How to paint when it’s the last thing in the world you feel like doing.

Featured Image
Alex Kanevsky

New Hampshire Trees
36 x 56 inches, Oil on linen

by Christopher Gallego


All battles are first won or lost
in the mind.

~Joan of Arc


Enough already.

Procrastination time is over.

Those artworks lying around your studio won't paint themselves.

You're determined to get good night's sleep, march in there next morning, and kick some serious ass. There's no stopping you this time.

And then morning comes. But the motivation doesn't.

Neither has the inspiration. Nor the elves who were supposed to sneak in and finish for you.

Why is it so hard sometimes doing work that you love?

Before getting into the topic of this post, I'm going to make a confession that's a bit off-topic and embarrassing...

I didn't feel like writing this post.

To be honest, I had no clue what I was going to write about.

No ideas, no inspiration, nothing. Just a blank screen and a keyboard. And some guilt.

So what's the point of doing this now? Why not wait for inspiration to come?

Answer:

Because it's time to write and inspiration doesn't just come.

That's it, that's the impetus. No angels hovering, no trumpets a-blarin’. Nothing magical or even interesting about it.


I'd rather have pie than paint.

For years, every evening around 7:00 as I schlepped into the gym, I made the same deadpan pronouncement to the trainers:

"I don't want to exercise.

I want to lie in bed, watch dumb TV, and eat pie."

The line became such a hit that they made me say it every time. People I didn't even know made me say it.

"Hey Chris, what are you in the mood for?"

But back to the post.

It started with a few words. Scattered thoughts, most of them nonsense. Appalling spelling and grammar (my English teacher would have strangled me at this point).

But the goal was to get in motion, not win a Pulitzer. Write for a half hour; that was the plan. Then go eat pie.

20 minutes of typing later, some excitement trickled in.

Weak at first, then gathering force. A theme starts to emerge. Ideas connect to other ideas. The typing gets faster and louder and my wife can tell from the next room that I'm coming to life.

Amazing. Fingertips on a keyboard jump-starting a dead brain.

And this is exactly how painting happens too.


Work precedes inspiration, not the other way around.

Now let's just assume that maaaybe you're not always in the mood to create art.

If that's not you, then congratulations, you can stop reading now. I'm jealous, but we're done.

If, however, you're a chronic procrastinator like I am then the most important goal of your day is this:

Get into the studio. Doesn't matter what you do once you're there. Just get in there.

You did it. Outstanding.

Now, do something mindless.

Rearrange things, tidy up, move canvases around. Let your eyes and your mind awaken before dwelling on your work and the problems.

Focus on your environment, the smell of the paint, the quiet, the beautiful light streaming in. Appreciate the privilege of being in your own space. Few people have this.

Remember that your purpose here isn't to create a masterpiece. Your purpose is to create the state of mind that will allow you to create a masterpiece.


Get the mind-hand connection going

Pick up your brushes and just hold them. The feel of a pencil or brush in itself is uplifting.

Squeeze the bristles. Touch the sides of your canvas. Run your hand over some drawing paper. Pay attention to the feeling in your hands and any ideas it triggers.

Hey, guess what? You're working already even if you don't know it yet.

 

Get the neurons firing.

Now you can think about looking at your work in progress.

Focus on one piece, turn the others to the wall. Put it up on the easel and just look at it, no judging. Focus on how the work feels more than how it looks.

Found a problem? Wonderful! Now you've got something to do.

 

Begin easy, finish easy

Spend the next ten minutes on a minor issue, a real-no brainer, as an entry point into your work. Move onto something more difficult, then something more difficult than that.

Tackle the biggest issue a little before mid-day, when you still have plenty of time left and your energy is at its peak.

Because your biggest challenge is just that. You'll need strength - physical, mental, psychological strength, for the hardest part. Don't leap in and conquer the world in the midst of your morning doldrums and don't wait until late-day exhaustion sets in.

Because you won't resolve the tough stuff with a few quick paint strokes. You have to hammer away at it, possibly for hours, before you see any real progress.

Then in the last hour or so, reverse the process. Wind yourself down by working on the background or anything else you find easy.

And please don't think "Nothing is easy for me."

 

Suffering is not the road to greatness

I'm not sure when I coined the phrase, the Van Gogh Syndrome, but it applies to many artists, past and present. We're brainwashed into believing that artists have to suffer to be great.

Van Gogh, Pollock, Basquiat, many of the great rock stars. The list goes on. Tormented, self-destructive geniuses who put work before physical and mental health. Hollywood loves this stuff and the public eats it up.

There's just one problem...

Many of these geniuses had short lives and shorter careers.

Van Gogh did his best work when he was sane. Dead at 36. Pollock did his best work when sober. He made it to 44. So did Arshile Gorky, who hanged himself in his barn. Anxiety didn't fuel their art. Anxiety killed their art, before it killed them.

And while I've only known one truly self-destructive painter, I've seen (and once indulged in) too much self-deprecation. The kind that leads to a stale joylessness in one's art.

And without the joy, you've got nothing. Because nobody wants to look at a joyless work of art. Except maybe the depressives, but do really want to attract them into your life?


What the hell is he getting at?

Everything moves in cycles.

It's a universal principle. Energy builds, peaks then subsides. So does inspiration.

Don't ever feel guilty if you find yourself lacking inspiration. Because it doesn't make you a lazy, good for nothing artist.

It makes you part of the universe.

And as heroic as the notion might seem to you, I don't recommend forcing your work.

And I  don't recommend wallowing in an uninspired state either.

To repeat, a little self-cajoling goes a long way:

I'm not really working now, just sweeping the studio floor...still not working, just mixing up some paint...hmmm, maybe touch this area up a little...

In no time at all you'll be on fire and you won't know where the day went.

Carve a schedule out of your day and stick to it. Quit at a designated time whether you want to or not. Save your energy, rest up, and come back slugging tomorrow.

You probably have motivational tricks of your own. Fantastic, but they won't work forever so keep creating new ones.

Or steal them from others, artists, athletes, businesspeople, it doesn't matter. Basketball icon Michael Jordan, for example, routinely practiced and honed his dribbling for hours at a time, throughout his career. He drilled as if he were the worst player in the game, although he was arguably the best.

So the critical question is, what's your dribbling?

What mundane, routine practices can you conjure up that will get you in motion and keep you sharp?

If you don't know yet, then find them, and do them every day as if your life depended on it.

You don't have to create masterpieces all the time. In fact, you shouldn't even try.

And you don't need to prove that you have talent, not to yourself or others.

You do need to keep creating and refining the right habits. Powerful habits. The kind that keep you working consistently, no matter how silly or outlandish they might seem.