5 creative lessons I wish I had learned sooner
Being an artist is actually a pretty tough job.
Often, you have no direction (sometimes a good thing), no supervision and no deadlines. Artists are typically their own harshest and most unforgiving critics, so even if others enjoy the work, the artist may still be unsatisfied. It doesn’t pay much for most artists either, if anything.
Sounds like a great time, right?
Surprisingly, being an artist is also a great job with plenty of freedom, opportunities to grow and experience people and culture, and the ability to find fulfillment within oneself and in the work. That doesn’t come easily, however, and requires wise teachers, self-motivation, honesty and humility to learn how to turn the job of artist – or any job for that matter – into a life’s work.
Here are 5 things that I have learned and am still learning that I wish someone had told me a long time ago.
1. Don’t even start comparing yourself to others.
It’s happened to all of us: you feel you’re at a great place in your work and skill, and things are good. Then you go to
looking for inspiration, or what others are doing, and you get pancaked by a wave of super-talent that you couldn’t possibly aspire to. Maybe it’s even more personal. Maybe you have friends or family who are creators as well, and although you have your own thing going, you just can’t help but wonder if yours is any good compared to theirs. The short answer is yes and no. In other words, it’s pointless to make comparisons. They will always be right and wrong. Accurate and inaccurate. Constructive and destructive. Comparing your own creative work to the work of others is a sucking vortex of trouble. Don’t do it. It’s confusing, defeating and pure speculation. The reason there are so many creators is because each one has something different to offer and a unique perspective from which to express. Yours is good too. Keep doing it.
2. Someone out there loves what you do.
Personally, one of my biggest struggles is falling over and over into the fear that I’m the only one on the planet who thinks what I do is valuable. If I go to an art show or an artist meetup and I don’t see much interest or everyone else’s work is vastly different or perhaps I even get some negative feedback, it can feel like I have wasted all my time and interest and passion creating work that is universally despised, or perhaps worse yet, totally unremarkable. Just because there is little interest around you, that does not mean that same ratio of fans exists everywhere else. Someone, somewhere out there doesn’t yet know that they are a fan of your work. It’s a long process to find these fans, supporters, encouragers, buyers and evangelists, but they are out there. Part of the journey is finding them.
3. Don’t stop working.
Even when you are incredibly discouraged, feeling like an offense to the arts and out of inspiration, keep working. Keep making stuff. Good art and good life are cultivated much the same. They are built on careful planning, wild admiration, diligent observation and relentless practice. You have to keep doing it if you ever hope to get better. Dozens of artists and creative geniuses have given this wisdom is various ways. Inventor Thomas Edison reasoned, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson said, “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.”
10,000 seems to be a popular benchmark for creative people, doesn’t it? The message is clear: it takes a lot of work to hone your craft. Don’t stop working.
4. Good work takes time.
I don’t have a big problem with this one. I prefer to take my time and work slowly. Quality over quickness. Some others are cursed with crippling impatience, or underdeveloped self-criticism. Just because you’ve taken the advice to never stop working, not everything that you work on is worth showing. Not every idea is a winner. Even if you are creating every day, make sure that you are finishing projects, not just giving them a stamp of “good enough.” I don’t create many paintings per year because each one represents several months of work including inspiration gathering, sketching, re-sketching, living with the work in each stage of development, more drawing, more editing, more refining until I am finally ready to commit it to canvas. I have friends who seem to complete new work every week, and I wonder if am deficient. Just remember that the goal is not to become a prolific artist, but a proficient one. Prolific, being a relative term, means different things for different creators. If I complete 6-8 paintings in a year, I’ve been prolific that year. If I complete 4, it is right in my average work span of about three months per piece. For another artist, completing 20 works per year could be an artistic desert, while 60 might be a bumper crop. Regardless, the really good work takes time to become good. It also takes time and reflection for the artist to figure out what work is good and what is not. Good work – input and output – takes time.
5. Get an art education. Or don’t.
There is a great deal of unpacking that could be done on this subject. It’s complicated. In any discussion about it though, the key lies with the individual. The Greeks’ ambiguous advice to “know thyself” will help you here. There are perhaps four schools of thought on getting an MFA or other art education. The first team says, “You must have it to be worthwhile.” The second team is in opposition, believing “You don’t need an art education to be an artist, and in fact, it might make a you a worse one.” The third team shrugs, “It’s up to you. Whatever works.” The fourth team proposes that you “Get the education you need to create the work that you want.”
I think I’m probably in the starting lineup for Team 4, with a contract option for free agency to Team 3. If you are already creating, then you’ve gotten past the hardest part. Practice and experience in your craft is arguably as many times more critical to being an artist as an education costs. You can have all the book smarts and fancy MFA certificates you want, but if you’re not actually making art, you’re not really much of an artist. On the other hand, you can be a long-practicing artist, but if you are operating in a vacuum of knowledge, or at least stagnant knowledge, you may not be as successful as you could be. Technology, techniques and tastes change over time. You don’t have to go back to school, but it’s a great idea to get the education you need to create what you want, and create it the way you want it.
There are many words of wisdom that can help you live a creative life better. These are just a few. What have you learned that you wish someone had told you a long time ago?
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