Fear of Failure

People do not become brave in a vacuum—they get that way by taking risks.

Along the Pecos River in Winter, by Carol L. Douglas. Available.

The newest diversion for small businessmen in America is to sit up nights and think about what they should cancel. I had my most recent conversation about this with Jane Chapinon Saturday, as we try to figure out whether my New Mexico workshop is on or not. The problem in New Mexico is the same one we faced here in Maine earlier in the year: the same advisories that are appropriate for places like Albuquerque are overkill for small mountain towns. Even though painters will be safe in Pecos, we still must abide by state law.

It may seem like tempting fate, but I don’t worry overmuch about coronavirus. It’s wise to be cautious about it, just as it’s wise to be prudent when camping in bear country. But I’m in good health for my age, and my chances of recovery are vastly greater (better than a hundred to one) than dying if I contract the disease. I’d like to live to a great old age, but, as Lucy Angkatell chirpily notes in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, we’re all going to die of something anyway.

Downdraft snow, by Carol L. Douglas

The Hollow was written in 1946, and Lady Angkatell’s attitude toward death is as obsolete as the novel’s melodrama. Modern society is constructed around a fierce desire to minimize risk. We worry about lawsuits; we worry about perceived threats that may have little basis in reality. We’ve been conditioning ourselves out of risk-taking for most of my adult life.

When I was a kid, we routinely walked to school without adult supervision, played games without adult supervision, rode horses without adult supervision, and used tools and equipment with only the loosest adult supervision. Today, kids are barred from doing these things, yet the child mortality rate has never been lower in America (largely because of vaccines).

New Mexico Farmstead, by Carol L. Douglas.

When my kids were babies, the bogeyman in the room was child abduction, which kept a whole generation under the watchful eyes of their mothers. It turned out to be largely illusory, but it effectively ended childhood freedom.

Yesterday I was talking with a Zoom student from Tennessee. He mentioned that he learned to drive a tractor at age 8. Today, he’s a pilot. I was about the same age when I learned to drive our Ford 9N. By age 14, I was moving hay from fields in one town to our home farm in the next. Had I been injured in a farm accident then, it would have been a tragedy. Today, it would be a reason to pass a new set of laws barring kids from farm work.

Pecos hillside, by Carol L. Douglas. No, our workshop isn’t scheduled for snow season; I just have a perverse liking for winter.

But being raised as ‘free range’ children was formative to creating intrepid adults. A child who learns how to manage risk will grow into a confident adult. That’s key, as I wrote recently, to success in the arts. People do not become brave in a vacuum—they get that way by taking risks and accepting defeat.

I occasionally have a super-achiever in painting class, a person who has always been the best at whatever he or she attempts. That’s a terrible handicap in art. The inability to accept failure means they can’t accept the risk that is inherent in all art-making. Their fear of failure consigns them to fail.

Art, after all, could be defined as a series of failures on the way to an impossible objective. For that, risk-taking is a great teacher.

By the way, if you wonder why comments must be moderated on this blog, it’s because of mornings like this, where I start my day by deleting dozens of bot-spam comments before I can actually write anything.

Where do the dogs go?

Failed paintings are less common than you think. You just have to look at them the right way.
This is an example of an unfinished painting that pointed the way forward. It took years for me to understand where I was going with it.
Last week, as I dithered about which paintings to submit to Santa Fe Plein Air Fiesta, a reader wrote, “Can you write a post sometime about what you do with the second-tier paintings you make? Do you just scrape them? Give away to unsuspecting strangers? Donate, unsigned, to charity thrift shops? Let them accumulate and breed in a dark basement?”
First of all, let me be clear that I don’t think any of last week’s five (or the one I didn’t finish on Friday) are ‘second tier’ paintings. I’m happy with them all, and I think they’re sellable. They’re not sellable in either of the galleries that represent me on the Maine coast, however. I have two options: I will market them through my own studio, or sell them online through Chrissy Pahucki’s pleinair.store.
Spring, by Carol L. Douglas. I hated this when I painted it. Now I’ve almost caught up with it.
I’ve done plein airevents where I’ve sold exactly nothing, and other events where I’ve sold everything. It’s unpredictable. At the end of the summer, I usually have more work left over than I’ve sold. Usually these works end up selling in future years. Occasionally, they end up donated to fundraisers, but only for organizations I care about, who can get a fair-market price for their work.
But let’s talk about paintings that aren’t good enough to sell. It happens, although the artist in his or her post-creative exhaustion is the usually the last person to be a good judge of whether a painting has merit or not. Some artists are quick to scrape out everything they don’t like. After all, professional-grade painting panels are expensive.
Hollyhocks, by Carol L. Douglas. Sometimes you have to paint something a number of times to realize you aren’t interested in the subject. I thought I should be, since I’d planted this garden.
I don’t think scraping out is a good idea. It means new and difficult ideas are stillborn. How do you find a path forward without contemplating each tangled byway to see if this is the way forward?
These paintings—the edgy, difficult ones that don’t seem to have much value—go on racks to dry, and then into into bins in my studio, where they’re available at a reduced price. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked through those bins and suddenly seen something wonderful that I’ve never noticed before. My brain likes the status quo. Often it takes a few years for it to catch up with the intelligence of my hands. Those bins are part of the process of dragging it forward.
59th Street Bridge Approach, by Carol L. Douglas. There are subjects I used to love, but love no more.
I have a few customers who love the bins, and they root through them every time they visit. They can definitely get a good bargain there, because the binned paintings are available for a fraction of the cost of framed paintings.
Sometimes, these binned paintings live on as reference for larger works—I’d much rather scale up a field sketch in the studio than a photograph. Sometimes, I revise and finish in the studio. For example, the seasonal lag between New Mexico and Rockport, ME, means that I can comfortably find an apple tree here to use to finish Friday’s painting.
But, yes, sometimes I paint total dogs that aren’t useful for reference, for overpainting, or for any purpose known to mankind. These I destroy. Although that doesn’t happen very often, I reserve the right to edit my own legacy.

When you’re a terrific failure

I’ve got an image in my mind and I can’t get it out on paper. Have I lost it?
Winter Lambing, by Carol L. Douglas
If you visit my studio this morning, you’ll find a massive pile of failed sketches on my work table. So many, in fact, that I’m now out of watercolor paper and have to buy more.
A few weeks ago, Facebook friends posted the photo, below, of their house in Sanborn, NY. There was a narrative quality to the simple frame house and the windswept snow, and I asked them if I could use it for reference. It was evocative of all the many winter evenings I’d driven along Route 31 in New York. Those drives were empty, flat and dark, broken by occasional holiday lights. At the town of Barre, you could count on a cross-wind to pick up the snow and throw it into the road, making the driving especially treacherous. My painting Winter Lambing, above, was based on a photograph I took on that stretch of road.
If my mind had left it there, I’d have been fine. The photo is beautifully composed as it stands. I am not averse to open space on the canvas, because it’s often a different sort of information. But then another thought crept in and started thrumming in the background. It’s terribly familiar and it starts like this:
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;  
He will not see me stopping here  
To watch his woods fill up with snow…
Robert Frost’s little horse was nosing his way into my painting—not literally, of course, but the sense of waiting in the deep woods. Now I wanted both the little house with its lights and the road and woods. That would be a truly autobiographical painting. The problem is compositional. I haven’t worked out how to do it yet.
One of a gazillion fails.
The two images are fighting a titanic battle. I’ve lined spruces up in the foreground, with the little house twinkling in the back. I’ve put one goofy tree in front, which was a dismal solution (and the one that happened to be on my phone this morning). I’ve tried everything I can think of, in my sketchbook and with paint, and gotten absolutely nowhere. The trouble is, there’s no depth to this painting as I’m currently envisioning it, merely a series of planes stacked up one in front of the other. And as soon as the woods enter, the stillness exits.
So, I did what every (honest) artist does in this situation. I beat myself up about all kinds of other, unrelated disappointments. I had a wee dram—nay, two—and emailed my friend Martha about a cookbook she’d recommended. I watched some footage of old Rockport with my husband. And, of course, I asked myself whether I was over the hill, washed up, done. Had I suddenly forgotten how to draw and paint?
Years ago, I broke my thumb with a table saw. That was, in fact, a miracle accident, because the kickback caught me in my hand and not in my gut. I’d just had a groin-to-breastbone surgery, and the incision was still stapled. I scared myself witless, and didn’t go back to using the saw right away. To this day, I can’t touch one.
Just as with riding, the problem isn’t the fall, although that often hurts like hell. The problem is picking yourself up and getting back to work. Happily, I’ve found that these horrible dry periods are often a gloss over some serious work going on in the background, which in turn lead to important discoveries. I’ll be back at it again tomorrow.

Recovering from failure

What do you do when it’s all going wrong, and there’s an audience for your fiasco?

Can I finish this successfully? Gee, I hope so.
I am tossing around a theory that there’s a sweet spot in composition. On one side, you have the so-called ‘perfect composition.’ We’re always upset when these don’t win prizes, but—hint—they can be boring. On the other side is the total mess that breaks all rules, that is visually jarring and doesn’t satisfy.
Somewhere between them is where I aim to be. I have hit that at times by breaking rules (yes, the same rules I tell my students not to ignore). Not yesterday.
Carol’s Bell Curve of Composition
It was a horrible day painting. Nothing I touched worked, and I couldn’t focus. Why?
It’s possible I set myself up to fail. That morning, I told watercolorist Ted Lameyer that I almost never end up flailing around these days.
It’s also possible that physical discomfort was getting in my way. My back is bothering me. And after working for several days in hot sun with insufficient fluids, I have a background dehydration headache.
It’s more likely, however, that the problem lies in the challenges I’ve set myself. I want to scale up my field painting in general. The smallest painting I want to do here is 11X14.
The subjects I mapped out for this year are also difficult. They’re things I’ve shied away from in previous years. For example, Castine’s common is a lovely patch of green ringed by venerable white clapboard buildings. It’s quintessential New England, but it’s basically a void surrounded by subject, with the added fillip of a Civic War monument smack dab in the middle of every view. My solution—a head-on view of the Adams School—may interest me, but it’s going to be a tough composition to wrestle into submission.
Maxwell the boatyard dog. His interest makes me wonder if my late dog Max peed on my backpack.
Still, I have no option but to recover. How will I do that?
There are several painters at this event whose judgment I trust; I will consult them today. Why listen to them rather than my own internal voice, which I usually trust?
In the heat of the moment we often hate what ain’t bad. Last year at this event, I painted the British Canal. I spent half my time on it and disliked the results; I would have run over it and tossed it in the ocean had that been an option. It’s in a collection here in Castine and I saw it last night. It’s actually an interesting and edgy painting but I was too frustrated at the time to realize that.
I find it helpful to remind myself that I don’t have to prove that I can paint; I wouldn’t be here if I couldn’t. I try to block out what happened yesterday. Above all, I don’t perseverate over failing paintings; I move on.
And, lastly, I make sure I get enough sleep. Sometimes my worst failures are from simple exhaustion. Fix that, and I’m once again my usual chirpy self.

Rescuing failure

Ellwanger-Berry Garden, 12X16, oils. This almost got scraped out; it’s ended up being one of my favorite paintings.
There’s a view outside my house that has defeated me. It is a sycamore set against a curving street. It’s elegant, architectural, and should be easy enough to paint. But I’ve yet to realize it in a plein air painting.
If you fail at something, hooray! That means you’re pushing past what you know. You’re on your way to your next discovery. You’re breaking limits. Each failed painting, ironically, puts you one step closer to success.
Safe Harbor, 16X20, oil on canvasboard. Sometimes you have to paint something repeatedly before you get it right.
It’s a good thing that failure is such a positive thing, since I do it so frequently.
Occasionally, when a painting is past salvaging, I scrape it out and accept my failure. But if it’s not completely terrible, I save it, set it aside, and go back and look at it later. Sometimes I have found that some good paintings completely eluded me at the time I did them. But regardless, when it starts to go wrong, I’ve learned to stop throwing more time, energy, or paint at it.
Failure sucks, but the only way to defeat it is to try again. That doesn’t mean going back to that sycamore and beating it up with a pencil; it means painting again tomorrow. And the next day. And the next day after that.
Moorings, 14X18, oil on canvasboard. I didn’t like this when I painted it. Marilyn Feinberg, who was with me, liked it. I’ve come to agree with her. Another set of eyes is always helpful.
Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park in August 2015. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.

The Linchpin

Girl falling into fountain while texting, 6X8, oil on canvas
Years ago I had a large brush-pile in my backyard, left over from clearing trees. I would have burned it where it sat, except it was too close to the woods for safety. As the greenwood decayed, it slumped into a solid, stinking mass. I pulled and yanked but got nowhere. After hours of clipping, cutting, shifting and swearing, I was about to quit, when something shifted and the whole thing just came apart.
Beak! Boss! 6X8, oil on canvas
Anyone who’s ever sewn knows that the last seam you put in when you’re overtired will be wrong. And I can’t count how many times I’ve done a computer project only to realize when I was almost finished that there was a faster, easier way to do it.
Art has a steep learning curve because we’re often doing things we’ve never done before. A lot of our time seems to bear no fruit. But stagnation and even falling backward are an important part of the process.
Baby Monkey Riding on a Pig #2 (Abi’s Opossum),  6X8, oil on canvas
Every morning I spend about ten seconds posting my blog pictures on Pinterest. I get the occasional note that something has been repinned, but in general it doesn’t feel like anyone is paying that much attention. Yet I recently got a note that I had more than 26K Pinterest hits in 2014.

Esther is the one of the two Bible books that has no star turn for God. It seems to be a series of human interactions, the majority of which go pretty badly for Esther and her people.  But a seemingly insignificant thing happens—Ahasuerus can’t sleep. The story his courtier uses to put him to sleep turns out to be the pin which releases the salvation of the Jewish people. The events are all worldly, but the net result is miraculous.
Baby Monkey Riding on a Pig #1 (with gumdrops), 6X8, oil on canvas
All of which is to say that our human perception of progress is exceedingly narrow. So keep plugging. You never know when you’ll pull the linchpin.
Pull Up Your Big Girl Panties, 6X8, oil on canvas
Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.