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How to Paint When it’s the Last Thing in the World You Feel Like Doing

Christopher Gallego, Window Panes, 2002, Oil on canvas, 48 x 54 in. Private Collection

Window Panes
Oil on Linen, 48 x 54 in.  Private Collection

All battles are first won or lost
in the mind

~Joan of Arc

Christopher Gallego
June 18, 2018   20 Comments

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 again, and inspiration doesn't just come.

That's it; that's the impetus. No spirits hovering, no trumpets a-blarin’.

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.

But back to the post.

It started with just a few words. Scattered thoughts, most of it nonsense. Appalling spelling and grammar, and my English teacher would have strangled me at this point. But the goal was to get in motion, not win a Pulitzer.

Write for just a half hour, that was the decision. Then go eat pie.

20 minutes later, some excitement trickles in. A theme gradually emerges. The typing gets faster and louder and my wife can tell from the next room that I'm coming to life.

Amazing. Fingertips tapping a keyboard, jump-starting a nearly dead brain.

And this is EXACTLY how painting happens too.

Robyn Gardner: Lost Light - Featured Image for Christopher Gallego Blog: How to Paint When It's the Last Thing in the World You Feel Like Doing

Robyn Gardner
Lost Light, oil on linen

Do Something Mindless

Now let's just assume that maaaaaybe 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.

But if you're a chronic procrastinator or even a mild one, then the first goal of your day should be this:

Get into the studio.  Or your workplace. 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...not many 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 Neurons Firing

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. 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.

Focus on a single work in progress and turn the rest to the wall. Put it up on the easel without judging. Notice 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 some minor issue, a no-brainer, as an entry point into the work. Move on to something more difficult, then something more difficult than that.

Tackle your biggest challenge just before mid-day, when there's plenty of time left and your energy is at its peak. You'll need strength–physical, mental, and psychological strength for this part.

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

Wind down in the last half hour or so 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 willful abuse of their physical and psychological 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 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 in my fellow artists. 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 for the depressives, but do you really want to attract them into your life?

Jackson Pollock

Honor Thy Rhythm

Everything moves in cycles. It's a universal law. Energy builds, it peaks, then subsides.

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

It just makes you part of the rhythm of life itself.

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

But I don't recommend wallowing in procrastination either.

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. Great, but they have a way of wearing off, so keep finding new ones.

Or steal them from others: artists, athletes, businesspeople, it doesn't matter. Basketball legend Michael Jordan, for example, routinely honed his dribbling skills for hours at a time. He practiced 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 that you have talent, not to yourself or to others.

What you do need are the right habits, powerful habits. Habits that keep you working, no matter how silly or outlandish they might seem.

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20 thoughts on “How to Paint When it’s the Last Thing in the World You Feel Like Doing

  1. I wish I had a studio. Working at home, there’s just too much distraction. “I’ll make just another cup of coffee and then I start working” and then you notice that hours have passed and you’ve only been pruning your houseplants or something.

    1. I completely understand. I’ve almost always worked at home, still do, and there are many distractions. Home maintenance is a big one.

      But commuting to a separate studio felt like going to an office, and the subject matter of one’s life wasn’t there. The back and forth is a time and energy drain as well. I believe Andrew Wyeth worked at home his entire career, and there’s a warmth to his work that I love.

      I use the word “studio” loosely–what I really mean is workplace. I hope you can find a way around the distractions. Thanks!

  2. “I don’t want to exercise.
    I want to lie in bed, watch dumb TV, and eat pie.“
    Thanks for the article. I’ve already wasted half the day with laundry and Facebook!

  3. Hello Christopher. Thank you for this illuminating article.
    I have always felt guilty at how long it takes me to set up my matériels before actually settling down to paint. I had an inkling that it was in fact a tangible part of the painting process. Now I know it is!
    I’m off to put out my paints now…thanks!

  4. I translate (for me) “go to the studio” to “go to a place” of work. Go to a reserved place.
    Yes. I know that place. Thanks. Let’s see how that works.

  5. 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!”

  6. 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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