Benjamin Franklin said, “Keep your shop and your shop will keep you.” So it is with us artists — when we step into our studios we are open for the business of our imaginations. Here’s three ideas about staying open:
Wishboard: This is a spatial pin-up of projects both obligatory and voluntary. Post-its or file cards do the trick. Make sure they are all in your own writing. Remove them when the jobs are done. When you commit with a note to yourself, even sketchily, your dreaming mind will fine tune and add to the project, and when you go to work you will be more likely to complete with a flourish. If you don’t like the idea of your wish-list being out and about — put your plans into a journal.
Graphs: For visual people an excellent system is the graph. Out the corner of the eye in an inauspicious corner of the studio, unnoticed and unintelligible to visitors, it manages. Whether you make a graph of ideas generated, works produced, works delivered or income flow, your graph is a gentle reminder of what makes you tick. Here’s Genn’s law number 3872: “If you keep a graph it will go up; if you do not keep a graph it will go down.”
Procrastaid: While procrastination has varied causes, it is also just a bad habit. Habits can be beaten. Simply teach yourself to start. Squeeze out. Hit the chisel, push the brush. It can’t be said any better than Goethe: “Boldness has genius, power and magic. Engage, and the mind grows heated. Begin, and the work will be completed.”
PS: “It’s only a thought, and a thought can be changed.” (Elizabeth Hay)
Esoterica: Joanna Field, who wrote the classic A Life of One’s Own, (1934), a method of discovering one’s true likes and dislikes, kept a journal. In it she entered items like: “I want to draw and study a few things closely by feeling, not thinking.” A lot of her entries started with “I want.”
The following are selected correspondence relating to the above letter. If you find value in any of this please feel free to copy to a friend or fellow artist. We have no other motivation than to give creative people an opportunity to share ideas and possibly broaden their capabilities. Thank you for writing.
by Angelique Gillespie, Calgary, AB, Canada
I am in the process of moving back home to my own studio as I am finding that a studio outside the home in a community is not productive for me. It has become too social and they have too many “things” which are for the society and its goals rather than encouraging the individual artist to grow. There is a place for these art communities within our society however I find they limit one’s personal growth. When a person is starting out they are a way of encouraging and exposing them to the market and its expectations. However for me, I find that they are robbing me of the little precious time I have to paint. Also sabotaging my own potential to grow creatively.
Your letter on discipline reminded me of why I made the decision to be true to my dreams as an artist and not always be giving away my dreams for the benefit of others.
by Jennifer Cannon, Utah
On Procrastination: Your letter today counselled us to teach ourselves to start. It is not starting that is a problem for me; it’s the finishing. My house is littered with projects that I have started and cast away half-complete. Starting is the easiest part of my battle. I have to celebrate a finished painting — a reward to myself, and encouragement to do it again. But that doesn’t seem to be enough, and I still find myself not carrying through on my projects. Do you have any advice on finishing?
(RG note) This is a big subject. Your problem is that you lack the collecting instinct. You don’t have enough motivation to see your work completed because you don’t treasure it enough. If your work is not going to galleries you must set up a special room — an archive — a place for the Collected Works of Jennifer Cannon. If your perfectionist nature is standing in the way of finishing, take heart in the idea that it’s better to leave them unfinished than to overwork them. Go ahead and sign. Getting to the signature completes the circle and gives permission to start again.
Some artists can’t finish because down deep they fear what may happen if they become successful. This condition is even more dangerous than fear of failure. Both result in self-sabotage. We have to admit, though, that many works of art gradually let us down as we proceed. There comes a time when a decision must be made—whether to press on, or abort. This is a good exercise. Take the hopeless cases out and burn them. While it may not clear the air, it clears the psyche for works that have a better chance of completion.
Someone who is poor at finishing may simply be overactive in creative ideas — hundreds in the imagination — you start and are enthusiastic but if gratification doesn’t happen you lose interest and go onto something else. It’s part laziness and impatience, part disregard for detail and simply part of the creative abundance that stops us on project one and moves us over to project two.
For some of us it’s enough to know that we can do it. We only need to take the job to the point where we know where it’s going. Boredom sets in. Completion is redundant because it’s good enough in the head. There may be no effective antidote to this condition.
A handy device
by L Page, UK
Something that has helped me to value my work more and finish properly is your technique of keeping pristine, beautiful frames in the studio and using the secondary easel. I never used to do this but now I find it is a highlight in the process of making, finishing, signing, varnishing and eventually delivering. All in all a very handy device. Doing it at the 75% done stage does wonders for the work. I have now gone so far as to move to a third easel as it were — my clean, lovely living room wall… for a few days before delivery my “tens” get to hang there. I have the opportunity to enjoy the painting, see where I’m succeeding and also decide how I am going to improve in the next one.
by Teng Jee Hum, Singapore
For quite some time now I have been perplexed by my own procrastination, bordering almost on reluctance, in signing my paintings. It is not that they are unfinished. A majority of them are. However, I do spend a lot of time looking at my own work. If I had spent two hours of a certain day painting, I could spend another four hours simply looking, occasionally putting a touch of paint here and there. Then I chanced upon a paragraph on Giacometti written by John Berger which struck me immediately: “The extreme proposition on which Giacometti based all his mature work was that no reality… could ever be shared. This is why he believed it impossible for a work to be finished. This is why the content of any work is not the nature of the figure or head portrayed but the incomplete history of him staring at it.”
by J Sommers
A change in habit, a new work, a different technique, an improved performance, and from a line in T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, we ask, “And how should I begin?”
by S Dole
I have kept a graph of my weekly production now for almost twenty-three years. My volume has only diminished slightly during the last few. A parallel graph shows income on a weekly basis for the same period. Due to incremental increases in the price of my paintings over the years there is a dramatic disparity—the income graph far outstrips the production graph. I agree with you that the graph goes up when you keep it. Also, it’s a comfort to know that one is in charge of one’s destiny.
A new spin
by Daryl, San Francisco, CA, USA
A few years ago I resigned my job as a restaurant waiter in order to devote full time to art. I took a spinner with me. A spinner is one of those round things with clips on it that hangs between the kitchen and the dining area. I now wear two hats. I am a waiter of ideas and a cook of creativity. I send myself orders on the spinner which now hangs in the studio. The spinner also reminds me how I used to run my little buns off as a waiter and I try to put out just as much effort now.
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