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Getting Back on the Horse

By Marianne Rice

I grew up in the Driftless region of the rural Midwest, where as children we rode horses bareback through the hills and valleys of our centennial family farm. There is an old expression used among riders we took particularly seriously as young children barreling around on animals weighing a thousand pounds, often with little to no adult supervision. “If a horse throws you off, you get right back on.” This equestrian wisdom holds rationale for both horse and rider; two stubborn wills that at times, come head to head.

"Relay Hunting" by Rosa Bonheur

To get back on the horse that throws you, is a way of establishing your command over the horse, but more importantly, it makes you face your fear of getting back on after a setback. The longer one dwells on failure, the larger it looms in your mind and the greater the fear, the less likely you are to get back on. I have faced this sort of intensifying dread, working with a problematic painting, and found myself hesitating to get back into the necessary work.

I am sure other artists relate when I say that I only feel as successful as my last painting. If I have a disappointing painting session, or a failed painting, I feel like a failed artist – as if the weight of my ability hangs on my last brush stroke. This discomfort with the struggle that comes with advancing one’s skill can lead to discouragement and a stack of abandoned paintings.

This last week I was working on a particularly challenging posthumous portrait commission. I had a frustrating painting session, followed by 3 days of family obligations that kept me from getting back into the studio, and let me tell you, the weight of that failure hung over me. I never feel this way at the beginning. A fresh painting starts with a burst of energy, so full of potential and excitement. The honeymoon phase is everyone’s favorite, but like all relationships, at some point you start to face problems, you have to start fixing things, it doesn’t feel fun anymore, you get bored; now the real work has begun.

I heard an interview once with Olympic athlete Alexia Pappa, after a particularly brutal workout her coach told her about a “rule of thirds” when it comes to performance success. Essentially, when chasing a dream, or pursuing something difficult, you should feel good about your performance a third of the time, neutral about your performance a third of the time, and disappointed with your performance a third of the time. If you feel good about your performance more than that, you probably aren’t pushing yourself hard enough. If you feel bad about your performance more than a third of the time, maybe you’re battling fatigue or burn out and you need to reconsider some things. Disappointment, whatever the goal, is a necessary element to growth and success.

"Resting at the Easel" by Emma Sparre

There’s another phrase in equestrian circles, “You’re not a rider unless you’ve fallen off seven times.” Getting in the habit of pushing through the discomfort and even embracing “the flop” can accelerate the learning process and help you get those challenging paintings to the finish line. When you abandon a painting in the problem-solving stage, you deny yourself the lesson in the struggle. You also deny yourself the pleasure of having figured it out.

I have heard it said, you learn more from a failed painting than a successful one. Opening yourself up to exploration and play requires a willingness to be bad at something. Winston Churchill famously said “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” If you never venture out into uncharted waters, you’ll never find a new shore.

As I have faced the challenges of pursuing art, the wisdom of my adolescence has returned to me. I once expected to fall off, even more; I wore it like a badge of honor, one more notch on the old saddle leather, one step closer to becoming an experienced rider. If you anticipate the struggle, and know you’re going to get bucked off, if you understand from the beginning that this is a natural and necessary part of becoming an artist, you’re still going to hit the dirt, but you won’t hesitate at the next step. There’s no other way to do it, take a deep breath, dust yourself off, grab the reins and get back on that horse.

“A work of art is the trace of a magnificent struggle.”

― Robert Henri, The Art Spirit


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