Monday Morning Art School: deadlines

Sometimes it’s not fun. Sometimes it’s almost painfully stressful. What do you do then?

Home Farm, oil on canvas, 20X24, Carol L. Douglas

At my first plein air competition, I was a nervous wreck. “Come on, Carol,” my exasperated friend said. “Get a grip! You know how to do this.” At that moment, that wasn’t exactly true; I’d forgotten everything I ever knew about paint.

For some of us, commissions result in painter’s block. For others, plein air competitions are painfully stressful. Occasionally, I’ll have a student who freezes in my workshops. I used to suffer terrible performance anxiety, which is why I’m a painter and not a musician. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found ways to cope. These strategies are also applicable to life in general.

Jack Pine, 10X8, oil on archival canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas

The first of these is to have a plan. It may seem counterintuitive to go into a painting with a process mapped out, but in fact that’s what you have to do to complete any project within an allotted time. Not having a plan is the luxury of the dilletante.

When I flew to Edinburgh to paint a portrait in 2018, I had a deadline imposed by my plane tickets. I planned how long I had for the charcoal drawings, how long for the underpainting, and how long to finish the top coat. When I did Quick-Draws for plein air competitions, I knew I must finish the drawing and underpainting in the first hour in order to finish the top layers in the allotted time.

You might think that a flow plan is inhibiting, but it’s exactly the opposite. I learned this many years ago while painting a portrait commission for my late friend Dean. It was a surprise birthday gift for his wife. That meant a precise deadline, which he never let me forget. As I worked, I found the tight schedule liberating. I couldn’t perseverate and noodle endlessly on passages. That, in turn, meant freer, better brushwork.

Evening in the garden, 9X12, oil on archival canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas

Playwright Robert More was finishing a comedy when I last saw him. “I can rewrite this ending eight times, and the last one won’t necessarily be better,” he told me. “I’ll just end up with eight different versions.”

Having a set protocol is invaluable for quelling nerves. In addition to providing consistent results, it focuses your mental energy on the doing, rather than on worry.

Once you’ve established a painting process, practice it repeatedly—not concentrating on the results, but on mastering the process. Being absolutely prepared is the best cure for performance anxiety. This is the great benefit of painting-a-day schemes; they’re not about producing great artwork, but about getting a hammerlock on your process.

As you go on, stop thinking about all the ways you can screw up the painting. Instead, think only about the phase you’re in. If something goes wrong, don’t berate yourself. Above all, ignore the voices in your head that tell you you’re no good. They’re wrong. Instead, ask yourself where in your process you made a wrong turn.

Main Street, Owl’s Head, oil on linenboard, 16X20, Carol L. Douglas

In other words, develop enough self-awareness that you can monitor your own progress. When I’m nervous, I develop a tic of constantly rinsing my brush. That’s a mud-making mistake in any medium. Because I know I do it, I can stop it before it’s out of hand—and ask myself what’s gotten me upset.

Even in pressurized painting situations, take time to eat decently and get some exercise. Exercise lifts the mood and reduces anxiety.

Above all, don’t waste time worrying about whether the client will like the work, or whether you’ll make a sale or win a prize. Focusing on the results, rather than the process, can effectively kill a painting.

This is a rewrite of a post that first appeared in 2019.