In the studio or on the road, many artists find they’re at their most creative when they’re simply on the lookout for joy.
When a job has some sort of outside payoff — typically cash — it’s known as an “extrinsic reward.” When there’s no payoff except for the joy, it’s known as an “intrinsic reward.” Experts are now seeing intrinsic reward as the silver bullet of motivation and a principal key to evolved work.
A revealing study by Teresa Amabile and colleagues at the Harvard Business School tells some of the story. The researchers asked a number of artists to select 20 of their works of which 10 were commissions and 10 were from their regular production. A panel of curators and art experts, knowing nothing of the nature of the research, were then asked to rate each work on creativity and technical skill. While skill ratings turned out to be pretty well the same, the commissioned works consistently rated lower on creativity.
In my experience, grants can have a similar affect. By the time the bureaucratic slot machine paid off, friends who recently applied for long greens were burdened by “receiver’s remorse.” Projects lost their lustre and creative quality suffered.
While we may work to perfect our craft, and we definitely need to be challenged, to get the best from ourselves we need to pretend that nothing of what we do is actually work. A creative thriver needs to be an independent self and a seeker of joy. If joy’s not in you, you might need to delude yourself that it is.
Blessed are those to whom a sense of joy comes naturally. But artists need to be reminded that the squeezing of joy is also a responsibility. There’s an irony to it all — it’s been my observation that the most blissful players are the hardest workers.
PS: “The misuse of extrinsic rewards, so common in business, impedes creativity, stifles personal satisfaction and turns play into work. After basic material needs are met, the quid pro quo of if/then rewards — if you do this, I’ll give you that — saps the juice from the job.” (Daniel Pink)
Esoterica: My son James and I have just wandered 4,800 kilometres in Argentina. We had no agenda and no commissions to fulfill — we were just looking around seeing what came up. Listening to downloads and audio-books on the car radio illuminated the spaces in between. Late each evening, over the spectacular Argentine steaks, creative conversation flowed like Iguasu Falls. Like the sea lions on Peninsula Valdez on the west coast of Patagonia, we artists need to be contrarian critters. It’s my observation that, deep down, we artists know what works. It’s just that we don’t always have the insight — or perhaps the courage — to let the joyous work flow. “Humans are self-directed and work best when we have three things,” says Daniel Pink in his audio book, Drive: (1) Autonomy — the ability to control aspects of our time, tasks and techniques. (2) The opportunity for mastery, and (3) A sense of purpose — a connection to something larger than ourselves.”
Bottled up creativity
by Tim Alcock, Denver, Colorado, USA
I loved art — any kind — in high school, but never believed I could turn on creativity for extrinsic reward. Instead of becoming an architect, I became an engineer. Now retired, I’m taking classes at the Art Students League of Denver. All that bottled up creativity! Wednesday I got chatting with a very talented lady painter next to me – an unemployed architect. Apparently architects are amongst the most underemployed professions these days. Meanwhile I’m retired and painting for intrinsic reward.
PS: I’m signed up for your Bugaboos workshop with CMH this summer and I’m doing my best to keep in practice for the trip.
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Loving a portrait to ‘life’
by Ann Lohmann, Houston, TX, USA
As a commissioned portrait artist, I must say that I feel the most joy when I am portraying a subject in a way that will give the viewer feelings of love, appreciation and enjoyment each time they view the painting. There is an intense feeling of creativity involved in the process of bringing a subject to life as I begin to get the feeling of”loving” it into being. I have thought of paintings I might do just for the”fun” of it, but, as Dr. Eric Maisel would say, the idea loses vivacity. There is fun in arranging the background in a large painting to complement the subject and use it to support the feelings about the subject I want to convey, but only loving a living being”to life” on the canvas or paper and knowing that it will honor the subject and please those who love and/or respect it, moves me to joy.
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by Carol Mayne, Leucadia, CA, USA
I looked into my own heart and found the truth that lies between my ‘inner anarchist and inner conformist.’ My self-employed status has been a happy job title for 40 years, and I feel grateful to have worked from home long before it was considered ‘cool.’
Did making commissioned art cramp my style and dull some latent genius? Perhaps, but no more so than going hungry would have! These words of wisdom have motivated me as I move forward: “Live a Life of Balanced Recklessness!” That and doing the three things in Drive in reverse order!
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by Darrell Baschak, Manitou Beach, SK, Canada
We humans are contrarian critters for sure. We are accosted daily with messages from all kinds of sources that seek to deny us our basic human right, which is to exercise our free will to live in happiness. Your statement “Blessed are those to whom a sense of joy comes naturally” is in fact true for each and every one of us humans that inhabit his blessed earth. Again, there are those who would deny us that joy in favour of some mindless consumption of worthless products or activities that always seem to put off true living until sometime in the future. Artists are not”the be all to end all” but we definitely are onto something that is good and right. It is hard to pinpoint who “they” are but I suspect we are all responsible for the state the world is in now. I would say that I live in relative obscurity as an artist in rural Saskatchewan but I honestly enjoy this inward journey I am on. I discover much about myself and my surroundings when I am honest about my motives behind being an artist. My motto lately has been, “Paint what you know; paint what you love.” The thing is that what you know and love is in continuous flux! It’s all good. When you mentioned that you were with your son on these travels I was reminded of the movie The Motorcycle Diaries which was filmed in South America and chronicles part of Che Guevera’s life. I am somewhat envious!
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Joy carried throughout
by Elizabeth Patterson, Hollis Center, ME, USA
The word, “joy” has been in every version of an artist’s statement I have ever written. It has probably been present in half of every conversation I’ve ever had about my work. It’s there in the conversations I have with myself inside my head. Joy is something I hope is carried along from my first inspiration, flows through the execution of the work, and slips right into the eye of the viewer, where it settles in, at least for a moment.
Charles Hopkinson, portraitist
by Tom Halsted, Gloucester, MA, USA
My grandfather, Charles Hopkinson (1869-1962) was a “contrarian critter.” All but forgotten today, he and a few contemporaries were known and much sought-after during the 1920s-1940s for his academic portraits. Many were literally academic having over 40 commissioned portraits of Harvard presidents, professors and deans alone, as well as of many other academic officials, civic leaders, US presidents, captains of industry and others. A friend and contemporary of Sargent, Tarbell, Benson, and Cecilia Beaux, among others, he was paid well for his portraits (he was getting good commissions even during the Depression, which didn’t hurt a bit), of which he may have painted more than 1,000 in his long and productive life. But he loved nothing better than to sit down between commissions to turn to watercolors, of which he turned out more than 1,000 as well, nearly all of them far from academic in any sense.
Many of his land and seascapes were wild explosions of color and near-abstract form that he delighted in creating, and he was constantly experimenting with new approaches to his subjects, even the scenes (maybe especially the scenes) that he painted hundreds of times of the view from his lawn overlooking the sea. I was fortunate enough to know him fairly well (he died when I was nearing 30), and used to sit with him while he worked and chatted about what he was attempting. I have never forgotten the time, when he was probably 90 or 91, sitting on the lawn in a heavy wool overcoat and scarf (it was mid-summer, and the temperature was probably in the 80s, but by now he was always cold), working on what could have been the hundredth attempt at the same view of the sea and shore to the west, with a setting sun. The painting was almost abstract, with a sky dominated by blurry clouds that ranged in color from golden yellow to lavender, the land on the horizon a thin line of blue, the tree-covered point of rocky land in the foreground a dark streak of green and salmon, the evening sea a pearly pink. He put down his brush and turned to me with a smile. “I think I’m beginning to get it,” he said.
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by Gail Caduff-Nash, Mountain home, NC, USA
It’s a bit of all-or-nothing in your article — and I’m glad that some of my joy comes from simply squeezing paint onto the palette. I just love the stuff. And then the mixing. The applying of paint has varying degrees of emotional content. From wow to oh-no!! The joy of the “happy accident” and the joy of skillfully doing it well are great perks to the basic joy of squishing paint onto something. But it is an even greater joy of satisfying my curiosity that makes me want to do the work. I’m forever curious about how that paint is going to mix with this paint, how that will look on that background, etc. And I’m curious about how Nature works re: light on all the objects of the world. I enjoy studying it; analyzing it. Getting a good painting out of all that is just a nice ending. The joy of painting is in the doing. Even commissions (and maybe especially?) can have moments of joy contained in them. If you look at the Mona Lisa, for example, it is said that Leonardo didn’t like painting backgrounds so his are dull and vague. And he used his skill to do clothing and furniture. But he had a good deal of joy in accomplishing that face, that smile, which has become the focal point. He didn’t love her hair all that much. Her eyes are nice. Her skin tones are lustrous. But the smile is where he found his joy. And it is where we find ours, too. I wouldn’t do a commission if I didn’t think I’d find joy in there somewhere. It is why you get hired in the first place.
by Cecilia Lea, Revelstoke, BC, Canada
Yesterday, I attended an art auction at our community Visual Art Centre where I had entered a piece. The purpose of the auction was to raise funds for the Centre. I do not enjoy these large events. I am not a person who is comfortable in a crowd or one who enjoys promoting my own work face to face, but I was interested to see how the evening progressed. Looking around, I realized that most of the attendees were the artists themselves. Our facility has a small maximum capacity of around 200, and there were perhaps 40 pieces there. My piece did sell (as did every piece there, as our community is very supportive — although the better pieces sold for prices well below those I would consider appropriate). I am pleased to say mine was among the higher prices paid. However, as I left I wondered if I should have hovered around my painting to see who ended up with the piece, and whether I should have sought that person out to introduce myself and thank them for their purchase. I felt I should have, but I also would have been intruding on the extremely busy scene being conducted as people lined up to claim their piece.
When I arrived home, having been away for a few days, I checked my email to find the Centre had tried to contact me prior to hanging the piece the previous day to ask me to lower my minimum bid price. I did notice while I was there that it was at least twice the amount of almost every other minimum bid there. I am not talking large amounts here ($25.00 – $60.00) as we are a smaller community and the people here do not pay large amounts for art on the whole. I am glad I was not home to receive that request as I felt my piece was fairly priced, and lower than I would have asked if I had shown it elsewhere, or sold it through my web site.
So, I have two questions for you:
— Is it considered worse to be actively watching the progress of the silent auction so I would be able to know who the buyer was, or worse to not have thanked my buyer? I still intend to ask for their name at a quieter time and see if I can send a note of thanks.
— Was it right for the Centre to ask me to reduce my price, or were they trying to save me from looking “greedy” in relation to the other artists, the majority of whom do this solely as a hobby?
(RG note) Thanks, Cecilia. Thanking buyers can be the wrong approach. Consider making yourself known to them and wait to see if they thank you. But don’t hang around — it’s embarrassing and unnerving. With regard to letting some organization fool with your reserve, tell them to forget it. It’s most important for artists to know their own worth and their boundaries. If it ever happened to me I’d back up my truck and take the painting away.
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Rewards of spirit and health
by Lou Everett, Greenville, NC, USA
The”intrinsic rewards” of creativity have meant so much to me and paid off in helping me to achieve a balance of health in mind, body, and spirit. I began painting in 1994 after having health issues such as bronchitis and pneumonia from”burning the candle at both ends.” Having been a farmer’s daughter with a strong work ethic, and then later becoming wife, mother, administrator, educator, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, and even caregiver, I had difficulty setting limits and found art in 1994 to provide me with the”intrinsic rewards” of taking time to enjoy all the beautiful scenes around me. Each time I became sick, I painted more, until finally, in 2005, I chose a different”street.” I retired from administration, accepted my retirement with the state at 27 years of service and chose to contribute to my nursing professor by working half time at the College of Nursing. By devoting more time to my art, I became much more spiritually rewarded and have had far more time and energy for my family.
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The Joy of Writing: The Olson Ten-Step Method
by Anna Olson, MB, Canada
Below is the method that I have used for more than two decades to pump me up and get me going on writing projects. This is a creativity-liberating process. Once you learn the theory, you can apply it to other areas besides writing. It’s important to start at Step 1 for every project.
Steps 1 and 2 will help a little bubble of happiness to form and percolate through your project from beginning to end. If you do those two steps at the beginning of each work day, you will gain even more benefit. Five to ten minutes on each should suffice.
Step 1. Stream of consciousness writing about your life.
Step 2. Stream of consciousness writing about the topic.
Step 3. Cluster on the topic.
Step 4. Research if necessary.
Step 5. Write first draft.
Step 6. More research if necessary.
Step 7. Second draft.
Step 8. Show to someone for feedback.
Step 9. Third draft: edit and polish.
Step 10. Publish (or send to publisher) and reward yourself.
Stream of consciousness writing (also called speed writing) is important because it entices your inner child into the project. Your child is the source of your artistry and creativity so it’s really important to have her or him along for the ride. Your child is happiest with the simplest structure. With speed writing, as long as you keep writing about your feelings and then the topic, you can’t fail as long as you keep your pen moving. What could be easier? You’re a success right at the beginning of the project and you will carry that feeling through to the end.
Avoid the temptation to start further along in the process. You may be able to do the project, but you will miss out on the joy. First you need to play: do speed writing about your life, how you feel today, what are the problems, what is going well.
Then do speed writing about the topic. Don’t look at your notes, just be opinionated. You may have not even started your research. That’s even better. Pretend you know everything. Be irreverent or sarcastic if you feel like it. Crack jokes. Have fun with the topic before getting serious.
Clustering is important for bringing ideas to the surface. For the uninitiated, here’s how it works: put a “seed word” in a circle in the middle of the page like “tree” for example. Put a line radiating outwards and a relevant word in another circle, like “trunk.” Keep adding lines, circles and words, building on associations. When you feel a sense of completion, that you have enough words down, write a paragraph about the subject. For a full understanding about clustering, read Writing the Natural Way by Gabriele Rico. It’s a good idea to give yourself a reward after completing your assignment so that you get a treat even if others reject your effort. You stayed with it, you completed something, you deserve a reward. Think about what it will be early on so you have a carrot dangling before you all the way.
If you are a visual artist, try playing for five minutes by drawing faces of how you feel, and cartoon images of what you intend to paint. Be irreverent and child-like. Have fun before you get serious.
An Argentine Family, Tombo, Patagonia 2012
acrylic painting 12 x 16 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Amy Mull Fremgen who wrote, “Your letter today on ‘contrarian critters’ reminds me of that saying, ‘managing computer programmers is like herding cats.’ Most programmers love what they do and will work long hours solving problems but don’t like to be told how to do it.”
And also Markus who wrote,”I agree with joy (versus material reward) creating finer art work, but a question lingers. The most beautiful, evolved, skilled and creative works were done on commissions. Leonardo, Michelangelo, Pollock, Rembrandt, etc., …not sure how to make sense of the study.”
And also Margret Henkels of Santa Fe, NM, USA, who wrote,”Contrarian or what… for most of us artists, it means ‘keep the day job.’ Of course, wandering around Argentina sounds a lot better than showing up at the office.”
Enjoy the past comments below for Contrarian critters…