Just recently, someone emailed me and said they saw me as an example of success.
I’m glad, I’d love to inspire people to try to do what they love. But I was also surprised, because I don’t think of myself as having succeeded.
So I emailed this person back and I told them how hard I find it. How every day is a struggle against my own feelings of inadequacy.
And this morning, I realised that I needed to share that with you too. Because this is bloody hard. If you’re going to try for it, I think you need to know that.
There were two moments in my life that convinced me that I had to stop doing my horrible day jobs and get back to being a full time painter.
The first was in Venice. A Tiepolo ceiling fresco. I was on holiday with Michelle, my wife-to-be, taking some much-needed time off from my 9 to 5 (more like 8 to 7) job in online marketing in London.
I’ve had several intense moments in front of paintings, this was by far the strongest. It wasn’t the painting itself, though, it was what I brought to it.
When I was a street artist, copying old master paintings in chalk on the pavements of UK towns for people’s small change, I’d copied that ceiling painting many times. I knew it so well I could do parts of it from memory.
Seeing it in person was like waking up after a dream. A particularly bad one. Suddenly I remembered what it was I loved to do, what it was that I felt defined me. I was amazed that I was getting up and doing something that I hated. Every. Single. Day. Amazed that I’d somehow moved so far away from what I really wanted to do.
I sat down on the floor and I cried.
The second was sitting at my desk at my office job, looking at paintings on the Internet and coming across a site that showcased portrait painters.
Here were people making a living from painting – or so it seemed. Surely, I could do that. That was the moment when I made a firm decision to get back to being a painter.
But I wasn’t prepared for what was coming. For illness that almost killed me, for so much financial uncertainty, for borrowing so heavily from my family to get through, for looking at the happy, oblivious faces of my kids and feeling so terribly guilty. For the sheer stress.
I had a dream that I could get back to being a full time artist. That was pretty much as far as it went. I didn’t have any details of how it would happen, just a conviction that I could.
I also knew that my skills were well below the level they needed to be. I’d always known that, I think. I just wasn’t that good.
So I started to learn, to teach myself what I could and try to get good enough to make a living.
This is how it is for me. I can only give you my version of the truth, and hope that it will help you, perhaps at least prepare you a little.
I want you to know, if you’re going to try for this, that you have to be strong.
You have to be willing to put yourself out there, day after day, to be judged and – at least in your own mind – found wanting. Found wanting, sometimes, even by your peers.
You have to put up with days filled with excruciating uncertainty and doubt.
You have to own the guilt of knowing that if you took the easier route, it would be much, much easier on those around you, especially on those you love.
You have to keep moving forward when you can’t see your hand in front of your face.
You have to work yourself until you feel you could cry with tiredness, realise you’ve failed, and start again.
You have to ride the ups and fight through the downs and somehow keep yourself from losing your perspective.
You have to try to see through appearances to what really matters, even when other people can’t see it and they tell you that you’re wrong, and you have to do that on the days when the self-doubt is strongest.
You have to jump willingly into uncertainty, day after day after day.
And you have to be able to deal with most of this by yourself.
You have to be so, so strong.
If you see me selling my little paintings on my website, and teaching my courses, and it looks like success, I want you to know how it really is for me, and how it will quite possibly be for you, if my experience is anything to go by.
I also want you to know that it’s worth it. Yes, there’s a cost. What you get back is a life that means something.
Best wishes and thanks for reading,
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