5 Unusual Habits to Keep You Growing Artistically 

 5 Unusual Habits to Keep You Growing Artistically -Blog Post by Christopher Gallego

 Pines, Autumn, 2007
Oil on canvas mounted to board, 12 x 9 in.,


Five Unusual Habits to Keep You Growing Artistically

Christopher Gallego
November 25, 2017     41 Comments

What Success Does Best is Make You Complacent and Egotistical

~ Keith Cunningham

I’ve never known an artist who painted for fun or 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 become great, your reason for reading this and other fine art blogs instead of watching TV.

And I congratulate you. I admire your ambition.

But let me ask you two important questions:

Are you actually 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 isn’t the same as working toward growth.

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

It means 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 judgmental 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.

But 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.

Habit #1.
Paint Some Crap.

Commit to willfully and joyfully doing 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’s 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 painted hasn’t changed you, personally or artistically, except in one way. You’re now a little more fearless than before.

Now, take a break and start another work, but this time, take a different approach.


Habit #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, or 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 sable brushes? 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 horrible. Yes, you will feel like you’re going backward and you will feel humiliated.

So 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.

Habit #3.
Look at Bad Art.

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

But do you know what I find even more valuable? Looking at art that I dislike.

Which isn’t just about learning from other artists’ mistakes, although that’s a nice bonus.

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

Such as:

  • Putting too much light in the shadows,
  • Filling the space with unresolved details,
  • Little or no variety in the edgework,
  • 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.

Habit #
Get Lazy.

Artists are among the hardest-working people on the planet. Sometimes 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 like 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 all those wonderful Ah-Ha moments you’ve had when your mind was free to roam (my best insights surface while I’m driving).

Long periods away from your art are critical. So 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 start to weaken. 

Habit #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 who 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 studio wall colors isn’t 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 tabletop covered with carefully-arranged objects.

The Bottom Line on Progress

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 in 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 still on top.

Let yourself screw up and then 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.

41 thoughts on “ 5 Unusual Habits to Keep You Growing Artistically 

  1. Truth and clarity. I’m saving this to my home screen for those moments when the urge to poke my eyes out becomes overwhelming.

  2. Fabulous, just what I needed to hear after scraping my work off the canvas for the third time today. I will finish it and hang it upside down and celebrate.

  3. I’ve come to this via Facebook as a comic writer and bit of a cartoonist / illustrator, and I have to say there’s a whole lot in this post that’s applicable to my pursuits and probably any and all creative endeavour. Great post.

  4. That is just what I needed to hear. Thank you for your truthful insight. I can see that I’m travelling up & down the right path.

  5. Yup! Very illuminating! Love how some of what you said is so very simple, like move stuff round in the studio, simple though not at all easy! So much easier to stay the same! Thanks very much, best wishes, Liz

  6. Really insightful, thank you. I think you are right, creatvity needs shaking up or it becomes stale or complacent which is the antithesis of creatition. Good list of ideas to shift complacency.

  7. Thanks for this. Ironically, I had just seen a drawing of a friend by her granddaughter and commented that I wished I could draw with her freedom. And this is coming to you via my wife’s site. She’s a writer and found this valuable as well.
    Robert Paulmenn

  8. Chris, you are a sage!
    You really articulate these intelligent thoughts and feelings so well. I would suggest that you write a book.
    You write about aspects and difficulties of being an artist in such an honest and healthy way. It would be very helpful to many artists.

    1. I’ll second that wholeheartedly!
      And will add that your writing always seems to make me happier, more relaxed, and noticeably lighter.
      Much gratitude from old Europe

  9. Thanks, Christopher! That was great! Mary Jo O’Gara
    Mary Jo O’Gara Side Door Studio 1011 Tower Court – Rear Winnetka, Illinois 60093 847-951-2895

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