Are you Good Enough?

Damn right you are!

Don’t believe everything you think. If you’re thinking you’re just not good enough you’re allowing negative thinking to take over and wasting time and energy feeling unnecessarily unhappy and discontent.

Not reaching a particular place yet that you want to be in your life doesn’t mean you are failing. If you are putting in the time and making the effort then you are exactly where you’re meant to be. Too many of us equate success with perfection and if we’re not perfect then we are failing. We miss the point that failures or missing our goals are often valuable lessons that are helping us on our way. Being ambitious is no bad thing but doesn’t serve us well if we don’t focus on the present and on our process without constantly striving for a particular result. Things will be more relaxed and fun if we can let go of results and go with the process.

Comparing ourselves with others is another big mistake. Social media tends to record people’s highlights and successes. Not many people share the lows and failures, but they are having them just the same, just like the bad days and the worries and cares that the rest of us have. Oh, and they’re probably comparing themselves to others too so time to stop playing that fool’s game. Just keep in mind that there are and always will be, people higher and lower on the rung than you which is another reason to just concentrate on where you’re at right now. When the time comes to climb another rung it will be far more satisfying and rewarding if you have been fully engaged with your previous level rather than carrying frustration and discontent with you. Happiness is about being at peace with where you are right now and not with where you are not. Enjoy each stage as fully as you can.

So, if you are going to enjoy each stage it probably means occasionally checking in that you’re on the right track which is what I’ve been doing. Having had my little success of having paintings chosen to exhibit in London last week, I’ve been taking stock of my year to date and what I’ve achieved and what I wanted to achieve. I’ve had many wins this year, most modest but wins just the same that deserve my acknowledgement. However, I’ve been having a nagging feeling about my approach for a while now and have finally faced up to the fact that I’m not very happy with some of the work I’ve been doing recently. I believe that the time I have been giving to gain a social media presence has compromised my quality thinking time for my art practice which has affected my output. Social media is the double-edged sword; it gives us so much access to self-promotion and self-determination, particularly in the notoriously difficult world of the arts which can be just about impossible to break into. It also takes up a great deal of time and strategy planning which in my case has given me less time for my art and what I want and need to express in it. I’m putting the hours in the studio but not my heart and mind in the way that I did when producing the paintings that were selected for exhibition. I am not happy with this. I’m at a time in my life when I can choose for my art and my process to come first before any public recognition.

So, am I good enough? Well yes, I believe I am but if I want to keep being good enough I have to redirect my focus away from social media and towards the studio. Social media doesn’t have to stop dead in its tracks but it’s not getting the amount of headspace it was. That belongs to what I love and must not lose sight of. Lesson learnt. Recognition for me may take far longer, indeed may never come, but I will always make room, and plenty of it, to pursue my passion whilst I can. If happiness is about being at peace with where you are right now and you are not, it doesn’t hurt to carefully examine your situation and attempt to put right what you are getting wrong.

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Creativity is just Hard Work!

It’s a common belief that creativity is a natural skill that not all of us share but research tells us it’s a learnt skill. Just because there are people who are more predisposed to creativity doesn’t mean we don’t all have it. It’s about putting it into practice and the more you practice the better you become.

Creativity may be art, music, acting, writing, cooking, business ideas, inventions; whatever it is, it’s how you get in touch with who you really are and why it’s so important. We are all unique so what we create has the potential to be unique also.

Being creative doesn’t mean starting from scratch. It’s about being observant and mindful of the world around us, understanding when something resonates with us. When we make this link with something that fires us up, we have the start of something that we can focus on, analyse why we are attracted to it and work on in a multitude of ways. When all the ways of working with this concept have been exhausted for the time being, it’s good to leave it for a while and let it ferment naturally in its own time. In time it will percolate to the forefront of the mind usually with a burst of ideas and energy.

However, just because you’ve found your burst of inspiration and you’re ready to begin work, it doesn’t mean it will all be plain sailing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve marched into my studio brimming with ideas and enthusiasm to look with despair some time later at the most dreadful painting because nothing came together in the way I imagined. Be prepared to create rubbish! Sorry, but this is all part of the process. It really is important you keep going no matter how awful what you are producing is. Just get it out there. Once you’ve taken the plunge and completed the work, you either have something good enough, or more likely, something to work with that you can respond to. Incomplete work makes that much harder as you’re missing so much information.

You must also work regularly and consistently and do tons of it. This will help you work towards your ambitions with purpose and keep improving your skills. Producing a huge volume of work, no doubt most of it substandard to begin with, means there are more gems to find hidden in it, and as your standard constantly improves there will be more gems than rubbish.

The toughest part of all is letting go of judging your work. You really aren’t the best judge of it and you should leave that to others and just keep producing. We are natural self-critics and rarely feel what we produce is good enough, but very often others don’t agree. That self-criticism can be very destructive, make you despondent and stop you in your tracks. Don’t let it. It’s important to share your work, that’s what creativity is about and it makes the world a richer place. It can also give you important feedback and spur you on to produce even better work. Of course you are risking negative criticism too, but take Brené Brown’s advice on that and don’t accept it from anyone who hasn’t put themselves out there and left themselves open to judgement also. Criticism is good if it’s delivered in a constructive and helpful way so that it helps you to improve. If it’s cruel and negative it’s worth diddly squat and should definitely be ignored.

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How I Make Decisions

I’m about to go on holiday and have had a hectic few days getting ready. Cup of tea in hand, I went to sit in the garden for a break and found my mind wondering to my art and trying to pinpoint when it went from hobby to something much more serious.

Perhaps I was always serious from the word go. For starters I never do much by halves and when I first started painting I was constantly frustrated by not being able to do this technique, not understanding that one, how on earth do you get the paint to produce that? I bought so many ‘How To’ books which for the most part were not very helpful. I think when you are right at the beginning you need a teacher in the flesh to help you. You Tube videos certainly helped more than the books but not always. With anything new you have a new language to learn, in practice as well as verbally and it can be very difficult to properly absorb ideas until you get a good basic smattering of that language nailed down. Learning is so difficult for the impatient and that probably means most of us! Thankfully there are many workshops and courses out there but always, always, they only take you so far.

In no time at all I was looking at Fine Art degrees and the like but when you get to that level the plain old business of painting seems to go out the window and it all gets far more theoretical when all I wanted was good painting skills. When I finally did find a year long course to teach this it was very expensive and I was paralysed trying to work out if I could afford to do the course, and if so, was it all a bit over the top for a hobby, no matter how much I enjoyed it? However, I kept feeling frustrated by not making the progress I wanted and coming back to the course repeatedly but unable to commit myself.

Courtesy of So Flow

Two factors helped me make the decision to proceed. My mother died, and the following year after 8 months of being very unwell, I had triple by-pass surgery. My mother’s life had been one of struggle, disappointment and very much one unfulfilled despite many attempts by various family members to persuade her to broaden her horizons and enjoy life. That, and shockingly facing my own demise at a relatively young age owing to rogue genes, gave me a whole new perspective on what things are important in life and how true is that old adage, “you only live once”. It was a gift really because now I always weigh a thing up based on what happiness it will bring into my or another’s life, rather than any other kind of return. Whilst painting is unlikely to make me a living or even pay for itself with regard to courses, workshops, materials and so forth, it brings so much joy into my life in a multitude of ways and gives me the most powerful means of self expression that I’ve ever had. Every application of paint on the canvas is followed by questioning whether it makes me feel good or not and what I don’t like gets covered up. So, in terms of whether it’s a path worth following, for me, it’s a no-brainer.

Of course, once that year was over I was looking for another way to get to the next level and it became apparent to me that this is how it will always be. I want to take my painting as far as it can go. Sharing, exhibiting and selling it, is all part of growing and improving and constantly pushing it on. There are always amazing teachers out there to encourage you, fellow artists to inspire you as well as help on their journeys, and viewers whose enthusiasm invigorates and stimulates ever better work. I can’t tell you what a far happier and more content person I have become measuring my decisions against how much love and joy can result rather than more materialistic or practical concerns that have a habit of sorting themselves out anyway. Life without happiness and joy is no life at all and not how I am going to live my life. My only regret is that I didn’t come to this realisation far sooner!

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Why You Must Take Risks

Failure feels so awful we do everything we can to avoid it, but without it we don’t learn and grow. We can choose to risk nothing and remain safe but ultimately lack fulfilment and harbour a sneaking feeling that somehow we’ve cheated ourselves by selling out. Only when we put ourselves in a place of vulnerability by exposing who we truly, uniquely are, do we set ourselves free and relinquish the greater risk of never fully realising what we could have achieved. Surely that’s the real failure.

Last time I wrote about changing things, stepping back, shaking things up and returning with a fresh perspective to overcome boredom. Another way of overcoming boredom is to take risks because risks mean change and renewed energy.  It makes you more vulnerable and transparent and that discomfort is the pathway to new and better work. Being a creative who is going to fully realise their potential is not about safety and comfort. It’s about always stepping outside your comfort zone, something, I confess, I have only recently come to understand and subsequently embrace. I saw how it invigorated my art and had me producing work I would never have imagined I could do. Taking on challenges and the unknown can be exciting and really make you and your work buzz. This is what we need and crave if we have the courage to do it and step out of the box. Experimentation, risk and change are the ingredients of growth, experience and confidence that help you really know yourself and release it into your work.

Every failure is more information that leads you to vibrancy and dynamism in your work. Stop being a perfectionist – it slows everything down and kills spontaneity. Audiences really appreciate seeing how your work has evolved, how you have experimented and tripped up on your way. It makes them part of the process and connected to you and your work and that’s what we’re in the business of doing – connecting with our audience. Something polished and perfect is not as authentic and as alive as demonstrative trial and error. We’re human and imperfect, just trying our best and that is what people will respond to, that you don’t have it all worked out but you’re having a damn good go.

One of the most powerful tools that will help you take risks and in so doing take your work to the next level, is freeing yourself from other people’s opinions be they positive or negative. It’s not enough to rise above negative criticism, you must also be wary of praise. Nobody says not to enjoy it, but only temporarily. Don’t get hung up on it or need it as validation of your work. If your work is honest and the best it can be right now, be proud and confident in it. Needing praise is as deadly as allowing negative criticism to squash you. It paralyses you from taking those chances that are necessary in your work because you are afraid of losing the love. You must remember this is your process, and your work. If you produce what truly and naturally comes from you, you are doing what’s right for you and therefore what’s right for your audience.

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Change is Good

Variety is the spice of life they say and it’s true that change can be very good for us.

I’ve spent many months working with oil and cold wax and still have so much to learn about it. However, I’ve found myself approaching things with something of a routine which I’ve just become aware of and made me feel a little bored. It’s very important to take notice of your feelings when you’re painting – if you’re happy and enjoying what you’re doing it will show in your work and resonate with your viewers. Feel bored or dislike your process, and that too will show up and needs to be avoided at all costs.

Out came the acrylics – it’s easier to be more spontaneous with these because of the fast drying time – and I spent a few days painting with them but it didn’t feel different enough and I realised I needed to do something else.

I took a complete break from painting and made my own sketchbook using simple book-binding techniques and water colour paper which I later gessoed. Very satisfying except I loved my home-made sketch book so much I didn’t want to spoil the pages by using them! So, my first task was to grab some pens and pencils and scribble randomly over all the pages so all feelings of being precious were laid to rest!

The next thing I did was to gather my acrylics, plus inks, all kinds of coloured pencils, pastels, pens, collage papers, stencils and odd textiles and an assortment of tools from brushes to old credit cards and rollers. Only keeping values in mind, I set to work on a double-page spread with the idea of seeing how much colour I could get away with and still call my image ‘white’. White has fascinated me for some time now; cool, warm, dirty, pristine, exclusive or mixed but I haven’t motivated myself to do anything about it so this was a great opportunity to have a go and in the process use some new materials, or ones I haven’t used in ages. This reinvigorates your practice and gives you new ideas to return with to the easel. Mark-making is so important and using a variety of tools and brushes adds so much interest and takes you on some very interesting journeys. It can give you some great ideas to utilise in your regular work, necessary if you want to keep it fresh and alive. My take aways have been to make much more use of collage in my oil and wax paintings as they are great for building up layers and textures, as well as respond to, and to include stencilling as well.

Humans are, by nature, creatures of habit, but it can make us stale and unadventurous and so too, our work. Always take stock of how you are feeling as you work, as that’s a great indicator of whether or not you should be changing your processes or taking a break for a while in order to return re-stimulated which, in turn, will be reproduced in your work. It’s very much like being fed up and taking a holiday and returning home fresh and revitalised.

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Why Playing helps you Work

One of the biggest pressures that artists put on themselves is to produce a ‘masterpiece’ every time they enter the studio and when that doesn’t happen, which is most of the time, leave despondent and frustrated.  The more that expectation is there, the more pressure is there and the more likely failure and frustration will follow.

It’s very easy to say leave the pressure at the studio door, and quite another to manage it, but it is important to find strategies to do this if painting or other passion isn’t to turn in to some sort of self-flagellation. I wrote last time of not necessarily having a plan when I paint but to follow where the painting leads and that’s one of the strategies I employ. If I don’t know what’s going to happen and consequently have no expectations, it’s much harder to fail. It doesn’t mean you don’t have frustrations and bad days in front of the easel or your equivalent, but it dramatically decreases them and that’s very worthwhile.

The way I’ve come to deal with this, which hasn’t come easily I might add, is to play. Now, I’ve never approached anything in my life since leaving childhood behind by play, and initially this all seemed frivolous and pointless. I was following a couple of courses which really expounded the benefits of playing and I would impatiently wait for this part to pass so the real work could commence. However, whichever way I turned, artists and tutors were going on about playing. So, eventually, giving in and lacking inspiration one day, I did just that. I created mess all around me, mess on the paper in front of me and found it all a bit ridiculous. I pushed the work to one side ready to throw and cleaned up. The following day I came into the studio, threw the work away and, still lacking inspiration, found myself playing again. Another mess to clear up and more work to throw. However, I felt a bit lighter and had discovered a couple of new colour mixes I would never have dreamed would work so that was something. The third day I entered the studio, brighter and ready to make a few notes of the things I had discovered from the day before which meant digging around in the bin and looking at this play work again, which in this different mindset looked quite different and very interesting. That done, there I was playing again but this time I really relaxed and got absorbed in the  process and at the end I realised there was something in this playing that was freeing and creative and actually a first step on the way to the ‘proper’ work.

Playing helped me uncover processes and methods that I would never explore when working on a ‘proper’ piece of work for fear of messing it up. It loosened me up and started to become my warm-up session. After a while I realised that parts of these spontaneous, unplanned pieces had more energy and beauty about them than what followed which confused and troubled me to start with. I just couldn’t get those lovely free marks in the work that followed that I could in the warm-up. Finally, it dawned on me that the warm up could be part of my ‘real’ work and that instead of keeping the two things separate the warm up could inspire and inform what followed but all in the same piece of work and this is how I tend to approach things now and really interesting work results.

So, out comes the panel that I’m going to start a new work on, and all kinds of crazy stuff get slapped on it, any colours, any textures, perhaps collage, perhaps scribbling. Anything that frees me up and gives me something to respond to. I continue like this until I feel ready to start thinking about a colour palette based on what is in front of me and continue with the areas that I like and cover up those that I don’t. This process can go on for many days before some ideas percolate to the forefront and start informing an image. Plus I will have quite a few of these panels on the go at once so as I dry up with ideas and falter I can put one panel down and pick up another and just go round and round in this rotation defining, refining, starting over, scraping back until something grips me and I become fully absorbed in exploring it. Left over paint at the end of the day usually gets smeared over a waiting panel ready for the process to begin again.

One of the most important things this process allows is for me to go into the studio at any time with something to do, ie get my paint out and any other materials that I fancy and mess about instead of procrastinating because I have no idea what I should be getting on with and no inspiration. It makes me show up every day and it is rare that I will leave having done nothing or feeling low and uninspired. Those days happen, they always will but they are infrequent. If you can keep curious and inquisitive wondering what will happen if I use this material with this material, if I mix these two colours, if I make this mark here and that mark there, and give it a go, you will keep creative, innovative and ultimately fulfilled.

Starting Afresh

This year I’ve taken a completely different approach in how I start a painting and it’s really shaken things up in my studio in a good way.

In my process before, I would have a clear plan of what I was going to do. The disadvantage of this approach is that if I didn’t have any ideas or inspiration, I didn’t paint at all and this was hugely frustrating. My process was to put down an imprimatura – simply weak transparent paint all over the white canvas, and then roughly block in the image in slightly thicker paint. Gradually each layer would become more defined as I progressed. All very organised, but for me, if I’m honest, formulaic and unexciting.

What I do now is slap paint all over the surface in a cacophony of colours and shapes with every tool you can imagine apart from a paint brush. Then oil pastels or pencils might be scribbled on and paint scraped back to reveal previous layers of colour and fascinating abstract images stimulating ideas and scenes. If I’m using oils, I need plenty of paintings on the go at once because of the slow drying time. With all the different variety of colours and shapes, there is something new and fresh to respond to so that my experience of each painting constantly changes with each pass keeping my creativity fizzing and firing at full capacity. It is so invigorating. With acrylics and their fast drying time the process can become positively manic. It is so much fun!

Every tool you can imagine apart from a paintbrush

Eventually after many layers of paint, I see a composition emerging or have figure drawings I’ve already prepared to hand that I think will work really well over a particular panel and I am off again, usually with paintbrushes now, sometimes painting my subject over the background and sometimes incorporating the background into the subject. The results are exciting and unique. Admittedly they don’t always work but what does happen without fail, is that there is something, an area, a colour combination, a quirky composition that does, and it is something I can take forward into a new piece of work. Lack of ideas or inspiration really isn’t a problem any longer.

I came upon this new way of working by discovering cold wax painting which is mainly used in abstract or semi abstract work and it has revolutionised my process even though I tend towards the figurative. It is dynamic, exciting, experimental and totally absorbing. If I use acrylics, I don’t use cold wax but the process is much the same. However, colours tend to be more brilliant and less subtle than using the oil and cold wax combination which I tend to favour. Either medium has its drawbacks and merits, but whichever I use, time spent in the studio is now always productive and a huge amount of fun.

Do More of the Things You Love

My painting ‘career’ started about 4 years ago when I finally got around to signing up for a local 8-week art course. We tried drawing, some pastels, watercolour and acrylic, and by the end I was hooked and didn’t want to stop.

I look back at my early efforts which I was so proud of and, whilst rudimentary, I’m still proud of them in a way and I think it’s because I got off my backside and finally got on with something I’d wanted to have a go at for ages. I really enjoyed it. I was hungry to get better at this painting malarkey and soon the shelves were filling up with ‘how to’ books, I was signing up for local courses and following YouTube videos at every opportunity. My painting table was joined by an easel which ended up in my office, which morphed into my studio, and still there wasn’t enough space for the latest art materials turning up at my door. Believe me when I say, no artist’s studio is ever big enough – it just gets filled to the brim in no time, every time!

Finally the day came when I felt confident enough to produce my own work based on my own source material rather than copying, and I felt I had sufficient practical knowledge to experiment, try new media, break the rules and be more daring.

Years ago, friends often told me they didn’t see me as an accountant and couldn’t understand how I’d got into that line of work. It certainly didn’t make me happy and I did some extreme things to escape but I never knew what I wanted to do instead. Painting certainly didn’t occur to me and if it had, it would have been dismissed immediately. It wasn’t going to pay the bills was it?

Now approaching my 60s, I regret all the time before that I wasn’t painting, experimenting, being creative and absolutely loving what I’m doing. So I make sure to make the most of the time I have now; immersing myself as much as I can in everything I love and keeping the rest to the necessary minimum. Had I tried more things, and very different things, to what I was used to, I may have discovered my love of painting far sooner and have had more time in my life to dedicate to it. My message to you? Open yourself up, give unusual things that have nothing to do with your current life a go, and you may find something you love or more things that you love. The more experiences you have, the more opportunity you have of being fulfilled. As Brené Brown tells us, “time is a precious, unrenewable resource.” Make it count.

Obedience & Defiance – Paula Rego at the MK Gallery

Paula Rego’s Studio, 2007
by Dinkydarcey

This was my first visit to MK Gallery at Milton Keynes and I was very impressed. Spacious but unimposing with a great book shop and a well curated exhibition.

Rego’s is art with a social message.  Don’t come looking for easy viewing at this powerful retrospective of Paula Rego’s work spanning the last 60 years. It begins with her work in the 60s concerned with Portugal’s fascist era under Antonio de Oliveira Salazar and in a style I was unfamiliar with. Paper drawings have been cut out and glued to canvas, along with acrylic, pastels, charcoal and graphite in a riot of colour and visual information overload. The title of one, “When we had a house in the country we’d throw marvellous parties and then we’d go out and shoot negroes” gives you the flavour of her critique on brutal colonialism. That is my stand-out picture in this room, the left side of the long image in light, creamy colours followed by dark, sinister griminess to the right, punctuated with the same cream to spotlight the horror.  

Then there are her anthropomorphic animal works often depicting a red monkey and a white bear in violent or malevolent acts which are about her personal love triangle followed by a large room showing her Dog Woman and Abortion series. Here, Rego is working in rich, beautiful colours applied in gorgeous, thickly applied pastels or acrylics to craftily pull you in and then sock it to you with its subject and message. Should you, for some reason, care to inform yourself about the sordidness and despair of back street abortion, you could do worse than start here. The paintings are raw, unflinching and heart breaking. I felt emotionally drained as I came to the end wondering if two of the paintings of women were schoolgirls. As I continued, I was confronted with nightmarish fairy-tale-like images about female genital mutilation and the complexity of female against female, mother against daughter, as mothers execute horrors on trusting daughters of nursery year age. By now my blood was running cold.

The paintings in the exhibition are fully explained and if you are unfamiliar with Rego, you really benefit. There is so much going on in her paintings whether it’s a tableau or a lone figure. ‘Sit’ shows a pregnant woman on a chair with her hands tied behind her, bare feet crossed. It is ominous and disturbing, but the woman is defiant, strong and beautiful and the picture expertly rendered. It is that face that resonates with me as I turn away. The triptych ‘The Betrothal; Lessons; The Shipwreck, after ‘Marriage a la Mode’ by Hogarth was finally unravelled for me after leaving me confused and perplexed at Tate Britain last year. Yes, I kind of got the idea of what was going on from the title, but I wanted to know in detail. So, the first is of two women surrounded by various family members discussing the marriage of their respective son and daughter, the second of the mother giving her daughter marital advice and the third is of the broken, bankrupt husband lying on his wife’s lap showing her as the strong partner of the relationship who will carry her husband through to salvation. Of course, there is so much more going on here too, Rego pours layers and layers of meaning into her paintings and gives and gives – for example, the husband lying on his wife shouts the Pieta. It is a magnificent feast for the eyes. As you continue, you see traditional roles often subverted as muse becomes man, and artist becomes woman, or woman becomes tormentor of man who is victim. It is endlessly fascinating.

Despite Rego’s paintings being almost always disturbing, they are amazing and full of stories that have you inescapably captivated and drawn in. Her figurative work is powerful, beautiful and accomplished. She deserves a far, far bigger place in our art world.

Obedience and Defiance at MK Gallery, Milton Keynes, now until 22nd September 2019. Click here for further details.

Talent is a Myth

Michelangelo: “If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.”

I fervently believe that if you are determined enough and willing enough to put the work in, there’s not much you can’t do whatever others say about needing talent to achieve it. To me, talent is a myth.

Despite studying History of Art at university, it never occurred to me to try to paint although I did do a short spell of extra curricula life drawing to keep my friend company and I should have learnt a thing or two then as my attempts steadily improved, but sadly I didn’t. So why didn’t I try my hand at painting? Well no talent of course. My attempts at school had been woeful, no art teacher praised anything I produced so I knew it wasn’t worth pursuing. It just left me frustrated and embarrassed.

However, here’s the thing. Back then if I had been determined to learn how to draw or paint and put the time in, I could have produced work to be really proud of. And so can you. I promise.

Remember the upper middle class Victorian ladies who had to showcase their accomplishments to succeed in the marriage market? They learnt to sing, play the piano and paint and those that practiced hard did it really well and it was nothing to do with talent. Dedication and time produced the results. It’s the same for great sportspeople – their magnificent achievements are down to sheer hard work. I do accept some people are able to do some things incredibly well without much effort, but these people are few and far between. In any case nearly all of us are good at something but it comes to nothing if we don’t focus and practice. Passion and dedication take you a very long way but unfortunately most of us rarely see that bit, just the end results. We instantly dismiss the possibility that we could do the same. What it’s very much about is “how much do you want it?” and “what are you prepared to sacrifice to be that good?”

So, if you’ve ever considered picking up a paint brush and dismissed it through lack of talent, I urge you – think again!

© Susan D’Alton 2019-2022