Ever feel like you’re stuck in a painting rut? Frustrated that you can’t seem to get the finish you want from your paintings? Do you look at other artists’ work and daydream about painting like they do?
You’re not alone.
And what’s holding you back might be…..you.
After my first ten years of painting, I was seeing some success from my efforts. Galleries were carrying my work. My consistency at producing what I thought were decent paintings was improving. I had achieved enough skill that I felt like I could bring each painting to a refined finish. I could smooth out the brushstrokes, soften the edges, clean up all the messy areas. I could take my paintings to a more careful finish than ever before. So I would refine them. And refine them.
Before long, I was refining my paintings to death. The joy that painting gave me was getting lost in the process. I was stuck in a painting rut and didn’t know how to find my way out.
Around that time I caught the final day of a William Wendt exhibition at the Laguna Art Museum in California. Wendt (1865 – 1946) painted landscapes and this show had dozens. Many were large-scale works, big enough to be enjoyed from the next room. And even from that distance, they all looked like paintings. His blocky style wasn’t refined like mine. And I loved it.
Wendt would outline some of his shapes. He used obvious directional strokes to define form. His trees, rocks and clouds are almost architectural in their blocky handling. The style Wendt had developed resonated with me on a deep level. I wanted to paint like that.
I remember leaving that show determined to give myself permission to explore the stylistic ideas I had just seen. In fact, you might say that Wendt gave me permission. Seeing what he had chosen to do in his work made me realize that I was the only one keeping me from exploring a style that resonated with me. I was the reason I was stuck in a painting rut.
My next batch of paintings took on a new direction. Focusing on being creative in my stylistic choices freed me from feeling like I had to refine everything so much. And my excitement for painting had returned!
But in the back of my mind I was a little worried that I was just ripping off another artist’s ideas….
The Best Part
In the midst of that worry, one day I was looking at my older paintings from the first few years of my development. And I found something amazing. In those early paintings I saw glimpses of the stylistic qualities Wendt was using. There were hints of directional strokes, broken brushwork, even outlining.
I discovered that the reason Wendt’s paintings resonated so deeply with me was that I already had some of those stylistic tendencies. I hadn’t even consciously realized they were there. So that discovery gave me confidence that I could explore those stylistic ideas without feeling like I was just stealing ideas from another artist.
Are you finding yourself stuck in a painting rut? Let yourself out! It might take some inspiration from another artist. It might take some experimentation or a time investment in learning new techniques. But give yourself permission to paint the way you want to paint.
Great comments, Dan! I really like how you explored your older work and reassured yourself that you weren’t just ripping someone off (even though they say there are “no new ideas” out there). As I chat with my fellow artists I am sensing that many of us are feeling we are in a rut, dissatisfied, or seeking something “different.” We’ve been encouraging each other to strike out, review our work, and explore a little. Personally, I’ve been working on “letting go” and trying not to overthink everything, and the best part is, I’m having fun again!
Thanks, Julie — glad to hear that you’re pushing yourself to new places and enjoying the process!
This is great, Dan. Having known you now for quite a few years as a friend and fellow artist, I’ve watched you and your career grow and develop to incredibly high standards. I think you’re painting better than ever these days and I know a lot of that stems from the impact William Wendt made on you. I remember when you told me about the experience you had at that exhibit and the impact it had on you. The impressive thing about your work is that, although there is a deep influence of Wendt in your work, you have always remained true to yourself and stayed honest about your work and your subjects and it shows. I never felt like you copied his work but used it as a catalyst to find your own voice. I always enjoy your work very much, Dan. It is better than ever and it keeps getting more exciting. Thanks for the article.
I really appreciate your kind comments, Jake. We’re fortunate to be able to do what we do and it’s gratifying to make progress and find new possibilities. I always love seeing your work too.
What a timely article for me! Thanks Dan🎨
Great thoughts Dan! Some of us are deeper than a rut…more like a well! (only me!).😀. William Wendt, one of my favorite early California painters! I too have used his blocking style, and have found it works really well! I will look further for more inspiration as well! We can only grow if we work at it! Thanks again!
Haha you can climb out of that well! 🙂
Very important issue you raise here, Dan. I think that is my biggest drawback in my work…I don’t give myself permission to go outside my comfort zone. Thank you for this reminder that I need to learn how to do that. All the best, Gayle
Thanks for the great advice/reminder!
Thanks Dan! Just the inspiration I needed. You not only inspire with your beautiful art but with your thoughtful advice.
It’s very special to me that you made us family members part of your earliest work–like the greeting cards you did at one point. I always enjoy seeing what you write and your most recent paintings. Aunt Marge
Great issue Dan! Thanks!
This definitely was very timely for me. Thank you so much!