11 Artists on Challenging Themselves and the Importance of Staying Fresh

When Henri Matisse was 71 years old, his mobility declined drastically, and he was unable to work at an easel. Still, his physical restrictions didn’t prevent him from creating art. In fact, he made his famous gouaches découpées (paper cut-outs painted with gouache) while limited to his bed. 

These works, featuring colorful apples, snails, and flora, are among the most joyous, vivid, and celebrated of his lifetime. Looking back, Matisse admitted that the surgery that left him wheelchair-bound also gave him "a second life."

Matisse’s story is a particularly dramatic example, but throughout their careers, some artists undergo countless reinventions. When confronted with a challenge that seems insurmountable, they adapt--and in some cases, they create the work of a lifetime. We asked eleven artists from around the world to tell us about why it’s so important to evolve and keep things fresh. 

‘Dehydrated’ (Oil and Acrylic on Panel, 24"x24", 2019) by Lola Gil

‘Dehydrated’ (Oil and Acrylic on Panel, 24"x24", 2019) by Lola Gil

On achieving the impossible… 

Lola Gil: For the first part of my career, I worked in acrylic but wanted the ability to blend and push my technique, so I took the leap and began working blindly with oil paints. I learned best from my mistakes. My gallery at the time wasn't too pleased because I had built a pretty big collector base around my earlier “style.” They didn't want me to grow outside of that because it could potentially hurt sales. And it did! But I had the deep-down desire to chase new ideas and push myself. I was getting bored. 

I think it took me about five years to get a good handle on oil as a medium. I still crave challenges--it’s my nature. It's easy to become complacent, especially if a particular aesthetic or subject matter becomes popular. But the art world is constantly moving. I have a lifetime of learning ahead of me, and I honestly love that. If I can paint something that seems impossible, the feeling of accomplishment is immeasurable, and it gives me the confidence to go on to the next seemingly impossible thing. It’s not always an easy road, but if you're determined enough, you will get there. 

On conquering boredom… 

Emiliano Ponzi: My biggest fear is to get bored. So as medicine, I challenge myself in almost every job I do. That can happen on a smaller scale, like changing a tool in Photoshop, or on a larger scale--like that time I took a big assignment in VR without having much experience, or when I painted fifteen images in two weeks after years spent without touching a brush. 

On craving uncertainty… 

Gran'ma on the roof (Paris, France, 2019) © ELLA & PITR

Gran'ma on the roof (Paris, France, 2019) © ELLA & PITR

Ella & Pitr: As an artist duo, we both like challenges. It keeps us feeling like we are always at the very beginning of something. We tend to look for new exercises that make us uncomfortable, and we find that that feeling of danger and uncertainty are a good source of inspiration. We like accidents and improvisation. Failing is a good way to succeed. When you fall down the first time you try something, you usually look for another way to realize your dreams, but those failures can teach you about who you are. 

Since we started working together, we have pushed ourselves out of our comfort zones repeatedly, and each time, it’s helped us to get to know each other better. It’s also a great way to stay “free” at heart. When you try new challenges without knowing what will happen, you allow yourself to think like a novice or a kid. It's like discovering a new playground. 

On honing your skills… 

Kamiel and The Magical Tower by Thomas Dambo. Photo: Jacob Keinicke

Kamiel and The Magical Tower by Thomas Dambo. Photo: Jacob Keinicke

Thomas Dambo: Every time a project gets famous, I feel like it’s both a good thing and a bad thing because now, everybody wants to hire you to do that project, and so you end up doing the same thing over and over. I have to challenge yourself so I don't get stuck. I love it when I get thrown out of my comfort zone. The ability to overcome unforeseen obstacles is the most important skill you can master. 

Last year, I set out to make a 500 square-meter plastic forest with a thousand volunteers in Mexico City using trash we scavenged at the local landfill. The size and magnitude of the project made it impossible to plan every detail, and its success heavily depended on my belief in my skills to overcome whatever challenges that came our way. After finishing the project successfully, I went home with an even stronger skill set--and the ability to venture even further into the unknown.

On having patience… 

Anthony Samaniego: Over the past two years, I have ventured into 3D animation and CGI. At first, it was an absolute nightmare. It was very difficult to not be able to create what I saw in my mind. I was so used to taking a photo or video, where what you see is what you get, and in 3D, it doesn’t work that way. It was extremely frustrating and the work was garbage, but my drive pushed me to continue. My understanding of 3D has grown tenfold, and I can now use it within videography and photography or vice versa.

I would advise any artist to stick with these challenges and have patience. There is probably to be a lot of work that’s bad, and it’ll be frustrating. New territory can be a nightmare, but you can learn so much from something new. It’s important to stretch your comfort zone because it helps you gain a new perspective. Some things you’ll like, and others you won’t, but in any case, you can always take the experience and create art from it.

Black Eyed Dog by Mat Miller

Black Eyed Dog by Mat Miller

On being adaptable…  

Mat Miller: It’s important, especially today, to stretch your comfort zone because art can be used commercially in so many different ways. You could potentially miss out on some great projects if you hide away in your own bubble. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some clothing brands and fashion designers. I had to adapt the way I worked for these briefs to fit certain garments and processes in which they are made. Now that these things are in my portfolio, other clients looking for a similar type of thing might be more likely to approach me.

Seeshall (2019, paper and card) by Yulia Brodskaya

Seeshall (2019, paper and card) by Yulia Brodskaya

On creating innovative solutions….

Yulia Brodskaya: I’m always challenging myself, although I prefer to call it “experimenting.” My main challenge has been going large-scale with my paper technique. I often find myself drawn to large artworks, and I can’t help but wonder how different my 3D paper art would be on a larger scale. My personal interest lies in conveying a deeper emotional complexity into larger paper artworks, ensuring that the larger scale does not become a goal in itself. 

My process of going bigger is so gradual and has stretched over many years. I’m still experimenting and adjusting to different formats. In reality, my pieces are not that large when compared to an average painting seen in modern galleries, but they are definitely huge for edge-glued paper. The constraints of the medium actually encourage me to innovate and search for alternative methods and new ways of working. 

On experimenting with new ideas… 

Joey Bates: I went to school to be an oil painter, but a few years out of college, I stumbled into cut paper. For a time, I was making paintings and drawings and dabbling in cut paper relief sculptures. As I kept experimenting, I started showing the work and it gradually took over. If not for experimenting, I wouldn’t have gotten to where I am now, making cut paper sculptures full time. 

I have had some difficult challenges in the past. I have tried my hand at illustration and a few murals. In retrospect, I was not so successful, but I learned a lot. The biggest gain in stepping out of your comfort zone in any respect is that you learn something. My cut paper work has been nothing but a whole lot of experimentation. For those wanting to make a change in their work, I say go for it! We’re only here so long. If you’re unsure about the change, keep experimenting on the side.

© Michael Alm

© Michael Alm

On committing for the long-term…  

Michael Alm: Challenges are great, and if you can set a very specific goal, that’s even better. My latest show was a result of a two-year-long challenge. I wanted to learn watercolor painting and get to know more about the wildlife in Washington State. I found a list of all the mammals in Washington, and, one by one, painted them all. The result was a collection of 141 watercolor paintings that showcased the amazing biodiversity in this state. This was my first painting show, and one of the largest bodies of work I have ever put together, and it all stemmed from a challenge.

On enjoying the journey… 

© Godeleine de Rosamel 2019

© Godeleine de Rosamel 2019

Godeleine de Rosamel: Recently, I agreed to have a show at a new gallery with a set of new artists and a different feeling than my usual gallery. I was surprised to discover how preparing for a new audience in a new space allowed me to move away from certain comfortable expectations and pushed me to explore new variations and directions in my pieces. It’s a little like talking about a familiar subject but with a new set of friends--it definitively expanded my horizons. 

Accepting new projects and challenges is the best way to evolve. I don't know if it has helped me succeed commercially, but I do know that pushing my work in new directions keeps me connected to the magic and beauty of creating art. It also renews my sense of gratitude and understanding that I am very lucky to be an artist. Even when the experience does not end successfully, I never feel that time spent on a new challenge is wasted because I always come away with new insight.


To learn more from Emiliano Ponzi, Check out his new Skillshare Originals class, The Art of Illustration: Find, Develop and Express Your Creative Class.

Thumbnail/header image credit: Emiliano Ponzi.

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