Of Struggle and Doubt

David Palumbo

We often talk about the difficulty in creating art.  The careful attention to concept, craft, and all the little things that have to come together to make strong work.  We talk about how these challenges do not go away over time, that the life of an artist is (hopefully) one of constant growth and evolution.  Every so often, however, a good or even great piece might just… happen.  Like, almost on its own.  No stressing, no careful finessing, just smooth easy flow.  It is what we always want and, when we get it, will never trust.  It is a complicated feeling.

A year or two back I was talking with a friend who also happens to be one of my favorite living painters.  At some point we got on to talking about those odd moments when a sketch or painting just seems to tumble effortlessly onto the page and the subsequent distrust of these images.  He specifically mentioned a piece which, despite drawing praise from others, he felt conflicted over including in his web site because “it just felt too easy.”  Does that sound familiar?

Though I don’t imagine all artists feel this way, I suspect this is a feeling artists of all disciplines and skill levels will recognize.  I know for sure that I feel it and I always try to keep it in check but it usually gets the better of me and has caused me to under price, not show, or otherwise neglect certain paintings.  When I have shared them, it was with a sort of embarrassment because I felt like I just got lucky.  I didn’t actually earn that one.

The funny thing is at the same time I also feel that, in other people, those pieces which jump right out of an artist can often be their more genuine and interesting works.  In other people, those are the moments when the creative lightning is just flowing through them without second guessing, and that is cool to see.  So why do we, when it comes to our own efforts, feel it is only legitimate if we beat our head on a wall, even just a little bit, before seeing a satisfactory result emerge?

One possible answer is that most artists have a talent for magnifying the faults in their own work which is sort of how we ever get to actually be any good.  When it happens so fast, it is only natural to suspect that we have somehow missed something, let some critical mistake slip through.  Then, when not finding one, we dismiss the good qualities in the work as a fluke.  We’re embarrassed to stand behind the work because we worry that someone might … might what?

I think for me, it is a worry that it will look like I didn’t care.  There is probably some critical flaw in the design or the concept is hollow and I didn’t bother working harder to improve it.  This is firmly attached to the concern over what other people might think.  If it seems that we are not trying, not locked in endless battle with our demons (or at least our medium), will it diminish the result?  Strangely, while I can feel this in my own work, I will watch other artists and admire how gracefully and apparently without struggle they produce incredible images.  If fact, I prefer work which flows over that which appears labored.  When artists talk with admiration of others, it often might touch on this idea that their paintings seem effortless.

Another frustration in this is that I don’t enjoy the difficult parts.  I don’t want to struggle, but am suspicious when it is absent.  Don’t misunderstand this to be an essay on how painting is actually really easy but we have to pretend that it isn’t.  Most of the work which I’m really proud of was certainly difficult in one aspect or another and some were painful from start to finish.  Seeing those through to the other side brings with it a degree of satisfaction.  In some way, I’m sure that I learned from those how bearing the discomfort is worth it in the end and so I am suspicious when the struggle never quite materialized.

I think this can lead to a danger as well, which is the habit which some people have (not just in their art but in their lives) of adding unnecessary difficulties.  Besides under-valuing results which came easy, we might over-value work which took a great effort and so some will place unnecessary obstacles in their own path.  Again, this is easy to see in others and not so easy to find in ourselves. 

Of course, as mentioned in the beginning, an artist seeks growth and struggle is an inevitable step towards growth.  I‘d like to think that, so long as the struggle in the work is about pushing ourselves to better achieve our intentions and discover something more personal and unexpected rather than just for its own sake, the struggle is healthy.  Perhaps, in the end, that is what sits at the root of any embarrassment towards those occasional easy wins.  That fear in the back of our thoughts that, if we allow ourselves to be satisfied with the ones that come easy, we might stop working towards that ever elusive next level.

Maybe it is best to always invite the struggle of growth, to always make room for the discomfort of self-improvement, but to also accept those moments of easy success as a reward and a sign that we are indeed moving forward just a little bit further each time.