Pinpoint the Habits that Hold You Back.
Then Do the Opposite.
Simple advice, yes?
Because our habits, even the bad ones, make us feel comfortable.
And don’t we artists love to be comfortable? Comfort helps us feel inspired.
Problem with comfort is it also derails us, and knowing that doesn’t make much difference:
• We know we shouldn’t check email every five minutes.
• We know we shouldn’t eat 14 snacks a day.
• We know social media turns the brain to Jell-O.
Does it stop us?
Most people, self-included, want to feel good now rather than later. As a kid, I’d have flunked the marshmallow test in three seconds flat.
So in the spirit of self-awareness and for the benefit of my fellow artists, I’ve compiled this list of tried-and-true productivity-killers.
Which isn’t an exhaustive list, as I’m sure to discover new, more effective ways to squander precious painting time.
Wait for Inspiration
Inspiration is wonderful. Completely exhilarating. And completely unreliable.
You never know when it’ll strike. It’ll desert you in a flash and it won’t guarantee success.
Hideous works of art have been created out of inspiration, which can blind an artist to the most glaring flaws.
And the waiting just adds stress to the uninspired state. So now you feel uninspired and guilty for feeling uninspired.
Better to think of inspiration as a bonus, an occasional perk you get for doing your job. Turn it into a prerequisite and you’re in for a lot of downtime.
Finish Everything on Your To-Do List
Cookie Tin, 2014 Oil on canvas
20 x 16 in. | 50.8 x 40.6 cm
Ever notice how finishing one task leads you straight to another? House chores are the worst.
For example, packed inside a cardboard box I’m staring at is a new chair I have to assemble. Part of me feels I’ll write better with the task off my mind. Experience tells me otherwise.
Because I’m sure to need a tool I’ve misplaced somewhere, so factor in twenty minutes to search and find. Then an hour to put the chair together and a half-hour to cut the box into pieces for recycling.
I’ll probably want a snack when I’m done. But better clean up after myself before my wife strangles me.
Another coffee shot (what the hell, why not), another clean-up.
And there you go—Poof! Two hours blown on a chair I didn’t like before and really hate now.
Postpone all unimportant tasks, and get right down to work. To-do lists are gaping black holes that will devour your time if you let them.
Skimp on Supplies
Quality supplies are expensive—cheap ones are exorbitant.
Like student-grade paints, which have practically no pigment. You’ll go through tubes of the stuff trying to make something happen, but you’ll only waste your time, and your paint.
And what’s your time worth?
What have you spent on classes and workshops?
I know, I know, but I’m still learning right now.
OK, that’s fine for a beginner. But after six months, you’re due for an upgrade.
Because if you feel unworthy of the good stuff (like linen canvas, or paint with actual pigment in it) that will eventually become your truth.
Using high-grade materials makes you feel like a pro, and it’ll show in your work. I’m not saying get a second job or second mortgage to pay for it all. Just avoid the crap.
Get Everyone’s Opinion
Elude, 2019, oil on canvas, 20 × 16 in.
Most well-meaning folks really do mean well. Sometimes.
They give advice whether you want it or not, partly to help, but mostly to flaunt their boundless wisdom.
Here’s the problem:
They’re not you.
No one else can express your feelings. You see and experience the world differently than anyone. When you try to please everyone, you please no one, and your art will turn to dishwater.
In your heart, you know whether your work is strong or weak, finished or unfinished. If you’re not sure, then take a look at it through a mirror. Any problems will leap right out at you.
A five-dollar hand-held mirror gives an unbiased opinion every time, and it’s always available.
Drink More Coffee Than Water
Rich-black espresso with some half-and-half is, in my opinion, God.
And the temptation to grab one the moment the energy drops is irresistible.
The brain and the body need water to function. Especially if you work standing up. There’s an athleticism to painting that can’t be ignored.
Turns out coffee isn’t as dehydrating as we’ve been told. But for the chronically addicted, it can become a poor substitute for water.
And then there’s the lovely adrenaline spike…
Fight or flight is a crude mental state that helped Neanderthals survive but turns modern humans into Neanderthals. As a student I watched in horror as brawling erupted in art class. Between elderly women who had too much of the bean.
An artist’s mind should stay relaxed, open, and flexible. Nothing wrong with a little jolt now and then. Just don’t go overboard.
Listen to the News While Working
Ever catch yourself shouting at news reporters who can’t hear you and wouldn’t care a rat’s ass if they could? (I do it all the time, so don’t feel bad if you answered Yes).
News and social media are designed to inflame the mind, or numb it completely. That’s how they keep us hooked.
Audiobooks, by contrast, are wonderful studio companions. They ease the feelings of isolation that can haunt an artist, but without distracting so much. You can even learn a little something while you work.
Compete with Everyone
Damn, this guy is good. Really great stuff.
Let’s see if I can find something wrong with it.
How many times have you thought this? C’mon, be honest.
OK, so it’s human nature to compete. So long as the competition is healthy, it’s a wonderful thing.
But competing excessively puts too much attention on the external and leaves you out of touch with your inner self. This is one of the ways art becomes shallow. Some artists are driven solely by the need to prove their talent to themselves and to others.
Granted, impressing people with your technical skill feels pretty good. But connecting with them feels even better.
Funny how we put our weaknesses under a microscope and let those weaknesses define us. Every artist I know does this to some extent.
The truth is that no one masters everything, not even the masters.
Velasquez had his weaknesses: he wasn’t prolific and wasn’t great at painting from imagination. A hostile critic could ignore the magic, focus only on the flaws, and think, This guy should have gone to art school.
Completely. But we do this to ourselves all the time.
So let me be the one to tell you, right now: You’re better than you think. Your screw-ups probably aren’t so bad either.
Try not to buy into the myth that excessive modesty makes you better. It doesn’t; it just gives a false sense of limitation.
Lastly, be a Neurotic Perfectionist
Most of these items point to one thing: Perfectionism.
Perfectionism will drive you to do your best work, or it’ll paralyze you before you start.
How can you tell good perfectionism from bad? Easy, it’s in the way you feel.
If you agonize over making a few bad moves that’ll transform your art into an irreparable, horrific mess, it means you’re pushing too hard and it’s time to ease up.
If you feel energized and confident, it means you’re in the zone, which is a great time to raise the bar on yourself.
Bottom line is, some days you’re killing it, other days your feet are stuck in cement.
But the cement days can bring the greatest learning opportunities. Every time you pick up a brush, you learn something, whether you realize it or not.
And that’s one of the hallmarks of a master. They work, they learn, and they call it a day—no matter what.