Playing the Painting Game | What to Do When You’re Striking Out

Sometimes the desire to paint is there but the ability is lacking. Occasionally when I venture out to paint, especially on an extended plein air trip, I can do a lot of swinging (to use a baseball analogy) but never connect with the ball. Travel plans are made, the daily obligations of life put on hold, and an expectation of what will be creatively accomplished during the adventure anticipated, only to find that nothing is happening once I arrive.  It’s as if I’ve gotten myself to the World Series of Painting and just keep striking out. I’ve learned that this is a time to pull back and regroup.



High in the Cascades (en plein air pastel, 15×18) by Richard McKinley


In the Event of a Strike-Out: One of my first experiences with continually striking out happened during a painting trip to Sparks Lake, Oregon. Since I knew the area well, I had strong preconceived ideas as to what I wanted to paint and I thought I knew how I wanted the paintings to look. These creative visualizations are useful and not that dissimilar to what baseball players, as well as other athletes and performers, do before stepping up to the plate. It draws on muscle memory and the power of positive thought. If we think we will strike out and flub, we will. After eagerly arriving and setting up to work, I found that every day’s painting adventure was a failure. Instead of hitting home runs, or even getting to base, I was striking out every time. The harder I tried, the worse it became. Finally, late one night as I was evaluating the situation, I came to the realization that I was trying too hard. I had painter’s performance anxiety and needed to stop thinking about the game, and just play ball. I had to let go of the notions of what I should be painting and how it should look, and just swing.

Get in the Game: The next morning, after arriving at my usual location with its stellar views toward the inlet into Sparks Lake, I decided to turn and just play with a section of trees. Gone was the concern of the painting looking like the scene. Gone was any preconceived idea of how I should be painting. I just played with the visual elements provided by the scene and orchestrated them to taste. I quickly felt a synergy between my approach and the painting; I was in the game. Not sure where it might lead, I just played until the game was over. What had been a frustrating week of losses had turned into an invigorating adventure. As I left the location, I knew a new way of approaching painting on location had just occurred. I call it “intu-ing” a play on intuitive interaction.

While I still like to anticipate what I am going to paint, whenever I find myself constantly striking out, I remind myself of this painting experience and let go of my expectations and just play.





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