It often seems to me that the business of being an artist is simply having a steady procession of good days. That includes being able to do something about the bad days when they come along. The best situation is a degree of peace and composure that sets the stage for the miracle of “flow.” A minimum of interruptions is necessary — and those interruptions endured ought to be felicitous ones. Colleagues have told me that good days tend to form themselves into a kind of perpetual motion — not that you’re working all the time — but that you can come and go from your projects in your own sweet time.
The other day I was talking to an art teacher and he said that his main problem was that students spend most of their time getting ready and then clearing up. Professionals soon discover that long units of work-time are precious. It’s a luxury, but you deserve it.
It’s the avoidance of bad days that’s the most challenging. Debt, death, divorce and migraines notwithstanding, here are some useful methods: If there’s an outside problem hanging over your head — deal with it and set it aside as quickly as possible. Also, monitor your degree of tiredness. Sometimes you’re having a bad day simply because you missed an hour’s sleep at night. Have no guilt about a power nap — at any time. Some artists report that this one habit alone is responsible for turning more bad days into good days. Then there’s exercise — even twenty minutes worth — gives the batteries a quick recharge. Because we are all specialists it’s also necessary to get in touch with what motivates us — and not to run around like an automaton doggedly doing what’s needed. This may include giving yourself a little talking to. Yesterday, on my first day back in the studio, Al, our gardener, came in the door just as I was saying, “Well Bob, what do you want to do today?”
PS: “When you come right down to it, all you have is yourself. Yourself is a sun with a thousand rays in your belly. The rest is nothing.” (Pablo Picasso)
“The most demanding part of living a lifetime as an artist is the discipline of working steadfastly along the nerve of one’s own intimate sensitivity.” (Anne Truitt)
Esoterica: It’s not so much to do with planning as what I call “intuition zones.” Somehow you just start running in place or moving automatically into snooze-time. I’ve found that an artist’s life has little or nothing to do with what anybody else does. But while being guilt-free, it’s an added embellishment if we also respect the roles and habits of others around us.
The following are selected responses to the above letter. Thank you for writing.
Role of adrenaline
by Simone Joliet, Quebec
Good days are precious. I’m fishing for more of them. For me the painting experience is exciting and frustrating, empowering and risky, all of which come under the heading STRESS. For someone like me who has few interruptions and becomes obsessed in work, that means trouble. Both good stress and bad stress produce adrenaline. Adrenaline is necessary for survival, and a certain amount of adrenaline can make you feel good. That’s why stress — the right amount of stress — seems to make some people feel more alive. But constant stress produces constantly high levels of adrenaline, and that may affect your health. Adrenaline may be responsible for the chronic disorders people under constant stress suffer: sleeplessness, anxiety, depression, tiredness and digestive problems. When we’re faced with one stress period after another, with no time to relax in between, it can affect our physical and mental well-being. You can’t cut out all the stress from your life, and you wouldn’t want to. A certain degree of stress keeps you be alert and involved in your life. But you can take steps to eliminate those stresses that are unnecessary and you can learn to control the adrenaline response to stress. Relaxation, exercise, and limiting caffeine, tobacco and alcohol will make your body become more adept at processing the adrenaline that’s in your bloodstream during times of stress.
“Adversity causes some men to break; others to break records.” (William A Ward)
Pioneers of good day
Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, Florida, USA
If humanity is evolving (and I hope it is), and if artists are on the leading edge of human evolution (and I believe we are) we do it by pioneering ‘good days.’ If we serve a function in this world, perhaps it is not so much to cover walls with paintings as to design, discover and live through good days. We are the first to see the light at the end of the chaotic tunnels we all live in, and we dare to move toward it.
by Grace Cowling, Grimsby, Ontario, Canada
Emulation is an integral ingredient in the human striving for excellence. However, when an artist is moved by the work of another artist to the state of deep desire to emulate, a choice may be considered. Is the desire of a covetous nature for that artist’s place and status in the art community, or is the desire of a purely aspiring nature to become the best that one can be? To share a notion by Matthew Fox: “creativity derives its energy ultimately from gratitude.” So perhaps a sense of gratitude for the gift of being an artist, held with gratitude for the artist whose work is inspiring can lead to more than emulation; rather, a closer bond with one’s higher self.
by Lynne Noreen Estevan, UK
“Working steadfastly along the nerve of one’s sensitivity” is the core of success and happiness for artists. When that sensitivity takes one away from the easel that too must be welcomed as part of the growth. It’s totally a natural process. Your remarks about following intuition at all costs (in “The Painter’s Keys” book) as being vital to the artist’s life are something I have always known but found difficult to put into practice until lately.
by Jennifer Garant, Naramata, BC, Canada
Funny how things in life seem to happen when you need them. I have been bombarded with company for weeks now and have many more groups of family and friends to come. The hazards of a home on a lake. I got up at 6 am this morning to get a good jump on my painting. I like the mornings before anyone is up. If in my own mind I know where my paint brush is going the day can be on auto-pilot. For me the focus is undisturbed once I know where I’m going. Today though we have a break from company so I made for me the fatal mistake of enjoying my coffee in my garden courtyard with my three cats curling up with me, thinking maybe I will wait one more day before I get back to work and instead I will bloom my plants and perhaps later float on my air mattress. Ah, another cup of coffee and I also thought I would check my emails. Yes it was your letter… and I am now taking my coffee into my other pampered garden — my studio.
Trouble in school
by Bertie Niceness, NYC, NY, USA
You got it right about art classes being too short. It would be okay if our stuff was already out there and ready to work on and we just walked in and started to do our thing. But as it is the trouble setting up and putting away is all there is. I get more into it at my place late at night but that means too tired and cutting classes and that has got me nothing but trouble and no art diploma in sight. And anyway you cut it there’s no time for socializing.
by Russell W. McCrackin, Corvallis, OR, USA
Yesterday started out as another in a string of “bad days.” The painting on the studio easel was no better than it had been. I didn’t want to look at it. I took it down to start a new painting. Holding it in my hands, I saw it in a new way. Back on the easel. Fresh paint on the palette. An hour later it was done. This was a good day.
Nothing stops me
by Martha, Fresno, Calif, USA
Debt, death, divorce and migraines — I’ve had all of those. Nothing stops me. As a matter of fact painting makes me forget and forgive all and everything that happened to me and is my main savior. I work even when I am terribly angry — often to good effect. The migraine problem is a bit worse and there is nothing to do but shut the art down for a while and wait it out. After, when all is clear I go again and it makes me happy, happy, happy to be real all over.
by Edna Cowchuk
I’m glad to hear that you talk to yourself. In the studio, alone, there’s nobody else except the occasional, often unwanted, visitor. Who else is there? Why not? I have been babbling at myself for several years—ever since I started doing this. Sometimes what I say to myself is so good I go over to my journal and write it down. It helps to give me the confidence that I’m brilliant. Perhaps I’m not always, but at least I think I am.
by Brian Thwaites, UK
The big break came for me when I realized, or the penny dropped, so to speak, that I was totally different than everybody else and all I had to do to get on was to get rid of standard middle class attitudes. Artists are unique people and they should act as such. They don’t need to be like anyone else, work regular hours, or comply with other people’s wishes. I never pay any attention to anyone, particularly dealers who try to manipulate. My parents gave up on me years ago and right now it’s 4am and I’m just starting to work. Thanks for your letters, dude.
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