Sometimes is failure. Sometimes is success. Usually more the former than the latter, but such is creation, maybe?
But one success you can count on is doing the work. Skipping out a day here and there is sometimes just life intervening in your best laid plans. But when we get lazy, hoo boy. Guilt and depression are my punishments, whatever my justifications.
But work now is a gift to future me. And motivation to push past anxiety and get something worked on is easier if I can remember how it feels to not do it. We remind ourselves what it felt like the last time we neglected the work.
On especially rough days, we can begin the Rule of 5: tricking monkey mind by promising we’ll just do 5 minutes on a project. The trick is that it’s never just 5 minutes, you feel the familiar pull of creation and the bliss of flow just a short reach away. Bam, you’re making again.
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.
And by “we” I’m referring to the elephant of a state in the room that will hugely influence the rest of the country in this.
And by “this” I mean independent contractors vs. employees and who decides which you are. Lots of art teachers are treated as 1099 type freelancers. That may change soon.
The Teaching Artists Guild has a rundown on the bill expected to be signed into law. I’m a bit worried about budget cuts, but agree with those who say that even taking a stand on the importance of worker protections for teachers, we’re just standing on a shrinking island of funding with even more weakened advocacy for art in general.
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.
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.
Indulging your distractions can be a comfort, especially if anxiety or fear is creeping up on you. But since it can easily turn into an additive substitute for doing difficult things, I’m trying to balance my fears and my determination this year.
I’ll allow myself a bit of distraction, but only if I’ve started something: drawing, writing, class work. Usually, if I’ve started, my fear melts and I tend to keep working for a while.
This goes back to the notion that we need to be making amazing things. No. We just need to make things, and some will have the opportunity to become amazing. We need to give ourselves permission to do some bad work, and let time do the rest. Make some terrible drawings, call on that kid energy, when it didn’t matter a damn you didn’t know what you were doing. Make the work, balance the fear, keep moving.
It’s a perennial trope that working hard is the only way to get ahead, or be successful—whatever that means in a hundred variations. But some people work hard for a little while and not after, yet still maintain a success rate. Some just get lucky. Some keep working hard no matter how successful they get.
If we never get lucky (enough), what then?
I think it’s important—or rather, it’s meaningful to keep working. But how hard you work is relative. I think what matters most is that you do it. You can always adjust the effort to suit. Because how can you adjust nothing, or get cosmic dice rolling on an empty set?
Work some. We can discuss how hard that needs to be.
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.
The number of times someone asks “what do you do?” when I say I’m an artist varies over time, but it’s a frequent question. And I don’t often know what to say.
If you only do one thing, or only have done one kind of art, this might be easier. But most of us work with multiple media or disciplines. And few artists want to be put in a box, anyway. Yes, today you’re writing a book. But you used to make cartoons, or play keyboards, or make videos. What you’re doing now isn’t always the impression you want someone to go away with.
But there isn’t often an easy—or consistent—answer to the question. It might be because we are all in a state of becoming. We’re still figuring out what we do. You’re a painter. But what kind of painter? There are sub-sub-genres and myriad methods.
And this isn’t for the people who ask you The Question. But it almost doesn’t matter what you tell someone else. Your work is what matters, and as long as you’re making some, it’s part of the process of discovering and revealing itself back to you.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.