Close call. It seems that procrastination is part of how our brain works. It is not your fault if you choose to read the paper all day, snooze and then break for lunch. Ignoring those chores, the report and starting that project is part of what makes us human. Here I was feeling slightly guilty about not finishing a painting today, but it is okay. I am being normal.
Studies suggest that our brains default to our old wiring system. The limbic system. The reptile brain. You know the fight or flight, eat, have sex and do nothing side of the brain. In fact anything we face in a day passes through the reptile brain for assessment. The default setting is "do nothing unless you will really suffer for it". And it means right now not later. So hanging the picture is a huge waste of energy according to the reptile brain. Do not do it. Unless it means delaying tucking into that slice of cheesecake on the table. Okay then. Picture goes up. Cheesecake is eaten. Reptile is happy.
Then there is the clever-clogs side of the brain. The pre-frontal cortex that developed last week. Relatively speaking, that is, compared to our extremely ancient reptile brain. The cortex takes care of the logical, rational thinking. The planning for a rainy day and complex strategies that make insurance salespeople so annoying. The problem is that the reptile brain is very efficient. Like a thug in the alley. Or a great white shark heading for you. It makes a compelling argument to say the least. How does the cortex stand a chance?
The odds are against defeating the reptile brain. This explains binge-watching TV episodes. obesity, playing video games when you should be working and apathy in the face of almost anything important. Governments are trying to tell us to get our act together. Health issues and economic problems stem from this attitude. Except big brother goes about it all wrong. You cannot punish people and expect them to do better things. You can show the immediate benefits of deciding to change.
There is a way to train your brain. It takes practice and time. It is a victory of the rational brain over the reptile brain. Like a hero outgunned by the villain. The hero has to rely on cunning, training and quick thinking like a ninja. The villain relies on brute force and gets outwitted by the ninja brain. As you train your brain it becomes stronger, better and develops the habit of success. Repeated triumphs, big and small, on a daily basis.
The scientists call this neuroplasticity. The ability to mold the brain to rewire itself and make new habits. Good habits that see the benefits of starting even if the rewards are delayed. Is it not wonderful to know that you can mold your brain into doing amazing things? Highly successful people have developed habits for achievement. There is nothing that makes (insert famous name) that much better than you or I. Even with innate talent. If that person does not get off his duff and start he will remain potential only.
Ask yourself what thoughts go through your head when faced with an idea about starting something worthwhile. Try to stand aside and watch what your reptile brain throws up instinctively. You may be surprised and even shocked at the lame excuses that are designed to keep you down: Start painting? How silly! Childish even when there is so much trouble in the world. I have a real job. Now lets eat some chips.
Forget about New Year's resolutions. You know what you need to do right now. Start. Whether it is for your health, physical or mental. Your income. Your self-worth. Your life. Simply start today. Repeat. Change your reality.
What will you start today?
The name Karoo is believed to come from the Khoi-khoi word garo meaning desert. The region justifiably can be called dry, but that would not be doing it justice either. It is a vast region of contrasts. Sometimes there are floods, snow, extreme heat, but also blessed with abundant underground water. Some parts are so lush that you would not believe you are in semi-desert countryside.
The Karoo is vast. Over 400 000 square kilometers. Roughly divided by the Cape mountains into the Little and the Great Karoo regions. It is not surprising that such variety can be found in this vast area. I recall visiting Nieu Bethesda in the Eastern Cape. Parts of the village are lush and green from borehole water furrows that feed the small holdings on one side of town. Go a bit further and the land is bone dry. Not a place for softies.
I suspect that the romance of the Karoo has won over most South Africans, but only those who live there can truly understand the place. There are many stories to add colour to the Karoo. Some true, others old yarns. As always it is the people who live there that weave the tapestry of this romantic place. It is not an easy life when nature brings on the extreme heat and cold. Making a living in certain parts must be difficult at times.
Still the attraction remains and there are popular tourist venues all over the region. Since I am a coastal boy at heart you would think that the Karoo would not be a popular painting subject for me. Yet I do enjoy the landscapes very much. The serenity, peace and history all work together.
The structure of the landscape too. By this I mean the vegetation, colour of the soil and uninterrupted views. There is a solidity and economy to the scenery. This translates to shape and structure on the canvas. Both important qualities to landscape painting.
Looking back on my paintings I can see that the Karoo has featured strongly. Almost as often as seascapes. It does seem that I am being called onto another Karoo trip to fill up on painting inspiration. Where to go next?
Van Gogh, rather famously, only sold one painting in his lifetime. Why was this? Mostly it came down to marketing. A subject his future sister-in-law put into good use. Plus a few marketing lessons for artists.
Vincent Van Gogh. Does any other artist’s name stir up so many images. Tortured genius. The artist who cut off his ear. The starving artist who only sold one painting.* Paintings that sell for hundreds of millions on auction today. Don McLean wrote a song about him. On it goes.
I love Van Gogh’s paintings. I know his work is singular in its genius. Utterly unique and breath taking. I have more books on Van Gogh than any other artist. Even a massive biography about his life. Which I read, by the way.** There are so many aspects to his life that we could discuss. But for this article I want to look at the idea that Vincent was a business failure.
The truth is Van Gogh was not a great businessman. Why should we even care? His art is here for our enjoyment after all. The thing that rankles a bit is that it is Van Gogh’s example that all the dream-killers rely upon. You know the friend or family member who says that you cannot succeed at art? Look at Van Gogh, they say: ‘’ A Genius (unlike you) and even he died penniless’’. Blah blah blah.
Well it is time to set a few things straight. Van Gogh was recognised as a genius by contemporaries like Monet, Pissaro and Gauguin. Art dealers knew this too. If only Van Gogh had the temperament to focus on the marketing side a bit more. Oh, but that was then. Marketing did not figure in those days. Not true.
Even J.M.W Turner, many years before Van Gogh, knew how to market like a showman. Turner would complete a painting in one go before crowds of onlookers at the national gallery. Leaving them all gobsmacked and proclaiming his greatness. Yes, Turner knew how to impress the punters and he was a wealthy man for it.
Lesson one: Keep a close eye on your marketing.
So why not Van Gogh? Well he carried a lot of mental baggage. A difficult childhood, family guilt, low self-esteem and his troubled relationships. Not to mention the bipolar episodes. He could not get people to like him. Later on he could not even get models to pose for him. The French provincials regarded him with suspicion too. Typical.
Lesson two: be open and personable with others. Relationships are important to growing your potential supporters. But not in a creepy way of course.
Then Vincent had his brother Theo as his art dealer/agent. Theo was, by all accounts, a loving brother and a good chap. But as Vincent’s agent it seems he fell down on the job. There was all that dysfunctional family dynamic going on. Theo was in the middle between Vincent and their disappointed parents. Why was Theo not promoting Vincent’s paintings more when other big-name impressionists were endorsing Vincent’s talent?
Lesson Three: Don’t mix business with family.
Some argue that Vincent could have sold much more, but that his paintings took so long to dry. The paintings were never ready to sell. Particularly in the prolific last three years of his life. His paintings could take a year or more to dry. I cannot accept that reason. Many artists sold paintings not fully dry. Dry to the touch is fine for a sale. Hang up the painting and let it dry fully. Besides Vincent did send paintings to Theo to sell. Why did Theo not sell them?
Vincent died in 1890 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Theo died two years later from syphilis. Neither brothers ended their short lives well at all.
But what then? Enter Theo’s wife, Johanna Gesina Bonger. She lived on until 1925. She was allegedly very clever and her actions proved that to be true. She edited Vincent’s many letters and published them in book form. On the advice of her well-connected family Johanna marketed Vincent’s paintings in Europe to great acclaim. She became an astute art dealer and grew to become quite wealthy. Even within her lifetime Vincent’s paintings were selling for record prices. Thanks to Johanna’s efforts Vincent’s paintings quickly grew in fame. His legacy would continue to grow long after her death.
Lesson 4: Get the right people to help or mentor you.
Lesson 5: Know the importance of a story. Johanna knew this and it made Vincent's fame, and her business, soar.
Which all goes to show that you should persist at all costs. You never know when your break is going to come. Plus you must market your art consistently, learn from mentors and follow a balanced, strategic approach to your art career. Sadly Vincent’s mental state made these rational choices impossible to implement. Who knows what might have happened otherwise. One thing is certain. The starving artist myth would have been dealt a blow.
*What painting did Vincent sell? The Red Vineyard. The Red Vineyard, near Arles, painted in 1888. It supposedly is the only piece sold by the artist while he was alive.
** Van Gogh, The Life
Malcolm Dewey: Artist. Country: South Africa