Most, if not all, artists have times when they are discouraged about their work, or about how their work is received. Certainly if we look at artists from the past, many of the best ones struggled financially, emotionally, professionally, or all of the above. As sports players have slumps, artists go through periods that are fallow or difficult, when nothing seems to work, or we can't find the key, or we feel like we are laboring in obscurity. Society doesn't always embrace artists, who are left basically to fend for themselves, or art is perceived as a commodity, and there is talk about the "art market," the astronomically high prices for art of the past, etc., leaving the impression that the value of a work of art lies only in its investment potential.
It is a cliche that artists starve in garrets, and when they die their work may be sold for many millions of dollars. Van Gogh is a prime example of this; everyone knows how he labored in obscurity and finally in despair. Perhaps this is part of the charm of his mystique, and why people still line up to see his work; his vulnerability, like that of Marilyn Monroe, tugs at our heartstrings. Vincent may have committed suicide because his brother Theo, now married with a child, would no longer be able to support him. (Or, as a recent book suggests, he may have been shot by someone else.) After Vincent's death, there was more interest in his work, and in fact the Paris art world would soon embrace work like Vincent's, for example that of Gauguin, Seurat, and Cezanne. So the thing is - maybe if Vincent had just hung in there a little longer, he may have finally found the success he craved, or at least the respect of his peers.
There are many artists who did not receive recognition or success in their lifetimes, or if they did finally arrive, it was shortly before their death, like Cezanne. Cezanne was able to rely on the estate left by his father, so he was relieved of the need to support himself with his work. Luckily for us, he didn't have to work in a bank; he was able to fully commit himself to his work, which was not comprehended by the average person.
There is the idea that art is not a "legitimate" type of work; that it is a frivolity best saved for spare time, etc., or a luxury for the wealthy. But for artists who have a vision that they are compelled to share, art isn't frivolity or luxury - it's a necessity. And for society, art is also a necessity, although this may not be realized by many. We are the spirit-keepers, the mirrors, the candles. And we need to become our own best friends - to believe in ourselves and what we do. And stick together, rather than compete with one another.
So, it can be tough to be an artist; but the job satisfaction is very high. Art uses the whole person - the soul, heart, body and mind. It is a healing activity that brings the joy of producing something meaningful, for the world. It is a magical process, even though it is hard to learn and sometimes difficult to do. I think the origins of art are very old; they say now that art-making may have started hundreds of thousands of years ago, even before homo sapiens evolved. There are gorillas and one elephant who paint, who supposedly love the activity. Maybe some think that this means the activity of art takes no intellectual ability; I take it to mean that art-making is a pre-literate activity coming from our deepest past, that all sentient creatures are capable of accessing their inner selves to produce art. The two gorillas who paint can also speak sign language, and both have described their paintings to humans. Their images are based on specific subjects, and painted with appropriate colors and style to depict that subject. The paintings resemble Abstract Expressionism, with bold colors and gestural strokes.
We paint and sculpt our dreams, our nightmares, our loved ones, our future, our past, beauty, heroism, sorrow, and much more - anything that can be imagined and imaged. As a Beethoven symphony is without words and still expresses a great deal, even to those who know little about music, so art is part of us all. Those of us who make art have a special honor, and an obligation to ourselves and others, to be true to ourselves and to share our vision.
This isn't always easy, and sometimes we get discouraged. This can be due to:
Artists can get rejected when they enter shows, submit their work to galleries or other venues, or unsuccessfully put their work up for sale.
When we are rejected from a juried exhibition, as we all will be, it is a real disappointment. We have created our best work, we have framed it, and we have paid a fee to enter the show. I can only speak about art in the United States, but here there are now a great number of good artists, many of whom have had formal training. The number of eligible artists applying for almost any show is usually very high; transversely, the number of exhibition opportunities is relatively small. A local art center, organization or gallery will hold a juried show, having the capacity to hang maybe 40 or 50 pieces, or less. Two thousand artists will apply; obviously most will be rejected, not necessarily because their work is under par. A juror has to make tough decisions; he or she brings their training, experience and taste to the jurying process. They may have a preference for Minimalist art, or figurative work; they may have little or no art training. (Sometimes a local person is hired, perhaps a knowledgeable architect or craftsperson, who chooses work based on their experience, or lack of it.) Sometimes a juror will select work that collectively combines to create a consistent theme, aesthetically, for instance non-objective work. (Juried shows, where each piece is created by a different artist, can often be a hodge-podge when hung; this is a "necessary evil," but a juror may prefer to hang pieces similar in style, framing, or even size or medium used. One way to deal with this situation is to enter shows selectively, choosing those where your work has a greater chance to be accepted. This can be done by joining art organizations which reflect your aesthetic viewpoint; some art centers may specialize in representational art, other organizations may focus in new, experimental work. By visiting these centers and shows, you may be able to see a certain style preference, or level of sophistication. The identity of the juror also may indicate what he or she will choose; a juror's preferences may be predicted beforehand. Sometimes the entry form for the exhibition will include a juror's background; if the juror is from New York City, this may indicate a preference for new art, whereas a local art teacher may indicate a more traditional approach.
If you are rejected by the juror(s), and visit the show after it has been hung, the work there may explain to you why you were rejected. If you are a painter of flowers, and the juror has selected Minimalist paintings and sculptures, you will have your answer (or vice versa). I have gone to a show a couple of times, and found work that I considered more traditional than mine, or less competent. For the latter, we just need to be philosophical - these things happen in life sometimes. Sometimes, there is no explanation as to why our work is not chosen; it could be anything - the juror had a headache that day, she doesn't like the color red, he doesn't care for abstraction, etc. Just as we can be rejected in life, our work can be rejected. Try not to take it personally, or be offended; try to be philosophical about it, and try to focus on the shows you have a better chance of getting into. This may take some work and some time, but hang in there - there is a place for almost any type of art, you just need to find it. You might have better luck joining the local art center; they often have both juried and non-juried shows; the non-juried, usually called members' shows, hang every work submitted.
Many organizations also hold annual shows, often for fundraising purposes, such as colleges, nonprofit groups, and charity groups. Look for advertisements of these in your local newspapers, or check the bulletin boards at art centers and organizations for "call for entries." If you hear about a show, call the organization and ask how to submit your work for review for inclusion. When a show's purpose is fundraising, they may not care as much about the quality of your work, as about how well it will sell. (They are all about raising money; a local fundraising group stated upfront that they didn't care how good your work was, they only cared whether or not it would sell.) Usually, a group will want to see slides or photos of your work, or the originals, to see if your work will help them raise money, or appeal to their potential buyers. In this case, show them your most "saleable" work; from my experience, this could be florals, beaches, landscapes, or other appealing subject matter. But you can also bring a couple of things that are your specialty, perhaps unique to your work. Try to show them your best work.
There are also local art festivals, especially outdoors in the spring and summer; again, keep an eye on your local paper to catch these. These are usually not juried, and you can rent a space or stall for one or two days, where you sit all day and try to sell your work. These are fun, but can also be disappointing if your work is not all that commercial. Usually, smaller paintings and prints sell better here. I can remember sitting at a festival all day, and no one even stopped to look at my work; at the end of the day, the guy next to me who painted images on velvet had a big wad of cash to show for his day. (These experiences humble us; that may not always be a bad thing. It makes us really appreciate the highs when they come.)
If your work has been accepted and hung, is for sale and not bought, this can also bring a feeling of letdown. Again, try to aim for the best venue for your work - where it fits in best. And don't let it get you down for long!
To be shown in a gallery, we also usually have to show our slides, digital images, or our original work. You can also shop for a gallery; visit all the galleries in your area, hopefully more than once, to get an idea of where your work would fit in best. Then call the gallery you choose (or visit their website), to ask them what their artwork review process is; if possible, make an appointment to show them your work. Some galleries request that you mail images to them for review; it may take awhile to hear back from them. Make sure your slides or your Powerpoint presentation are professionally done, either with a good camera yourself, or have a professional photographer take the images. Nowadays images are usually created with a digital camera. Number and label the images, with your name, title of work, medium and date; try to include work done mainly in the last three years. Make a list of your images with the same information. If you are showing sculptures, you can include more than one view of each piece. A resume may also be requested; make sure you have a resume typed in a professional manner. A resume can include your education and specialized art training, your teaching or professional experience, relevant groups of which you are a member, and a list of exhibitions in chronological order, listing name of the organization or exhibition, location and year held, and any awards received.
Galleries tend to accept your work on commission, meaning they will hang it, and if it sells, you will receive payment. Galleries take a sales commission, usually between 35% and 90% - the average is about 50%, so set your prices accordingly. Some galleries have rotating exhibitions, usually on an invitational basis. A gallery can decide not to show your work; again, this may be due to a stylistic preference on the part of the gallery. Many galleries also are more concerned with profit margin than with quality; they may reject your work because they feel their clientele would not be interested in buying it. Don't assume that the gallery personnel are knowledgeable in art; they may be, they may not be. Don't take it personally if they decline to show your work; like a blind date, it may just not be meant to be! Try another gallery - don't give up! (Don't EVER give up, if you really believe in what you are doing.)
In summary, the best of us have been rejected: Cezanne, Monet, Manet, Van Gogh, de Kooning, and on and on! Don't let it get to you - it's OK if it slows you down for a little while, but don't let it stop you, if you really, really want to be making art. See The Solution, below.
Criticism can come from many quarters; from your roommate, your best friend, your worst enemy, a teacher, an art critic, and more. It can also be hurtful and discouraging, even devastating.
A casual remark can sometimes be disconcerting; "What is that supposed to be?", "That doesn't look anything like me", "It's so green", "This is finished?", "You're not supposed to use blue and red together in a painting". These are remarks made by ordinary people. The words of a teacher or art critic can be even more pointed and powerful. Teachers usually mean well, but sometimes they can say things that are off the beam. I had a teacher who told me that I should not put religious and non-religious items in the same drawing; (I had drawn a religious statue next to a plant.) These suggestions leave you scratching your head; when I was older I looked back and realized that this teacher was completely wrong. Try to put things said in perspective. Not everyone, teachers included, knows what they are talking about. Because they have a position of authority doesn't mean that they are always right. In art school, a painting instructor said that my idea of putting a vase of flowers in a portrait was "too sentimental"; I listened to him, and added an industrial sink instead. I've regretted it since; flowers were part of the expression I was aiming for - an Impressionistic feel for the image, and a direction I wanted my painting to go in. Because of his advice, this direction had to wait another 4 years to begin. Don't let someone waste your valuable time. In particular, don't let someone keep you from doing what you really want to do.
Often, we remember vividly these disparaging remarks - we can quote them, word for word. In art schools, professors sometimes seem to enjoy these putdowns, or at least feel justified in their criticism. I've seen students reduced to tears after a harsh "crit." I have always failed to see what the value of this kind of criticism is; perhaps to discourage a mediocre student from majoring in art. I just feel that none of us is that all-knowing, or has that much authority, that we can afford to break a spirit. Cezanne and Van Gogh, two of the best painters ever, both lacked 'facility' , meaning that nothing came easily for either of them. Their early drawings are very "bad." But this lack of facility proved to be a bonus for them, in that they were forced to produce original work - honest work, not the "polished" stuff of the prize students of their day (whose names are long forgotten).
I once had a student in my drawing class who seemed to have absolutely no perceptual ability. If I set up a still life with a bottle on the left, she would draw it on the right; I began to wonder if she was dyslexic. After a few weeks of class, she came to me in tears, saying that it was hopeless, that she could never learn to draw - she wanted to drop out of the class. She was a dance major; I felt that sooner or later she would be able to bring her dance experience to the drawing class - as the arts are all cousins. I encouraged her to try it for just a few more weeks. The following week, I showed slides of drawings in class. One slide in particular was a da Vinci ink drawing of a copse of trees, a very simple sketch. For some reason, she was inspired by this drawing; she began drawing landscapes outside, and they were wonderful. She was all fired up after that, and her work got better and better. Eventually, she became a drawing teacher herself. This experience proved to me that my feeling about criticism was true - that we never know who will succeed, or when.
Teachers can be very intimidating. An art critic in a newspaper or magazine can also be harmful. Their erudite and critical prose is perhaps designed to impress or intimidate; they perhaps think that their ability to criticize reflects their discriminating taste and sophistication. Far from it. A critic's true job is not to "criticize," but rather to elucidate and illuminate the work, and place it in its art historical context. The fact is that very few critics are remembered, whereas many of the artists they have belittled will be remembered forever. The magazine Art News has some really good critics, whose reviews are printed in the back of the magazine. Here it is easy to see the difference between a good and bad critic. One of these well written reviews (not necessarily positive) can also be a work of art - thoughtfully written, insightful, with pertinent background information on the artist and his or her historical context, etc. These enlightened reviewers illuminate the work for us, they help us to understand the artist's intentions and context. To have a negative review in a national publication can be decimating for an artist; I have met artists who experienced this, one of whom almost stopped painting because of it. These reviewers have a lot of power, in that sense; and also because their words in a major publication can "make or break" an artist, in the eyes of galleries, curators, etc. This is not what art should be.
Dealing with criticism:
Consider the source. Does the person have art training or experience? Is the person able to be objective? Does the person have a similar sensibility to me? How intelligent is this person? This goes both ways - if the person is intelligent, has training, has no axe to grind - perhaps some of what they are saying is true. We need to accept criticism without necessarily buying into it, or at least suspend our judgment. We need to consider it, over time, to see if there is anything we can gain from it. We can't take it personally; we can't feel that it renders us worthless as artists or people. If we look at it without our egos, we may glean great insight and help to make our work better. If we look at it in terms of helping us to be better artists - all of us can always be better - we just might find a breakthrough in our work, we might really grow from it. I once had a professor, whom I respected greatly, give frank and specific information about weak points in my work. I could see that he was right, and I was able to absorb and benefit from this information. I felt grateful to him for helping me improve my work. He gave the advice straight-on, without a personal attack.
On the other hand, when someone makes a critique into a verbal or personal assault, there is no value to this, to the critic or to the artist. When I read a scathing review, in which nothing positive is mentioned, I smell a rat. Does this person have an axe to grind? Particularly when the artist being roasted is a serious artist, with training, experience and something to say - which happens. Jasper Johns, the well known American artist, was once so roasted by a reviewer; where is the value in this? It reveals more about the reviewer than about the artist. There is very little serious art about which nothing good can be said.
Protect yourself. I have found that if I show someone a painting before it is finished, a remark they make might affect the outcome of the work, in a less than positive way. Not just because they might say something critical - even a casual remark may make me think differently about what I am trying to do. Matisse referred to the initial impulse of an artwork as the conception, and recommended that artists remain true to this initial conception. Sometimes a casual remark can alter the execution of the work, particularly because an unfinished painting can look very different from what the final product will be. And in the case of someone being critical of the unfinished work, this may also cause self-doubt or confusion, which may interfere with the artist's state of mind or self-confidence. So I generally recommend not showing half-finished work to anyone, unless they are a trusted friend, or a fellow artist who is familiar with your work.
I also recommend not talking about ideas you have before you carry them out. For some reason, I have found that doing this dissipates the impulse somewhat; like the saying of it eliminates the need to actually make it. Also, in telling someone you take a chance that they may make a disconcerting remark, perhaps discouraging or critical. I've found that we need to nurture ourselves and our work. When the work is finished, then others can see and comment; no matter what they say, the work has been completed and realized, so nothing can alter it.
Be your own worst critic. We need to learn to separate our artwork from our egos. The quality of our work doesn't reflect our value as people. We are all growing and learning; we all need to improve our work. Don't be afraid to look at your work squarely, to find weak spots and negative tendencies. The more we can do this, the better our work will become. Don't try to compete with others - compete with yourself, and with the great artists (aim high). If you are constantly striving to improve your work, by working, by looking at good art, reading about art, talking with others about it, listening to what good artists have to say about the creative process - your work will reflect this personal artistic growth and depth.
Student versus artist: When we are first learning about art, say the first 5-10 years of study, our goal is to learn as much as possible, to become a good artist (produce good work), and to experiment with new ideas and methods. For this reason, we have teachers and fellow students criticize our work in class, and we study design elements and principles, color theory, drawing, etc. At this stage we are making mistakes, and listening to advice and criticism, with an open mind. After this period, a young artist is still somewhat open, but is now more focused on his or her own vision (what is meaningful to them). We start zeroing in on our vision, we are less self-conscious about our work. We still experiment; but our acceptance of criticism is more selective than before. Finally, when we start to mature as artists, we keep only criticism and advice that is pertinent to our vision. In other words, our goal is not just to produce good work - it is to produce our own work - to produce a body of work that reflects our personal vision. So, now it is not just about correct technique, or good design, or following rules; it is not about formal perfection, or technical perfection. As Bob Dylan said, "I am not a musician - Segovia is a musician - I am an artist." He is not concerned with being the best guitar player, or the best singer; he is concerned with creating the music that will best carry his artistic vision, his view of the universe translated into art.
So when we think of criticism in this sense, it may or may not pertain to our work; if someone doesn't understand what we are trying to express, as mature artists, this means that the criticism is not relevant to us. So we need to discard it.
Be the best artist you can be. You need to be your own teacher, after a certain point. You need to figure out what your areas of weakness are, and work on those. You need to push yourself to keep learning, always stretching yourself and your awareness of yourself, and as much art as you can learn about - from different places and times. Listen to what good artists have to say about art, through books, films, workshops, gallery talks, etc. - doing this will help greatly - mature artists can give great insights about the creative process - its non-verbal nature can still be articulated by sensitive and knowledgeable artists. This also includes teachers, fellow students and well known visiting artists who come to give critiques and lectures.
Don't have the goal of fame and fortune - have the goal to be the best artist you can be, and make this a lifelong goal. If you concentrate on the work, chances are that the rest will follow - respect, recognition from your peers - and there's always that outside chance of becoming financially successful. Develop yourself as much as you can, by reading good books, experiencing life, seeing good films, dance, theater, and of course all kinds of art, hearing all kinds of great music. This self-enrichment will give you and your work depth and breadth - it will help you find what you have to say. Pay close attention to what moves you. Look for connections and meanings between things - not just visual, but social, psychological, political, and in nature. All these things can also inspire you, which is the best solution to discouragement.
Accept the dry times. Even baseball players have slumps, which shows that even purely physical activity is related to our state of mind. So much more so in the arts. I think that we have come to expect success all the time - masterpieces on a regular basis. This is not only unrealistic, but I think unhealthy. We expect musicians to produce great music on a steady basis, for years and years, but even the best can only do so for a certain number of years, particularly if their recording contracts specify that they are to produce on demand year after year. What happens is burnout and breakup - the Beatles are an example, as are many other rock groups and performers.
I believe that the "dry" times are a necessary part of the creative process. They are difficult to go through, but often they are incubators for growth and new ideas. If we accept them, rather than fight against them, we will be less self-conscious and more able to keep working, which is the key to working through them. They can be times when we learn a new medium or tackle a new subject; or experiment with a totally new approach. In art, sometimes we seem to be in a rut; not able to circumvent an obstacle. It may seem like we are getting nowhere; then suddenly things start to click, to our amazement, and everything flows.
The creative process feels to me like an airplane. It sits on the runway, motionless; then it starts up, and rides on the runway, gradually picking up speed. After a time, it takes off; and once in the air it really flies on its own momentum. It seems sometimes like it will never take off - but once it does, it feels great to be flying. These slow periods are often just transitional periods in the work; these transitional paintings may be mediocre, they may even be downright bad. But we have to accept these images without shame - their creation makes the good work possible, they are the legwork necessary for the real prize.
Antidote: Inspiration. When you are discouraged, seek for inspiration, wherever you can find it. It may be by looking at the work of artists you love, online or in the library, or in a museum or gallery, or at artists' work you've never seen before. It may be by walking outside, or by visiting a good friend or pet, or supportive family member. It may be by reading poetry, or an artist's biography or written words. We can get a lot from reading about the lives of artists - their struggles, their creative visions, their ideas and excitement. Matisse wrote some inspirational things in essay form; one is called On Painting. Kandinsky wrote Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Robert Henri wrote a book about art, The Art Spirit; Van Gogh's Letters to Theo (his brother), are great to read. Cezanne's letters have also been published. There are many other biographies, such as one of Georgia O'Keeffe. Whatever works to get you excited about art - use it.
The bottom line. I don't believe in the idea of talent - that we have it or we don't. Art is not measured only for its perfect design or flawless technique - the main objective in art is expression. If an artist has great skills, and has little to say, his art is not as valuable as someone with little facility and a great vision. Of course, the ideal might be to have both - but of the two, expression is the more essential ingredient. Expression is what is remembered centuries after the fact, whether it is Michelangelo or Van Gogh. So - this means that we are to be evaluated not by our aesthetic perfection, or our talent - but by what we have to express, and how well we express it. So, if we are criticized for weak design, or poor drawing, this is not necessarily a sign that we are not good artists. We should strive to be the best artists we can, in terms of formal elements, drawing, etc. - but the ultimate goal is our expression. We should not be as concerned with whether or not a work of art is "good," as whether or not it expresses something substantive and meaningful, for us and for others.
I once saw a TV talk show interview with a handful of songwriters. The host asked one writer if he worried about writing a good song; the writer answered, "No - I worry that I will not be able to express what I'm trying to say." I think this should be our goal - to be thinking more about what we are trying to say, rather than producing a "good" work. If we have done our homework, have worked and studied and stretched ourselves, the work will improve, and hopefully eventually will be good. But trying only to produce "good" work is an empty goal by itself, without expressing anything.
When students are just learning, they usually don't know what their "vision" is. This comes only with working - one thing magically leads to another, and soon it is a self-fulfilling process. By working, we not only find what we want to focus on, we also find out what doesn't interest us, and sooner or later we find our own way.
All these things - rejection, criticism, discouragement - can at the very least slow us down. It's normal for it to affect us - but try not to let it slow you down for long, and definitely do not let it stop you - if you really want and need to make art. If you believe in what you are doing - GO GO GO! These humbling experiences can be difficult to go through, but they make the high points feel even higher. The high points - praise, acceptance, a good review or critique, a sale - are good mainly because they give us a green light - to continue to make our work; to encourage us to keep going through the tough times. The good feedback we get makes it all worthwhile. The trick is to find your niche - whether it is a local art center, a gallery in a large city, the Internet, or your own backyard.
This can be done with individual works, and with your work in general. Often when we have been working intensely on an image, we are too close to it and can't see it anymore. If this happens, stay away for a few days; often when you come back, you can spot the problem areas right away. Another trick painters use is to turn the work upside down; sometimes unbalanced design or proportions stick out like a sore thumb. Another way to find the problem area is to cover different areas with your hand or piece of paper; when you find that the rest of the painting works with one area covered, this is your problem area. Then you can try to find alternatives for this area - correct the drawing, change the color or value, eliminate the area, etc.
For general criticism of your work, seek out a respected fellow artist or teacher for honest, constructive advice. As always, you can keep the advice, or discard it; art-making is a process of self-discovery. If it is relevant to you, keep it; if not, discard it. One sign for me is whether the criticism pushes me forward or holds me back; if it demoralizes me enough for me to stop working, I usually discard it. Whatever makes me want to work harder, or inspires me, I hold onto. So, anything that is good for the work stays; anything that is bad for it has to go. We learn about good art by looking at art of the present and past; we look at Cezanne and others, whose work we know to be excellent. The more we learn about good art, the more we can be objective about our own work.
Being Discouraged about Our Work:
If we are feeling discouraged about one particular work, or all of our work, that it is not good, or not good enough, etc., there are things that we can do. When struggling with one particular work, when nothing seems to work in it, we can try the actions listed above: turning the work upside down, covering various parts to find trouble spots, coming back in a few days to get a fresh look. Another way is to plow right in, almost like wrestling an alligator. Especially when we are in the first years of painting, this can be an invaluable learning experience; and when it succeeds, the feeling of accomplishment is great. When working with oil paint, especially, there will be times where all you end up with is mud - all the wet colors have mingled together - even mangled - and it seems hopeless. You can scrape the excess paint off with a painting knife and start over, or you can take charge and dive right in, using determination as a weapon. Desperation doesn't usually correct the painting - try to remain calm, and stay focused on what you want to do with the image.
Art is related closely to our mental state; I try to paint only when fresh and well rested; if we are tired or agitated, the image will often mirror this. First - sit down about 10 feet away from the work, and take your time to study it. Compare it to the original idea you initially had; what was it that you wanted to do? Then methodically try to decide what steps you need to take to have the painting in front of you look like your original idea. You may have wanted to show a misty, romantic landscape, or study the geometric structures in a still life. This initial impulse will give you the information you need to make your decisions about how to proceed. Once you have a clear idea of what you want to do, plow right in and do it, scraping off paint if necessary. The very experience of plowing into the image is an empowering one - take the bull by the horns, so to speak.
The main thing about being discouraged is that you keep working through it. Painting is one of those things that lose momentum unless they are kept up, like practicing a musical instrument. I have found that if I stop for more than a few months, I lose ground; when I go back, I don't start at my stopping point - I have gone backward, and it takes extra time to catch up again.
Don't expect masterpieces too soon or too often. Like any activity, it will take time to learn - sometimes a lifetime. If we play golf, how long will it take to be as good as Tiger Woods? The main thing is that we enjoy the activity - it is still enjoyable for us, even if we are not champions. Working to produce masterpieces can be self-defeating; like in Zen philosophy, we have a much greater chance of succeeding if we are not thinking about succeeding. We can trick our minds into thinking that we are going to paint with conviction and energy, for the sheer experience of it, that we don't care if it is "good." That's always when I've done my best work. One trick I use is to listen to carefully selected music; when starting a painting and a bright white canvas is staring back at me, I put on music that is unpretentious, such as folk music. This makes me less self-conscious; I forget about myself and start working. Later, in the midst of the work, I can listen to more spirited music, to get me to be bold and honest in the painting - to remind me of the emotions and ideas I am trying to express in the work. Artists have spoken about the need to forget themselves while working; I find that music helps me do this. I listen to the music which makes my spirit soar (celtic music), without distracting me too much. For instance, I love the Rolling Stones - but if I play them while painting, I end up dancing more than painting, so I try to avoid stuff that is too intrusive.
Often if we are feeling discouraged, it is a good sign - it means that we care about the quality of our work. If it comes too easily, we probably aren't doing it right. I once heard that an amateur artist always succeeds, and a professional artist never does. If we develop a formula and stick with it, we are not really making art, we are just making pictures. A professional artist will continue to search for new and better ways to express him or herself, and never feel that they have arrived. An art professor once asked me how my painting was coming, on a day that I was feeling discouraged about my work. I answered, "I have a long way to go." He smiled, and said, "Good!" And of course, if it were always predictable and easy, we would lose interest quickly. The challenge and the unknown are two things that make art exciting, that there are so many variables and possibilities, that we could never plumb its depths. It is like a challenging intellectual game; but it is even more - it is also an expression of the spirit and heart - a very valuable commodity.