You won’t be able to tell, looking back, the days you were tired and the days you were energized. The days you felt organized and the days you felt scattered. The times you were uninspired, lost, unsure and the times you were abuzz, on-track, confident.
Just something every day, and it comes together in the end. Whatever it becomes, eventually, there’s no point in waiting to get that chunk of it done because the pieces don’t care how you feel in the transitory moment, they care how they fit with each other as a permanent whole.
What I haven’t done much, here, is talk about what I’m doing. I think—and feel, double emphasis there—that the thumbnail doodles at the top of many posts aren’t really an indicator of ongoing process tracking, so there should be some balance to the endless advice and prescriptive know-hows I seem to have in endless supply.
One of the things I’m working on—s l o w w w l y y—is a series of 11 small paintings I pledged to people over a year ago. Be fair, year-and-a-half.
It’s a bit strange to go back and forth from analog to digital. Some things are easier in physical media: texture, random surprises, depth, the subtle wonder of a unique object. Some things are harder: development time, corrections—oh for an ‘undo’ when I smear or put too much of something on a canvas—and precision.
Here’s hoping I won’t be too much longer finishing and can finally notch off this project and start the next.
You’re still running out of time, but the culprit isn’t your motivation, it’s your schedule—how can you keep working on your thing if your work hours change every week? It happens to your humble chronicler, and has for years.
You’re going to have to schedule your creative time. Not at regular times, but around your job hours.
It’s best if you can get work in—and when I say “work” in this context it’s about the important stuff: art—before you head off to the job. Ideally the first thing you do when you get up in the morning. After the gym or morning exercise, if you do that, might be best, since I find I’m more lucid and motivated to get stuff happening then, rather than before when I’m still a bit groggy. Conversely, if you’re a poet, it might help the imagery to have the cobwebs of some dreaming hanging about. Try both.
An hour is great, two is better, but even 20 minutes a day is a couple hours a week, and it can pile up just like anything else. Get it on your calendar, shove your tantalizing social media and video services to the side for your work time. Tell yourself it’s just for a little while, you’ll get to it in just a bit.
This isn’t easy, but it can help establish a habit, and you can use the nagging itch to work on stuff to your advantage, because everything else in the world is conspiring—unwittingly—to distract, divert, and transfer your attention to literally everything else that seems easier and more fun. The world offers you endless ice cream. But your soul can’t survive on that, and in the long run, you get a lot more life out of the bread you bake yourself from scratch.
I hear you. I’ve felt the same. But we all have the same amount of hours, and beating ourselves up over seeing a few of them slip away is just eating up minutes. Once you get the initial anguish expressed, it’s time to shove it aside for a bit so you can get a little something done.
Or, if it’s truly—let’s just hypothetically say—almost midnight and you haven’t finished that blog post, maybe it’s time to shift the goal forward and go to bed so you can get up a tiny bit earlier tomorrow and work it out. This ties the “be kind to yourself” mantra together with the “begin again” trope. I hesitate to say, “start over,” because my larger goal is to think of your work (thanks, Austin) as a process, not any one object or finished thing.
It doesn’t matter that much that you missed a day. Life isn’t doled out in discrete packets, it’s a firehose of experience that’s aimed at your face, and rarely turned down. It’s cool, you’ve got something happening, get excited to pick it back up again when there’s a bit of daylight.
This doesn’t address the creeping small voice telling you to indulge feeling tired and worn out, that it doesn’t really matter, and what’s one more day of missed work on your creative thing—but that’s a different post I should get to at some point.
For now: it’s no big deal, you’re in the middle of the process. Begin again.
You may think it’s a race. There’s a lot of pressure on us to perform and achieve and produce. You’re looked down on a bit if you aren’t concerned with improving your productivity. To see the flood of self-help business books is to know there’s a relentless push to get more done.
But there are two ways to approach the problem of not working on your thing, or finishing work. One is to let productivity gurus sell you on another system, new tricks to slash work time and grow the done pile. It’s fine if that appeals to you. But it’s stressful, and leads to burnout.
And it distracts you from just plainly doing the work, which is certainly what often suckers me into the shiny new system.
The other way is easy, because you need nothing extra: establish a daily habit of uninterrupted creation time and get a little further along finishing a project. It really does pile up faster than you think. It’s less stressful and unpretentious, but it lets you end a year with the done pile impressively high.
There is value in slowing down. It’s easy to get caught in the push to get faster, increase productivity, do more with less time. But time hasn’t sped up at all. It still passes at the rate of one second per second.
Slowing down allows time—and the universe around us—to coalesce a bit as we work with it. It becomes more real.
The smallest unit of a body of work in art is the show—a group of paintings often bound by a theme or similar style and execution. For film, it’s, well, a film. For music, it’s long been an album.
We sometimes get caught in the idea of an artist changing direction, thinking it’s the new path for them. And that’s as may be, but it isn’t necessarily a permanent change for someone. Sometimes, it’s just a set of ideas they want to explore for a while.
People like to put you in a box. “This is the bold new direction for artist Z!” But the true box might be a walled-off garden of delights you’ve put together this one time. You’re always free to look back to your past, or completely change again for the next thing you do.
Nothing exemplifies this for me more than Queen’s 1982 album Hot Space. Although hated by many fans and critics, who didn’t think the band who exclaimed “We Will Rock You” had any business incorporating disco and r&b influences into its music.
But Freddie Mercury, particularly, forged ahead, and the band made just that album. It was less important how successful they were than that they tried something different. And it was less important still that they indulged their whims than that they recognized it was a discrete time and body of work they were under no obligation to repeat or take direction from for the next thing.
Freddie said, during a show at Milton Keynes,
“That doesn’t mean we’ve lost our rock & roll feel, okay? I mean it’s only a bloody record! People get so excited about these things. We just want to try out a few new sounds.”
Follow your heart and mind. It doesn’t matter a damn what comes next. Do the thing you feel now.
The million things that pull at our attention like a three-year-old at our pants leg are bad enough. But life itself can often be just as distracting.
And sometimes that’s necessary. The work we do isn’t always the most important thing, rarely the most urgent thing. Emergencies arise. Which makes it sound as if they begin to slowly appear, like sunrise or flowers. But in truth they’re usually huge and right in front of you like a delivery truck around a blind corner in the wrong lane.
You have to deal with emergencies. But you also have to deal with less harrowing urgencies, too. Deadlines at work, kids’ recitals, mom’s birthday, trips to the airport.
There’s a moment in any journey where you wonder if it was a good idea. You try to decide if the fun moments you’ve had outweigh the irritation of the discomfort from enclosed spaces, too much unbroken time spent with particular humans, terrible food choices. Time slows to a dreamlike quagmire, then speeds up to a whirlwind.
In Las Vegas, things blur together. Building interiors, eye-searing video boards, the ubiquitous hum of refrigeration, strip malls with outrageously kerned signage, infinite blacktop. Lights. Purposeless walking. Pink lava rock gravel spilling out of every housing development’s landscaping.
But this is just the center of the excursion. There’s miles to press on to, more things that will occur, more decisions you have to make about what you’re doing and who you’re doing it with. And then home, with your own food and habits and bed and cat.
I watch a lot of painting demos these days, looking for Procreate tips. Digital painting may have a similar perceptive core, but the execution is different. Few videos are as serene and revealing as this one of Studio Ghibli background artist Osamu Masuyama painting a sky and landscape.
This is one of the traditional ways art is taught in school. You watch a master work up a painting or drawing, and you try to do what they do on your own. Most of art, any art, is practice, I believe. There are techniques that will save you time, and specific exercises that can give you facility with the work, but time and effort is the biggest factor in anyone’s level of ability. Talent only goes so far.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.