Alaskan Artist - Elise Tomlinson
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05/26/2004: "Working Under a Deadline - Positive or Negative?"

If I don't have a show coming up I find that I work a lot less. I do like showing my work (I just wish I didn't have to go to the openings) but really I think that if I didn't have some obvious goal to work towards, I'd be a lot less motivated to work. And I do consider making art work. It's hard. And some days everything just sucks and I start to doubt what I'm doing and every choice I've ever made. I suppose that's normal but often it leads to a dark dark place and sometimes I get stuck there for weeks or months on end.

Not to mention the fact that I'm a grade A procrastinator by nature. In the past I convinced myself that I worked better under pressure. Even in school (especially in school) I'd wait until the last minute mostly obsessing about the fact that I wasn't doing any work...but also thinking about what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it; then I'd crank it all out in the 11th hour. Every time I'd practically have a nervous breakdown but in the end I'd be really pleased with the work so I started to believe that was my "process".

My last show is the first time that I think this backfired on me. I got down to the month before the show and I was still only building the canvases. And as always, I cranked out all the paintings at the last minute. I don't think I've ever hung a show that wasn't still wet. And at the opening I was telling a friend that I'd painted everything in the show in one month, and she replied "Elise, I wouldn't really be bragging about that". OUCH! And unlike other shows, I hung several pieces that I really hated, just to fill up the space, and I only sold two pieces and basically I felt like crap afterward. It made me re-evaluate whether or not my "process" was working for me anymore.

When I set up my exhibit at the Friendly Planet (the Loft gallery) I told a co-worker who works in the cubical across from me and she basically groaned out loud. She said "oh god, now I'm going to have to listen to you put this off for the next 6 months and you're going to end up getting all stressed out and sick over it. I don't know if I can make it through another one of your shows".

Now, she and I basically share an office off by ourselves so we chit chat all day long so truthfully she does absorb the brunt of my pre-show obsessive tendencies. Also, she's a good friend and brutally honest so the statement didn't hurt my feelings or anything, but it did make me think about how true it was. I determined then and there that this time would be different. I started right away, and my god, it was like a revelation. I've found that having all the pieces hanging around me all the time helps me see problems with them, and also gives me new ideas. Also, having plenty of time to let things dry and then paint successive layers is great. I've been so amazed at how ahead of the game I am this time. Plus, I've felt able to take more chances because I've known that there was still time to fix things if it went south.

It wasn't until yesterday, when I started trying to map out time to do an additional piece for a charity auction, that I realized I don't have the oodles and oodles of time that I thought I did. I'm going to be at a conference in Idaho next week, then my family is arriving for a visit from June 11-20...the show is July 2, all of a sudden I feel like HOLY SHIT! I have so much still left to do, and not all related to the art work. And now, I feel my procrastination gene kicking into high gear. I'm going to have to just force myself to keep painting even though I suddenly feel absolutely paralyzed.

I'm curious if other artists work better when they have all the time in the world, or under the pressure of some kind of deadline.

Replies: 6 Comments

on Wednesday, May 26th, Howard said

Leaving things to the last minute is never a good idea. As you said you are more likely to hang work that you are not happy with simply because it's all you got.
It's always better to have a number of works to pick and choose from.
I myself have to have three pieces done by the end June for a submissions deadline. So far I've tried to start the work but I've not been happy with anything I've done yet. Now I'm finding I'm running out of time and might have to submit something I'm less than happy with.
Deadlines can be a good thing though as long as you pace yourself. Knowing you have to get work done by such and such a date helps to keep you working.
I try to set my own goals as well. For the longest time I aimed for getting at least three pieces done a month. If I got more done all the better. This way I didn't really feel as if I was rushing myself to get stuff done and still felt like I was getting something finished. Now with all my extra free time I'm trying to do a bit more work.

on Wednesday, May 26th, John said

What about setting lots of little goals instead of letting one big goal hang over your head for a long time? Instead of saying I need x pieces done by y date, say I need (x divided by the number of weeks until date y) number of pieces done each week. Or, I have to work for x amount of time every day (or week) until the goal is satisfied.

on Wednesday, May 26th, John said

Ok, a certain number of things done every week might not be a great example, forgot how long oil takes to dry, but you get the idea.

on Wednesday, May 26th, Anna L. Conti said

Ask a bunch of artists what they would do if they won the lottery and didn't have to sell their work. Would they still show the work? Would they still paint? I ask those questions now and then and I'm often surprised at the answers I get. One artist told me that he wouldn't paint anymore - he'd collect art instead! I'd still paint, but I don't know about showing it. I think I would slow down and take much longer on each painting. That may or may not be a good thing - I think I have a tendency to obsess over details past the point of diminishing returns. Having deadlines prevents me from doing that too often. Even when the deadlines are self-imposed. Which they usually are. (I agree with John - break up the deadline into many smaller ones.)
So no, I wouldn't work fewer hours, but I might work differently.

on Wednesday, May 26th,">Elise said

I came home from work tonight after working an 11 hour day on a big web redesign project and felt my energy totally sapped. However, I decided to take John and Anna's advice and just get one small thing finished tonight.

I thought, hey, I donít need to finish an entire painting tonight but I could transfer my new drawing onto canvas. But once I finished that I thought I could probably get the base coat down as well, since it is a layer I put down exclusively for texture and is thick, needing a lot of time to dry.

So I squeezed a bunch of impasto medium onto the canvas and ended up getting the entire 24x30 canvas painted! It took several hours and I think if I had come home thinking that I'd have to spend three hours painting after such a long day at work I would have just collapsed on the couch; thinking about it as a series of little activities made it palatable (no pun intended).

As far as winning the lottery, my dad's obsessed with it, and loves to tell me all the things heíd buy me and my other sisters if he ever wins. I would quit my day job, build a studio fashioned after Georgia O'Keefe's, hire a studio assistant, purchase top of the line materials, and I'd probably start painting insanely HUGE canvases.

The one thing I feel restricted by because of commercial and logistical concerns is size. In school I loved to paint huge wall sized paintings. Now I don't generally paint larger than 30x36. This is because if I sell to someone outside of Juneau the shipping is extremely high. UPS doesn't ship ground and if you mail USPS they charge a large balloon rate on wide, thin, and light packages...i.e. the exact dimension of most canvases, plus they have limiting size restrictions.

And people in my town don't seem to buy large paintings at all and if no one buys your work, it will just start to stack up and up and up... but even if they did buy large work, I don't have a spacious enough studio to make it practical.

The other thing I'd do is buy or rent some high end film equipment and hire a crew to shoot one of the movies I've written.

Damn! Why'd you have to bring up the lottery!?? Especially since Iíve been agonizing all week over whether I can afford a 27mm tube of cadmium orange.

on Wednesday, May 26th,">Elise said

By the way Anna, I LOVE the photo on your website of your easle. Photos of artist's studios have always facinated me. They say so much about how a person works.