Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Dealing With Burnout

     Yesterday I talked about outworking the competition, and today I’m going to speak to one of the by-products of working harder, faster and longer than your fellow artists:  BURNOUT.
     I just got off the road from a show that’s suffering the effects of this economy, as are many in the art market.  It was a tough show for every artist who attended this year.
     I think artists, by their very nature, take disappointment harder than most.  Not only is art the way you make your living, but also your very soul is exposed each time you exhibit.  With experience, you learn that sometimes, you just have to chalk it up to factors that are out of your control.
     You can paint the best piece you’re capable of, frame it, drive it there, hang it on the wall, and there still may be circumstances that control your ability to sell it.  Every artist goes through this roller coaster of emotions, and the ups and downs and whims of the art market can contribute to burnout.
      The first place to confront this frame of mind is in the studio.  And you might be surprised, but there are some simple ways to combat burnout.  For me, that usually means changing up some music I’m listening to, or re-arranging my studio----getting a new look or a new feel.  Sometimes just taking a break and cleaning up the studio and getting it organized are enough to recharge my battery.

      I also think we need to ask ourselves if we’re avoiding painting because we’ve got a little burnout or we might be intimidated by a piece.  We may not want to mess it up because it’s going so well, or we may want to avoid it because it’s heading downhill.
     If that’s the case, then setting it off to the side, or putting it up on the easel for a couple of days will give you a new perspective.  When I’ve followed this practice, I’ve often gained a new insight on how to solve the problem with a new color or a value change.  It can be something that simple.  Time away from the painting can bring new revelations. 
     And I know I’m guilty of not stopping to take the time to look at my piece from across the room.  I think that’s a big mistake.  I just finished some large commissions (2 foot by 4 foot is large for me) and I found myself painting with a really small brush, doing very detailed work, and when I got across the room to view it, I realized I was wasting brush strokes that couldn’t be seen as soon as you were 2 feet from the painting.  I really needed to be studying the painting from the perspective of the average viewer.  Just the acknowledgement that I was too close to the painting, helped me give it the finishing touches it needed.  I imagine “being too close to the project” applies to writers, musicians, sculptors, filmmakers and anyone in the creative arts.

     Another thing I’m guilty of, as are some of you, is that we’re workaholics.  I’m usually in the studio by 8 a.m. and still in the studio at 8 p.m.  Pam is fond of telling people interested in our schedule that it’s the only job she’s had with a lunch break of 20 minutes or less.
     So we work hard and we’re guilty of not taking enough breaks.  Computers and painting eat up eyes and hands and shoulders and backs.  Sometimes it’s just necessary to get out of the studio, walk around our property, water the garden, play with the dogs…. anything to relax my mind.  Then when I come back to my painting, I tend to have a little fresher approach and am re-invigorated.
     It’s really important to rest your brain.  Drawing and painting is a lot like driving long distances.  You’re not doing much, but the concentration is exhausting. 
     But I understand that it’s hard to get away from your painting (or your novel, or your sculpture, or your song-writing).  You don’t want to break away from a good painting, or jinx yourself.  But if you don’t take a break, a good run can quickly slide into making bad decisions.
     I try to break up my day with 2 or 3 real rest periods, where I can relax my hands and my head.  If I stick to that program, I find that the intervals between burnout phases are longer and less pervasive.  Let me know what you do to combat burnout.  I’m open to all suggestions.

All content and images © Mark Kohler Studio.


  1. In the quilting world, it's said that "the last nose on your quilt is yours". I suspect that's same for the noses of artists. Am loving your blog!

  2. You suspected correctly! So the best piece of advice I can give is to get back up and set your ass down in your saddle (chair) and get to work!

  3. Hey, I recognize that painting! I have one similar to it :) -- sitting on an easel in my Knoxville apartment. I get a lot of compliments on it. I usually don't mention that there is another, better version of it out there...

    I have been drawing and painting for 18 months now and sometimes I wonder if I am making any progress. My daughter, who is my best cheerleader, assures me that I am so, I take a little hope from that. Here is my latest charcoal drawing attempt of a friend of mine who came to my house and I posed him, did some quick sketches and took photos. I did this charcoal drawing from one of the photos.

  4. You're right! This is the painting from our workshop and it will be one of the images in the new cookbook I'm involved in - due out in December. Email me an image of the charcoal drawing. I'd like to see it!

  5. I meant to post this link in my previous post, but hit send before I was finished -- the bi-product of an ADHD brain trying to do too many things at once:

  6. Mark, I'm Rick Doak's aunt. I'm a watercolorist and yes, I REALLY understand your statement about shows and the emotional wear and tear that an artist experiences when exhibiting their work. I've said that it is like taking a knife and to your belly and allowing the whole world to see the INSIDE of you. It is PAINFUL and difficult. I have a difficult time distinguishing between a good/healthy critique and just wanting to trash me. LOL
    Your work is gorgeous. Love you soft tones and depth at the same time.
    I'm in the middle of a piece that will be acrylics this time...cowboy boots (a wedding gift). I'm so burned-out...but your suggestions may have helped me.
    Keep your brush wet.
    Virging Stewart Metzler, Lubbock, TX.

  7. Boy can I identify! I'm in the midst of working through a bout myself, and this is what I've found works best for me....instead of focusing on my feelings of fatigue and burnout, I concentrate on my art and how blessed I am to be able to paint for a living. If you're burnt out from fatigue, this should work for you. If you're suffering burnout because you don't like the paintings you're producing, it might be because you're trying to break through to a new level. When I become so dissatisfied with my results, it's usually because I have raised my own expectations of where I want to be. It's a frustrating time; you're stuck between being unhappy with your painting and seeing real results from improvement. You just have to stick it out and keep pushing will break through to the other side. Have you read "The War of Art"? It really helped me.