When we can’t get a song out of our head, some of us call it an earworm, a sort of audial meme so persistent it’s like it’s burrowed into our brain and consciousness. What’s the visual equivalent?
It’s possible music is different, and easier to hold in memory while we’re doing other things. But for visual artists—maybe this applies to writers, too?—do we also have images that could stand in for songs that won’t leave us alone? Pictures or pieces of them that annoy us with their nagging appeal?
I think I might start trying to notice if it’s a thing. And, if not, perhaps I’m not looking at enough art?
It’s standard practice to enhance photos for social media. Some rebel, using #nofilter to indicate a shot straight from the straight from the lens with no embellishments or alterations.
I don’t, however, adhere to the same practice in my drawing and painting very often. Though I find many initial sketches to have life and power, I spend a lot of time refining drawings on top of or referencing them, fussing with paint for hours, erasing, redrawing, slowly putting lines and shading in.
If I had more confidence, maybe I’d make the best sketches and spontaneous drawings my work. But I’m trying to get the life out of the thumbnail, to extract and apply its loose coolness into a refined piece. It’s a bit like rewriting: the first idea may be strong, but it has limitations, too. It’s the difference between a funny anecdote and a comedy film. Ideas are sometimes worth refinement.
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.
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.
You can get plenty of weird ideas while you’re falling asleep. And weird ideas—or unexpected, if you like—are what you want if you’re an artist. But execution is missing. You’re tired, drifting. It’s nearly impossible to bring an idea to reason, never mind fleshing it out.
But ideas are valuable just to keep handy. They’re easy, fruitful, and full of possibility. That’s all they need to be on their own.
Now and then, if you make art, you probably get to a point where you’re over the type of thing you’ve been making. Maybe you think you’ve said everything you could. Sometimes you’re bored—if it’s that, you probably should stick with that thing a bit longer.
Being bored, artistically, is the genesis of a thousand new possibilities. Boredom in general is a rare commodity these days, with endless distraction and tools available.
But hang on. Wait a while. Keep making. Then you may find you still have things to say with your current practice. If not, dream. Think. Wonder. Something will strike you, and offer the next compass point.
I realize that could come off like a platitude. I mean it, though! We contain myriad potential. There’s more in there. We can’t always get out of our own way quickly, but it’s in there to find.
I spent some time trying to figure out why my Firefox extensions suddenly stopped working. I tried endless permutations of wi-fi, browser/computer restarts, until finally searching and finding I’m not alone. So now I wait for the fix.
Frustration is a common emotion in both internet work (and time-wasting) and art. The thing you’re working on doesn’t quite measure up to your vision. The idea doesn’t work as well in reality as it did in your head.
It is good to recognize that frustration is normal and we all feel it sometimes. It can be motivation to do something else, or work on the problem. But you do have to keep working on the thing, until it’s finally finished. Art bugs get worked out in process. Or not. At that finishing point, maybe the frustration is still there, but you can move on. Getting caught in endless frustration leads to nothing. Let it alone in the bug fix queue and keep moving.
Sometimes a cheap, pandering title is just the thing to tangent from.
We obsess over stories like nothing else. It’s another essentially human thing. Obsession is good, in moderation. We have to have some measure of it to stick with anything when it gets hard.
Just as it’s hard to watch made up people you care about get killed off on screen, it’s hard to watch your ideas fail to find a firm place to take hold and then fade. But there are always more ideas. If we keep on making them, there will be a few that make it.
It took me a long time to start—and then to finish—Battling Boy, the first in a series by Paul Pope, of comics fame and renown. I don’t think the expected continuation of the series has happened, at least not yet. Other books in the series are prequels. This first volume ends pretty abruptly.
But Paul has always been adept at crafting future worlds very unlike the tropes of shiny, glowing science fiction films and TV shows. His are gritty, chunky, dark, and diverse visions, and I find them endlessly inspiring and fun. He always seemed assured and able, where I felt the very opposite of those things.
Paul was among the few creators, including my cousin and me, who did a co-signing event back in the early 90s. It was my first one, ever, at Comix Experience in San Francisco. Paul brought the first THB, a massive 104-page issue, and seemed to me both then and now to be something of a rock star. A rock star wielding a brush as his instrument.
But for someone so clearly destined for worthy praise and continued success in the field, he was always kind and encouraging to me and my work. Technically, he was a peer, though I looked up to him and his confident process for being miles ahead of me and my stuff.
It still seems appropriate, the rock star mantel, as he’s grown in skill and popularity over the years. His stories and art are wonderful and strange, drawing all his influences through his brain and onto the page. I loved entering this world, and I’ll be there if and when he continues the story.
Despondency and resignation are old friends. It feels as if, now and then, I either have a million subjects to discuss or I can’t think of a single meaningful reason to write some things. Or draw them. And so I start to wonder if doing something else is more worthwhile to spend time on.
But the words never really run out. Every day, I find things to talk about with people around me, and something new occurs to me, or is shown to me, or I discover just by looking and listening to the things of the world.
Likewise the images are always potentially there to make, thoughts made into forms I can see. But to get back to this realization from despair—if you like—I have to let go and give up trying. In this way, I somehow gain access to the creative center, a trove filled with all those things I could and sometimes do say or think every day. The ideas don’t have to all be amazing. They just have to be there, and continuing to put them into the world means, eventually, some of them will be amazing.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.