I’ve been an oil painter for years. Oil painting is the medium on which I cut my artistic teeth. My first paintings were oils and for many years, that was all I did.
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Portrait work also seemed like the thing I was meant to do. The first paintings I sold were portraits and for nearly forty years, that’s almost all I sold. Oh, there were a few paintings I did for myself that found homes outside the studio, but I spent so much time painting portraits that I didn’t honestly think I needed to paint for myself. What was the purpose? I was happy with portrait work.
I can’t really say I hit a wall with portraits (or that I burned out) but sometime before 2010 I noticed that most of the portraits I painted became work before they were finished. It was more and more of a struggle to finish each one. Very few of them satisfied me.
Keep in mind, I’d been truly happy with just a handful of the paintings that I’d finished over the course of all those years. There was always something that could be improved; something I should have done differently. I know I’m not alone in that.
But this new dissatisfaction was more than that. Deeper.
In June 2014, I completed a large portrait that was the biggest challenge I’d ever faced. I’d spent my life painting horses and this was a portrait of the horse owner. It contained hundreds of white roses, a bushel of palm fronds, a porcelain vase, and, of course, the horse owner. All of these were new to me as a painter. They were things I hoped would challenge me (they did!) and re-ignite a passion for painting.
At times I never thought it would be finished. But eventually it was, and the client was satisfied. Yet I didn’t feel any different about painting.
Then, nearly two years passed before my next portrait: a basic 16×20 head study of a horse that should have been pretty straight forward. It was finished and delivered in time for Christmas and the client was thrilled.
But I could tell something wasn’t the same.
At the crossroads
Finally, this past week, I did something I never thought I’d do. I simply packed up my oil paints and mediums, labeled the box, and tucked it all into a closet. I put all my oil painting books away, too. That spot in the studio looks empty now, but I don’t regret what I did.
Why? Because I realized my studio life had changed.
The change developed slowly over the course of the last three or four years and began with the opportunity to write freelance for EmptyEasel in 2012. That was followed by the launch of online art courses several months later.
Over the last five years, I’ve expanded into lesson downloads, eBooks, drawing classes by email, and more instructional material on my art blog. Somewhere since writing that first article for EmptyEasel and launching those first courses, I stopped being a portrait artist and started being a teaching artist.
(Which is something I never thought I was meant to do or capable of!)
I also stopped being an oil painter. Now, I’m a colored pencil artist.
You may be wondering about the course of your art life, too. If you’re like me, you’re questioning when the time is right to make that change. What are the signs?
I can’t speak for everyone, but I can tell you about some of the signals I saw:
5 signs it’s time to make a change:
Decreasing satisfaction was the first thing I noticed.
Originally I thought I just needed a break, or that I needed to branch out into different types of portraits. That’s why I accepted the human portrait in the first place. But no matter what I did, nothing ignited that old “first love” of painting and creating portraits. Quite the contrary. Each one was more of a struggle than the one before; even the ones that turned out well.
Decreasing business was the next sign there might be change in the wind.
Almost since the day I started painting portraits, I had portraits to paint. Word of mouth was my friend. So were repeat clients, so when everything dried up suddenly, I thought it was my fault. Lack of marketing, or maybe my personal struggles with painting were showing in my work. I still think those things may have been a factor, but I now believe there was a different plan in action.
Now I see the creative stillness as a vacation; the kind you might take when you leave one job and begin another. Because that is, in essence, what has happened to me.
Unexpected opportunities ended the creative stillness (and there have been a lot of them this year!)
I’ve been approached by people from a handful of places to participate in things I did not expect. I initiated some of the opportunities, such as publishing a lesson download every week this year, or working with another artist to create a teaching guide, but others came to me – and not a single one of them involves a portrait or oil painting (although some do involve horses!)
Validation from other sources finally helped me internalize the idea that I was now a teaching artist. Validation from other artists. Validation from students. Validation from blog readers. Even, yes, validation from EmptyEasel readers.
This transition has been slow. . . in fact, I’ve resisted it for some time. But last week, the resistance ended. I put my old life behind me and will now look forward to the new life. Will I accept another portrait if it comes my way?
Will I go back to oils? Possibly.
But I now think of myself as a teacher, not a portrait artist. It’s an unexpected change, but one that has restored the desire to make art and has given me the opportunity to help others do the same.
So if you find yourself in a period of creative stillness or general dissatisfaction with your art, maybe it’s time for a change of course. Who knows where it could lead?
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