When I attended my first PSoA Annual Conference in 2010, I was inspired, amazed, reinvigorated and newly driven. On seeing the winners at the Saturday banquet standing on the stage, I immediately set myself a lofty goal, knowing it would take a lot of work and dedication. I would stand on that stage by 2020!
I took the knowledge gained there and applied it to my new portraits. I upped the percentage of portraits and portrait sketches I did to over 50%, even when it meant they would almost certainly not sell but end up in my attic. I listened to audio programs on setting goals and working toward them. I bought instructional videos on portraiture, took notes and tried to apply those techniques to my work. I wrote a note that read, “By 2020, I will stand on that stage among the winners at the annual conference of the Portrait Society of America.” I memorized it and repeated it daily as a mantra. I could see my work steadily improving and I was confident, even certain of achieving that goal.
I had a progression in mind. I would win or place highly in the Members Only Competition, then finish in the annual conference runners up, and then be chosen as a finalist by 2020. Every year, when I submitted, I could clearly visualize my best painting hanging among the other finalists at the conference. This was going to be great!
By 2017, I seemed no closer than when I had started. A couple honorable mentions in a category of the Members Only Competition was as close as I was coming. Every year brought the same very nicely worded rejection letter. As kind as it was, it still felt like a kick in the throat. I checked in with four mentors on how I could best improve, got good advice and continued to improve, but still I got no closer. My rejection letter for the 2019 competition was just downright depressing, and the realization came that, barring dumb luck, I was not going to reach that goal.
It was also disheartening to see the amount of very young people with such amazing abilities, some painting for a relatively short time. They deserve every bit of their success, but it still was hard knowing how long and how hard I had tried to get to a level they have already exceeded.
I had a long discussion with my brother, a successful businessman, who was great at setting and achieving goals. I asked him, how can I see this as anything but a failure if I don’t reach it? He asked, “Are you any better than you were in 2010?” I said “Yes, much.” But getting better wasn’t the goal, being a finalist was. We continued the discussion and could never agree on defining success in this case. I certainly valued the improvement, but that wasn’t enough.
At my wife’s encouragement, I decided to go to the 2019 conference, but I told her this would be my last and after that I would drop out.
At the conference, I was inspired, amazed, reinvigorated and had a great time with friends I only get to see when I attend these events. Also, I made some new, terrific friends. More importantly, I heard some things in breakout groups that turned around my way of thinking entirely. Not in terms of defining my success or failure but in understanding why I was falling short year after year. I heard phrases like interlocking shapes and composition of values, etc. that I had never heard before, and I figured the people in the circle of finalists probably had those things figured out and incorporated.
One session I attended on “Entering Competitions” may have had several others in attendance who had been frustrated in previous contests, feeling they deserved some kind of notice beyond the annual rejection.
I was reminded of a time when I judged a periodic writing competition for a newspaper over several years. I often received letters from those who were not chosen, complaining about what, in their opinion, the winners lacked while elevating their own work beyond what was realistic. I was determined not to be one of those harvesters of sour grapes.
During this session, I was amazed at the amount of time and work that the judges devote to the process. It gave me an entirely new appreciation for their dedication. I would NEVER want to judge this competition, especially knowing it is virtually a thankless job.
During that same session, Leslie Adams gave a brief program on her many failures of the past and how discouraged she was by them. But in retrospect, she came to see all the good that came from the journey. If nothing else mattered, hearing THIS was the reason I came to this conference! It completely lightened my heart.
Over the course of the conference, I started to understand that there was a greater distance between my ability and that of those chosen. Earlier on, I had overestimated my work. And though it may sound strange, this was actually a relief to come to this conclusion. All this was being freed from my own mind. Yes, I will likely not reach that goal, but now I had some tools to improve that I didn’t even know existed a few days before.
So, in revising my goal realistically, it is likely that I may not live long enough to gain that considerable ground, especially knowing that as I improve, so will the competition.
I’ll keep submitting and keep improving and maybe someday, who knows…