Dear Dr. Maisel:
I have a deadline coming up where I’m supposed to deliver some paintings for a show and the deadline is making me really anxious! Any suggestions?
Harriet R., Spokane
Thanks, Harriet! Let’s look at this issue closely because it’s very important. Imagine the following scenario. You are part of a group show at The Downtown Gallery. The gallery is expecting four paintings from you. You are to deliver them, framed and ready to hang, on a certain date. Originally that date was six months away; now it is only two months away. You have all four paintings started—but only barely. For the last month you haven’t worked on any of them. You argue that you were productive in other ways—you made some Giclee prints, you sent out a mailing, you straightened up your studio, you applied for a residency. But in your heart of hearts you know that you’ve been stalling and procrastinating. Thinking about these four paintings makes you terrifically anxious.
You hear yourself saying things like, “The four paintings don’t maintain a single theme—they’re all over the place” and “I’d love to know what the other artists will be showing—will my paintings work with theirs?” You wonder if it would be better to show next year, when – when, what? You’re not sure how next year would be different but at least it is further away! Every day you think about calling the gallery owner and wriggling out of the show. When he calls to check in and ask how things are going, you stammer, “Great! Couldn’t be better!” When you hang up you hear yourself think, “Boy, will he be surprised when I have nothing to show him.”
What’s going on?
What’s going on is that you are face-to-face with the specter of judgment. A deadline not only means that something is due but that something is due to be judged. The primary reason that so many artists find deadlines stressful and debilitating is that two events loom: the moment when they themselves must judge their paintings and the moment when someone else will judge their paintings. Without a deadline in the offing an artist can contrive to hold that the painting isn’t finished yet and doesn’t need to be judged. If it isn’t complete, no final judgment is required. The impending deadline demands completion and, as a consequence, judgment. It is hardly just an innocent date on a calendar.
Until you call a work finished you can maintain the hope that it will get a lot better. You can cling to the belief that you will solve its problems and turn it around. Because some percentage of the time you actually will pull off those last-minute corrections and transformations, your current hope isn’t mere fantasy or wishful thinking. It is rooted in the reality that sometimes a thing of beauty can be pulled out of the fire. It is rational and plausible to maintain this belief—but only, of course, if you tie that belief to the actual work of correcting and transforming. Since you aren’t so sure that you can pull off any such last-minute magic, you find yourself dodging the encounter, which turns this piece of rationality into mere rationalization.
You rationalize your procrastination in the following way. You claim that you can’t finish your current piece until something clicks inside of you and knowledge of what to do next arrives. You tell yourself that you have no choice but to wait for inspiration. Why is this a mere rationalization and not rationality? Because you aren’t holding open the door and inviting information in. You aren’t really incubating the paintings or standing ready to receive bits of internal instruction. You are in a very different relationship to the paintings: you are anxious and determined to put off the moment of judgment.
Let’s turn these observations into a checklist for meeting deadlines:
1. Accept the nature of the situation. You are committing to showing your work, both to yourself and to others. Internally agree to that. Don’t try to dodge that reality.
2. Accept the reality of the deadline. It is a real date. Even if there is some wiggle room available—even if the gallery owner said, “I need those four paintings by July 1st but July 15th might be okay”—don’t opt to wiggle. Put July 1st on that special calendar where you keep track of your heroic acts and mature struggles. Embrace the word “deadline.”
3. Watch your language. Get out of the bad habit of using catastrophic language: “This is the worst painting I’ve ever done!”; “I’m such a no-talent idiot!”; “I can’t draw, I have no color sense, and I have nothing to say!” Completely extinguish that way of talking to yourself and about yourself. Err on the side of advocating for yourself, befriending yourself, and applauding your efforts.
4. Ceremonially show up. Make it your practice to show up every day and work on one of the paintings. This is your practice—this is the way you manifest your potential and stay true to yourself. You aren’t showing up just to paint—you are showing up to honor your commitments and to make yourself feel proud.
5. Finish. Do what’s necessary and finish each of the four paintings.
6. Judge them. Yes, you must. Leave a given painting in or take it out. You must judge and decide. You finished it. You looked at it. You slept on it. You looked at it again. You wrestled with your reactions. Now you need to say, “In” or “Out.” Try to err on the side of “In.” But if you genuinely can’t let it in, if in your judgment it must not be shown, then you have a new painting to produce. You don’t have to exclaim, “Oh, my God, now I have a whole new painting to do and not enough time! Oh my God! What will I ever do! It’s impossible! I should shoot myself right now!” Skip all that drama. Just get to work on the replacement painting.
If you decided to live the life of an artist, you opened the door to endless judgments. You make some of those judgments; others make the majority of them, by buying, by making a face, by turning away indifferently. If you harbor even the slightest hope that you can somehow avoid being judged, that will only increase your anxiety. Are deadlines days of reckoning? Yes, indeed. Be easy with reckoning. You have asked for this life and judgment is a part of it.
This article was very helpful to me. I often think exactly this way. Thank you.
You are so right in proclaiming the judgment portion. I often wonder how singers and entertainers that perform live, deal with instant judgment. Then I realize there is NO WAY I could fit in that field. At least as a visual artist I have the choice of when I present my works for observation and it gives me comfort. I enjoyed your article, Thank you.
They say that a deadline is an artist’s best friend, I think this was made up by an art director who lives for deadlines and tried to talk the artist into believing the same thing. As artists we strive for perfection. The only problem is that perfection doesn’t exist. Along the way to this elusive quest for perfection we struggle with self doubt, endless reflection, existential angst, self criticism on a grand scale, far too many options to be considered in one lifetime, etc. etc. but the deadline looms. We change our minds a billion times, compare ourselves to everyone who came before and manage to drive ourselves insane. The deadline still looms.
I have spent hours, days, weeks working on a single print in the darkroom, now it’s photoshop but the problem persists. Getting to the work, doing something and then putting the brush down. The piece will never be finished, you only stop at an interesting place. Forget the myth of perfection, it’s like chasing a Unicorn. All you can do is instill some structure. As for waiting for inspiration, I never wait, I have to chase it down with a club. Agnes Martin used to stay in bed until afternoon waiting for inspiration, I always have an idea in mind because I’m always working in my head but I face the same dilemma, the endless hunt for perfection. There isn’t any such thing.
One of my favorite sayings is that I always figure out how to do something after I’ve done it. And if you’re going to live the life of the artist there are two constants, just like death and taxes, there’s judgment and the quest for perfection because in our fantasy we think that if we attain perfection we cheat judgement. The reality is we will never attain perfection and judgement will never go away. Stay in the process, it will never fail you. People will judge, perfection will elude you but the process will never fail you.