Taking a Creative Gamble

I recently met an artist who said, completely nonchalantly, “I never sketch, I never throw out a painting, and I’m always pleased with my final work.” If only we could all be so lucky! Sometimes when I’m writing a drawing basics article, such as an exhibition review for Drawing, I get in a zone. Words just start to flow, and I’m feeling confident … that is, until I take a step back, go over what I’ve written, and realize that most of it’s not very good, or at least not what I hoped to accomplish. I’m never sure what to do in these instances. Do I just scrap it all and start fresh? Do I move on to something else? Or do I sift through the pages of wandering text, hoping to find a sentence or a paragraph that’s “worth it”?

Fanny by Jeremy Lipking, oil painting.
Fanny by Jeremy Lipking, oil painting.

I can only imagine this is just as difficult for most artists. There’s a common saying: “Know when to hold, and know when to fold.” Although it’s mostly used in reference to gambling, creating artwork is like taking a gamble—you approach a blank surface unsure of what you’ll create, even when you have innate and honed skills. So, what do you do? How do you know when to hold on to a piece of art and when to fold your paper or canvas and start fresh? Leave a comment, and let us know. After all, it’s easier to take risks as an artist when you know you’re not alone.


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Naomi E

About Naomi E

Naomi Ekperigin is an associate editor of American Artist, Drawing, Watercolor, and Workshop magazines. She loves art in all its forms, but after years of painting as a child, found that her skills flourished when she put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). Her work at American Artist not only allows her to learn from modern-day masters but also inspires her in her own creative endeavors.

12 thoughts on “Taking a Creative Gamble

  1. I think every artist has their own sense of the “moment” when they know a project isn’t going to come together as originally hoped. It is a normal part of my process to often leave unfinished work sitting for an extended time. But for me, if there are 2 or 3 sessions in a row where I just cannot feel happy with the progress when I’m cleaning up, I seriously start to consider abandoning ship. Fortunately a wholesale abandonment has only happened to me a few times. It is disappointing when it happens, but there’s no use in forcing yourself to finish something that you don’t believe in. If you don’t believe in it, what other person will?

  2. Naomi, wow… I’m so glad you’ve decided to be transparent with your feelings about writing. Now I know I’m not alone!

    On the painting front, I’ve been making art long enough that when I haven’t hit the mark, I get this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. On the other hand, when I’ve hit the mark – I usually can tell… I get all excited and feel like I’m on top of the world.

    When I was just starting out, I found someone who could critique my work – someone who I trusted, had good knowledge and was interested in seeing me succeed. I avoided getting critiques from artists who seemed like they were in competition with me.. they generally just listed all the bad things in my painting – some justified and other comments bordering on cruelty.

    Hey, Naomi, I enjoy your blogs. Keep up the great work. I’ll be turning in that Watercolor article soon… and I could use your expertise.

  3. A lot of it has to do with intuition, something I didn’t have, for some reason, at the start of my latest project! I was using reason instead of creative thinking. I started a very large portrait (48×30) of a girl with her horse. The original pose was full-length, because I thought a formal pose might be a good thing, as she was wearing her formal riding gear and boots. However, halfway through, I decided I hated it and made a radical decision to go back to the pose I originally liked – a three-quarter length pose of the girl hugging her horse’s head. It’s much more emotional and draws the viewer into an intimate moment between horse and rider. I painted over the entire canvas.

    We also need to set goals at the very start of the project as far was what we want to accomplish or what message we want the final product to convey. Sometimes, doing a simple gesture drawing at the very start, one for each possible pose, can help. Just step back and compare them and decide which one causes you to react the best. I’m very happy with my painting now – I just wish I had given my pose more consideration at the beginning – it would have saved hours of work that’s now hidden beneath the new layers of paint!

  4. Hmmm. I think I’m more willing to put something aside–maybe not discard it entirely–and move on to something else sooner these days if I’m having trouble and need to figure out how to resolve it. Part of that is because I don’t have to watch the art supply budget quite as closely as I did when I was younger, but mostly it’s because I accept that if I’m pushing myself, trying new things there will be a few wrong turns here and there. I was working on something on Thanksgiving Day and ended up putting it aside because I couldn’t quite resolve a problem. I’m considering several alternatives, and I’ll probably go back to it in the future. As for complete disasters, I usually know without a doubt when something has totally fallen off a cliff, it just looks BAD and any attempt to fix it makes it worse, and it ends up looking over worked. Fortunately I don’t have too many of those incidents any more.

  5. Thanks Naomi for opening up discussion on what to do in front of a blank piece of paper. It’s a choice between the eye directing the pencil or the pencil directing the eye. I either hold onto a realistic object from which to leap, usually step, or just start drawing with nothing in mind. People usually appear and the emotions take over as the hand moves the pencil and the people take form.

    Anyone else out there function in a similar fashion?

    There’s Arthousecoop.com and projects that provide a jump-start!

    Happy Holidays!

  6. I do a lot of things very well, but not always in the first attempt. Or at least not according to my own standards (which is what is happening with you when you look back at something you’ve written and it doesn’t strike that pefect chord). Yes, sometimes moving to a different project is helpful. So is getting a and letting your subconscious work it out. There is no set formula, though sometimes you will only be second guessing yourself if you had not had a solid vision to begin with.

    All of the above aside, sometimes what one envisions isn’t what the work ends up as anyway and that’s just part of the creative process.


    Patricia C Vener

  7. Naomi, You are right. Inspiration and excellence do not come easily to visual artists either. But the reason we do not give up is the challenge; the challenge to do better work, the challenge to learn, and the challenge to touch our fellow humans with what we paint (or write) about.

    I do not understand your artist friend’s comments. The reasons for my successes lie in the heaps of my failures.

  8. John… thanks for your comment ” The reasons for my successes lie in the heaps of my failures”. When you get a chance, I’d love to hear more about what that means and why it works.

    PS I’ve enjoyed seeing your work in articles and magazines over the years and admire you for not giving up on acrylic as your medium. I’ve seen way too many artists (usually at the request of gallery dealers) move from acrylic to oils.

  9. John Cogan: “…I do not understand your artist friend’s comments. The reasons for my successes lie in the heaps of my failures…”

    I was thinking a similar thing, but didn’t write it. I have to wonder if that individual has developed a formulaic method of working that is safe and generates predictable results-?

  10. Watching a child learn how to walk is probably one of the biggest encouragements I have in continuing to push forward. Think how many things we would have had to do without in life if everyone had quit trying when they had what they considered to be a failure. The economy being what it is, I am a little more careful with my experiments, but I have still learned a tremendous amount from every failed painting. I can hide those paintings, re-invent them or wait until I learn more so that I can try to retrieve them. I can also put them next to my better paintings and say, “see how much you have learned?”

  11. Thanks for all your comments so far!

    I think the artist is so straightforward because, regardless of what she ends up with, she knows it’s what she could do in the moment – she doesn’t beat herself up about it. I think it also helps that she works pretty quickly (she told me she does a 16″-x-20″ watercolor in about 10 hours, broken up over a couple of days) – so she doesn’t really feel like time is wasted. So, I don’t think she’s saying every painting is beautiful, sell-able, or her favorite, but she lets it be.

    The artist I’m referring to is Toni Lance, a watercolorist who paints wildlife. You can read more about her in the spring 2010 issue of Watercolor, which will be available in March.

  12. Writers have an easier time letting their genius flow, as the editing may be just a matter of leaving out, rearranging, or adding bits to the body of work which is your first draft. Artists that paint have to edit on the the run and fix things as they apply the paint. Your own Ego is your biggest critic which brings into mind, the question why you are creating in the first place? If you are doing it to make money or praise from your peers then you know what you can get away with and the market will reward you accordingly, if on the other hand you are creating because you are driven to do it and the end result is maybe for altruistic reasons like giving the artwork away to someone who appreciates it then I’m sure your Ego will also be satisfied with the result and if it’s not then be prepared to own it. They are now looking at Van Gogh’s paintings with new insight, the truth and genius of his work is only now coming to light, I believe his brother was the only person of his time that paid for the works and sponsored him to paint. Van Gogh believed in himself and his work and gave a lot away, unfortunately most of his peers thought he was mad. It’s the common cry of most enlightened souls. John Lennon wrote a lot of songs and only later saw the wisdom in the lyrics, Ego will always claim the produce of genius only the enlightened know the truth.