The Suffering Is Important
By Tim King
One Autumn I was painting in Woodstock in the rain. Despite my clamp-on umbrella my kit was soaked but I was determined to get some lovely street reflections ‘nailed’ before I gave up. A passer-by stopped and asked me why I was painting under such awful conditions. I said, ‘The suffering is important to me’. He looked into my eyes, thought about it and then turned away, apparently satisfied.
The suffering artist is the butt of much humour and irony. The irony once came to me very forcibly when I received one of those polite rejection emails from the Woodstock arts festival. With it was a short promotional film encouraging artists to participate. That was fair enough but it included footage of me painting. The organisers obviously saw nothing strange in using me to promote the festival whilst rejecting my actual participation. The irony was perfect!
Those of us who paint out of doors all year round become inured to the discomforts and inconveniences: being there is too important to succumb to them and run for shelter. Eugene Boudin (1824-1898) once said ‘Everything painted directly, on the spot always has a strength, a power, a vividness of touch that one does not find again in the studio’ and for observational painters it is so true. I have lost count of the number of times I have scaled up a plein air sketch in the studio and destroyed the magic. And one May, as I watched my box easel blow over in Mousehole, scattering my kit along the harbour wall, I realised that I was no longer upset by such a thing – it had become part of the process.
Rejection comes hard (and in my case frequently) and one is forever searching for that elusive thread that will lead out of the labyrinth of failure to the bright light of success. I am always impressed by the doggedness of my plein air colleagues. In an almost perverse way, the psychological suffering just makes them more determined. Buffeted by disappointment, discouraged by the attitude of many gallery owners, often wracked with self-doubt, they just keep going. I sometimes wonder if we are not all suffering from the same obsessive compulsive disorder. For studio painters it is no different. Dennis Syrett, past president of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters, once confided that it had taken him 15 years of determined effort to succeed in becoming a member. Despite years of disappointment the thought of giving up was, well, unthinkable. For him achievement could only come through endurance.
I have just reread a great statement by Derek Balmer in the Catto Gallery’s catalogue of a one-man show of his work. In it he lists 19 different categories of people for whom artists create employment, including curators, gallery owners, art critics and white van men. And of course they all get paid before we do. Are we mugs? Was it just for commuters that the graffiti, (now sadly obliterated along with ‘F... Blair’ and ‘Marry Me Pam’), was written on the famous M40 wall ‘Why Do I Do This Every Day'? Poor sales at a show; a botched attempt at an easy subject; the pressures of work or domestic life; yet another rejection by a gallery: all these must make us wonder why we bother.
St Paul was right. What makes the difference in the end must be the hope that perseverance will finally be rewarded: a conscious decision to accept all the physical and psychological ‘negatives’ and keep going. David Curtis ROI RSMA is adamant that it is not always the most talented artists who succeed but those willing to stay the course.
Creating art is a lonely business but there is strength to be had in like-minded friends – those who are willing to share the difficulties and support each other. I certainly owe a great debt to my plein air painting pals. We sometimes think we are crazy painting in those conditions but being crazy together does not seem so bad. So perhaps the message is ‘Embrace the suffering - it will come anyway – but never give up’.