Quitters never win and other half-truths about art

Or, “Should I stay [with my art] or should I go [make something else]?”

Viewfinder Vol 1, Issue 14See all issuesSubscribe to Viewfinder

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In this issue:

  • The Dip (Quitting vs. keep going)
  • Final update: 2024 Experiment #1 (Color-field collage)
  • Project prompt: color-field images
  • 2024 Experiment #2 – Abstract composition in photography

A diagram showing that, after an initial burst of progress, projects tend to slow down over time. The slowest point of this slow down is called "the dip". After the dip, progress tends to speed up again.

The Dip (Quitting vs. keep going)

If you’ve been around the business world in the last 15 years, especially in technology and software, you’re probably familiar with one of the many variations of the graph above. I first encountered it in Seth Godin’s 2007 book, The Dip. My brief internet investigation suggests that this was an original concept at the time–certainly it was new to me when the book was published. It’s since been used to describe a myriad of concepts (projects, the Dunning-Krueger effect, new technology adoption, and many other ideas).

The basic premise is that, at the beginning of something, we have loads of enthusiasm, unrealistic expectations, momentum from starting, and unearned confidence that the project will be successful. We have an outsized amount of success early on. As it progresses, the level of effort increases and the novelty wears off; unanticipated blockers appear, and progress slows. It becomes more appealing (and logical, based on the information available) to abandon the project.

But… if you quit, you won’t realize the (potential) success if you had just kept going. This is the premise behind the famous Vince Lombardi quote, “Quitters never win and winners never quit.” 

But… if you keep going, you may find that you get even less return on even more effort. You can never know the true bottom until you’ve passed it. And there’s no guarantee that you’ll ever find success.

Godin’s central assertion is that there are situations where it doesn’t make sense to continue, situations where QUITTERS DO WIN, contradicting Lombardi. The key, according to Godin, is to know when quitting is the right choice. Or as Kenny Rogers might say, “Know when to fold ’em.”

The Dip, as he calls it, is the lowest point. It’s where your effort is not delivering returns like it used to, or any returns at all. You’re getting nowhere fast. It’s the point you’re most likely to abandon the effort. After all, as you’re sliding down that steep cliff, who knows how far down the dip goes? In some versions of this graph, the whole middle area is labeled “the valley of despair.” How long do you keep going in the face of resistance and uncertainty?

The dip in the creative process

And so it is in art making. The dip is where many artists set aside the current project, “putting it on the backburner” maybe with every intent to come back to it at some future date. They have drawers full of ‘works-in-progress’, half-finished paintings, stories without endings, folders full of unprocessed photographs. The dip is where art goes to die because continuing is hard and unfun and way less interesting than starting again, rocketing up that first slope with something new.

In art school, I adopted the (unfortunate) phrase, “don’t kill babies”, which basically meant, “don’t be quick to judge new projects”. In that hyper-critical environment, where there’s another critique around every corner, I tried hard to give work a chance to grow a bit before abandoning it. After all, for 99% of art students, the time you’re least capable of judging your work objectively is while you’re still making it.

Yet, following Godin’s position, quitting is the right decision in many cases. It makes no sense to invest more time in work that could be better used to do something else. The fundamental question is, “how do you know?”… should you push through the dip and finish, or quit and start something else?

Is it time to abandon your project?

There’s no definitive answer to this question; each artist has to answer it every day, but I’ll offer a few ways to grapple with it. I will say, knowing becomes easier as time goes on. Consider the following:

  • How much more time does it require? Realistically, you can’t know this perfectly, but you might have a sense based on what you’ve done already. If you estimate 6 hours to completion, you can ask the more specific question, “am I willing to invest 6 hours to see where this goes?”. The specificity makes pushing through easier.
  • When you got to this point on previous projects and you pushed through the dip and finished the project, was it worth it? For me, this is “yes” most of the time.
  • Assuming you started with some restraints, some parameters for the project, ask yourself “will completing this project help me decide what to do next?”. Even if the outcome is unsatisfying, will the experience justify the effort?
  • Opportunity cost–if you’re not completing this project, what are you doing instead? Is that a better way to get you to where you want to go in your art practice?
  • You started making this work for a reason… has your motivation changed? Or is it that your expectations are not aligned with reality? Are you quitting because your idea was flawed or because your talent doesn’t live up to your vision? (In the latter, I’d always advise to push through–your skill will improve as a result of doing the work. Really. Hear me now and believe me later. You will get better.)

The thing is, you can’t really look at your art objectively until you’ve completed it and put some space between you and it. And resolution is valuable in its own right: every completed project is a marker that says, “this is what interested me and what I was capable of” at that moment in time. It’s difficult to overstate the power of periodically looking back at these ‘markers’ of completed projects, noting your trajectory and (especially) your progress over time.

Final update: 2024 Experiment #1 (Color-field collage)

I’m ready to move on from the last three weeks spent hunched over a table, cutting and gluing tiny pieces of paper. The work for experiment #1 really didn’t go where I was hoping, for a couple of reasons: 1) limitations of the media, specifically paint chips and insufficiently rigid substrates, and 2) at the outset, I didn’t really understand the color-field abstraction movement and would have approached it differently or not at all. That being said, doing this project provided useful information and gave me what I need to move forward.
I’m very happy to have completed six collages (some of which were included in the previous issue). In particular, I’m pleased about #6, and share notes about making it below.

A color photograph of a framed paper collage. The collage is made of many small grey and red polygonal shapes on a white background.
Experiment 2024-1-6, ~9 x 19 ½ inches. ©2024 Ron Johnson
  • As noted previously, I wanted to explore working with different scale / aspect ratio and decided at the outset to work larger and ‘less 8 ½ x 11ish’ than before. I found an old frame that was designed to hold three 5×7” photographs, and making art to fit it pulled me in the right direction.
  • I have a sense that I want to work larger yet and will embrace this in the next experiment. I also like the idea of working to fit a frame; if things turn out well, I can just throw it up on the wall. I intend to adopt the practice of regularly getting my art where I can see it and think about it.
  • The power of ‘the dip’ was strong with this one. I grossly underestimated how long it would take to complete this work, in particular because (as per usual) I had no idea where the art would go. Completing it took 7 working sessions, about 20ish hours in total. I don’t think I really considered abandoning it, since I had made the commitment to explore this working method for three weeks, but I did think hard about all the art I wasn’t making by doing this thing.
  • I’ve found that when I make abstract art, I generally work in ways diametrically opposed to those original color-field artists; which is to say, for me it’s less about emotion and magic and more about logic. At the start, I formally state ‘rules’ about my practice, or discover and adopt them as I go.
  • In this case, the rules I knew / discovered were: use red sparingly at first, and increasingly more as I went. Avoid putting sharp corners of one shape next to the flat side of others. Red couldn’t be placed adjacent to another red. Start with larger forms and less-tight arrangements, progressing towards smaller with more complexity. (In the picture above, I started on the ‘bottom’ and worked towards the ‘top’.)
  • It is interesting to me because, in my photography, I actively seek out mystery and transcendence (even if I only occasionally achieve them). My brain in ‘collage mode’ is more logical / very different from ‘photography mode’.

I can see spots in the composition where the ‘rules’ weren’t fully formed and I wish I had made different choices; these areas bother me but it’s permanently glued and I’m done with it, so what can you do except let it go?

👋 Project prompt: color-field images

One reader (thanks Kelli J!) shared an image for the last project prompt. Remember, regardless of your preferred medium or experience, you and your work are welcome here. 🙂 New project prompt coming next issue.

Color photograph of piece of ice, with orange and red light shining through the ice.
Color reflecting through ice. Kelli J. 1/17/24
A color photograph of an abstract scene, with two large dark areas surrounded by white texture at the top and green texture at the bottom.
01-17-2024-1. ©2024 Ron Johnson

2024 Experiment #2 – Abstract composition in photography

With experiment #1 done, I turn my attention to the next body of work. While making #6, I kept asking myself questions like, “how would I approach this with photography (a medium where I have 100X more capability)?”, “which aspects of this would be easier, harder, impossible?”, and (assuming digital photography and a machine-produced print) “how would I feel differently about the final outcome?”. I intend to look into these questions.

Parameters are below; as usual, I welcome you to work alongside me, though feel free to adopt or disregard them as you desire. If you’re joining in, send an email and let me know how it’s going!

When: Late January to mid-February, 2024.
Materials: Camera, photo editing tools, objects.
Description: Create abstract photographic compositions using various objects; avoid recognizable forms and intentionally obscure the nature of the objects so the viewer engages with forms, colors, and shapes.

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Cover image: Geometry #21 (cropped). ©2016 Ron Johnson. This is an example of an abstract composition photograph.