““Painting is easy when you don’t know how, but very difficult when you do.

-Edgar Degas

Painting is hard. And that’s the good news! “Arriving” as an artist and consistently creating honest, authentic work is not the cakewalk for “rockstar artists” that you imagine. Ask any of them. From all I’ve seen, it’s a lot more like wrestling with angels or ghosts on a daily basis.

Edgar Degas, The Dance Lesson

Yes, painting gets harder the more you know how – and that’s a blessing in disguise. Here are three things you experience as your the skill level climbs:

  1. Your definition of painting changes. As you acquire more knowledge and skill, your ideas about what constitutes a “good” painting evolve. You may even find yourself going deep and reconsidering what painting is and what purpose it serves, or should serve – in the world. This is also known as gaining maturity. It’s a good thing.
  2. The more you know, the more you realize how much you don’t know – YET! Mastering skills is like a gateway drug: it makes you want more and more. So enjoy the process! If you’re painting toward the day when you “paint your masterpiece,” forget it; Bob Dylan was right – that day never comes. What you gain though, is the motivation to keep trying. You also get another consolation prize: MANY paintings, and if you keep going, among them many masterpieces – multiple works that somehow, as if spontaneously 0n their own, make use of just the right skills to express your heart’s truth.
  3. Your old work looks “different” now – in any number of ways! At best, you can see that it’s uneven, lacking in this or that, and the direct influences are obvious – which is fine (all artists steal from other artists and always have), but a little unsettling now that you can see it plain as day. The good news here is that your increased savvy reveals how much you’ve grown as a craftsman and an artist since then.

It’s easy to imagine that once you’ve learned the fundamental skills, you can sit back and paint amazing work with ease and satisfaction. This is as much an illusion as thinking money makes you happy. What learning skills does for you – and this is why it’s important to learn as much technique as you can – is that it gives you the firm foundation you need to adequately communicate in painting what you see and think and who you are. It’s just that painting is a journey not a destination.

Edgar Degas, Singer with a Glove, 1878, Fogg Museum

Besides, think of it this way: if you were effortlessly pumping out the same, safe, salable work consistently, you’d probably get bored very quickly. You’d be doing little more than punching a clock, and at that point, you might as well get a “real job” that actually pays the bills (!).

Turns out it’s much more satisfying if not downright exhilarating, to keep learning. The more skills you master, the closer you come to doing the difficult work of expressing your heart’s truth.

If you can say, as the Bob Dylan song has it, “Yes, it sure has been a long, hard drive” – well, that just means you’re doing it right. Keep going.