Inner Critic 24/7

Art critic Jerry Saltz had this salty observation about the creative process, "As an artist, you wake up thinking you know. By noon, you question everything. You’re better at bedtime. Then you wake up at 3 a.m. with the thought, 'My work sucks.'”

Okay. I'm not sure about you, but it's as if Jerry's been overhearing the thoughts I've been having lately. Returning from my five-day intensive art workshop, I was on a high for quite a while. I painted every chance I got. But of course, life gets in the way, and now I'm down to weekends only. The interesting thing is that the further I get away from that magical time, the louder my inner critic seems to get. 

About a month after I started posting my work, I told my mom about my new site and sent her the URL for my paintings. A week later, I checked in to see what she thought. "Well," she began tentatively, "Some of it is pleasant to look at..."

Sigh. So my mother doesn't like my work. Okay. That's fine. But it does add a bit of fuel to that 3 a.m. wake-up voice. 

The truth is that our brains do us no favors. They twist on themselves–starting from one end (Wow! I can't believe I did that! It's so cool!) to the other (Oh my gosh. How embarrassing. How could I have ever thought that was good?). 

Is there a balance? Maybe, maybe not. I do know though that just noticing that the inner critic is there helps give a bit more power over it. So now I know that when I hear that voice start to whisper mean things into my ear, I am listening to a fickle liar with a propensity for hyperbole.

I have noticed that my inner critic tends to get more negative after I've had a difficult day, or not gotten enough sleep, or when I've eaten too much bread. It also noticed that it has nicer things to say after a day of checking things off my list or getting some "likes" on Facebook for a funny post about my kid.

Just being aware of the inner critic's tendency to vacillate helps me picture it more like a that weird neighbor who has no filter--we know to expect something rude or critical; she just can't help herself. But knowledge is power–-now we can brace ourselves as she approaches and find our happy place.

So Jerry, when I wake at 3 a.m. I'll remember that even though my inner critic is telling me that I am wasting time in my studio, I can quickly fall back to sleep knowing that the voice does not necessarily represent truth. I can now dream of paint and brushstrokes and as I wake to a Saturday with no obligations, I can run downstairs to discover new adventures with my brush. And remember that as long as I get enjoyment from it, it doesn't matter that my mom isn't going to display my art on her walls. They wouldn't match her furniture anyways.

Notes from Jesse Reno's Workshop


I was looking for a workshop that could jumpstart my creativity. I had spent the last year sitting in my basement studio doing the same thing over and over again. Some finished pieces I liked, but most felt "expected." I had lost my verve. Jesse Reno's class was just what I needed. 

I chose to go to his workshop after watching a video of his painting process. He poured paint into his hands and then attacked the canvas. I had never seen anyone do anything like it before. Watching it happen, my pulse quickened. It was exciting. Primal. Perfect. 

The week-long art retreat was held at a place called Hacienda Mosaico in Puerto Vallarta. There were five students in all in the outdoor studio; each of us got our own table and easel. For the first demo, Jesse got down on his hands and knees before a tarp and a primed canvas and began pouring paint into his hands. As he worked and talked, I witnessed the transformation of the canvas, and a seed began to grow in me. At one point, tears flew down my cheeks - as they always do when I witness pure, holy beauty. 

The next five days were all about unlearning everything I had been taught up to that point. I learned so many things, but here are the top six: 

1. Don't define the outcome before you start

Also known as the "Don't Kick Your Own Ass" rule. By setting up an expectation of what you want the painting to look like before you've even started, you've set yourself up for disappointment. Don't get preoccupied with what it's going to look like in the end - when we do, we struggle to make it. But there's no map – just a journey that changes every step of the way. Expectation corrupts. Perfection is death. Anxiety only begets more anxiety.  

2. Yes, and...

PaInting is a lot like improv. If something unexpected happens in your art, it's as if you've been handed an opportunity to act. Don't ignore it or move past it. Accept it and work with it. Do it quick to avoid over-thinking it. Made a mistake? No big deal – something interesting can finally happen now. 

3. Be a student of your own expression

Destroy the canvas - bring it on! Get tangled. Get messy. Play. Interact. Smash. Fracture. Bury. Resurrect. Build up a base then isolate elements you like; cover up the ones you don't. Build, take away, build, then take away again. Restraint does not allow wholeness. Let the art take you where it wants to go – random interactions are inspiring and can take you places you would have never expected to go. Don't illustrate or conceptualize. The magic happens when you are lost. 

4. Fix it right away or ELSE

If there's an area you aren't excited about, cover it. Change it. If you don't, you will get used to it and will find that future decisions will be hampered by this compromise. What was there before doesn't matter. 

5. Keep on Moving

Keep several canvases going at once so that you have distance and something to move onto when you get stuck or bored. This also prevents a painting from feeling too "precious." The more canvases you have going on at once, the more you will have to celebrate. Jesse will sometimes put away a canvas for a month, so that when he looks at it again, he can see it with fresh eyes and not be afraid to add to it - or start over again on top of it. He says that he knows a painting is done when the canvas connects to his truth.

6. Pay Your Dues

You can't expect to hit a few balls around and have the Yankees banging down your door. It's work. At times it's hard work. It's about putting in the time. Sometimes the lows will be lower than the highs. But it's worth it, like anything else that's difficult. Stick to it and you'll have learned to silence the inner critic and grab the joy that comes in the freedom of understanding what's important to you.