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

Christopher Gallego Blog: How to paint when it's the last thing in the world you feel like doing

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 a good night's sleep, march in there next morning, and kick some 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.

In fact, 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?


Because it's time to write again 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 as I schlepped into the gym, I made the same deadpan pronouncement to my buddies:

"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, then go eat pie.

20 minutes later, some excitement trickled in.

Weak at first, then gathering force. A theme emerges. 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 sleepy 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.

But if 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.

Robyn Gardner
Lost Light
Oil on linen

Get that mind-hand connection going

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

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

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 without judging. Notice 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 first ten minutes on a minor issue, a real no-brainer, as an entry point. Move to something more difficult, then something more difficult than that.

Tackle your biggest issue 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 here. Don't leap in and conquer the world in your morning doldrums and don't wait until late-day exhaustion sets in.

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

Then, in the last hour or so, reverse the process. Wind down with the background or anything else you find easy.


Suffering is NOT the road to greatness

I'm not sure when I coined the phrase, the Van Gogh Syndrome, but it describes too many artists, past and present. We're easily sold on the myth that artists have to suffer to become great.

Van Gogh, Pollock, Basquiat, the great rock stars, the list goes on. Creative genius fueled by the wilful abuse of one's 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 way 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?

Jackson Pollock


What is he getting at?

Everything moves in cycles.

It's a universal law. Energy builds, peaks, then subsides.

And 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 ebb and flow of life.

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.

I do, however, recommend a touch of self-deception:

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 the day will be half over.

You probably have motivational tricks of your own. Fantastic, but it's easy to outgrow them, so keep creating new ones.

Or steal them from others - artists, athletes, businesspeople - it doesn't matter.

Michael Jordan, for example, routinely honed his dribbling skills for hours at a time. He drilled as if he were the worst player in the game even though he was arguably the best.

So the question is, what's your dribbling?

What mundane studio practice can you incorporate that will get you in motion and keep you sharp?

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

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

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

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

You do need the right habits, powerful habits. The kind that keep you working no matter how silly or outlandish they might seem.

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