kieferart  FAQ: Stagnation

"Why do we go stagnant?"

When that weird feeling of artistic stagnation creeps up on you, take it as a sign that you need to use some energy to climb onto the next plateau. If you don't feel artistic stagnation now and then, I'd venture a guess that you're either doing it for the money or you're just not in touch with yourself. Think of the creative part of yourself in the same way as you think of your body - eating the same foods everyday is not good for you - even if it's kale or broccoli. Try a papaya. Or eat a Ding Dong, for gawdsake. Suggestion is a good way to begin the climb out of that quagmire. I don't mean 'ask another artist for a suggestion on how to proceed', I mean find suggestion.

One of my favorite TC artists, Steven J. Levin, is represented by John Pence Gallery in San Francisco. The gallery owner was assessing his work a few years back and told him he wasn't using enough red - that "RED SELLS!!". Once Steven got over the assault to his artistic integrity inherent in that statement, he played around with it, explored it, let it "wash through him". Steven's work up to that point had been so recognizable. Being drawn to the challenge of low-lit subjects, his colors were mostly muted, but punctuated with a shock of saturated color - not overdone by any means - just enough to draw our eye to his main point of interest (like a hint of a reddish-orange neon sign seen from a darkened room through sheered windows). So having to wallow in the most active color in the spectrum must have been traumatic to his sensibilities - yet he examined the possibilities with an open heart. Look at this piece, "Oil and Gas", if you're interested in what he came up with I'll bet you never thought you could achieve so much depth with such an in-your-face color! I admired his ability to adapt to his gallery owner's wishes, but the owner's thirst for RED and apparent appetite for ultra realism seems to have drastically changed the sponteneity seen in Steven's previous work, along with his wonderful, unconventional subjects. I ran into him at the MIA a couple of years ago and brought up the subject. His response was very defensive, so I backed off. It must've been a sore spot with him. So, while suggestion can be extremely invigorating and can catapult you to the next level in your evolution as an artist, be careful not to lose yourself and your native instincts. Maybe this wasn't the best example of how to fight stagnation, but it does illustrate that even a master painter can thrive with suggestion (whether solicited or not). Over time, once he is more autonymous, I have faith that Steven will find his core again and gleefully dip into his vast understanding of the color RED anytime it serves him.

Another reason I think we go stagnant is that our observation scope narrows or, conversely, is too scattered. We tend to be drawn to the same subject types if the first few paintings work well. We are sometimes drawn to the idea of creating a "series" if we detect value in a theme or varying facets of the same subject. And that's great (if it truly is sustainable). But we also can tire of subjects easily and jump around a lot. That's okay, too, but if you find yourself feeling unfulfilled as a result, search inside to find the answer. Ask yourself what truly interests you - even if it's something you've never attempted to paint before. For instance, if you're primarily a still life painter, but you miss the view of the lake outside your cabin, try painting it - just for grins. Let your desire guide you. If you have a solid hold on whatever method you use to proportion and understand how to achieve depth using warm/cool and opaque/transparent colors, you will be surprised at how well you do dipping your toe into uncharted waters.

That said, maybe we become stagnant because we've stopped experimenting with our tools. Find a little painting you've already done. Use it as your "subject". Paint another version of it. Try placing the image on the canvas differently to give it a new focal point, use a wider or narrower value range, do it in a monochrome or use all transparent paint. It doesn't matter if it doesn't turn out as well as the original. The point is that you've transformed that subject, just as you can transform your perspective on your work. If you still feel stagnant after all that, play tennis or something. Don't force it. The art in you never leaves, but occasionally, it's healthy to leave it. Building a new life context can blaze a fun and exciting path for your eventual return.


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