There is a dragon that lies in wait for artists. It’s like the crocodile that lurks in the Zambizi at dawn; waiting to devour innocent animals that come down for a drink. Its preferred prey is the early morning painter, but it also relishes the novel-writer, the student trying to start that essay, and the seamstress with a special piece of applique to do. Its aim is to kill the creative spark and its weapon is prevarication. But I think I may have discovered how to beat it.
I’m talking here about overcoming the pressure of frustration that mounts as I fail repeatedly to get down to work. I procrastinate: “I’ll just load the dishwasher, open the curtains, check my emails, make that phone call …” Of course many people don’t suffer from this chronic, dithering; my father didn’t seem to; I was always impressed by his ability to get down to writing or painting without hesitation or fuss. And as well as being a well known ENT surgeon he published several books and painted lots of pictures.
This is going need further research but I think the trick, the way to stuff your fist down the crocodile’s throat as it were, may lie in thinking of the first touches of paint on canvas as the END - the final act - of your preparation; not as the BEGINNING of your painting. So it’s a hum-drum necessity alongside getting out the canvas, setting up the easle, squeezing out your paints and selecting the most suitable brushes As soon as you’ve done those first few strokes, you can – no you should - take a short break. The prevarication has been broken, the tension is relaxed and you’re in business.
It’s important to distinguish here between legitimate preparation; canvas, easle, paints, brushes, and true prevarication. We all know the difference. Faffing about feels guilty. It even has a proud name in behavioural science; its scientific name is displacement activity; that sort of makes it legitimate and excusable.
I’m writing this note after breakfast when I should be getting on with a panorama I’m trying to paint. It’s from the pier at the Kale Pansiyon (16/10/21) in Kekova, Turkey. I first noticed this years ago: that once I’ve actually begun, the appalling pressure, the mental anguish of frustration subsides; it vanishes with the loose-lipped “woosh” of an emptying party balloon.
Here are some things I hope to work on
Painting, unlke writing, is a physical performance; it requires hand/eye coordination. You’re making a thing, so you’re “only as good as your last performance”. This grim reminder merely increases the agony. Corrections, like entropy, always diminish the original Writing on the other hand, being essentially mental or intellectual doesn’t seem to invite so much procrastination. Writing edits don’t seem to corrupt in the same way as corrections to a painting which nearly always disappoint. Not quite sure why.
If the breaks you take aren’t brief, timed, and disciplined like little meditation sessions , you risk having to start your “end of the beginning” procedure all over again.
Deadlines can defeat procrastination but they don’t really work unless they are genuine.