1: Keep Something Back
You don’t have to share your whole process and every piece of art you make. It can be nourishing to keep a private sketchbook or make little test pieces that you don’t intend to share. I have a couple of sketchbooks that I don’t usually show to anyone. Apart from anything else, we all need a place where we feel emotionally free to make bad art without worrying about an audience!
2: Let Yourself Play
Remember what got you into art in the first place and take some time to reconnect with that joy. This can easily get forgotten when you’re a professional artist and bogged down in promotional activities and exhibition schedules, so make sure you also schedule some playing time. Taking classes in a different technique or trying out an exciting new art material can be a good way to access what Buddhists calls ‘beginner’s mind’, that wonderful state where everything is exciting and fresh.
3: Find A Balance
Balance your practice by finding forms that complement each other. For example, if your work takes a long time and involves long and complicated projects, then regularly doing little pieces that can be finished quickly is a good counterbalance. It helps you feel as though you really are getting stuff done. Artists have traditionally done this by using drawing as a complement to painting or sculpture but it’s not the only option, performance, photography, writing, music or another form can also fill that need for immediacy.
Conversely, if you tend to complete works quickly, taking on a longer, more involved project can be an interesting challenge. Working in series is often a way of doing this but maybe you can think of other more unusual ways.
4: Love Your Process
I’ve seen far too many people, particularly at art school, endlessly struggling with a medium or form that they just don’t enjoy. Why? Art is hard enough without handicapping yourself with a process that doesn’t excite you. You need a certain amount of joy to get through all the bits that you don’t like, so don’t lumber yourself with a form that just doesn’t do it for you – it’s not noble, it’s just masochistic!
5: Accept The Lows
Anyone who tells you that art is a wonderful, creative thing that always makes you happy is an idiot!
Annoyance, small bursts of depression and large doses of frustration are a normal part of the artistic process. It doesn’t mean that you’re no good, that you’re not cut out to be an artist or that you’re doing the wrong thing, it just means that you’re engaged with your work. Just make sure that you do have a deep core of love for your process – if you’re annoyed all the time then you probably need to reconsider your medium (see number 4).
In my experience, anger and frustration usually happen right before a breakthrough and it’s a sign that I need to stick with a piece – although if I’m throwing things around the studio and yelling, I tend to take a day off! Feeling low usually happens when I’ve just completed something big – I call it The Exhibition Blues – and it’s always a sign that I need to step away from art for a while to recharge my batteries, assess what I’ve just finished and get ready for the next piece.
6: Fill Up The Well
Art doesn’t form in a vacuum and it’s important to replenish your inspiration on a regular basis. Julia Cameron suggests regular Artist’s Dates, where you schedule inspirational treats for yourself and I’d totally agree. This could involve reading art books; going to the theatre or cinema; visiting art galleries or museums; taking photograph’s at a farmer’s market; going for a walk; taking a day trip or indulging in some new materials at the art shop – the key is that it should be something that nourishes and inspires you. If you’re starting to feel a bit stale or low, then try this.
7: Write It Down
Give your brain a helping hand and write down all your ideas, not just the ones that seem immediately good and relevant. You can always edit them later and you never know when a seemingly unimportant thought will develop into a larger project. I often think that I’ve come up with a brand new idea but invariably I’ll find a single sentence in an old notebook that was clearly the original spark. New art takes time to grow, at least several years in my experience. Writing things down is a way of planting your ideas and then letting them develop while you’re busy getting on with something else – I call this process ‘composting’.
The notebook that I keep by my bed is the most important of the 5 or 6 journals and sketchbooks that I use. I wouldn’t want to be without the other notebooks because they all serve different purposes but the majority of my ideas start out in that little bedside book.
Bed is apparently where I think best but it varies from person to person. I know someone who keeps a waterproof board and pencil in her bathroom because she gets her best ideas in the bath. Someone else I know writes ideas on the steamy doors of her shower cubicle and then dashes out to grab some paper before they evaporate! Work out where you think best and make absolutely sure that you keep a way of recording ideas there.
8: Make Art A Priority
You need to make a space for art in your life. If art isn’t a priority then it simply won’t get done and you’ll get to the end of another year wondering why you haven’t made any work.
I do know that it’s difficult: if you’re working another job to pay your bills or raising children, then finding time and energy to make art can be especially tough but you need to keep hold of the idea that you’re an artist, that it’s central to who you are and that you’re going to keep making work somehow.
You may need to work in the margins of the day – on your lunch break, on public transport, as you’re waiting for a meeting to start, while the kids are napping or when the rest of the household is asleep. When I worked in a hospital, I used to sketch the visitors to the canteen on my lunchbreak. I didn’t do it every day but I did it enough that it noticeably improved my drawing at a time when I had no access to life drawing classes. I know several writers who’ve written zines and even novels in spare minutes at work. Other artists find ways to incorporate their paid work into their art, perhaps by using it as the subject of their work.
It’s easy to think that you need vast swathes of time in order to be an artist but that’s not always the case: what you need is a steady and regular commitment. Yes, having lots of time can be great but it can also make you freeze. When I was at college I used to spend most of the day talking to people, pottering around the studio and drinking endless cups of tea and then in the last hour I’d finally get myself in gear and do some work. I’ve learnt that I tend to do much better with a limited amount of time and a deadline.
If you’ve got serious limitations to contend with, then another option is to temporarily alter your practice. If you can’t make sculpture because you don’t have the space, then maybe you can draw, if you can’t get access to printmaking equipment, then maybe you can do monoprints instead, if your oil paints are toxic to your toddler then switch to gouache. Don’t be afraid to explore the options – you’re an artist, you can surely come up with a creative solution.
When my son was small, I couldn’t even draw because if he woke up and threw me out of that creative zone, then I wanted to throw him out of the window! I decided this wasn’t an ideal frame of mind for parenting, so I switched to photography and writing – both forms I was able to pick up and put down much more easily – until he was older and I had more mental space. And let me tell you, I came out of that restricted period like a bat out of hell, I had so much stored up creative energy that it powered me for years.
9: Create A Supportive Space
It’s vital for artists to have support, particularly from the people that they live with. The importance of having people in your life who understand your need to make art can’t be overstated. They don’t need to like or understand your work, although it helps, but they do need to understand what it means to you.
Again, I know it isn’t always possible to have this support – you may be in an existing relationship with a partner who doesn’t quite get it or have a birth family who are firmly opposed to you being an artist. You can still make art in these circumstances but you’ll have to be prepared to fight your corner and that’s draining and takes energy away from your work. Sadly, I have noticed that people who end up quitting art often have families who undermine their choice to be an artist, either directly or more subtly.
I’m incredibly lucky, my family of choice are totally supportive – bemused sometimes, but always supportive. Of course, I say luck but really it was a choice – I put art at the centre of my life and deliberately picked people who support me. When I was single, the two fundamental things that anyone getting involved with me had to accept were:
1) I was a parent and my kid came first
2) I was an artist and I had no intention of giving that up for anyone.
It was always an absolute deal-breaker for me – I can be quite hard-nosed and selfish about my art when I have to be and I just wasn’t prepared to trade art for ‘love’.
10: Don’t Quit!
Ah, the most important tip of all!
David Bayles and Ted Orland talk extensively in Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking about the importance of not quitting and give a host of reasons why people do, plus ways to avoid it. It’s an excellent book and one that I reread most years – every artist should own a copy.
If you want to be an artist then quite simply you have to find ways to keep making art and not stop, no matter what life throws at you. Good luck! And don’t forgot to have a bit of fun along the way…