Realities of the Painter’s Voice

“Girl in Hat”

watercolor 30 x 22 inches

An older painting suffering from the Painter’s “Voice”

Ah! You might think that the ‘painter’s voice’ would be how he/she puts paint on the canvas and the content of what he paints to be his/her voice. Well, you would be right in most cases. However, I wish to speak about the OTHER voice.

In spite of what some would believe to be true, great painters are not popped from the womb already skilled at the level of master. Nor do some take up the brush and make instant success with whatever they attempt. In fact ALL painters (who happen to be human beings) live with a voice inside their head which is continually kibitzing and making commentary on virtually everything the painter does, has done or even is considering as possibility to do. That is the voice of which I speak.

As a painter who took up the sport later in life, of course, I immediately sought the advice and instruction of those whom I considered to be proficient at it. The reason for this was that the voice within was urging me onward to learn quickly because I wanted to impress my wife and kids with a fabulous artwork I could hang over the couch . . . .and I was willing to work at it for a week or so. (hint: laugh here)

BaHa!! After watching these demonstrations and listening to the experts (on video or live) explain how easy it really was, I heard the voice screaming at me from inside, “You’ll never be able to do this. Better give up now before you embarrass yourself. You are not talented enough. It’s too late for you, Screwball! You should have begun when you were age two! Etc.Etc.”

Apparently, I wanted that painting above the couch more than I wanted to listen to the voice, (By the way, I am still trying to get the perfect one!) because I kept going. A few good painters had whispered to me that they were not happy with their own level of skill, thus empowering me somewhat.

You may wonder why I point out my foibles and failures . . . even show off the latter to other painters and here on line. Why? It is because, over time, I have come to learn that those ‘experts’ or ‘masters’ or ‘those who are sooooo talented’ are all suffering and arguing with their own voice. I have witnessed many who simply gave up painting because they came to believe the voice.

Oh! Have I mentioned that our relatives and family and friends often join with the voice? Have I mentioned that mothers in law and others will urge our spouses, sometimes, to urge us to give it up? Have I mentioned that the battle for personal confidence in the realm of painting NEVER stops? That’s right, it NEVER ends. Have you considered that if you became a great painter, that the art critics would be standing to have their voices heard above the din of faint praises and try to mitigate your skills? Oh, yes. You see, all of those other people speak only for their own taste. Let me repeat that another way.

Those who criticize or offer their advice (particularly those who don’t paint and know little about it) are always trying to express that you “should” paint according to their taste . . . . .not yours! Think about this: The reason you wanted to paint in the first place was to have some fun, make pretty pictures that YOU liked and maybe a bunch of other reasons. The biggest reason is to express your own tastes . . . .not someone else’s.

In the classes and workshops that I instruct, I place much importance on the value of failure in the learning process. I also try hard to explain to those whose voice is nearly overpowering their painting efforts that we ALL have this evil, negative little loudmouth at our internal microphone. Sadly, few believe that everyone has it. Most people believe that they are singular and alone in their battles with their inner voice. Others refer to “confidence” or “courage” because they believe that that is the name of some special quality that those ‘experts’ have . . . .and that they never need to deal with the little bugger who lives not so silently within us. Baloney! ALL artists deal with it. Musicans, teachers, managers, ditch diggers and athletes, too, wrestle with it. In fact, all people do have that little rascal piping up with unwelcome commentary!

Because this inner competition is the absolute reality of finding our artistic path, I believe that learning to shush the voice is as important, if not more important, than mixing color or learning to draw.

I have been called unprofessional because, supposedly, I am supposed to present the image of perfection and to make painting appear easy and nonchalant. What do you think? Do you find that, as a painter, you are bolstered in some way by learning that we all struggle with the voice? Do you find relief knowing that every artist needs to become deaf to what relatives and friends and critics have to say? Do you rise up with your brush in hand with greater courage because you finally learned to say “To hell with you, Voice! Shutup!”? Or, do you believe that more teachers and ‘experts’ should relate their own struggles and explain the realities of the often solitary aloneness we feel as creative people? Or, do you think I am a buffoon for pointing out that we are human? Really! What do you think?

Let me say here that insanity is not the subject. Nor am I saying that one should ignore sound instruction. Learning is about dealing with our demons. Learning is not some special skill handed down from heaven. Learning is about sweat, effort, trials, failures and occasional successes. Learning never, ever stops for us artists. So, we must tune our ears to those who can lead us. The first one we must shut out is the one person who will tell you that you are better off baking cookies. Listen to those who empathize with your struggle and urge you onward. Listen to those who make it plain that every artist, no matter their station or level of achievement, fights their demons with sheer effort and work.

Then there is the other aspect of the voice . . . . .the aspect that drives us forward to become more discerning about our work and to follow our suspicions and feelings about it. We must develop the ‘selective ear’ to our inner voice and know when to listen and when not to listen.

Oh! One last thing. . . . . . Listen to those painter who have a sense of humor about ‘being professional.’ They are the ones who will snicker at their own voice and reply to it with some sarcastic retort while they joyously sound off about how fun this process really is. They are the ones who will giggle about having paint on the toes of their new shoes or paint on their new sweater because they just couldn’t help themselves and just HAD to paint without regard to what they were wearing. After all, if we are crazy enough to not change clothes before we pick up a brush, there Must be SOMETHING wrong with us! Right??? 😉

13 thoughts on “Realities of the Painter’s Voice”

  1. Right on every count, Mike. Everyone who works at making art could benefit from reading "Art and Fear" by David Bayles and Ted Orland. Public libraries may have it, and it's in print, available through bookstores. We all experience fear at beginning, fear in the middle, fear at the "finish" and have to learn to push through and keep on. One thing they say that has stuck with me is that all your work is preparation for the few (or maybe even many) really fine pieces you will make. The preparation is necessary, so do it.

    One of the best painters I know calls herself a "craftsperson" because she is constantly dealing with, learning more about, the craft. It's ongoing forever.

    Is anything more exciting and rewarding?
    –Sue Wheeler, British Columbia

  2. Thank you! This is my struggle for sure, and it's so good to hear that someone who I consider to be a successful painter also struggles constantly with these things. I very much appreciate your willingness to express these thoughts to us out here.

  3. Mike, I agree with you and am so glad to follow your blog. You show and tell it like it is – you don't sugarcoat it or fool us into thinking you're perfect and don't make bad paintings by just showing the perfect ones! HURRAH for YOU!!!

  4. This post deserves a well considered response, and for now I am not in the right space for it. But THANKS Mike, probably on behalf of many others as well, for voicing out loud what is often left unsaid.

    I hope to get back to you later, but for now there is an exhibition to curate… and paintings waiting for my own expression! 🙂 (Was it only a few weeks ago I said that it didn't matter if I didn't ever exhibit again…?)

    Great post, keep putting them out there!

  5. Another hearty AMEN!!!! I am sending this on to my son, who is an amateur team-roping cowboy because I think this is applicable to any and all efforts in our lives.
    Thank you so much, Mike!

    Dena Hill

  6. Excellent post Mike. The inner voice is so personal and so powerful. Walt Kelly was right when he drew Pogo saying, "we have met the enemy, and he is us". Honestly, sometimes I have such crap wafting through my brain! Thank God I don't have to believe each and every thought that passes through. OK…I'm going to go play with colors now.

  7. Thanks to all of you commenters for your encouraging thoughts!

    Anonymous' mention of "ART and FEAR" is most valid. My copy is nearly worn out from markings and page pinching. It is the required text for my classes. Also, the authors live and show their art in my community here in California.

    Butch . . .As always, you came through with another comment that touches us all.

    All of you . . . .Hang in there and PAINT! If you aren't a painter, keep on keepin' on and set your sights on what you WANT . . .not what the voice is trying to convince you of. Just GO for it!

  8. Mike- I am so happy I found your blog. Thank you for voicing what I am now believing may be a universal truth! I wouldn't have believed it! I will immediately go out and tell my friends.. we have been working on this fear thing for awhile it seems.

    @Sue Wheeler – thanks for the nod to the "Art and Fear" book.. will check into it.

    Looking forward to more great stuff here! -VP Miller

  9. Thank you! My copy of Art & Fear is similarly dogeared. Despite that, and my encouraging others to tell the voice to pack sand, I am not painting. This blog reminded me of a book of many years ago called, "Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway". I don't remember anything except the title…but it works! Thanks to your musings my fingers are itching to paint! Again, thank you, and my dear friend V.P. Miller, who introduced me to your spot.

  10. Wise words. Do you hear me exhaling with relief that a painter as accomplished as you are did not spring fully armed from Zeus'head – or maybe a muse's head. It's good to know that other people struggle, and also make progress.

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