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 5 unusual habits to keep you growing artistically 

Christopher Gallego, blog post: 5 unusual habits to keep you growing artistically, Image: White Pine with Broken Branch, 2007

November 25, 2017

Christopher Gallego

"What success does best is make you complacent and egotistical"

~ Keith Cunningham

I've never known an artist who painted just for fun or for relaxation.

I've never known an artist who didn't want to become great.

Most painters are driven. Seriously driven.

My 86 year-old father paints 8 hours a day - standing.

I was just plain nuts during my first ten years as a painter.

Most of you want to be great, your reason for reading this and other art blogs instead of watching TV.

And I congratulate you. I admire your ambition.

But let me ask you two important questions:

Are you honestly striving to become great or are you trying to look good?

Do you want to paint masterpieces or do you want to become a master?

Powerful questions and the answers aren't so clear even if you are self-aware.

The self-conscious need to prove one's talent is a trap.

Because working hard at your craft is not the same as working proactively toward growth.

Working toward growth means taking big, scary chances with your art and risking failure.

It means routinely falling flat on your face and looking ridiculous in the process.

It will also cost you some sales if you make a living from your art.

Not sounding so hot, is it?

Now you know why painters avoid risk.

I often say, and this will sound judgemental and cruel, that some career painters spend thirty years perfecting a technique and producing variations of the same piece.

Understandable, given the pressures involved.

Pressure from galleries,
Pressure from collectors,
Pressure from peers and from students.
Pressure from oneself.

The fear of looking bad is an artist's worst enemy. When it takes over you might as well be painting with handcuffs.

Fortunately, and thanks to some tough and wonderful teachers plus a few ruts of my own, I've developed these five habits to keep the learning going, whenever it stalls:

1. Paint some crap.

Make the decision to willfully and joyfully do the worst painting of your life.

Go all in and make it horrific (it's harder than you think).

Then put it against the wall and smile at it. Celebrate. Embrace the crappiness. (Yes, readers, I've painted crates o' crap).

Think of it as a young child who is a little out of control and give it a hug.

If you pay close enough attention, you'll notice something remarkable...

The world hasn't ended.

You're still here. You haven't died.

The clunker you just painted hasn't changed you, personally or artistically. With one exception - you're now a little more fearless than before.

Now give yourself a break and start another work, but this time take a different approach:

2. Do the impossible.

Dean fisher, Still Life from above
Dean Fisher,
Still life from above

Get in over your head with a project, a subject, a technique that you know you couldn't handle in your wildest dreams.

For Example:

If your largest work is 30 x 20 in; then do a 72 x 60 in.

Addicted to sables? Lock them up in a drawer and paint with a knife. Lose the fan brush too.

Pick up a big roll of paper and draw something enormous. Or sketch people or a pet while they're moving. Make the game harder. Attack something, anything, that scares you to death.

Yes, the results will look terrible.

Yes, you will feel like you're regressing and you will feel humiliated.

So just promise yourself in advance not to show the experiment to anyone. Hide it in the vault for eternity. Even if that ends up being a few months.

One's mind,
stretched by a new idea,
never regains its original dimensions."

~ Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.

3. Look at bad art.

Go to museums. Learn from the great masters. Advice drilled into me from day one.

But do you know what I find just as valuable? Looking at art that I dislike.

It's not just about learning from other people's mistakes although that's a nice bonus.

Looking at bad art highlights the habits, tendencies, and visual preconceptions we all share, regardless of experience. The differences vary only in degree.

Such as:

  • Putting too much light and detail in the shadows,
  • Filling the space with unresolved details,
  • Little or no variety in the edgework - too hard or soft,
  • Too much or too little control in the paint handling,
  • Working too hard. Great paintings look effortless.

So treat yourself to a nice dinner at your favorite local restaurant and learn from their art.

4. Get lazy.

Artists are among hardest-working people on the planet. Often to a fault.

Because painting isn't physical work and it isn't a hand skill, although both are involved.

Painting is mental work.

The miracle of absorbing and deconstructing visual information happens in the eye and in the brain.  And these elaborate organs don't like to be pushed. They need the freedom to be curious and playful with ideas.

If you doubt that, then just try, right now, to come up with a great idea or a creative solution to a problem you might have.

Not happening, is it?

Now consider those wonderful "Ah ha" moments you've had when your mind was roaming (my best insights appear while driving).

Long periods away from your art are critical. Take a week or even a month off. Go ahead - get rusty and start over. Chances are you'll return with something you didn't have before. Your skills will come roaring back and your bad habits will have weakened.

5. Rearrange your studio

It always surprises me when I visit the studio of a friend and see nothing's changed since my last visit.

We artists are visual creatures that thrive on visual stimulation. When that stimulation dies in an unchanging environment, so does creativity.

So move stuff around. Throw stuff out.

Change the wall color. Add color if there is none. White or grey as the only options for studio walls is not the law.

Keep a pad within reach and sketch what you find in the chaos. I find this far more exciting and real than a table full of carefully-placed objects.

The Bottom Line on Progress

Kathleen Speranza
Kathleen Speranza, Anemones for Prince, Oil on panel, 11 x 16 in.

You won't make dramatic progress simply by putting in a lot of time.

That may work in other fields, but not for art. You'll grow for a while, level off, then start to decline.

The decline usually hits when you're at the top of your game, so you don't see it coming.

And it's quite a blow when it does.

Put another way, an artist's motto/cliche shouldn't be,

Practice makes perfect.

It should be,

If you're not getting better you're getting worse.

So shake things up while you're on top.

Deliberately screw up and learn to love the screw-ups.

Learn how to get out of a jam while keeping your cool.

Quit killing yourself trying to become a great painter and work relentlessly on becoming a badass editor.

In my experience, the ability to self-teach, more than inspiration and even more than talent, is the greatest asset an artist can have.

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