How to find artistic vision when you’re just groping in the dark


Three watercolor people
5-minute figures in watercolor

Once a week I attend a life drawing session. I love figure drawing more than doing just about anything else (except maybe eating ice cream).

But for the last few months I’ve really been struggling; I’ve been looking for something in my work, a change, a way of seeing. Trouble is, I’m not sure what it is that I’m searching for. It’s something that I can’t yet define.

Other artists tell me they search too, stumbling towards a foggy idea that morphs and shifts as soon as they think they’re near.  The mind’s eye is often myopic. It’s not unusual.

It is frustrating, all those failed experiments, the ghastly embarrassments, the ever-growing stacks of used-up paper. On some days, it seems it would be easier to throw away the paintbrushes and become something simpler, a neurosurgeon maybe, or a nuclear physicist.

My brain, smarter than my heart, says, “give it up. Go watch a movie instead.”  But my stubborn and desperate heart over rules my brain. The part of my soul that aches after painting is  ever hopeful each time I stand up to the easel that this time…no…okay…this time…argh!….no, really, this time for sure I’m going to have the breakthrough I’m looking for.

I keep looking. I’m ever hopeful that one day I’ll paint around a hair-pin turn and suddenly the thing I’m looking for—the thing I can’t even describe or identify on a map—will come into focus and I”ll be able to grab it.

“There you are, you little monkey,” I’ll exclaim, clutching at it before it can get away.

Which of course means it must get away. Because if it doesn’t wriggle from my hand and dance back into the dimly lit future, it’ll die in my cramped and rigid fist. Then where will my artistic vision be?

I like to know it’s there in the half-light of my mind, taunting me, teasing me with occasional flashes of clarity (usually when I’m in the shower). So I slog on, trying to paint smartly, fearlessly, easily. And as I feel my way through the dark, every so often a faint light will glimmer across a portion of my work. A brush stroke that shows the turn of a shoulder. A happy color choice. A gracefully proportionate figure. And that flicker will be enough to keep me going.

Small steps. Baby steps. Sometimes steps that go backwards. That’s all I can do as an artist: Put one foot in front of the other and keep working. Because it’s the thing that makes my heart sing, even when I’m grinding my teeth with frustration.

How about you, dear readers? What are you stretching for in your art? Share in the comments how you keep yourself working.

Watercolor figure
20-minute pose in watercolor



13 thoughts on “How to find artistic vision when you’re just groping in the dark

  1. I recognize this guy! Great work, Maggie. See you on Thurs., Sue

    Sent from my iPad


  2. I liked this post but didn’t take the time to read all the way through….I never like unless I have read the post. I think that I was too much in a hurry and didn’t realize that you had written something along with your figures. You have hit something that I have been trying to discover ever since I have been an artist. There is this continual searching that has resounded within me and I keep trying to get a grasp of what it is that I am after. I keep hearing the same struggle and angst from the artists that I have found here on WordPress. I always thought it was something with me, only in me! No! As creative people, we are a prophetic vision in a way….trying to impart what we see or what to see in the world around us and then to give meaning. It is integral part of being an artist, I am beginning to discover that it isn’t really something that is wrong or broke, it is an artist thing. Oh, thank you for the follow. 🙂

    1. Thanks Margaret. I think that if we are attached only to the outcome—the end product—then we often feel like our art is wrong or broken. But real progress comes during those times of experimentation struggle. I love seeing the internal work you’re doing on the pieces on your blog. Keep painting!

  3. I get it, mockingbird. That thing that is so illusive, and it slips away just when you think you are close to it. What is “that thing,” that even when you have it firmly in your grasp you can’t really tell if you do or not. Only in retrospect, looking back a few days later. Is this true? Maybe so and maybe not. It’s so slippery! We have moments of clarity. That’s all.

  4. I want you to know I respect you and your art a way whole lot, and I value your friendship.

  5. Your work is always beautiful, even when you don’t see it. Your viewers see the light in your paintings and the heart in them; never fear. What would happen if you changed mediums, maybe throw some charcoal or ink into the game and stay with your figures, maybe find your way back to the easel? Not sure if that would help you. I agree with Margaret; I think we are all searching for a way to communicate how we see and what we see. I’m wandering between two modes I really like, realism and abstract,and trying to find a place to land. Wondering if I need to land. Still trying to find “my medium” and wondering if there even is such a thing. Wishing I could ever do a realistic watercolor painting that makes me happy and maybe if I haven’t by now, I should abandon it all together. These are the kinds of things that creep in for me. Your work always carries the light, and I always enjoy it.

    1. Laura, you’re work is really progressing. It’s been lovely to watch you develop as an artist.
      I’m searching for something in watercolors. I don’t know what yet. Maybe I’ll never know. Maybe we never need to know.
      Thanks for your kind words.

  6. Your art is amazing!! And I loved reading about your process. It’s very encouraging!

    Saw your post in the weekly blog lineup in Have Your Cupcake.

    Hope you’re having a great weekend!


  7. Hi Maggie I think life in general is always a work in progress. Steps forward and back, trying new things which sometimes work and sometimes don’t. It all adds to the richness of our writing and in your case your beautiful artistic creations. You are just so talented.

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