What does a Tough Mudder have in common with art and painting? After competing in a Tough Mudder this last weekend Kristie asked me if I saw any comparisons with being an artist.
“You know, that’s a great question!” I told her.
So, I thought it would be fun to share with you how I got wrangled into doing the race, what it is and how it ties back to the life of a landscape painter. There’s a surprising amount we can learn by comparing the two!
How it All Happened
My kids – that’s how.
You all know my belief that we artists need to do our best to stay healthy. After all, a healthy body helps our brains function at full capacity, and painting demands every bit of brain power we can muster.
So, I eat as healthy as I know how, and I exercise consistently. The YMCA is where I spend 3-8 hours a week with free weights and a few machines. Saturday mornings during the summer I play tennis and softball. If I lived by a clean lake or the ocean I would also swim often – I’m just not a fan of chlorinated pools.
I don’t run! Ya, I know running several miles a week is great for our bodies and health, it’s just not as appealing to me as other forms of exercise.
When my children asked if I wanted to do a Tough Mudder with them, running was the first thing that came to mind.
“Nope – why would I pay money to compete in something that requires running?”
They signed me up anyway.
“It’s months away – plenty of time for you to prepare. It’ll be fun”
Yeah, fun. I had visions of running at full capacity and desperately waving to all my kids and their spouses as they easily left me behind.
At 52, my strength is pretty good. Not like it was in my 30’s, but plenty for lifting a paint brush from my palette to my easel.
While I feel decently fit right now, my joints have let me know that I can’t push it quite as hard as I used to.
To add some extra pressure, my children kept discussing their 6-10 minute mile-run times. I jumped on a treadmill at the ‘Y’ and finished at about 12 minutes – with plenty of coughing for 20 minutes after that.
The crazy thing is, with as much as I love to research and learn, I never once looked up how to survive a Tough Mudder. In fact, I still thought it was mostly about running and competing up until I reached the first obstacle.
A lot of worry could have been avoided had I simply studied a little about the race.
What on Earth is a Tough Mudder?
The short answer – it’s teamwork.
It’s a five-mile obstacle course that encourages everyone to succeed. Nobody cares whether we run or walk between obstacles. Even the obstacles are optional.
The whole event is motivational.
The Tough Mudder encourages us to push ourselves to our capacity because everyone around us is so encouraging and inspiring. The other participants give us the courage to overcome impossible looking obstacles because they seem to genuinely care that we succeed, and they help us do it.
When they say ‘you’re never alone’ they mean it! Not only do we have our team (my kids, their spouses and I) but all the other participants are helping one another as well.
The obstacles are designed so that nobody can do them on their own. The knowledge that we are dependent on one another creates an incredible sense of community, caring and trust.
It also makes it so much fun that we have decided to make it our yearly family tradition!
One of my daughters said that she almost bowed out at the last minute because she didn’t feel up to it. After the race, she’s the one that suggested we do the full ten-mile course next year (we only did the 5 miler this year).
Okay, So How Does that in Any Way Apply to Art?
If you’ve been a part of our community for any length of time you probably already know the answer to that, but let me explain anyway.
Painting is often a solitary journey. We work in our studios alone and struggle through challenges and figure out solutions to painting obstacles using our knowledge, experimentation and imagination.
We don’t work in a bubble though.
We have the painters of long ago as well as modern masters that we draw inspiration from. The opportunities to learn from others who have experienced struggles similar to ours are in greater abundance than ever before.
While I didn’t research the Tough Mudder specifically, I do use YouTube regularly for workout tips and advice to keep me injury free. One of my favorites is strength coach Jeff Cavaliere with Athlean-X. During the 90’s I turned to Arnold’s Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding and sports physiologists that could best teach me correct form.
Intense 3 Minute Shoulder Workout! by Jeff Cavaliere
I conquered each of the obstacles during the Tough Mudder because I strengthened and prepared my muscles bit by bit with consistent work and using the best information I could find.
We can do the same thing with art.
As a painter I watch the DVD’s and training videos of other professional artists on a regular schedule. Most of the training I view today is streaming online, but I’ll still order a DVD here and there if it’s not readily available online.
I attend events like the Plein Air Convention. I study the artwork of other professionals at venues like Quest for the West and the Prix de West. I get together for shows and outdoor painting excursions with other artists like the Plein Air Event at the Broadmoor Galleries.
Each of those activities causes me to think about how I can use what I’ve learned to strengthen my painting. Then I experiment here and there with ideas I’ve picked up.
The thought of running the Tough Mudder scared me – just the name told me it was going to be – well – tough.
We hear people refer to artists like Sargent or Monet with reverent awe and words like ‘genius’ or ‘master’ and we get intimidated. Especially when we pick up a brush and our first attempts look nothing like their museum works.
What we don’t see are their first attempts and struggles. Every artist has them. Those who eventually succeed are the ones who keep going. They learn from their failures and gain greater understanding from mentors.
Monet, influenced by Eugene Boudin, discovered plein air painting and the joy of painting light.
He had been drawing caricatures until Boudin convinced him that he could accomplish more. Painting outdoors was a revelation for Monet.
Did that set him on a path to easy success?
According to Biography.com “Monet sometimes got frustrated with his work. According to some reports, he destroyed a number of paintings—estimates range as high as 500 works. Monet would simply burn, cut or kick the offending piece. In addition to these outbursts, he was known to suffer from bouts of depression and self-doubt.” Periodic feelings of inadequacy continued till the end of his life.
Just like those we now recognize as masters, we can’t let doubts and fears stop us from moving forward.
We can accomplish seemingly impossible goals bit by bit. Even if being an artist, like running in the Tough Mudder, is – well – tough.
Since I thought the main struggle during the Tough Mudder was going to be running, and I didn’t want to slow down or disappoint our team, I worked to speed up my mile. The first week I ran once. I did that for a few weeks. Then I increased it to twice a week. And eventually I ran 2-3 times a week for a mile and a half to two miles.
After the first month I no longer coughed when I finished running.
My 1-mile record went from more than 12 minutes down to 8:11 and I did 1 ½ miles in a little under 13 minutes. Not something to brag about, but I was thrilled with my decreased running time.
That pacing applies to art. Incremental progress, like compound interest, is magical.
Look at the progression of Monet. The stormy ocean scene above was created 10 years after Boudin convinced him to try oil painting.
The Houses of Parliament series was created almost 40 years later.
He did at least 19 paintings of the exact same scene at varied times of day and with different weather conditions. He explored and dissected that subject with incredible diversity. Each one becoming a step on the ladder that led to his final waterlily paintings series.
Now we come full circle to the idea that art is a solitary journey.
While we may spend countless hours alone struggling and striving to create something to stir the soul, we are not alone!
When I knew little about the Tough Mudder I thought I would be left running alone trying to catch up to everyone else. Once I realized that I had an amazing team encouraging and strengthening me all along the way, the race changed from discouraging to invigorating.
That’s how I feel about my career as an artist, and especially our Master Oil Painting community.
I’ve had incredibly generous mentors like my Dad, Norma Sharma, Kessler Woodward, Leon Parson, Arlo Coles and Mic Jilg. They gave freely – never holding back their ‘secrets’. They seemed to find joy in helping others succeed.
I’ve seen that with the artists in our community as well.
Here’s a typical feed on our Members-only Facebook group (blurred to protect member’s info):
Lee paints almost daily and is a phenomenal artist, yet she reaches out repeatedly to other members for feedback. And the other members generously share their thoughts with her and each other.
Click HERE to join our community of artists.
That’s the true wonder of art – the generosity of artists and art enthusiasts around the world!
Monet had friends like Boudin, Pissarro, Manet and Renoir who encouraged and strengthened him. They helped him reach greater heights than he could achieve alone.
Besides my many mentors, Heavenly Father blessed me with Kristie (my spouse).
Even after years of witnessing my own struggles with doubt and feelings of inadequacy, she continues to support me. Her honest critiques, at first discouraging, finally fill me with the courage to change what needs changing. She lifts me to greater heights than I could ever reach on my own.
Our inspiring community also lifts me to greater heights. You fill me with hope and bring light to my life.
As my Tough Mudder adventure turned from frightening to fun because of my team, our art journey can be filled with joy and accomplishment as we lift one another to greater heights than we can ever achieve alone!