How To Gain Momentum When You Feel Lost As An Artist
The internet is strewn with “how to stay creative” lists, a flotilla of bottled insights including “use sticky notes,” “take showers,” and “drink coffee.” The prophets of these revelations also urge us, without irony, to “make lists.” Proof of concept? I've become skeptical of this word “creative". Call me a curmudgeon, but I don’t identify as a “creative.” I’m not a manager in a branding department.
Our culture often equates the ritual of imaginative endeavour to an exercise with colourful office supplies. I feel creativity has been confused with a casual generation of ideas. We neglect its association to a real act of creation, the labour of transforming visions into substance.
Forget the tricks. Forget the mythology of genius and talent. Creativity is a consequence of remaining industrious. My struggle to make paintings is not about summoning my muse but rather the time and determination to work. Obviously, artistic effort requires a fertile mind, but my experience is that the brain is most inventive and sensitive to stimulation when constantly flexed. I subscribe to the Picasso maxim, “Inspiration is possible but it must find you working.”
"Inspiration is possible but it must find you working."
That is the open secret - to doggedly keep at it. As someone with a day job, I have to protect my practice against the erosive pressures of other responsibilities.
Below are some notes on how I try to maintain my momentum. Although they concern my painting habits, hopefully they are broad enough to apply to other disciplines as well.
1. Have a structured daily regime
I maintain a fairly consistent painting schedule throughout the week. My studio is set up in the spare half-bedroom of our flat, and I paint there most weekdays at exactly the same times, once in the morning and once in the the evening. (I paint for longer on the weekends.) I don’t need to think about gathering my materials or negotiate when I am going to paint. It is an automatic part of my daily life. In the long term, I believe it is better to work regularly for shorter periods than to work sporadically at great length. I prefer to keep my thoughts at a constant simmer rather than oscillating through a freeze-thaw cycle. Check out 7 Ways To Stay Productive If You Work From Home
2. Have a contingency plan
If I have something to do in the evening, I wake up early but skip the gym to paint for a longer session in the morning. I don’t like to feel restricted by my practice, but I need to preserve my daily painting time. I have this alternate routine ready. This may seem trivial, but it’s part of consciously prioritising painting, of keeping to it steadily.
3. Have a sense of the project’s arc
Every painting I make originates from the same cloud of ideas. I try to remain broadly aware of this cloud’s constituent parts. Sometimes, these are concepts that can be explored in words. For instance, I am a British-born American who moved to London as an adult. I think about the paradox of being a foreigner in one’s own country. Other times, the notions are more visual than verbal, such as the use of a technique or the influence of other images. I don’t plot the exact trajectory of my work, but I have a sense of its overall arc. Each painting is a continuation of the last. I don’t lose steam between paintings because I consider them as one project, not a series of discrete pieces. Check out How To Make An Outstanding Portfolio.
4. Have clear short-term goals
Of course, I can dream about fashionable gallery openings and a retrospective at the Whitney Museum, but extravagant fantasies are not so helpful in the immediate future. I try to set myself goals on the scale of a year, so I have a definite metric with which to pace myself. For 2018, my aims were to appear in two group exhibitions and to complete eight to ten paintings. These targets are ambitiously realistic. They require me to push hard but they are not so implausible that I will end up miles off and dejected. For 2019, I wanted complete a similar number of paintings and organise a solo show. Life rarely goes to plan, but the point is to have a sense of direction.
5. Write about other people’s work
I look at other people’s work and force myself to write about it. See this article I wrote about an exhibition by painter Chloe Wise. Writing for me is an excruciatingly slow process, and my dilemma is that these hours inevitably detract from painting. However, the benefit is that writing encourages me to crystallise my beliefs. Long stretches of painting become an increasingly trance-like meditation. The interruption of constructing resolved thoughts requires self-examination. Initially, I always feel clumsy, but as the lines accumulate, I often find there was more inside of me than I had realised.
6. Learn a new technique
A practice can be easier to maintain when you've already established a direction. Sometimes though, it's helpful to approach an idea from alternative perspective, perhaps using tools, techniques or mediums you're unfamiliar with or want to improve. Take a course, reading a developmental book, or watching how someone else uses the same medium as you is always an interesting and informative exploration. Whether in-class or online, art courses will allow you to touch base with other artists and get invaluable feedback on your process or outcome. It's not uncommon for a great course with a great instructor and classmates to be something quite transformative.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Adrian Coleman is a painter who recently moved from New York to London. He is a winner of the Brooklyn Museum’s 2012 open studio competition. His paintings have appeared at the Bronx Museum, Steven Amedee Gallery, the Mall Galleries, and Peckham Levels. He works by day as an architect.