Frances had come to narrative painting late in life after 20 years as a corporate lawyer. Her paintings were large, powerful, and sold well. But she had the hardest time not bad-mouthing them, both for the full four months it took her to paint one and after each was done.
“I think I want a different way of working,” she said in our first session. “I want to paint more loosely, I want to paint more quickly—four months on one of these paintings almost kills me!”
I smiled. “Maybe it would be nice if the process were a little less painful. Not pain-free—that might be too much to ask. But just a little less painful?”
“I need to get the details right,” she said, “so, there I am, working on this or that detail, and while I’m working on that detail the whole thing seems dead to me. I keep asking myself, ‘What’s the point?’ and ‘Who would want this?’ and ‘Is this any good?’ I might spend a whole day painting a hand, getting it right, and that whole day I’m bitching to myself.”
I nodded. “Is part of it coming to the painting later in life?”
“Probably,” she said. “But how do you mean?”
“If you felt that you were ‘born to paint’ and had been drawing and painting forever, you might doubt a given painting but not doubt yourself so much. It sounds like you aren’t just doubting the painting in front of you but doubting whether you’re an artist.”
She answered instantly. “I do doubt that. I don’t have any confidence that I am an artist.”
“Even though people buy your paintings? Even though people praise them? Even though you yourself respect them?—when you aren’t bad-mouthing them.”
She shrugged. “People buy stupid things all the time, things of no value. That my paintings sell doesn’t prove much to me. The praise—well, I don’t know that I respect them all that much, the people who praise my work. And as for my own opinions—I guess I am deeply not sure whether I do respect them or don’t respect them.”
I wanted to whistle. That was a lot of doubting!
“Let’s come at it from a slightly different angle,” I said. “What would be different if you started each painting from the sure place that you were an artist? If you were always saying to yourself, ‘I have no doubt that I’m an artist, no matter how my current painting is going’?”
She thought about that. “I think it would actually make a huge difference. I would have—faith is probably the word—faith that the painting had a chance of turning out well. As opposed to my current mind-set, which is that it really has no chance. It would make a huge difference.” She glanced at me. “But of course I would have to believe it—just saying it wouldn’t mean much. I’m not into fooling myself.”
“So, it would ne nice if you believed that you were an artist. We both agree about that. But sales of your paintings won’t convince you of that, praise won’t convince you of that, and looking at your paintings doesn’t convince you of that. What would?”
“The looking part. If, when I looked at a painting of mine, I could honestly say, ‘I’m satisfied with that.’”
“And sometimes you are able to say that?”
“Yes. But then I don’t trust my own judgment.”
“So—let me see if I’ve got it. You can’t call yourself an artist unless what you see in front of you convinces you that you are an artist, but even when what you see in front of you seems like it proves you are artist, you are still inclined to doubt your eyes. Does that sound like a fair paraphrase?”
She sat thinking. “It does.”
“Then you see the problem. Yes?”
She nodded after a bit. “I may be very talented at doubting what I see in front of me. In which case I may never be able to say, ‘Aha, there’s the proof!’ It may be right there—but I might refuse to accept it.”
We sat quietly.
“You can see the sort of chicken-and-egg problem we have,” I said. “You can’t say that you’re an artist until your eyes confirm it—and your eyes may never confirm it.”
“Even if the proof is right there in front of me,” she said thoughtfully.
She had a lot to think about. I let her think. I could imagine her train of thought. Doubtless she would keep circling back to a couple of questions: “Is my work good or isn’t it?” and “Compared to what?” and “How can I know?”
“I could, as a linguistic matter, start to say ‘I am artist,” she finally said. “As a kind of affirmation or wish—or prophecy. Even if I didn’t believe it–”
“Maybe” I interrupted. “That’s possible. But what I’d like is something different—something more ambitious,” I said, smiling. “It’s a change in your vision of the truth of the matter. I would like you to really believe a thing that I know you sometimes believe—that you are an artist.” I paused. “You do sometimes believe that?”
“And then you talk yourself or worry yourself out of that belief?”
“That’s what I would like to have stop happening.”
How odd to have to arm-wrestle someone who was obviously an artist into the belief that she was an artist! What powerful reasons must be involved in her refusal! I waited. She couldn’t quite get there. I could see her frustration written in her eyes. She couldn’t convince herself that she was an artist.
“All right,” I said. “Let’s go the other route. The linguistic one.”
“And fake it until I make it.”
“Exactly. You will now begin to say ‘I am an artist’ as an affirmation and prophecy.”
“Whether or not what you see on the canvas convinces you.”
“As a way of opening the door to what I wish you already could acknowledge, that you are an artist.”
She couldn’t nod to this. But she also didn’t turn away from it.
Eric Maisel is the author of 40+ books including his latest, Life Purpose Boot Camp. Get a very nice discount on the next Life Purpose Boot Camp instructor training by visiting here (valid through the end of November)