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.
It’s a cliché that we shouldn’t wait for the world to recognize us for our work. So how do we get the attention? Instead of offering any how-to advice—because, hell, I don’t know, either—let me pose a couple questions you might ask yourself that I find myself returning to.
Why do I want recognition? Answer this and you’ll either spotlight your ego (“I’m a genius, duh!”), or realize you care less than you thought you did, or understand you don’t know why.
The first is shallow, for good or ill, and that might not be a reason to disavow seeking fame for your amazing thing, but you should own it. The second is a pleasant revelation, and you are now free to do whatever you want—but do keep sharing your work. The third is the hardest, and you can either engage a therapist, or think hard about it till you figure it out. Or both. Both would probably be good for you.
Does it matter if I don’t get the thing I want?
This can lead you back to the first question if the answer is yes, or free you to stop making art or forge ahead in sheer abandon, finally not giving a damn what other people think.
This isn’t to diss Bob Ross, because he’s a delight. But like everything in art, there is nuance and alternative meaning. When Bob talked about happy accidents, he was teaching his viewers not to break the flow of their work with thoughts about how they messed up. It’s a way of reframing the unforeseen.
Mistakes will happen. But whether your work is meticulously planned or completely spontaneous, it can be helpful to keep rhythm with them. It’s another Zen or Taoist concept applied to creation: it doesn’t matter if errors crop up, because they become part of the humanity of your work. It’s only more real for small flaws.
And sometimes they can take us in different directions we hadn’t thought of, or would never find in a perfect thing.
You’re making art. You get sucked in. You forget the universe outside the one you’re making.
It happens, and you don’t have to feel bad about it. Sometimes if you’ve fallen into the work, and there is no time—for a blissful, weird micro-infinite period—its the best moment you could hope for, and a good reason to keep trying to regain a foothold in that pocket universe of your own creation.
The phone, the TV, and the news of the world, as Chrissie Hynde said. The outside will always press in on our sacred spaces, taking beloved things away and pushing unwanted things in. What to do about it?
I think one of the best skills to cultivate is simplification. If you know how to draw, you’ll always be able to work on something if you have a pencil and some paper. If you’re a musician, you can sing, or drum with your hands. Dancers already have basically their own bodies to work with.
This isn’t the only way most people will want to make art—though for some, it’s their stock in trade—but I notice it’s easy to become discouraged when I’ve been working with more involved tools, oil paints or digital surfaces, when those aren’t available.
When circumstances take those tools away (you’re on a plane, there’s a power outage), do the simplest version of your practice at your regular or habitual work time. I bet you’ll get some new ideas out of it as well as keeping up the momentum and rhythm of your thing.
There’s one thing especially aesthetically appealing about the rooftop superheroes—Batman, Spider-Man, Daredevil, The Tick—to me: it’s a different perspective to see the world from.
This is valuable for your work, especially because it’s so easy to get stuck in routines and forget to keep trying to find new ways to look. It’s easy when you’re a kid: it’s all new and different. Once you’ve seen a bunch of the world, your internal imagery is mostly settled.
Getting on the rooftops, though, is weird and scary and strange, looking every direction. The sky seems close, the ground is all strange angles and squashed perspective, the other buildings are flattened. It’s new imagery, and that means a chance to see things in a while new way for a while. Maybe the rooftop superheroes aren’t just trying to look for criminals. Maybe they’re onto something.
What’s the motivation to continue? Why go to the drawing table—real or metaphorical—and start a new thing or work away on the one already begun?
This isn’t really meant to be a motivational blog. I find those inadequate and not just a little glib, also. Because when I’m looking for things to tell myself when I want to be lazy or even stop entirely, the meme equivalent of “hang in there, baby!” doesn’t cut it.
What I do do is try not to make big decisions in the moment, when I’m supposed to be using my time to make art. I trick myself. The number one motivator when I’m sulky, tired, or frustrated with the work is to tell myself I’ll just give it a few minutes and see.
Any work done is a good thing, but it’s never just a few minutes: if I start at all, I get sucked in and keep going. Tricked brain = lazy artist doing stuff. Give it a shot.
It’s not that I pretend I don’t want my work to be perfect. I do. But I realize—recognize—it can never be so. Yet, I persist, if I’m not paying attention.
Sometimes, it’s good to let something go as it is. And sometimes it’s better to scrap the thing and start again, scrape the canvas, delete the tracks, crumple up the page.
How do we know when to stop? Deadline is a good full stop, but if you don’t have one, it’s an arbitrary point where you’re out of flow, getting stuck in fine details, with little or no progress or change to the big picture.
There will be no bell. No buzzer. You can choose the moment—but sooner rather than later is usually not a bad thing. Your time is all you really have, and making another imperfect thing helps more in the long run than approaching the logarithmic curve of perfect.
DISCLAIMER: watchmaker and Zen master mileage may vary.