How to Create Art When Your Life is in Chaos

 Manet, Cezanne, Oceans, and a Pear
Spring, 2020

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 way 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 derailing 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’d 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.

For Example:
This big oil, painted from a studio near midtown Manhattan, was in progress on 9-11-2001 and completed in the months that followed:

How to Create Art When Your Life is in Utter Chaos-Blog Post by Christopher Gallego

A year later, I started another big piece in the midst of a breakup…

How to Create Art When Your Life is in Utter Chaos-Blog Post by Christopher Gallego

…these studies came together quickly, during the height of the pandemic, as I moved every few months and painted in small makeshift studios…

How to Create Art When Your Life is in Utter Chaos-Blog Post by Christopher Gallego

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. But a powerful counterforce can emerge, from out of nowhere, when life beats us around.

The Bonus?
Those challenging projects are like anchors that ground us when nothing else does.

Get Perspective

Stability. Something we artists aren’t exactly known for.

Which is woefully unfair. Society likes to portray creative types as irresponsibly loose cannons, which is total BS in my opinion, with some exceptions.

Truth is, artists can 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

It’s 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, 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.

Rather than conquer the world the moment you step into your workspace, do something mindless. Squeeze some fresh paint onto your palette, or scribble a bunch of lines on sketch paper.

Like this:

How to Create Art When Your Life is in Utter Chaos-Blog Post by Christopher Gallego

I do this mundane 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 and then flow out as you ease into the work. Don’t try to suppress them and don’t berate yourself for having them in the first place. That’s just another energy drain on top of the first one.

Saying something to yourself like, “Duly noted”, will help those thoughts subside. But 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 and 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 actually 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 pay off 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.

Again, 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 you think.

In the words of late New England artist and professor George Nick, Just Paint.

Sound wisdom, especially now.


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13 thoughts on “How to Create Art When Your Life is in Chaos

  1. Great and thoughtful post as always. Through the pandemic, I’ve been producing, but mostly sub-par work. Please write a post on “How not to produce sub-par work.”

  2. A nice read with some thoughtful and thought provoking words, this caught my eye though..

    “A bad day is actually better than no day.”

    I’m a casual jogger, not a lung-bursting sprint runner, but I do like to get out for a regular jog.

    I remember when I first started out, it was on a miserable rainy day and I came back into the office and mentioned it to a colleague who I knew was a very keen runner and ultramarathon athlete.

    I said something like “yeah, it was a bit pathetic, just a four mile slow jog”, at which point he took umbrage and said “don’t belittle that jog, the fact is that you have got yourself off your arse and gone for a run” gesturing with a sweep of his hand “80% of the people here probably couldn’t run four miles if their life depended on it, and 95% would accept the smallest excuse to not get off their arse at all and go out into the rain. A slow or short run is ALWAYS 100% better than no run.”

    It was some years ago but that has stuck with me. To me, I count success as “turn up” + “do work”. Regardless of the results, good or bad, regardless of if you didn’t finish your stunning masterpiece, just turn up and do work, that is success.

  3. Your work is stunning. I had a terrible time in the dreadful lockdown, nothing seemed important . I went back to grayscale value studies for 6 months. Art is described as practice as well as work. It’s a bit comforting to see that as brilliant and perfect as your art is, that you have challenges and determination to get through it.

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