Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Cringe Factor

"Below the Divide"
Oil on Panel

In her "When Are You Ready" post last month, Lisa Call alluded to the phenomenon where you get to a certain point in your art career and look back and feel embarassed about the work you sold or exhibited previously. I like to call it the "cringe factor", and I'd venture to say that all successful artists feel this way at some point. The way I see it, if you're growing as an artist, you're going to reach a point where the stuff you're doing today is way better than what you did a year ago. It's a sign of growth and improvement, and it's a great way to measure progress.

Does it mean you should hold off on selling your work until you're sure you'll never cringe about it in the future? Absolutely not!! (If that was the case, I wouldn't be able to sell my paintings at all!)

I took my first plein air landscape painting workshop in 2003, and didn't really get into painting landscapes until I took a second workshop in mid-2004. Needless to say, the growth curve has been a little bit steep for me over the past few years. I look back at the paintings I sold when I got into my first gallery, and I can see why they sold, but I also see how much I've improved since then. I have paintings I did for my solo show last November that will probably go in the trash pile when I pick them up from the gallery next week (closing - a whole other story...) - and I only painted them seven months ago!!

Anyhow, one of my favorite ways to see how I'm improving is to tackle a difficult subject more than once, and this painting is one of those subjects. There's something about this location that I just love, but I've painted it three times now trying to get it right. I think it's fun to look at the images of these three paintings and see where I've come from. It gives me some hope about where I'm going!

So, here's version #1:

I painted this in the spring of 2005, roughly three years ago. I exhibited it in my FIRST juried art show ever. Even though it was just a tiny arts council type show, I was so excited to have three paintings accepted that Nate and I went to the opening in Steamboat Springs and had a fancy dinner afterwards to celebrate. I was still doing the corporate engineering job thing, so this was fun! The painting didn't sell, and to tell you the truth, I don't know where it is now. Probably trashed it during our last move? Anyhow, as you can see, it lacks subtlety. The colors are garish and repetitive - not so good. I remember spending hours trying to get that line of blue just right on the water - hehe...

Here's version #2:

I painted this a year later, in the spring of 2006. Same composition, slightly larger canvas. The colors are a bit more pleasant, the water is more realistic, and the brushwork is better. The trees are still a bit repetitive, and I can tell I still have green on my palette because all of the greens are the same. It's a better painting than the last, and it sold quickly. Looking back, I can see what I'd improve, but I also have to try to understand that the collector who bought it saw what they wanted to see in this piece. Hopefully they're still enjoying it.

This is version #3:

I painted it vertically this time to eliminate some of the pines since I wanted to the cliffs to be the center of interest. I'd like to say I've improved a lot in two years. It's subjective, but I do think there's more subtlety and variety in the color and brushwork. I've gotten over my need to always pile on the paint thickly, and started to use thinner paint in certain passages that require some more sensitivity in the edges (this painting probably isn't the best example of that, actually). The trees are better, and I allowed myself to paint the water more loosely so that it wouldn't compete with the center of attention. Overall, I think I did a better job conveying the mood and lighting of this location.

So, the moral of the story is that I may cringe at my older work, but that's a good thing - it means all the hard work is paying off! And I really hope I don't ever get to a point where I'm looking at a painting I did five years ago and thinking it was the best I ever did. As an aside, I had this conversation with a gallery owner once and he was telling me that a well-known painter he represents recently looked at a painting he did the year I was born and said, "That was a damn good painting!" All I have to say is that I can't fathom ever reaching that point, but if I do, it'll be because I'm really old or something. Call me critical, I guess.


  1. It's funny to hear your comments about colours being garish on version #1, as I love the piece you're referring too. I always find it interesting when a viewer likes the work that I don't, and vice versa.

  2. No cringing needed here. Stacy, your first painting is beautiful. The most recent painting has aspects that you now prefer but that does not diminish the beauty of the earlier work.

    I also like the subtlety and variety in the color and your sensitivity for edges in the more recent painting. Your technique is more refined now. What I find interesting in the earlier one is its foreshadowing of how you would be painting three years in the future. You could have made different choices - exploring stronger colors and big impasto - but you went a different way.

    I am happy for your choices and you are, too. But had you gone a different direction the results would have been glorious, too.

  3. great post stacey! and a brave one too. i don't think many artists would show their vulnerability like this. i feel all three paintings are beautiful in their own right. the brushstrokes and handling of color have changed, which is an expected maturity in an artist, but i love that each one represents you at a different point in your life. that is something to be proud of not cringe at.

    i prefer bolder colors to softer more subtle ones, therefore the first painting really jumps to me. it's about preference, your's have gradually changed, I agree wtih MLA's comments.

    i look back at older paintings of my own and think 'yuck' sometimes, but then i remember how passionate i was about them at that moment and remind myself that a great painting isn't always about perfect technique or color, but about the inspiration and passion behind the image the artist was trying to convey at the time.

    as artist's we are our own worst critics. these are three truly unique and beautiful paintings.

  4. Thanks for sharing an example showing your growth. I really like the vertical format for the last piece - it's wonderful!

  5. Veronica - art is so subjective sometimes that I figured there would be folks who liked the older version better - you proved me right!

    Michael - good thoughts! It's funny, but a few years ago, I would have said that my goal was to use thicker paint and brighter colors, but I've ended up going the other direction. I know that there are a lot of people who love thick juicy paint and bold colors, but I thought hard about things and decided I'd rather go in the direction of my paintings being sensitive and moody than bold.

    Christine - I think you alluded to something when you said that you're proud of old paintings when you remember the passion that went into them. That's why I don't mind posting my old work - I think it's so valuable to look back and remember who I was.

    Lisa - I'm glad you like the vertical. I actually think the format change was the biggest improvement!

  6. Stacey,
    As I read your post I think about my writing. I can't believe some of the stuff I wrote a year ago; or five years ago. Okay, really 1 day ago. Thanks for making me remember that learning and changing happen for every art form.

  7. Very intersting post confronting your performance a few years ago to yours now.
    yOUr style is more sensitive (is that correct?) and precise (reflection on water is just perfect!)!
    But I like both styles as I love the contrasts on the 2005 painting!
    Very inspiring!

  8. Interesting post. I hope to always be improving. I was at my sisters house last night and on her wall is a painting I did two years ago, yuck. I want to steal it and replace it with something new. I guess that happens to most artists. I do know people who don't paint well and will never improve because they are very satisfied with the way they paint. Barb

  9. Kristin - I could see this really applying to writing too. I think it's great if we're able to see the shortfalls of our previous work - it means we're improving.

    Helene - I'm glad you like both as I do think a lot of it is just an evolution in personal style. However, I didn't have the skill to paint in my current style two years ago, so the older stuff is more accidental!

    Barb - thanks for stopping by. My sister has a portrait of her son that I painted five years ago, hanging in her apartment - everytime I go over there I think I need to re-paint the thing! And you're right - there are a lot of mediocre artists out there stuggling to succeed because they are too satisfied with themselves to improve.

  10. I love these kind of thought-provoking posts!

    I think we, as artists always grow and change. That's one of the scary things: the fear that previous clients may not move with you.

    I can attest to seeing work from your past and rolling your eyes wanting to add/change it. But there's also times I see a work and it takes me back to what i was working on and pushing at the time. Kinda of a visual journal.

    I can also remeber pieces where I tried something for the first time and it worked! Those pieces, though game for changes, have sentimental value to me.

    Nice post! (So interesting seeing the changes!)

  11. I'm a big fan of thick juicy paint and bright colors, and as I sit here and stare at the portait of Daniel, I think that must be what you don't like about it. But I think it's lovely and you're not touching it. Hehe.

  12. It's so good to read your thoughts about your reactions to seeing previous work. I've had all those thoughts, so it's interesting to see them "written out loud" somewhere. I'm making an effort to look as kindly upon my previous efforts as I want to look on any other previous decision I made- it doesn't mean we aren't trying to learn still more if we aren't harsh toward what came before. The attitude we have toward our previous work is really attitude toward our previous selves -that's who did the work. I certainly don't want to repeat my old choices, but they were my best effort at the time, and so have their place in my journey. Blogging sure helps keep track, doesn't it? I've had a few cringes looking back in my archives. I even removed the link to my previous blog on my current one! But it gives me hope that my paintings 5 years down the line will be SO much better. Thank you for talking about this, Stacey!

  13. hi stacey. just want to thank you for putting up these paintings and being specific about how you've changed each one. i learn from that. i have your blog on "favorites" for inspiration. i quit a ph.d. to paint and i'm using a spare bedroom and watching videos of dan gerhartz, richard schmid, etc. and taking workshops when i can. thank you so much for your posts. laura

  14. Wow - what a response to this post!! I should post my bad paintings more often ;)

    Tracy - the fear of previous clients not coming along with the change is real, but I try my best not to paint for the market and ignore that pressure!

    Shannon - but that painting doesn't have ENOUGH paint on it. Actually, it's the drawing that drives me nuts - his hand is way too small!!!

    Susan - LOL at you not including the link to your old blog. Sometimes I think about deleting old posts, but I love to look back and see where I've come from.

    Laura - I'm glad this helps you out. I always hesitate to post things like this (if this were a blog aimed at selling my work I'd worry about what collectors would think), but in the end I remember that I write this blog for me and for other artists, and if it helps someone to see some of my shortcomings and struggles, then it's worth it.

  15. Beautiful work Stacey. I love the muted color and sense of depth. You were writing about the cringe factor, well do I know the feeling. There is a room in my basement full all of the stages of learning, about three years worth and many more to go. I regularly go through them and weed out the worst so I use the stretcher bars and start over with a new attempt.

  16. As a more recent arrival to landscape painting *and* as a fan of you work, I read this post with a different set of eyes than I might normally.

    I look at the progression you posted and absolutely see the growth and evolution.

    The first is a fine painting. It has much to recommend it.

    When I see the third, and then look back on the first, I see the first as being a well executed study for the final piece.

    There's a much more complex treatment of atmosphere, edges, color, and shape in the last piece. That sort of growth is always encouraging to see. Great job (and post) Stacey!