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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Thank you.


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.

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