a painting that others will think are good.
You aren’t trying to make a painting that is interesting to you.

A friend often says: the way to know whether or not you are being your whole self around other people is to notice if you hold anything back in what you say. It sounds like you’re holding back so much you cease to make work.

You have connected your identity with how your work is received so much that failure is not an option. Not only that: true vulnerable play or experimentation is difficult.

I’m not trying to be harsh. I’ve been there. I teach students who have been there. I am always trying not to be there. I know what it’s like.

The only way out is though the work. Don’t make work that’s good, or that others think are good. Don’t listen to people or what everyone likes. Listen to the work, and a close group of friends you trust. Make work for yourself and those friends and nobody else.

The work is infinitely interesting than the people. The work has a mind of its own, and if you actually listen to your own work - if you step back and really try to see what you work on, then you will always find interesting things.

Making ugly things is nothing to be ashamed of. Making beautiful things, in my opinion, is als nothing to be proud about. The most important thing is that you’re interested.

Now all of this is better said than done. The biggest immediate advice I can give is: don’t do this alone. Find a peer group, or show your close friends who you can be vulnerable with, and who will listen to what you have to say about your work. Keep on making work that’s interesting to you. .
posted by suedehead at 10:59 PM on April 2, 2018 [38 favorites]

Lots and lots of practice and instruction. Have you taken classes? If you're in North America, your local community college will have offerings. You could even go online to follow instruction via YouTube or an instructional platform like SkillShare.

Painting, like most of the arts, is highly technical and requires lots of practice. Start making space and time to practice every day. Even if it's just 30 minutes. Make room for it in your life.

You also sound like you might be depressed. Your desire to develop this skill is getting rolled up with hopelessness and low self esteem issues. Getting some help with that could also make learning to paint in the style you envision less of a mountain to climb. Good luck!
posted by quince at 11:13 PM on April 2, 2018 [4 favorites]

What about concentrating on drawing first? If what you want to portray is very detailed, maybe drawing & coloring is your medium?
posted by bleep at 11:30 PM on April 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

Are you using analog media or computers? You have images in your mind that you want to share, is the media important to you? 3d modeling and programs like Fractal Painter might work better for you.
posted by Sophont at 12:06 AM on April 3, 2018

Give yourself the same set of rules that I gave myself when I wanted to learn how to draw. I'm allowed to suck. I am not allowed to quit. I must draw the next thing. 3 years later, I'm much better than I was, I'm not as good as I'd like to be, but I'm still drawing.

Also repetition is your friend. If you want to paint something well, paint that thing over and over and over again. You will get better. Keep evidence of your work, pictures at least. Go back and look at where you were a month ago, a year ago, etc. If you practice daily, or almost daily, I promise you will see a difference when you look back. Comparing yourself to others is useless. Compare your progress to your earlier self.
posted by greermahoney at 12:08 AM on April 3, 2018 [14 favorites]

Best answer: It's a lack of practice, and practice takes time, so you've blown this deadline. Sorry.

If there's one thing that's been repeatedly hammered into me in this process of learning to play the drums the way I want the drums played, it's that I simply have to give myself permission to spend thousands of hours making noises that in the words of one investigating policeman "sound like some kind of extended traffic accident" before getting anywhere close.

Everybody who is really, really good at something sucked horribly at it when they first tried to do it, and got good by just not letting that stop them. It's just the way these things work.

When I look at artists who work in the kind of style I desire to produce, I worry that I would never be able to produce the kind of technically complex paintings they produce because I don't have what it takes.

That will remain true if you never actually do what it takes, which is just failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and failing until the only person who thinks you're still failing is you.
posted by flabdablet at 12:12 AM on April 3, 2018 [16 favorites]

At least in my experience, you're always going to feel like your paintings are terrible because you are so familiar with them and see every little flaw, every little thing that could need improvement. In some ways this is a good thing. You're keeping an eye out for what you need to do to get even better. But it can sap motivation too.

So, I'd echo what a lot of people are saying in the thread. Feel proud of yourself for putting in the time, for getting better, for sticking with it. Because that's what gets you good. And you may not ever be quite satisfied even when you are 'good' - but that's just an excuse to keep getting better.

And another thing is that it's not just practice - it's focused practice. Putting in time is good, but you also need to very often beign focusing in on one technique you need to improve, one little tiny thing you want to do better, and spend your time for that day looking at tutorials for it, looking at other people's technique and just focusing on getting that one little tiny sub skill noticeably better - whether it's learning a new technique for drawing raindrops or fur or hair or making smoother shading, or practicing adding a secondary light source, just one thing that you can be like "hey this looks a little better now" by the end of the day.

Because the art that looks really good, there's a whole lot more little tricks and techniques that go into it than meets the eye at first. As you get more and more of them under you're belt, you'll start to see which ones you're missing by process of elimination

Also, though it's digital painting, I've been finding this guy's videos to be super helpful for where I'm at. He does a lot of "overpaint" videos where people send him their art so he can critique and improve it. He's really good at explaining the little details of what he does and why. I'd been looking for something like this for a while, and it made me so happy when I stumbled across his stuff. It's more character oriented scifi/horror/fantasy/weird stuff, but it's all good general advice for doing things in a somewhat realistic style.
posted by Zalzidrax at 2:09 AM on April 3, 2018 [8 favorites]

Trust me. Having a vision in my head of what I want a painting to look like, and not being able to translate that vision to canvas is an eternal frustration for tons of artists. It has nothing to do with lack of talent.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:10 AM on April 3, 2018 [2 favorites]

Lots of great advice above, but also remember that what is in your head is a starting point. You need to leave room for that idea to grow and mature and develop and turn into what it wants to be when you start to actually bring it forth into the world. When you make art you're in a dialogue with your ideas and your materials. Leave space for surprises to happen. The act of painting/making has things to show you. Let it.
posted by Chairboy at 4:03 AM on April 3, 2018 [4 favorites]

Whispered secret from a working artist.....

The huge gulf between 'here's my vision for the thing' and 'here's the finished thing' never goes away – it's part of every interesting artist's life, for their entire life.

That's a great thing. (It means you're not complacent, not settling, not willing to realize the same finished-thing over and over.)

But it feels like a bad thing to almost every developing artist – completely understandably – because of our culture's utterly pervasive bullshit about raw talent, genius, and how truly great work just materializes in flashes of inspiration.

The gulf isn't itself an enemy, but the consuming suspicion that a Real artist would be able to jump over it (without time, training, community and peer critique, and finding the million ways of failing first)... that's your enemy. There's NO reason to feel bad or inadequate just because you need to develop more and better techniques to realize the thing the way you want to realize it.
posted by kalapierson at 4:42 AM on April 3, 2018 [14 favorites]

Best answer: To address your immediate concern about producing the type of painting you would like, I would recommend you do a detail section study of a work you admire. I love VerMeer; I chose a section of one of his works and magnified a tiny detail as a study in technique. This will give you a simplified composition and help you learn by breaking the problem into small sections.

Remember that most milestone artists like VanEyck or Rembrandt are the product of entire cultures and ages. Raphael Sanzio, for example, had Leonardo da Vinci as his drawing teacher, the Pope and Cosimo Medici as his patrons. Keep in mind that lots of famous artists represent the tip of an extraordinary creative iceberg and you are looking at hundreds of years of effort, curation and economy.

Art and culture are often hideously dependent on privilege for recognition. Privileged classes often have greater resources, earlier education, and greater social connections. In my years teaching, I've seen many extremely talented students I knew would never be recognized because they lacked the social status of more mundane, self-congratulatory privileged students.

Don't wed the value of making art to the capitalist market. Art is most powerful as a tool for constructing meaning for your life. Art as praxis will allow the digestion of thoughts and feelings in a tangible way. Outside opinion distracts from the internal dialogue of developing your aesthetic.

Learning practical tools about techniques will definitely make it easier for you to get the type of results you want from your work. I recommend "The Artist's Manual" by Angela Gair $25, Chronicle Books. Soup to Nuts, great photos, explanations and applications, easy to follow.

Famous art is often a matter of fashion much more than quality. One great thing about developing your own aesthetic eye is that you can feel confident in identifying what you personally value as exceptional.

I hope this is helpful.
posted by effluvia at 4:48 AM on April 3, 2018 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Reading your question, it seems clear to me that insecurity is at least as big a part of the issue as actual ability, if not moreso. You have some really harsh things to say about your work (and yourself!) things that you probably would never say about someone else's art. You should strive to be at least as kind to yourself as you would be to someone else. You're as deserving of praise and encouragement as anyone, and your art will be better and more enjoyable if you can use your inner voice to build yourself up rather than put yourself down. You'll produce more and your skills will improve.

I don't paint, but I do do photography. One of the things I try to remind myself is that while my photos don't always measure up to my personal standards, there many much more successful photographers whose photos also don't measure up to my personal standards. So what's the difference between them and me? A lot of it is self-confidence, a willingness to put themselves out there and stand behind their work. To a great extent, other people's experience of your work will be colored by your own presentation of it. If you ask somebody to look at something and tell them that you're really proud of it, they'll be much more inclined to view it positively than if you ask them to look at it and say that you think it's worthless.

People's perceptions of art are subjective, and influenced by subjective factors. That goes double for your own perceptions of your own art. You are not an objective judge—just from reading this question, it's obvious that your perception of the worthiness of your art is being influenced by your perception of your worthiness as a human being.

Also, there's a saying in photography that "the secret to taking good photographs is taking lots and lots of bad photographs." People sometimes take that to mean that they should just blast away on the shutter button and then winnow out the keepers from the vast sea of chaff thus produced, but that's not quite right. It's a saying from the analog era, and what it means is that if you want to take good pictures you need to get out there and take pictures. I can't imagine it's different in painting—if you want to make good paintings, you're going to make a bunch of lousy ones along the way. There's no other way to develop your skill than by doing. Study and read all you like, but without practice it will make no difference.

So practice. Paint, and put your paintings out there. Don't tell anyone that you think they are bad. Try not to even think it inside your head. Say good things about them, about what you were trying to accomplish, about what your inspirations were. Be humble, but don't be down on yourself. And paint.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 5:00 AM on April 3, 2018 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I would recommend an un-skippably small and un-intimidating daily practice commitment. Maybe 15 minutes a day. Every day, or with one scheduled skip day per week.

Just spend some months letting it burrow a groove into your daily life routine and don't try to make it any bigger or put any extra pressure on it until it's mundanely normal for you to sketch on or smoosh some paint around a canvas each day.

But I think given the type of painting you want to do, you should also have some sort of skill-building program (ideally a teacher, but it could also be a book, a video series, or anything focused on building the skills you care about learning). Since you want to do detailed, representative art, there are a set of techniques and processes for that that other artists have already put work into discovering, and I think even if you locked yourself in a room and practiced 24 hours a day for ten years you might not just randomly hit on them yourself, so please stop beating yourself up for not already knowing/inventing these things and approach them as a beginner at learning them. If you're drawing interior spaces, for example, the laws of perspective and how to draw in it are not going to spring fully formed into anyone's head (and we have lots of weird looking art from medieval days to show that).

Also, you mention having a vision in your head, but not necessarily a reference. Painting or drawing realistic images without a reference is almost impossible. For everyone! So make sure you're using a photo or a real object when you're trying to paint something specific. This might be obvious, but I thought I would throw it in there since it's pretty common for artists to beat their heads against the wall drawing from imagination for years because they think using a reference is cheating.

* Drawing from imagination is more fun, but it doesn't sound like you want to do stylized, personal art, you want detailed, realistic art, and that needs a real-world starting point, even if you improvise details. But if you do decide you just want to draw for pleasure you can chuck the references and find your own aesthetic.

(It is possible you're already well along in learning technique and just being hard on yourself because you're applying professional standards to your work, in which case most of this still stands except you might need outside critique to figure out what techniques to focus on rather than starting at the beginning).
posted by space snail at 5:13 AM on April 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: When I was teaching young students to draw, there was one thing that really helped those with your frame of mind: I asked them to make 6 letter-sized drawings a day. They could add the paper up to one or more larger drawings or make several smaller ones, but they had to deliver that amount of surface. Nothing was wrong or ugly, and none of these little studies pretended to be art. They were studies for studying. Inevitably, over just a few weeks two things happened: they could see their own progress and they started to do more work than required.
This is really "one small trick" ;-)
In my class, I would adapt these studies to the student's ambition, for some it would be drawings from life, for others it would be abstractions, or cartoonish stuff. For you, it might be small studies on board of the different details you would like to work with; folds in textile, light in a glass of water, a chair and its shadow. And maybe because you are working in paint, you don't have to do six a day, but just two. Or maybe make six drawings on Mondays and two paint studies on Tuesdays, if you get the gist. The main point it to transform the "art" into "work", and the "talent" into "discipline". I'm putting scare quotes around those words because the way artistic practice is understood within popular culture is lightyears from what it actually is, and that popular understanding even permeates the art world because it is part of the branding of some artists.
It's great that you have a vision in your head, but your paintings have their own lives, and you have to work with them. Suddenly a swish of the brush will create an effect you hadn't dreamed of, or a blue shadow will alter the whole in an unexpected manner. You have to go with those discoveries and let them lead you rather than clinging to that vision.
Finally, there is no right age in which to reach artistic maturity and recognition. Lots of artists find their track late in life. Just keep going.

PS: there's another simple trick: do life size studies. Know that they will be ugly as f***, but they will improve your hand immensely in very short time. Just tape cheap but thick paper to your wall, use a very thick pencil or a piece of coal for rough outlines, and put on cheap poster paint in fat swaths. When I was at school, I apprenticed at an old-school artist on the side, and she taught me this by making me draw life size animals from sketches she had made. I swear you could see improvement in one day.
posted by mumimor at 5:59 AM on April 3, 2018 [6 favorites]

Definitely draw some every day, if you're not already doing that. With paintings, issues with the medium are much greater and so are the odds of making something that looks botched after putting in considerable time. Maybe eventually, you will come up with some drawings that cry out to be adapted into paintings. Or you will start using watercolor pencils-- or discover a medium which will shape your work beyond what you imagined.
posted by BibiRose at 6:37 AM on April 3, 2018

So, Marge Piercy's For the young who want to is ostensibly a poem about writing, but it's really a poem about making any kind of art, and how difficult it is, and how long it will be before anyone besides you gives a damn. IMO the last stanza is gold, and should be memorized by every creative person:
The real writer is one
who really writes. Talent
is an invention like phlogiston
after the fact of fire.
Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.

I think she's a little hard on MFAs-- because you can learn a lot from a good teacher-- but the point still stands, that the doing of the thing is the important bit, not what everybody else thinks about it, or even what you think about it. So, say to yourself, "The real painter is the one who really paints" and get out those brushes.
posted by tuesdayschild at 11:05 AM on April 3, 2018 [5 favorites]

"How do I get over the huge "ugly painting" hump until I can develop the skills I need? I don't know how long this hump will last or if I will ever reach the standard required."

The "ugly painting" hump may or may not ever go away, as you get better, your standards and expectations for yourself will also grow. The only way to approach the standards you already have is to keep trying. You might make a ton of ugly, worthless bullshit paintings you're embarrassed of, but that's part of the process. It's hard to show work you're not proud of, but sometimes you're better than you give yourself credit for and are making stuff you might hate but others will pay for. You know what you don't like about your work, so you also know what to work on next time. You're not going to suddenly create a work you're all proud of, but incrementally you can produce work with elements you are satisfied or approaching satisfied with.

"To make matters worse, I just found out a talented acquaintance I met years ago when she was just starting to gain attention is now an famous artist based in New York."

I feel for you here deeply. One of my good friends is now a famous artist selling works to celebrities, rich people, sports boys, all sorts of famous people. She has a show in NYC right now and regularly gets to show and sell work across the country. Don't get me wrong, she's a very hard worker, an extremely talented artist, and highly motivated person - she deserves the success she has. However, we were homies, peers, classmates - we graduated at the same time, have collaborated, I once considered myself her equal. I know I won't ever work as hard as her and I spend a lot of my motivational energy just keeping from killing myself but part of me still believes us equal in potential and it's a never-ending crushing source of self-disappointment knowing/believing I will never get there.

I think the general advice there is to not compare yourself or some other probably-helpful psychological tricks I either have or won't try.
posted by GoblinHoney at 2:37 PM on April 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: So much amazing advice from mefites! I am compiling a list of useful points so I can read them when I feel discouraged. It's like some of you are inside my head and know what I'm struggling with.

suedehead: I can no longer afford to take classes and I don't have arty friends irl so I guess I should spend more time hanging out at Wetcanvas?

sophont: I have a drawing tablet for 2d digital work but whichever medium the hump is still there.

space snail: My paintings are inspired by actual historical artifacts and settings so I do have to use references like photographs or art. Unfortunately, I spend more time researching than painting and worrying that I got some small detail wrong and that some history buff will nitpick at my mistake. Or perhaps I should chalk mistakes up to artistic license?

So much wisdom in your replies, I hope I can put it to practice. I'll post back if I do manage to produce a painting that is accepted.
posted by whitelotus at 3:36 AM on April 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

whichever medium the hump is still there

The endless climbing of that hump is the entire point of an art practice.
posted by flabdablet at 11:12 AM on April 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

uggg i wrote out 5 paragraphs of thoughts on this and somehow managed to delete it accidentally. ah well, this will be more efficient anyway.

I mainly came here to say, given everything you've written above, that this is absolutely without-a-doubt where I'd start if I were you:

New Masters Academy -

you might also look up these folks and their books/ videos

-Michael Hampton
-Glenn Vilppu
-Andrew Loomis
-Charles Bargue - copy his plates
-George Bridgman
-Robert Beverly Hale

for in person learning, if you ever have the chance to seek that out - i'd start here:

Given the level of technique you wish to achieve, I would AVOID community colleges, 4 year colleges, and local art center instructors by and large, with of course many individual exceptions. Or, maybe try them out, but don't expect that the sort of instruction you are most likely to receive in those places will, alone, get you to where you in particular sound like you want to go. Unfortunately, in the US at least, stringent academic realist curricula in drawing and painting have been out of favor/ fashion for some time.

but honestly, the New Masters folks are all very inspired by / derivative of the above list.. I think it's a really good starting point if you don't have a lot of money to throw at learning realistic painting and drawing.

Source: Me! I am a long time student of figurative realism, into both drawing and painting portraits and landscapes etc.

also, sent you a PM.

also, try not to be so hard on yourself, srsly.

I also had said a lot (before i deleted it, lol) about how I am convinced learning to paint realistically is a craft, a technique, a learned skill.. and not, actually, a talent. it takes a lot of time and patience to achieve mastery, like with any technique, but it is accessible to all willing to commit the time and effort. i TRULY believe that.
posted by elgee at 1:48 PM on June 12, 2018

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