I remember when I was in college, my photography professor told me that in order to create one good image, you need to take four rolls of film (this was in 2001 when film was still actively in use within the industry). A roll of film typically allows for 36 images, so multiply that by four and you have 144 images. So, one in 144 images is worth using. Or, another way of looking at it is, if you really want to increase the quality if your work, shoot four rolls of film and choose the best image from that body of work, and only print that one best image. And then shoot another four rolls of film in order to get two good images. This idea was so profound for me and I don’t disagree at all. Putting this into practice is difficult, though. For one reason.
This one-in-144 concept is actually a bit easier on the ego when it comes to photography, in comparison to other mediums like paint. I don’t mean physically easier, because of course, taking 144 photographs is way easier than literally painting 144 canvases. I meant emotionally easier. Capturing an image and creating a photograph is so fast, even back in the day when the process of photography could actually take days from when you shot the film to when you had a finished print in your hand. But the process of capturing an image happens in an instant. It is kind of understood, as a photographer, that shooting is an intuitive thing and that not every image is going to be masterful. My favorite part of the process of analog (old school) photography was analyzing the contact sheet (see image below for those of you, young whipper snappers who don’t know what a contact sheet is). Pouring over all of the crummy images, looking for that one golden, printable shot, was so exciting. Every once in a while, I would have a contact sheet that was lousy all together with nothing worth printing, but that was rare. And even if that happened, I still had three juicy contact sheets with 108 images left to choose from. The ego during this process was not very wounded and was often and easily rewarded on a regular basis.
Color contact sheets ca. 2000.
Making a photograph is also less emotional for me than making a painting or a collage. Technology is my friend and partner when making a photograph. It is my silent, collaborative companion, and when all else fails, I can easily blame the technology if things don’t work out—or at least know that Technology and I participated in the failure together. However, when it comes to making a painting or a collage, it’s just me and the raw materials. It’s my soul on a two-dimensional platter, and there is nowhere to hide. So, if and when my raw creation inevitably fails, it feels like my worth and my value as a human being are actually reflected in the unsuccessful product that I just created. And that can often make me not want to work again, for months. I have trouble separating myself from my art. And that’s all ego.
EMBRACE THE BAD
My sister sent me the link to a video featuring an artist, Liana Finck, living and working in New York City.
Still from YouTube video “How ‘New Yorker’ Illustrator Liana Finck Gets It Done”
Watching this video, the envy I felt for this woman was eating at me from start to finish. She just seems to be living the life of a successful artist, living on her terms, and making it work. It’s not easy to do. I also shared this video with my close friend and artist and he felt the same; as well as my sister, who sent me the link. That is all ego at work as well, but whatever, it can’t always be helped.
However, I discovered a new piece of profound insight from watching this video, despite the unrest it triggered within me. Finck detailed her typical day in this video, and apparently, once she returns to her studio and sits down to finally work, she says that she just doodles crap for the first two hours. I think she actually used the word “crap” in the video. She knows that creating a bunch of shitty doodles is part of the process of unveiling what is really trying to come through. And apparently, once she does this, things start to click and start to align, and she always inevitably comes up with more quality imagery as the hours pass. This is her process. It was a very matter-of-fact statement she made in this video, and she seemed very comfortable with this process. Just knowing that nothing good was going to come from her hand for about two hours, is something she blindly accepts and considers a key part of her practice.
Still from YouTube video “How ‘New Yorker’ Illustrator Liana Finck Gets It Done”
This concept does not come naturally for me at all. I’m a bit of a perfectionist (not just with my art, but like, with my soul and my life), and every time I sit down to work, even if I tell myself that I’m just going to see what happens, I know deep down, I am hoping for a masterpiece every time. And when I’m finished creating and it’s kind of a non-masterpiece, I feel pretty miserable.
Image by Liana Finck
I was in a yoga class last night, and I had a thought. By the way, I want to be clear that when I say that I was in a yoga class last night, that doesn’t imply that I’m a person who goes to yoga classes regularly. This was the first challenging yoga class that I have been to in a few months. The other classes that I have gone to have either been yin/restorative classes (long poses that stretch the body at a very deep level, but don’t exactly get your heart rate up), or super gentle yoga classes, that again are just basic stretching and are in no way a work out. I’m clarifying this because the thought that I had last night was something about discomfort and the role it plays in my life. Last night, I was really, really uncomfortable. And I was trying to make sense of why I dragged myself to class knowing that I would be uncomfortable (I’m not the kind of person who does things she doesn’t want to do). Since last night, I have been trying to make sense of my trust in the benefits of discomfort.
Some people love working out. Some people hate working out, but work out anyway, because they know it’s good for them. I tend towards the philosophy that if something makes me feel icky, I avoid it all together. Just to note, in general, when I am making art, or when I have made bad art, I feel pretty icky. In my mind, I have created this idea that this avoidant behavior of running from all that is not-good feeling, even if the not-good feeling is ever-so-slight, falls under the umbrella of self-care and self-love. I’m not saying it doesn’t, but I wonder if for me personally, I have maybe taken this philosophy to the extreme in my life, to the point where I don’t really challenge myself on any level anymore, because I just don’t want to be uncomfortable, ever.
And with this thought, struggling on my yoga mat, I started to examine the idea of victimhood. I think I harbor the belief, at times, that if I am experiencing discomfort, like when I’m making art, then I am somehow living in a world out to get me. It’s sick, I know, but it’s there. If I stub my toe, sometimes I just feel like, “Wow, I guess the Universe just hates me right now,” or “God is trying to teach me something.” I wasn’t even raised with any kind of organized religion. Nope, I developed that belief all on my own. Childhood was not great, so I think I have been slowly translating that block of my life into the fact that I was somehow deserving of that not great time. And now as a 40-year-old adult, it manifests itself as victimhood. But perhaps it’s time to release that belief. It may not be serving my yoga life, or my art, or the countless other areas of my life. Maybe I stubbed my toe because I was rushing or just clumsy. Maybe it’s not because I pissed off God, or am unlovable, or that the Universe hates me. Maybe I just stubbed my toe, and it sucked! But, that doesn’t mean it’s personal.
No one is putting a gun to my head and telling me I have to go challenge myself in a yoga class. And no one is making me make art. I do these things because I am compelled to. My soul compels me. And I resist doing these things because they are both hard. But…so what? I believe this resistance within me is bringing to light a new idea about taking an elevated responsibility for myself and my life. And I’m becoming kind of stoked about the concept.
The amazing thing about my relationship with yoga (I consider it quite a mature relationship) is that I always know I’m going to be wildly miserable for at least a portion of the hour-long class. I’m not all that in shape, and I’m not all that flexible. I’ve been doing yoga for a few years, so I can sort of keep up. But I also ALWAYS step out of line during class and take a few child’s poses to rest while others are downward dogging. I push myself to keep up with class, but I am never above taking a break when my arms and legs are wobbling and on fire from the exertion.
Left: Child’s Pose = Easy. Right: Downward Dog = Not as easy. Image obtained from here.
The mature component of my relationship with yoga is reflected in the fact that I know it’s gonna be rough, but I make a conscious choice to attend a class when I’m feeling the need, even if I have to drag myself. 1) I make a reservation online. 2) I pay $18. 3) I put on my yoga clothes. 4) I leave the house and drive 15 minutes to the studio. 5) I (try to) do what the teacher tells me to for a full hour and I don’t walk out of class never to return. That’s five deliberate steps I take towards cultivating my relationship with yoga, none of them required, and all by choice. And why do I do this? I suppose because I believe in it. I believe that it is good for my body and my soul. I have experienced this over time and have found that things stuck in the mind and in the heart, and even in my life, seem to work themselves out through the body and through yoga. So I keep doing it, even though for the majority of the hour I just can’t wait for it to be over. And when the hour is up and I’m lying dead in Shavasana (Corpse Pose—yes, that’s an actual pose and that is what it is actually called. It also happens to be my favorite pose in yoga :), I feel such gratitude that I embarked on the journey for yet another hour of my life that I will never get back. My body does buzz with a bit of delight mixed with mostly fatigue. But it feels worth it in the end, which is why I come back for more.
So I guess I’ve been wondering: If I can do this with yoga, why can’t I do this with my art?
I’m still trying to figure this out. A full moon happens in a few days (February 9, 2020) and this is a time to release anything that’s not serving us on our path. Rather than attempting to manifest ways to make good art (I don’t think that’s the point right now), I am going to choose to focus on what I can let go of and what has been hindering me from embarking on the difficult process of art-making. Just because it’s hard sometimes, doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do it. I am making some good art and getting better and better. Now is not the time to give up. Now is the time to take it even more seriously, take more responsibility than I ever have with regards to my art, and release all the old stories.
I wish you well on your path, no matter how different it is from mine. This is just my colorful journey, and I’m sure you are rocking your own, even if you feel like you’re not. Don’t give up, Goddess! xo
Recent work of mine that I love and that never would have been created if I had given up. Collages by © Libby Saylor.