I am a fan of watching tennis. To be clear, I do not play tennis, but I love watching tennis–especially Grand Slam tennis. The athletes at that level have not only mastered their bodies and refined a skill set far and above others, but, almost more importantly, they have conquered their “achievement demons”. Or at least they’ve figured out how to lock them away for awhile.
So this past weekend I enjoyed “breakfast at Wimbledon”.
It‘s an exciting time in professional tennis. For the old guard, (the 32-year-olds!), their bodies aren’t reacting fast enough and their silent aches and pains take their toll. But mentally, they put on a clinic. They are challenged by the young guns who so desperately want to prove they belong. Whose bodies are fresh and whose muscles are honed. But they have a hard time managing the tension. As they slowly lose their grasp on a match the fear begins to show on their face. The self-recrimination is palpable, as in the case Eugenie Bouchard, who had played absolutely inspired tennis until she got to the finals. When she came up against play to which she didn’t know how to react she tightened. Her face, tears welling, had that look of a tired child on a long, hot road trip who asks: “Are we there yet.” She just wanted it over, to be done, destination be damned.
This is why I love watching tennis. It is a rare opportunity to observe the gamut of raw, human emotions, and the control of them, in real time where no one gets really hurt. You can bear witness to every aspect of the players’ fast-moving efforts on the court and their face displays their feelings. There is little to distract and little time between their and their opponent’s move.
They cannot “plan” the match. They can control the game somewhat with a masterful serve, but they cannot plan the next move, or the outcome. (Like life, really, despite our efforts.) They cannot rely on anyone else for anything. They must react, singularly and with conviction.
Of course this resonates for me because it’s representative of my painting process. In the studio I begin with a subject that hooks my interest. I know the surfaces I like or want to experiment with. I choose a palette intuitively or as a discipline. Then I “serve”, finding connection to my subject. The next strokes try to set up my “opponent”, the painting’s composition, but ultimately, I can only react to what is now in front of me. To a certain point my practice guides me pretty well and I react with confidence. Like the conditions on the court, I rely on my subject to guide adjustments. But often my opponent, the painting, has something to say and I don’t quite get it yet–I get stumped. I’ve liked my “game” so far, but do not know where to go.
How many times I have heard a similar statement from almost every painter I know? “I like what’s there, but I don’t know where to go next.” The moves then become tentative. Either anxiety arises with negative self-talk and tightness, or random stabs and jabs without connection to anything make it worse.
THE WORSE THING YOU CAN DO AT THIS MOMENT IS BE SELF-CRITICAL. I see it in the player’s faces. When they get down on themselves, their performance plummets. Same thing in the studio—marks get tentative, passion is cut-off, the overwhelming desire is no longer “can I fully be a conduit to something bigger than myself”, it becomes a positive answer to: “Am I done yet?”
It’s those who can manage the tension and look deeper inside who come out on top. As Novak Djokevich says: “Re-focus, find the right purpose, inner strength, the right energy…be aware of where I am and the occasion, aware of each minute. You never know what going to happen. Believe in yourself even when you don’t feel it. Say positive things to yourself, it worked for me. “
Good advice. You’ll be done when you’re done. And it will be either a painting, or a worthy experience. Fortunately in our game, it doesn’t always have to be a championship win.