In 2008 I flew to Idaho to attend an intensive workshop with master landscape painter Scott L. Christensen. I had admired Scott's work for some time and read good things about his workshops. I flew into the little airport in Jackson, Wyoming and picked up a rental car. From there I drove over the mountain and into Victor and Driggs, Idaho. The scenery all around reminded me of a Scott Christensen painting. Probably because that's where he lived.
At the time I was living in a townhouse in Northern California. My modest "studio" consisted of a corner portion of my garage, where I affixed paintings to a peg board and painted with my pochade box. Never the less, I enjoyed retreating to my garage and painting for hours.
On the first day of the workshop I arrived and discovered a sprawling property that consisted of a main house, a large outbuilding where lectures and demos were held, and a 10,000 square foot craftsmen studio. I was in awe of the property and main studio, which included a museum of paintings. Scott's large (Hughes) easel and craftsmen painting desk were equally impressive. "So this is what a professional artist's studio looks like," I thought to myself. And a part of me was a bit jealous. My little garage studio paled in comparison.
The intensive workshop was incredible and I learned a great deal. It was also the start of an on-going odyssey. I would later return to attend an advanced workshop. After that, Scott invited me and a fellow artist (Don Howard) to come back for a week long salon. It was an incredible opportunity to spend a week in the studio with Scott, painting and immersing ourselves in every aspect of plein air painting and art filled conversations.
Scott had us do these timed drills, where we had 15 minutes or so to craft a study from a photograph. The point was to learn how to compose quickly, not fuss with details, and record essential information. At one point we studied the same image and spent about 20 minutes composing what we saw. I valiantly tried to paint a little study on an 8 x 10 panel. Scott used a 10 x 12 panel. At 20 minutes we stopped and compared our efforts.
I placed my meager study on the easel next to Scott's painting. And frowned. "How does he do it?" I thought to myself. Of course, I recognized that Scott devoted himself to full time painting for years, and I was just starting. Never the less, seeing such accomplished painting was both inspiring and demoralizing.
President Theodore Roosevelt is the author of this brilliant observation: "Comparison is the thief of joy." Roosevelt understood that there are risks in comparing your life to others. Such comparisons fail to recognize the sacrifices and details of another's life. I may compare my paintings to an established artist, and feel depressed. But then, what path did that established artist take to arrive at such accomplished work? What sacrifices and losses did that painter weather along the way?
I subscribe to Paul Jarvis' "The Sunday Dispatches" newsletter. Jarvis is a freelance web designer, successful writer and self described "freelancer evangelist." His newsletter today was titled "Apples to elephants." It was all about how "No one on the Internet is living the life you think they are." Basically, people curate only the best photos and parts of their lives to share. What you don't see on their Facebook accounts are the struggles to pay bills, relationship problems and mundane routines of life.
Paul Jarvis' message is simply that "no one is living a perfect life." When I read Paul's newsletter, I thought of that day in Scott Christensen's studio. Comparing my sad little study against Scott's superior piece. And I realized that our lives are simply different. I have enjoyed 25 plus years of an amazing police career. I've also drawn cartoons for various newspapers and steadily improved as a painter. I have a terrific family, good health and the prospect to retire in my early fifties. Which will allow me to pursue a second career as an artist and writer. One life is not better than another. Just different.
Do yourself a favor and take President Teddy Roosevelt's advice. Don't compare yourself to others. You can't really know how happy other people are. Focus on the rhythms of your own life. Gauge your own growth. Yes, we can learn from others. But we should never abandon our own uniqueness and authenticity. Soldier on, keep learning and never forget that "Comparison is the thief of joy."