The photo above was taken during a D&D session at a friend’s place. I’d been rolling fair to terrible results, and this combo—a 20 to hit and 6 for damage—meant an automatic kill and success for a fight. I wanted to document it, because it’s the first time I can remember such a gaming success in many years, and it’s unlikely to happen again anytime soon.
But then, it is a success, and was a delight and thrill to experience. Had I not played because I might fail, I wouldn’t have felt it. That’s worth it to me.
Art is a game, in a lot of ways. It’s often described as play, as good fun, and there are any number of possibilities within a given set of rules. Losing isn’t so bad, it’s not the end of the world. You can always play again. But winning is exciting and inspiring, and the chance is always there.
Every so often, the thing you’re doing loses steam. Sometimes you can work through it: just keep going and hope it’ll turn out okay by the end. It usually does.
But not always. For those times when inspiration is tumbling out of the mouths of friends and colleagues alike, I like to keep tabs on the next thing I’d like to do, future projects, and continually feed that cycle with new work.
It sounds like an oversimplification, I know. But I feel like this simplistic method is pretty solidly apt. Keep a space at the back of your mind as a workshop for poking around with the next project(s), and always have an incoming feed of other works by people you admire.
This article on Quartzy reviews D. B. Dowd’s new book, Stick Figures: Drawing as a Human Practice. The article makes much of the idea that drawing is a kind of learning, which is somewhat true, but limited, I’d argue.Instead, I think there’sgreatvalue in championing the idea of drawing as a tool for many aspects of life, and not just the province of artists and fumbled attempts to imitate the pros.
Near the beginning, it says drawingshould t be limited to the artists. But I’d say that misses the point, at least for me. Drawing is for all of us because to make art is human. We are all artists by nature. Most of us just lack refinement and practice in becoming connected to our creative cores and in utilizing various techniques of creation.
It’s well worth reading, and I hope it’s another bit of inspiration to start or keepworking on your thing.
One of the benefits of art school is your fellow students. They can easily become your peer group, or better yet, your collective. There’s a moment of opportunity when you meet a few other creators who have a connected aesthetic. If you’re lucky, you can parlay that into a shared movement. It’s a chance to get attention for what you do, based on a packageable meme of some kind. It’s the equivalent of a “school,” i.e., the Bauhaus or—if you’re feeling really generous—the Impressionists.
But even if you’re not trying to form a movement or project what you do as something important, it’s good to have a lot of eyes on your work at any given time. Your fellow artists and your friends are cheerleaders and supporters as well as critics and sounding boards. You’ll have a better idea of what connect with other people the more you share your work. And connection is what you’re after. Making work for yourself alone is fine, but resonance with others is what makes art deeply important for us all.
Because they’re not red hot, gettit? Cheese aside, there’s an advantage to working on several things in parallel. I’m not against extreme focus, but if you’re the type to be scattered, scheduling creative stuff in blocks—or just picking up where you left off when you notice the thing—there are a couple advantages to it and you don’t have to apologize or despair for this habit.
People asking what your thing is might want a pat answer. Sometimes, there isn’t one: you do a lot because you’re interested in a lot. You’re a Carl Sagan of art. Sagan was an astronomer. But he also wrote books. He hosted and co-wrote a popular tv series. That series spanned geology, physics, and chemistry, among many other things, as well as astronomy.
Having many creative loves, or many ideas that demand you work on them now, is perfectly fine. Maybe you could finish a thing sooner if you focus on that one thing. But would you have as much fun?
When you make art isn’t as important as the fact that you do it. And, if you aren’t doing things, you slip past being an artist. We only exist in the moment, so what we do is—in a metaphorical but existential way—what we are.
Of course, I can’t just make art in the eternal now. I have to feed and wash myself. I have to feed the cat. I have to go to the job. But as cool as it is to have made stuff, it’s the momentum that keeps me going the longest. My title doesn’t mean much if I’m not doing what I call myself.
We’re all stuck with time. Like relatives, it’s just there, and you don’t have a tremendous amount of say in how much you get. You choose your work as you choose your friends, what you do, how much you make.
These abstract labels are good for stepping up, for declaring oneself in the game. You can’t wait for someone to anoint you into the club. But it’s the down and dirty of what you chose to do today, or are doing right now that feeds your craft, your sense of self, and your mental health.
There are times when I don’t feel like working, and times when I don’t feel like what I make is working. It’s important to remember that you aren’t necessarily the best judge of what’s “good” in your work while you’re making it. Often it takes time to be objective. We can’t often see clearly right away. We can be too attached or too dismissive.
Your scintillating prose, deft brushwork, catchy melody can look amazing or awful in the moment, and the opposite later. Or vice versa: things you thought were coming out so-so can be brilliant on re-examination.
What matters is doing things, creating art, on a regular, or better yet, daily basis. Once you have a pile of things is when you can be judgy. Don’t bother as you make it up.
Broken record time: when I feel like I’m not getting enough done, I sometimes slow down even further. I break ideas into smaller chunks to deal with. This is a way of doing something daily but still contributing to a big project.
One ant can’t haul much or dig a deep tunnel alone. Ten thousand ants can do huge jobs in hours. Ten thousand marks or paint strokes is an entire piece. It looks the same when it’s finished.
There will likely always be fads. We are social creatures, evolved to follow group aesthetics and patterns. It can be fun to get swept up in the wave of a thing lots of other people like.
As artists, we often walk a thin line between what is popular—or at least well-liked—and the strange, the avant garde, the dangerous. We want to take chances, to push boundaries, but we want to bring people along with us, to show them things we see and discover through our process. If we go too far into darkness or strangeness, we risk being irrelevant or obscure. If we go along with what’s popular, we can be boring.
I think the risk is more rewarding on the strange side. There will always be plenty of creators trying to ride the big wave. The hard part is finding one that suits your style and way of being, surfing just ahead of the break and between the rocks.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.