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When Your Skills Go Backward!

by Shawn Dell Joyce


Recently, one of the artists in my painting studio asked me confidentially if it's possible to get worse instead of better. That sounds counter-intuitive, but I think I know what she means.

We artists often judge ourselves by the success/failure of our most recent painting. If the work is a crown jewel, we are on top of the world, if it is less than successful, we are often dumbfounded. Where did I go wrong?


There's a common misperception that skill building is sequential and linear. The more you paint, the better you get. While this is true to a point, it's misleading. When you paint alot, you make a lot of bad paintings, plus an occaissional good one. Think of a chef trying to make a souffle. The chef follows the recipe exactly the same each time, but the souffle falls flat 4 times and the 5th time comes out perfect.

Some things are out of our control. When we are learning new techniques and enlarging our skills, there's an awkward integration period when our brains, eyes, and hands are all trying to figure it out. This integration is subconscious and not entirely in our control. You have to really want to grow to push through this stage.

During this time, you may feel like you are on the cusp of a breakthrough, the painting is almost there...but then falls short, your crestfallen, and feel like a failure. It's not that you failed, you just didn't succeed, yet.


this is a recent sucky painting

The next time you do it, you start higher up on the curve, you see it happening on the canvas, and boom, you succeed, and you're on top of the world again.

As a teacher, I've seen this happen over-and-over again as people grow and become the artists they are meant to be. It has also been my experience as an artist. I wish I could say that my growth is linear, and that if you followed my recipe exactly, you would get the same results, but then there are those variables that are outside our control.

Julia Cameron, in her excellent book "The Artist's Way" suggests writing a note and taping it to your easel; "I am responsible for the quantity, God is responsible for the quality."

This lets you off the hook for HOW the work turns out and gets you to just show up and paint it. One of my early mentors advised me that the first 500 paintings really don't count so just get them out of the way. After 33 years of painting as a professional artist, most of the paintings I make a mediocre (in my estimation) with a small minority being spectacular, while an equal minority are sucky.

The more I push myself to achieve something slightly above my ability, the more sucky paintings I expect to make. But, then comes the one that makes it all worth while. Most beginning artists don't have the fortitude to stick with it when the going gets rough. Our culture exalts instant gratification; fast food, sitcoms, soundbites, and we are marinated in social media posts featuring other artist's work who make it look so easy!

It's hard to judge your work by all that and come out on top.

Instead, give yourself permission to play.

approaching the same subject with an attitude of play-I gave myself 100 strokes to capture the scene.

Make it fun again, and allow yourself the latitude to get dirty, waste some paint and canvas, and make a few mistakes. Just like a beginning cook would expect to dirty every pot and waste a few eggs.

Skill building is cyclical. Like a Golden Curve, ever spiraling up. Sometimes it may feel as if you are going backwards, but you are actually at a much higher level than you were before. Instead, you are spiraling upwards, slowly and surely.

An artplay from Tony Allain's workshop-I allowed myself to play along with him, trying on his mark-making and approach, and letting it resonate with my style.

There are no shortcuts to being a good painter. There are some people who seem to have been "born with it," while others (like me) toil for more than half their lives toward a degree of excellence that seems just slightly out of reach.

I took a workshop last week with Tony Allain, a world-reknown Master Pastelist, who described it as climbing up a ladder in the clouds. Just as soon as you think you've reached the top, the clouds lift and you see the next few rungs you need to climb. Allain, has also been working in the field as a professional for more than 30 years. I respect people who stick with anything for 30 years regardless of what level they may be at.


Another "artplay" not "artwork" from Tony Allain's workshop. Again, trying on his approach and techniques. Trying to remain teachable and grow.

While some artists seem to hit success when they are younger, or may seem to be "social media stars," try not to compare your work with their's. Instead, realize that we all start this journey at a different place and all have different ideas of what success looks like. If I had "made it big" in my twenties when I lived and showed in NYC's East Village, my life would have lost much of it's meaning. I would be financially more successful, but mentally would have lost my life's ambition.

The best way to grow artistically is to remain teachable.

This means.....

  • adopt an attitude of play instead of work (don't look at artmaking as a struggle, look at it as a grand adventure regardless of how the painting comes out)

  • Learn from other artists (take classes, be teachable, and save yourself YEARS of doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results)

  • Support your own creative efforts as if you were a mother encouraging a child's first steps. You may be the only one who supports your creativity-so don't pick yourself apart or be overly-critical. No one wants a mother like that!

  • Find a believing mirror-a friend who will help you push through difficult growth moments when you are feeling clumsy, and think your work is going backwards. We all need a friend, preferably another artist, who believes in us and supports our creative endeavors no matter how awful we think they are! Not everyone in our circle should be allowed to judge or criticize our beginning efforts. Don't try to impress that overly critical sister. Her negative comments can do more harm than good



My favorite painting of all time that I've done so far. Not one that received any acclaim, awards, or attention.


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2 Comments


Inspiring, informative and wonderful article!!! Just what I needed today!

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Such a great article! Thanks!

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