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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

All battles are first won or lost
in the mind

~Joan of Arc

Posted June 18, 2018

By Christopher Gallego

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 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 you hoped would creep 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 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 another post, 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 know made me say it.

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

But back to the post.

It started with just a few words. Scattered thoughts, most of it 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 decision. Then go eat pie.

20 minutes later, some excitement trickled in. Weak at first then gathering force.

A theme gradually 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 striking a keyboard and jump-starting a dead brain.

And this is exactly how painting happens too.

Robyn Gardner

Lost Light
Oil on linen


First, do something totally mindless

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 right now. I'm jealous, but we're done.

If, however, you're a chronic procrastinator or even a mild one, 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, 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 at this point isn't to create a masterpiece.

Your purpose is to create the state of mind that will allow you to create a masterpiece.

Work precedes inspiration,
not the other way around.

Get the mind-hand connection going

Pick up your brushes and just hold them. The very feel of a pencil or brush in hand will give you a lift.

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

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

Focus on a single work in progress and turn the rest to the wall. Put it up on the easel without judging. Pay attention to the feel of the work more than the look.

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


Begin easy, finish easy

Spend your first ten minutes on a minor issue. Move on to something more challenging, then something more challenging than that.

Tackle your biggest challenge 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, and psychological strength for this part. Don't leap in and conquer the world in your morning doldrums and don't wait until late-day exhaustion sets in.

You'll never resolve the tough stuff with a just few quick paint strokes. You'll have to hammer away, possibly for hours, before making a dent.

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

Quit at a designated time whether you want to or not. Save your energy, rest up, and come back slugging tomorrow.

I don’t believe in draining the reservoir...

I believe in getting up from the typewriter, away from it, while I still have things to say.

~ Arthur Miller.

Avoid suffering on the road to greatness

I'm not sure when I invented the phrase the Van Gogh Syndrome, but it describes so 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.

Tortured geniuses fueled by the wilful abuse of their physical and mental health. Hollywood loves this stuff and the public eats it up.

There's only 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 he was 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 killing them.

And while I've only known one truly self-destructive painter, I've seen too much harsh self-criticism over not working enough. The kind of criticism that'll suck the joy right out of your 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 you really want to attract them into your life?

Jackson Pollock

Final Thought-
honor the rhythm.

Everything moves in cycles.

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

So does inspiration.

Don't ever beat yourself up because you lack inspiration. Because it doesn't make you a lazy, good-for-nothing artist.

It makes you part of the rhythm of life itself.

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

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

What I do recommend is 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...

Before you know it, you'll be on fire and the day will be half over.

You probably have motivational tricks of your own. Wonderful, but it's easy to outgrow them, so keep inventing 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 critical question is, what's your dribbling?

What ridiculously simple practice can you bring to your routine that will get you going and keep you sharp?

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Great post — and as you certainly know, it applies to more endeavors than just painting.

    As someone who has trouble “making time to paint”, because it’s a hobby that has to wait for other priorities to be accomplished.

    And — you guessed it — there are always more priorities than hours in the day….

    So thanks for the swift kick in the seat of the pants. This is all stuff I’ve heard before & know full well — but it was great to get a good, therapeutic talking-to.

    “Thanks, I needed that!”

  2. I thought I was the only one that had this problem. What you said makes so much sense and releases me from the guilt and the confusion of not understanding why that passion isn’t an “eternal flame”. I thought I had to have that to consider myself a “real” artist. This is a huge revelation for me. Of course! Getting started on something as simple as cleaning my palette or even just turning around in my chair and looking at the painting on my easel can start the process. Thank you making yourself write this.

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