Artist Burn-Out Helped my Art Career

My art and career is actually better off for having gone through an artist burn-out.
Natalie Colleen Gates

Artist Burn-out

A friend reminded me the other night that when he first met me I didn’t paint at all. I took nearly a ten-year hiatus from painting after college, caused by a combination of personal reasons and frustration. When I recovered from this artist burn-out, and completed my first painting in years, the reaction I got from my friends was “Wow! I didn’t know you can do that.”

For most of my life I had always been the person who was really good at drawing and painting. It was a new albeit weird experience not to be known for that.

When I graduated I did not go immediately to grad school—contrary to the advice of my professors—and I have cursed that decision (as well as my decision to go to art school in the first place) many times since then. My intention was to take a break for a year or two and go back after paying down my student loans somewhat. God, I was naive!¹

As it turned out neither going back to school or paying down student loans was easy.

My Early Paintings

Original Oil Painting: "Untitled Cityscape in Yellow" Oil on Canvas 48"x 36"
“Untitled Cityscape in Yellow” Oil on Canvas 48″x 36″

I started painting cityscapes shortly after returning to Richmond from studying at the Corcoran for a semester. My first cityscapes were informed by my experience of living in Washington, DC, which to me was a cold, impersonal place. I mostly remember walking empty city streets at night and my gigantic apartment building where I never even saw a neighbor. I painted row after row of blank windows on densely packet skyscrapers to show the lack of human connection I felt while living there.

Original Oil Painting: "Untitled Cityscape in Violet" Oil on Canvas, 48" x 36"
“Untitled Cityscape in Violet” Oil on Canvas, 48″ x 36″
Original Oil Painting: "Untitled Red Painting" Oil on Canvas, 30" x 30"
“Untitled Red Painting” Oil on Canvas, 30″ x 30″

My cityscape paintings slowly evolved into color-fields as I looked to further eliminate humanity from my painting. Eventually they became almost spiritual statements about emptiness, or rather transcendence. I became somewhat of a disciple of Mark Rothko. I was also looking at and thinking increasingly of Minimalism. Technically I was thinking about how color in a painting is actually the wavelength of light reflected off pigment and looking for ways I could create paintings that were more about reflection of light than color.

My painting became simultaneously more about theory and content then it was about the actual act of painting. In a sense I became so caught up that I lost what it is about painting that I really enjoy. Eventually I created the painting I had been working towards and my work started to feel formulaic and forced. In a sense I worked myself to an artist burn-out.

What Motivates me to Paint

I think a huge part of why I paint is for other people. Art only exists insomuch as people engage with it.  Part of why I had been so motivated to create such theoretical work was because other artists, or at least my peers in art school ate it up. Once I no longer had critiques every couple of weeks my motivation to paint basically dried up.

Ten years later when I came back to painting, my reason for painting was deeper. Although, I honestly thank God for social media. The likes and comments I get on Facebook and Instagram keep me going when the sales aren’t coming in.

Art for Art’s Sake?

We have this ideal of art for art’s sake. As if an artist should create only for themselves and their love of it. But it’s a myth, or at least not the whole truth. The great Renaissance Masters we look up to catered their styles to appeal to the tastes of their patrons and clients. Although my style is very different, my career goal is to be like the old masters, and not limit myself to one particular theme or subject.

What Actually Motivates Me

I’m not sure why I was attracted to making art in the first place. Maybe it’s some innate love for the visual arts that I have always had. Maybe it was the fact that I’ve always been good at it and it was the easiest way for me to get compliments and praise as a child. It very likely is a combination of a lot of different things.

But I do know that painting is for me a very sensual experience. I paint because I love how linseed oil smells, how a brush feels gliding across a canvas, and because of the sense of complete freedom I have while doing it. When I’m working on a painting I eventually reach a point where I know that every single brush stroke I lay down will be perfect.

I never got that with color fields.

Plus I never got the compliments and praise feedback that drives me when the last thing I feel like doing is painting.

Artist Burn-Out

Original Acrylic Painting:"Untitled Metal Pigment Painting" Acrylic on Canvas, 30" x 30"
“Untitled Metal Pigment Painting” Acrylic on Canvas, 30″ x 30″
My best painting. It subtly changes color when viewed from different angles and with different lighting.

I lost interest in painting about a year after graduating from college. I had just finished the painting all my theorizing led me to. In my opinion it was the best painting I had ever done. To this day I am still very proud of it.

It hung with two of my other works in a gallery, but to my disappointment didn’t sell. I was not making any money from my art. Worse, it felt like no one was engaging in my work, because I was not there to see it.

I felt like Sisyphus. Painting felt like a complete waste of time. Worse I had just spent four years and thousands of dollars for a degree I was never going to use. So I bounced from job to job hoping to find a career.

I think being an artist is about finding a personal balance between how much you create for yourself and how much you create for others. I eventually made the painting my theory led me to, but shortly after burnt-out. The actual process in making those color fields. was not all that interesting to me. I had eliminated everything that I love about the act of painting from my paintings.

Honestly I’m glad it happened. Had I gone straight to grad school like my professors advised I would have continued doing color field paintings and would be far too invested in what was (for me) an artistic dead-end. Also I think I needed to really lose painting so I could rediscover it. My work is better for the time I spent not painting.

Looking at Art as a Non-Artist

After a number of years I started spending more and more time at the VMFA looking at art. My entire life I had looked at art as an artist but I’d never really seen it. I looked for technique, for ways to improve my work, but now I was looking at art as a “non-artist” and it really moved me.I could see the hand and mind of artists who died thousands of years before I was born: their humanity. In a sense, I looked at art with sadness for having given it up.

Art really is an interesting thing. It is basically just decoration and serves no logical purpose, at the same for whatever reason humans need art. We have been driven to paint, and decorate our surroundings for as long as we have been human.

(Finally) Getting Un-Burnt-out.

Several times during my burnt-out phase I started on a painting, but it was never satisfying and I never finished it. I didn’t have a reason to paint. The VMFA helped me regain my appreciation for art, but I think it was walking through the Fan on an early spring day that gave me a reason to paint. The leaves of the trees that day were so green and so vibrant that I just felt a need to try to capture it.  Just possibly it was the same experience that first inspired me to paint.

Original Oil Painting-Scenes of Richmond: "Grove and Davis" Oil on Canvas, 18" x 24"
“Grove and Davis” Oil on Canvas, 18″ x 24″ I was inspired by the bright green leaves in the trees.

When I was three my family moved into the old farmhouse where I grew up. In one of my earliest memories I was looking so inspired by the green maple trees that surround our house that I felt driven to capture it. I tried my best on butchers paper with finger paints—and failed— but I didn’t fail badly enough to give up.

Practical Advantages of Going through Artist Burn-out

In many ways I feel like my life and career during the time I wasn’t painting has prepared me for life as an artist. One reason being that I am incapable of working full-time for another person for an extended amount of time, and I have quit so many jobs to work for myself that it’s only a matter of time before I actually succeed.

It must be the artist personality. Whatever it is, after exactly one year and three months something has happened at every single full-time job I’ve ever held to piss me off enough that I had to quit that has caused me to rationally decide I’m better off working elsewhere.

Insurance Sales

Actually, there is one job I think I could have stayed at: my insurance sales job—I was an independent contractor—I left insurance sales for personal reasons. With what I was going through in my life at the time I could not deal with the ups and downs of an inconsistent income. However I think about the training I received selling insurance a lot now. It taught me how to follow-up on leads and close a sale, which is incredibly important if you’re trying to make a living creating art.


My art and career is actually better off for having gone through an artist burn-out. I have spent a great deal more time looking at art and thinking about how my art—not the art started doing because I wanted to impress people—the art I was born with, fits into the larger artistic conversation. I’ve looked at art as a producer and as a consumer which gives me perspective I never had before about the importance of art. Finally, the life experience I gained while I wasn’t making art actually prepared me for the challenges of supporting myself as an artist

¹I blamed my art degree for my inability to find a “real job” for quite a long time, and deeply regretted investing in a degree with seemingly no financial pay-off.

Continue Reading for Recent Works and Updates

Original Oil Painting-Pet Portraits: "Portrait of Toy Poodle" oil on canvas, 24" x 18"
“Portrait of Toy Poodle” Oil on Canvas, 24″ x 18″

Pet Portraits

I finally landed this pet portrait commission I’ve been working on getting since July. I do occasionally enjoy taking a break from all the landscape and architecture painting I do, and I thought pet portraits would be a good way to increase my income. So if you’re interested please follow this link to commission a pet portrait.

I’ve added all these commission a painting links to hopefully make it a little easier for people who are interested. I’m trying to think outside the box of what an artist’s website should be and figure out ways to make buying art more accessible to the average person.  Of course people can still just contact me and commission a portrait the traditional way.

Recent Painting and Postcards

Original Oil Painting-Scenes of Richmond: "Richmond on the James" Oil on Canvas, 30" x 40"
“Richmond on the James” Oil on Canvas, 30″ x 40″

I completed a commission for a 30×40 inch painting showing the view from my clients balcony at Rockett’s Landing. I’m quite proud of this one, and really hope to be completing many more commissions this size and larger in the future.

I’ve actually made postcard size prints of this and a few of my other paintings available for sale. I’m having them giclee printed on archival cardstock and I’ll sign each one. Unfortunately my profit margin isn’t very high so I’m printing them to order. I’m looking into doing some limited edition prints as well.

Mailing List and SEO

And finally, I’ve spent quite a lot of time these past few weeks on improving my website SEO and learning the service MailChimp. I’ve been learning an incredible amount over the past three months—basically I feel like I’m back in college—and I’m not there yet. But I am excited about my mailing list. It’s a great way to keep clients who are interested up to date on my promotions, sales, new products, art openings etc. I’d love it if you signed up below. 

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