It’s a bit like the zen koan “if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!” You need your influences, your artist heroes, and you stand taller on their shoulders. But you can’t focus on them too much or your own style won’t progress. Or, at least, progress will be slower. And life, as a wise philosopher once said, “moves pretty fast.”
Counterintuitively, the more you love your favorite artists, the more you have to dismiss them when you work. Steal liberally, but broadly, and the mix will become your own.
I feel as if I’ve said this before. Which is a strange thing for me to mention, because I know I’ve repeated things a few times on the blog, but it’s really a foundational idea about artists: the way you work is meaningful, and it’s worth thinking about. You want to craft and build in a way that supports the finished work, because in grand zen tradition, the journey is the reward, and the teacher, not to mention the greater part of your time.
And time is the most important thing you own. It’s going to be spent. Make sure you spend it in ways that support you and your work. If it doesn’t, time to change something.
Not Having the Answers Is Also Not Knowing What You’re Doing
I thought—actually said—this evening, “I have no idea what I’m doing” with these things I’ve been digitally painting. It’s a common feeling—and saying—among artists. It’s okay. The feeling is part frustration and part bemusement. But certainty doesn’t necessarily lead to breakthrough or even satisfaction. A little mystery is helpful.
I used to really dislike the song, “Santa Baby,” in its many variations. But after hearing the original Eartha Kitt version and reading the lyrics, I’ve turned it around in my head. It’s a grossly materialistic plea, for sure, but it’s also a cute bit of fun, if you don’t take it too seriously.
And, of course, that’s not a bad lesson for life, and for your art. We cringe a little at artists who are really earnest about the value of their own work. Meh. Artists with a sense of humor, and perspective, make me want more of their stuff. It’s a more enjoyable way to experience life and art, both.
Change is all around us. It’s baked into the nature of the universe. Maintaining a little openness to change gives you some flexibility in other areas of life, not to mention your work. It’s the cross-cultural principle that appears in The Talmud, Aesop’s Fables, the Tao Te Ching, and others: be flexible like a reed or a willow, not hard and unbending like a dead branch or a hardwood.
The Creative Life is Lonely, Sort Of, but Not in Any Serious Way
I’ve had friends and cow-orkers muse to me—in that way that makes it clear they’re probing for confirmation, but don’t want to seem obvious about it—that if you want to be an artist, you must be okay being alone with your work. I mean, yes and no.
There are obvious pursuits like writing, where you can, if you choose, work in a busy coffee shop or the park. There’s music where, except for one-human-band types who do everything themselves and never perform, you tend to work with others in a band or during production.
Visual art is made mostly on your own. But that doesn’t make it a lonely life. The part you’re already striving to get is the state of flow, or zen, or harmony, or whatever label you give to the sensation of losing your self, your awareness of time, and your self-doubt chatter while you do the work.
Without an idea of time, it doesn’t matter so much that you’re alone. Further, here’s a bonus: any creative work you do has access to this feeling. Aloneness without loneliness is your goal, not something to prevent.
Getting Centered Again When You Feel Scattered by Working on Your Thing
If you’re new, your “thing” on this blog is your creative process, your practice. It’s not any one work, rather the way you make art on an—ideally—ongoing basis.
Life tends to scatter and distract us. It’s not anything nefarious, just how humans have evolved. We’re built to favor the shiny things that keep popping up, like a new season of Bojack, or suddenly-released Prince archives.
I start to feel unfocused and anxious after a lot of that, though, and you may, too. What helps is knowing I have this thing to work on, that sustains me just a bit through creation. It’s the best kind of tired, the most satisfying reward, and it helps me feel—for lack of a non-mystical term, centered. Basically, the opposite of scattered. I’m calm and open to experience.
No artificial colors, additives, or flavors needed, it’s just you and the work and feeling a moment of zen.
To make things is to become emotionally involved. I’m not sure it’s possible to be dispassionate and produce things that are worth a damn. But my main concern with losing it is to find ways beyond or out of that state.
Breathing is always good for centering. Centering is the practice of withdrawing your attention back inside yourself. When you feel scattered and stretched, if you can pull back emotionally, you’ll feel better able to cope. It’s an easy borrow from meditation: close your eyes, take a deep breath, hold it for a half-second, let out the breath, wait a couple seconds, open your eyes. Sometimes that’s literally all it takes to become calmer and more focused.
Don’t take my word for it, it’s classic Karate Kid!
Almost 50 years ago, Blood, Sweat & Tears released a song about how culture goes in cycles like a wheel, swinging left to right and back again. It’s natural to feel stuck, sometimes. It’s harder to know at those dark moments that I won’t be there forever. It’s a big picture perspective that serves me well, when I can remember it.
Another idea I’ve tried to keep in mind is that of Taoist or Zen balance, that what may seem good or bad or fortunate or tragic today can easily become the opposite tomorrow. So it isn’t worth the emotional capital it takes to dwell too intensely on any particular event in our lives.
Of course, we’re only human, and not very good at a wide or long perspective on existence. It’s easy to become roiled by life, politics, and customers.
We need these little reminders that life is never on rails, nor traveling in one direction, forever.