Yesterday, an artist emailed with a basic but vital question: “I was curious if you have any tips on how to motivate yourself to paint. I love painting; however, I haven’t had much motivation to do so. It’s been a few months. Any suggestions?”
It may be a help to understand that work is not work when work is loved. This thought brings affirmations from legions of artists who have no trouble being motivated. Many get themselves started with the expectation of joy. But there’s hardly one of us who hasn’t at some time been stuck. In my studio, when there’s no joy, there’s no work. In studying motivation, I’ve found that there have to be at least three prerequisites — challenge, process, and the feeling of progress. Without challenge the muse dies. If an artist underestimates capability or goes too long with outworn motifs, interest fades and motivation fails. Complexity, nuance, even novelty, need to be consciously added to the mix.
Process is the actual bit-by-bit activity that causes the work to unfold. Some of these bits need to be personal and unique. They can be anti-academic. Style-force develops out of what you’re doing wrong, and the result is ego-force. The artist, having fallen in love with her own process, shouts convincingly, “It’s my stuff and I’m doing it!” The feelings of progress and growth are above feelings of mere change. Progress brings refinement, evolution, revelation, and exaltation. You see it in the work, and the work begets work. Even failures become treasured stepping stones to further progress.
I’ve always been fascinated by the conundrum of motivation. Why is it that one time we’re full of moxie — and another time we’re dead ducks? “Comes with the territory,” you might say. I’ve observed that some artists are masochistic and deliberately shoot themselves in the hand. For others, the idea is to simply become a “master.” Masters master themselves. They know their own habits — good and bad. They keep on keeping on. There’s a tipping point. When masters willfully step into the studio, prime the pump, understand and embrace the three prerequisites, they may not easily get things stopped.
PS: “Desire is the key to motivation.” (Mario Andretti)
Esoterica: Desire is more than a wish — it’s a craving. When the artist has the feeling that the work at hand is worthwhile in and for its own sake — and temporarily safe from negative input or jaded critique — then the artist simply craves the work for its own sake. This state of desire often requires the self-delusion and iconoclasm that isolation provides. It’s in private times that the tender shoots of desire appear and flourish. And while desire may prime starting, starting also primes desire.
This letter was originally published as “Motivation” on September 15, 2006.
Sara Genn: New Alphabet is on view until October 17th, 2019 at Dimmitt Contemporary Art, 3637 West Alabama Street, Houston.
“You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open…” (Martha Graham)