Looking at the Old Stuff for Fun and Profit

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.

Time Is Relative, Works Are Your Friend

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.

Everything Is Distracting and Indulgent

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.

Working Hard or Hardly Working Smart?

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.

Getting Frustrated Is Only Half the Battle

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.

Knowing What You Do Is an Ongoing Process

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.

Sometimes It All Goes Horribly Wrong and There’s Sweet Diddly You Can Do About It

The above title references an SCTV sketch featuring John Candy as “Mr. Mambo” that stuck in my head when I saw it more than 30 years ago—which fact seems impossible to me now—and I still chuckle at his delivery.

But the sentiment of the rest of his monologue (followed by an extended version of “Brazil”) is valuable. Sometimes you have to distract yourself in order to find your own happy moments. If that’s mambo, well, good. If it’s your work, even better. Let your art take over.

When You Don’t Know What to Draw, Draw Rabbits

If rabbits is the thing that you keep returning to, then let that happen. Lately it seems that’s what I do. And it’s okay. Repeating yourself until you find the next thing or new path can lead to wonderful discoveries.

We don’t always have to be working toward the new thing. Sometimes we need to exhaust the possibilities of a path or subject we’ve been working on. The important part is that we’re continuing to do the work and sincerely exploring ideas.