I do these periodic posts about the habit—making a daily or near-daily creative practice part of your routine—as much for myself as for you. Because I’m not trying to teach or prescribe formula from on high or by edict, I’m just as crabby and fallible about getting to work as anyone. We all try, we all fail. There are times, and they come more than once, when you feel you don’t have the strength to make stuff.
It’s only in those moments you have to fall back on tricks and training to push through the wall. The daily habit gets you through because you’re used to it, and it’s too uncomfortable to not do a thing.
“Just do it,” Nike’s simple and best slogan, can work for easy dark moods. For worse blocks, there’s the 5 Minute Rule. You tell yourself you’ll just work on art for 5 minutes, and usually it kicks you into gear. It can’t fail, because even if you drop it after 5 minutes, you’ve worked on your thing that day. You win.
Give it a shot, and get used to denying your inner denier.
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?
Because I ran out of day getting into this little drawing. The pull of Flow, the siren song of getting lost in creation is the best drug, truly. It’s just tough to get started on the trail after so much self doubt and hesitation.
We all have it, or nearly all. You just need to keep reminding yourself to start, to give the blank page a little chance. Most of the time, you get something you can flow into, for a time.
For weird, synchronistic and untraceable reasons, I got Flesh for Fantasy, above, there, stuck in my mental earholes earlier in the day. When it was released, I was in high school, and had eclectic taste even then. But though I respected Idol’s presence and abilities as a songwriter and singer, it didn’t seem particularly special.
Now, through a lens of 35 more years of listening to music, it’s scintillating. There are beautiful tones and colors on guitar and guitar synthesizer both. The song is very dynamic, rolling from the sneering shouts of the chorus, to the soft whispers of verses. It’s not characteristic of much music then or now, when so much production isn’t allowed to breathe and rest, it’s balls-to-the-wall sound and—if you’re lucky—silence.
An advantage of age often mentioned but not appreciated, maybe, is wisdom. Along with that is a sense of perspective. Things look different through a lens of decades. Art of all kinds can be reassessed like this. Sometimes things you thought were great turn out to be paper thin. And—if you’re lucky—some things turn out to have great depth.
By the above, I mean profit creatively, not financially. One reason to keep old work around is that it not only gives you benchmarks for where you’ve been, it also informs your present work. Sometimes it’s inspiration, a kind of creation recycling that sparks new ideas from old. Some of the time, it steers you away from habitual mistakes. These things are worth experiencing and knowing.
Sketchbooks are the main thing artists keep. But as much as you have room for isn’t a bad thing to hang onto. Dominic Cretara, my main life painting professor, used to say we shouldn’t throw out anything for at least three years. By that time, you’ve progressed—if you’ve kept working, of course—and gained perspective and new skill.
Don’t look too soon at the bottom of the pile, but do look.
It’s understandable the school would have a hard time after two major fires. But students taking control of their education is a good thing, too. While whether to go to art school at all is a personal decision that needs weighing and specific goals to make the most of, students still guide a lot of their path themselves, and a say in the programs is vital, as are realistic promises from institutions.
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.
We’ve got a friend visiting who owns a car. My lack of knowledge about how to navigate parking downtown, where we live, including meter boundaries and cost are practically nil. In less than a year since moving, and giving up my car, I’ve remained virtually locked into public transit and walking.
I felt helpless to answer questions and solve problems. “Just keep driving around” was almost wholly inadequate. It strikes me that humans—for all we talk about history repeating and not learning lessons—are still eminently adaptable. Circumstances around us may change, but most of us can melt into the new mold quickly.
When I think about new directions to take my work, new media to explore, and new situations that restrict what I might do, I don’t keep this in mind. I get frustrated trying to recreate circumstances and methods of the past. While that can sometimes work for a lifetime (Turner), it might not be possible for some (Stella), and I could be doing myself a disservice, wasting energy needlessly.
Maybe just melt into the new mold first and the rest takes care of itself.
For a huge portion of those online—and in my experience, many outside of it—the notion of getting together to do something is often usurped by claims of being too busy. And far be it from me to call out anyone using that as an excuse for not exposing one’s social anxiety to crowds. That’s valid, and I do that.
Having kids used to be a reason people gave for not being able to do things beyond basic work and home activities. But fewer people (at least in the West) are having kids, and even endless new tools of tech simplifying creativity seemingly aren’t enough. Many of us are feeling overwhelmed. A never-ending string of stuff we gotta do is hovering over us at all times, demanding we pay attention.
Have we agreed to do too much? Or are we just indulging the feeling? The world expects more from artists, from a robust social media presence to constantly evolving work. Or at least constant churning.
I’m trying to give myself permission to step aside, now and then. To let the stream scroll on when I’m searching for something new to say. It’s all right to be quiet and watch, the world will always be moving.
If it’s never too late to start, it’s never too late to restart.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.