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Shortcuts to Success

Small group of us painting the sunset last night and pondering...

It seems the more successful I become, the more often I hear the same question; "are there secret shortcuts to success? tell me how you did it, I'm running out of time!"

I have even asked other artists the same question. We artists (especially older women who put off art to raise a family or a career) often feel like we are coming late to the game. That somehow we should've started sooner, that we are racing the clock.

But here's the real deal. I'm sure you don't want to hear it because none of us do. The truth is, great painting takes time. There is no quick way, shortcut, or miracle grow that will build your skills overnight. No single class, workshop, book, new gadget or convention will either.

It's a process that can be painful and difficult in direct proportion to your level of openness and teachability. What that means is, if you approach painting as something that can only be innate and no one can teach you anything-then you will have a long and painful process.

A not very successful sunset painting! Each one is a learning experience!

Painting (at least for me) has been a series of triumphs and tragedies that looks like a slow moving stock on the stock market. One step forward to back, one step forward, one drawback, etc. I got my first commission in 1986 (Mural on Fry Street in Denton TX) and have been painting consistently ever since. That's over 30 years.

While I'm clearly not your go-to-gal for shortcuts, I can tell you what pitfalls to avoid since I have hit most of them, or learned from others who did...

  • make your painting time sacred-nothing, I mean nothing can get in it's way. Not a pandemic, not a trip to the ER, not your best friend's mental breakdown. Turn the phone off, shut (and lock) the studio door, let the laundry pile up and ignore the mountain of dirty dishes. This is YOUR painting time! Set that boundary hard and fast with friends and family, or commit to a class that gets you in the routine of painting on the same day, time, each week. There is no way your skills will get better without actually doing it-so paint!

  • Don't be self taught! if you can't learn from others then you are doomed to waste many years making the same mistakes over and over. The cost of a workshop or class with someone who truly has something to offer you (do your research on the teacher first!) can save you years of doing things the wrong way and developing bad painting habits. None of the great painters are self-taught, they all had friends, mentors, colleagues and even master artists who influenced them.

  • Do your research! Very few artists can walk into a gallery and get immediately accepted. Go to galleries, see what they are selling (red dots, not what's on the wall) and do your research! This is true for marketing as well. Read books, go to seminars, take classes learn how to use things like Photoshop and Microsoft Excel and be professional. If you want to be taken seriously, you have to treat art like a business and take it seriously yourself. This means teaching an old dog new tricks like how to use ZOOM, and keep financial records, know what Branding is, (not the Texas kind!) etc.

  • Have a vision of what you want to create and stick to it. In "The Artist's Way" by Julia Cameron, she calls this "true north." How do you know when you are successful if you don't know what your true north looks like? One of my favorite podcasts; Savvy Painter Podcast hosted by Antrese Wood, poses this question to her guests; "what's your dream painting? if you had unlimited money and time what would you paint?"

Figure it out, and stick to it. For me, it's wildness, and connecting people with our

planet as a living, breathing thing and seeing nature as worth preserving. If I had

unlimited money and time I do a series of women connected with nature in ways

reminiscent of Greek legends...oh wait, that's what I'm doing right now! (Lesson here

is don't wait until you have money or time because you will never have enough of


  • Listen to other artist's but don't take it to heart unless it resonates with true north! Critiques can make you a better painter, or they can become a creative block that stops you from ever painting again. You must armor yourself-listen to the words said and weigh them against your vision of your own true north. Discernment. Sometimes, people have a good point, even if it's badly said. I've had people ask me if a painting is finished, my own dad once asked me what one of my representational paintings was (it was a bird!) People say stupid things. Ignore them. Listen for the kernel of truth and use it.

A famous painter, who's wisdom I sought recently gave me the criticism that some of

my paintings were "trite" and "cliched" which I held up and examined. I could see her

point. Some of my paintings would work well on greeting cards. I use popular subjects

and make works with broader appeal because I rely on the sale of art to make a living.

But not all are, and the ones I like the most, the true north paintings are not. They

have a message and may not ever sell but I will still make them.

  • Learn to use rejection and failure as creative fuel for your artistic fire. It is a beginner mistake to connect your ego to your art and measure your worth by how many "likes" it got on Instagram or facebook. It is also a beginner mistake to let one bad painting block you from trying again. Just suck it up buttercup and get back in the studio and paint it again, only better! We all screw up paintings! Constantly! I did last night! None of that is important, what is important is that you learn the lesson from the screw up and don't repeat it over and over again. Same is true for not getting into juried shows, competitions and organizations. I've been trying for YEARS to get into Pastel Society of America, or even ONE of the annual exhibits and it still hasn't happened. I don't take it personally, and I won't stop trying. Eventually, it will happen.

Same small group doing a more challenging nocturne painting

In Texas we have a saying, "get back up on the horse that threw you!" Yes, we have a saying for practically everything in Texas but this one is important. You can't be defeated by one bad painting, one failed attempt, one rejection letter, or even a landslide of rejection letters. As a joke, I once wallpapered a bathroom in my studio with rejection letters. They still come, and still in a landslide. Today, I frame the acceptance letters, I celebrate my small victories and ignore the devastating rejections by doing something that reinforces me as an artist. I spring for that class, buy museum glass instead of regular glass, little things that make me feel like I believe in myself, even if no one else does.

Be in it for the long haul. It will take time to accomplish your goal, but what would you rather be doing? If there is something else more important to you than painting then go do it! If not, then make it your priority and the more you do it the better you get. The better you get, the more people notice you. The more people notice you the more success finds you. Thirty years later someone will send you a facebook message asking you what shortcuts you took to success!

Once I was hit on my bicycle and almost died. As I lay there, I thought to myself that I don't regret the pile of dishes in the sink, or the undone laundry-I do regret not plumbing my artistic potential. I don't want to die not ever having tried-I want to try, and fail, and get back on that damn metal horse and ride off into the sunset successfully!

My nocturne painting which was more successful than the sunset painting. Each one is an opportunity for artistic growth!

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