Manet, Cezanne, Oceans, and a Pear
How to Create Art When Your Life is in Utter Chaos
April 8, 2022 13 Comments
A Bad Day is Better Than No Day
Like many, I’ve run from the pandemic.
I’ve relocated six times in two years.
Lost friends, a father, and a father-in-law…
…left a rewarding teaching job, closed on three properties, and fled New York City for good.
And yet, by virtue of some miracle plus the tips I’m about to share, have continued painting and am pleased with the results.
So the question inspiring this long-overdue post is, “How do you create art when your life is in chaos?”
Should you even try?
Should you wait until you rebound?
I’ll shock you and answer the first question with “Absolutely”, and hope you keep reading anyway.
Because it’s too easy to quit the moment you’re distracted. And you can count on being distracted.
Oh, The Distractions
You’ll be distracted by a seismic event, like a deadly worldwide pandemic, or a commonplace one, like a personal conflict or painful memory surfacing for no reason.
But let’s start with the commonplace.
Like that insufferable driver you encounter once but remember for a lifetime. I can still see the contorted face of the man who flipped me the bird two years ago because he didn’t like my respecting the speed limit.
I’m not offended by obscene gestures BTW, I’m offended by the assumption that I’m shallow enough to be offended by them. Truth is, anything can blindside you, and at the worst possible time.
So what can you do about it?
How do you keep your troubles, internal or external, from sabatoging your art?
First, Expect Disaster to Strike
Life is full of problems–we all know that.
And art is a part of life and a reflection of it, yes?
So why are we upset when our work is disrupted? Why do we interpret the setbacks as cruel penalties we don’t deserve, or worse, that we do?
The only way to guarantee nothing disrupts your work routine is to never have one. Otherwise, you can expect things to get messy.
Because life is messy.
Relationships are messy.
Work is messy, and ours is no exception.
And ignoring the mess can be a bigger challenge than the work itself.
Boxers and martial artists know the best time to strike is when their opponent is about to. AKA the Counterpunch.
To the rest of us, it makes no sense at all. We’re rather cover up or run like hell.
But being pushed into a corner is when we discover a strength and resilience we didn’t know we had.
This big oil, painted from a studio near midtown Manhattan, was in progress on September 11, 2001, and completed in the months that followed:
A year later, I started another big piece in the midst of a breakup…
…these studies came together quickly, during the height of the pandemic, as I moved every few months and painted in small makeshift studios…
Then there were the dreadful failures, that I won’t share, painted during the most peaceful stretches.
No, I’m not saying we’ll all churn out our best work every time we’re on the mat. Just saying that a powerful counterforce can emerge, from out of nowhere, when life beats us around.
Those challenging projects are like anchors that ground us when nothing else does.
Stability. Something artists aren’t exactly known for.
Which is woefully unfair. Society likes to portray creative types as irresponsibly loose cannons, total BS in my opinion, with some exceptions. Artists can actually be the most stubbornly self-disciplined workers around.
And great art is timeless–it has this way of giving perspective. It may be easier to recall what you painted a decade ago than what you worried about a month ago.
So rather than bemoan the crap of life distracting you from your art, appreciate how your art transcends the crap of life.
Because problems come, they go, and they return in different forms. But your next masterpiece will outlive you, and your problems, by a few centuries.
Cultivate a (Snore) Steady Routine
Funny how creativity thrives with routine.
But not surprising when you look at the lifestyles of some of the world’s great thinkers.
Nietzsche, Kant, and Einstein, were all renowned creatures of habit.
Maybe a little boredom goads the mind to find new connections. Whatever the reason, try working, if you can, at the same time and in the same place each day. This makes it easier to keep going when it all hits the fan.
Instead of trying to conquer the world the moment you step into your workspace, start with something mindless. Squeeze some fresh paint onto your palette, or scribble a bunch of lines on sketch paper.
I do this simple exercise for 20 minutes each day, before picking up a brush. Yes, it seems a little nuts, but it calms the mind, steadies the hand, and gets you into the zone.
Let any vexing thoughts you have flow in, then flow out as you ease into the work. Don’t try to suppress them and don’t berate yourself for having them to begin with. That’s just another distraction on top of the first one.
Saying something to yourself like, “Duly noted”, will help those thoughts subside. Forget tunnel vision. It’s overrated.
Know What Working Really Is
Working doesn’t just mean smearing paint onto canvas and hoping it looks like something.
When you’re alone in your studio, connecting with your subject, you’re working.
When you’re searching for awkward passages in your art, you’re working.
When you’re awestruck by the greatness surrounding you in your favorite museum, you’re working.
All valuable stuff that makes you a better artist.
Painting sessions don’t have to feel like Nirvana. You don’t need profound thoughts and soaring spirits to be productive. A bad day is better than no day.
Work When You’re Uninspired
On a bad day, you’re engaged. You’re involved in your art and you’re learning, whether it shows or not. The observations you make today will manifest tomorrow.
It’s called artwork for one simple reason: it’s work.
Rewarding, meaningful, satisfying work, which also happens to suck every now and then.
Kind of like life itself.
To repeat, art is a part of life and a reflection of it, including the good, the bad, and the horrific.
So don’t overanalyze and don’t overestimate the impact of your mood. It’s not as important as it seems.
In the words of late New England artist and professor George Nick, Just Paint.
Sound wisdom, especially now.