Staying the Course When Painting Gets Hard


 Donna Zagotta, The Optimist

It’s all a struggle. I don’t know what should be there until it gets there.”  Susan Rothenberg

Back in December I wrote about my intention to continue painting through the holidays. That commitment was especially important for me because I was just getting back to painting after a long hiatus. I started and completed a small painting, and I was quite pleased with it – mostly I was amazed that I still remembered how to paint at all!

With my confidence restored, I decided to really go for it and began a large painting.  And then, as Picasso pointed out, “One never knows………one starts a painting and then it becomes something quite different.” In my case what started out as a beauty gradually turned into a beast. I found myself at “the edge of the precipice” needing to make a decision: do I stay the course or do I abandon ship? Which for me translated into: should I keep painting, or should I stop painting and soothe my disappointment and frustration by immersing myself in the joys of the holiday season?  I reminded myself that I had been there before and that the only way out is through. I also knew that I would be more disappointed in myself if I quit than if I stayed the course and failed. I am happy to report that I stayed the course and in the end I was thrilled with the results. But it was one of those paintings where I struggled from day one and continued to struggle for the entire 6 weeks that I painted, re-painted, revised, wiped off, edited, and became totally entangled with my painting. What an exhilarating adventure! Easy for me to say now – it was not so easy when I was in the trenches and wrestling with it all. 

For various reasons, many of us unconsciously believe that painting is or always should be “fun.” Additionally, many of us also hold these beliefs: art shouldn’t be hard, art shouldn’t be a struggle, and art isn’t hard for “real artists” – and by “real artists” we usually mean everyone else but us. So, when we make the decision to commit ourselves whole-heartedly to our art, and then find ourselves experiencing pain, frustration, disappointment and angst mixed in with varying amounts of joy and pleasure as we engage in the painting process, we often conclude that something must be wrong with us. Or that we aren’t talented enough…….or creative enough…….or good enough…….or smart enough – you know the drill. When thoughts like these take over, it’s very hard to stay put and continue working on our work.  

Here are 5 tips for staying the course when painting gets hard:    

•Remind yourself that there is only one thing that can guarantee your failure, and that’s quitting.

•Get real. Don’t engage in magical thinking and convince yourself that painting isn’t or shouldn’t be hard work. 

•Learn to really say YES! to the hard work, frustration, disappointments, and failed efforts and other obstacles that you will encounter on your path to success. As Sir Winston Churchill said, Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.”

•Eliminate negative thinking by reframing your thoughts in a positive way. For example, rather than beating yourself up with the thought that painting shouldn’t be so hard, remind yourself that painting is necessarily hard and that mistakes and failure is part of the package if you want to keep growing as an artist.   

•Acknowledge and celebrate each time you stay the course instead of abandoning ship. 

How about you? What do you do to keep on going when the going gets tough? I’d really like to hear from you!

Happy Painting!     

14 thoughts on “Staying the Course When Painting Gets Hard

  1. Ruth Armitage

    Hi Donna,
    I love the topic of this post… so real & so true! What keeps me going is something I learned about fundraising for a favorite non-profit once. Someone told us that you have to decide that it’s ok to hear the word no frequently when you are trying to raise funds, because that word leads you one step closer to hearing the word yes.

    I try to think of my paintings like that. I feel like even my failures bring me closer to success because they help me define what I don’t want to do. I think this can actually help define what I DO want to achieve 🙂 Hope this makes sense.

    1. Donna Post author

      Hi Ruth – thanks for commenting. And thanks for your words of wisdom. It seems like that fear of failure is often the culprit that stands in the way of our making progress. As you point out, finding ways to feel more comfortable with the fact that failure is part of the whole package is a major key.

    1. Donna Post author

      I love the title too. I painted it at a time when I felt like the world was crashing in on me – and I was searching for a lifeboat. It was like, “the sun will come out tomorrow.”

  2. Vandy Massey

    Hello Donna,

    What perfect timing. I’ve just started painting again after a long-ish break and this post is absolutely spot on. I read a great post about fear of failure this morning too and have linked to your post and that one in my blog post today.

    I try to remember that every painting that doesn’t work is just preparation for the ones that magically appear on the paper.

    1. Donna Post author

      Hi Vandy – thanks for your comment! Getting back to painting after a break is a real challenge. I find that’s when I do a lot of stalling – finding reasons that I can’t possibly go to the studio today. Things like grocery shopping, housecleaning, laundry etc. Over the years I’ve learned to recognize my “stalling tactics” and I’m dealing with them better, although they’re still there.

  3. Christy Lemp

    I laughed reading this because you got right inside my head! It’s so reassuring somehow that other artists go through the same struggles. Many people don’t realize that art is such work and we’re continuously reaching for our potential we know is in us. Hmmm, I’m married to a golfer and I know he can relate to that!

    1. Donna Post author

      Hi Christy,
      Thanks for your comment! Yes – golfers and artists are similar in that they both practice as they play, and challenge themselves to become ever better at their games. Fore!

  4. Dee Doyle

    Donna, As a “lurker” around your site, I am also a sycophant and follower of yours. I teach at senior centers, and often feel like the great imposter. But I DO produce the occasionally good painting, and believe as you do that the only way to get through it is to get through it. I also believe, for myself and my students, that we have to paint “this” one, before we can paint next one.

    I SO love that YOU whom so many of us admire, get those feelings and bumps in the road. I would so love to meet you in person. In the meantime, I feel as if I know you through your DVD. I have seen it and shown it at least a dozen times!

    Thanks so much for your teachings and insights!


    1. Donna Post author

      Hi Dee,
      Thanks so much for your kind words! I love what you said about having “to paint this one before you can paint that one” – that’s a great saying to keep in mind. I frequently find that I’m one step ahead of myself!

  5. Toni Stevenson

    My husband always does a double take, when he looks at my paintings in progress. “Why did you change it? I liked it the way it was yesterday” I didn’t like it, I wasn’t satisfied. I forge ahead trying to reach the ideal that floats in my head. Sometimes I am satisfied, sometimes I still think it needs further revision, especially after a year or more. I believe it was Turner or Degas who took his paints to an Exhibit and repainted an area that bothered him.

    1. Donna Post author

      Hi Toni,
      Thanks for commenting! Manifesting that illusive – fabulous – image we have in mind is really a challenge and what keeps us coming back to the studio. Actually, perhaps it’s is the process of chasing that illusive image rather than actual product that keeps us there. I find that thought to be very empowering!

  6. Jim Carpenter

    Hi Donna,
    I have noticed that I have a time in my process where I am so frustrated with my painting that I want to tear it up. It’s pretty visceral; I can feel the desire to destroy it in my muscles! But I have learned through the years that this is just my process. I begin with lots of hope and when I am 3/4 of the way through I sink into despair. Now when I want so badly to tear the painting up I know that I’m nearly done. I just push through.

    Also, regarding Toni’s comment about completely revising a painting – I keep photos of my paintings in progress – one painting I revised many times and when I went back and looked at the photos I realized that if I had put the painting under the table and just started a new one I’d have had a series!

    Art is hard work. If more people in powerful places knew what it takes to make any work of art, the arts might be the center of school curriculum instead of the periphery.

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