Yesterday, Mike Salcido of Dallas, Texas sent in 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?”
Thanks, Mike. In the last letter we noted that work is not work when work is loved. This thought brought 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 in Mike’s spot. 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.
Either you have it or you don’t
by Gordon France, Chicago, IL, USA
Motivation is a misused term. It’s an individual characteristic, an instinct… you either have it or you don’t. We don’t need motivation to eat and drink when we are hungry or thirsty. Nor do we look for inspiration to seek shelter when it’s freezing outside. I can’t “motivate” you to eat. All I can do is set the table. But a painter (or anyone else) can develop motivation instinct by training.
When John Singer Sargent went painting with his friends, he would plunk his easel down and paint whatever was in front of him while his friends scoured the countryside looking for the perfect scene. He trained his eye to see the extraordinary in the ordinary.
Greater artist motivation
by Yaroslaw Rozputnyak, Moscow, Russia
True professional motivation is where the artist must improve the world and be an environment improver all around, also an eye-opener and a brain-cleaner. Of no importance to this artist is the activity as a free hobby or a financial interest. The only motivation is the superior artist’s mission. It is existing division of motivations of movement according to strategic and tactical plans — say to improve all village outlooks of the world.
Ritualized motivation ploys
by Mark Hope, Wasaga Beach, ON, Canada
I get motivated often by going through a ritual. Cleaning the brushes, cleaning the palette, looking at various images to paint, setting up my work station, laying the paint out. These rituals really help motivate and excite me to paint. I’ve also found that the ritual can get away from me and before I know it I’m doing the dishes, sweeping the floor, cleaning the toilet… all avoidance mechanisms that I call the Emily Carr syndrome. Emily Carr would find ways to distract herself to avoid getting to the canvas but when everything was done there were no excuses left. I think to some degree being unmotivated might also be related to fear… not having faith in oneself to accomplish the mission. I’ve had that situation and say to myself “that’s why you should do this.” The argument eventually works and I feel so self-satisfied that I look for the next challenge with relish.
Motivation from others’ work
by Carol Barber, Gainesville, FL, USA
What has motivated me of late is looking at the progression of artists’ work that I admire. The Internet is a great tool for this. I have been concerned about compositions so I looked up the master, Kandinsky. I am captivated by his transitional paintings when he was moving from realism to total abstraction. You can see the thought processes in the paintings. It reminds me to look to nature for my answers and be inspired. I also find it motivating to discover contemporary artists that are doing great work and being successful. I saw Robert Burridge’s work and web site for the first time yesterday and I am more jazzed than I have been in months to start new work. Who knew a web site could be so encouraging and maybe change a life? You, of course.
Running with wolves
by Valerie Doran Bashaw, Grandview, MO, USA
Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, a Jungian psychoanalyst, is very insightful. Her work is a combination of analytical thought and she is an amazing storyteller too. It talks about cycles of creativity — how a sensitive person can produce and then they need to retreat to sort of mine the depths, even be so interior that they are depressed. When sensitive people look deep within, then they bring up to the surface all kinds of inspiration.
by Courtenay James, Chattanooga, TN, USA
Regarding motivation, I was reminded of a recent article by John Lahr in the August 28th issue of The New Yorker Magazine entitled “Petrified.” In it Mr. Lahr discusses stage fright, evidently a common complaint, that disables even the most seasoned actor. I was struck by how similar it sounds to my own feelings sometimes when I am faced with the blank white page. Committing paint to virgin canvas does at times bring up a host of insecurities not unlike the performance anxiety called stage fright. I suspect that all creative people have to deal with these “monsters in the closet” and with the resulting twin difficulties – motivation and procrastination. I’m not sure whether I’m encouraged or discouraged by the New Yorker’s reporting that after a life-long career in the theater, Sir Lawrence Olivier still struggled with the burden of performance anxiety. Actor Charles Rosen is quoted as writing, “Stage fright, like epilepsy, is a divine ailment, a sacred madness… It is a grace that is sufficient in the old Jesuit sense — that is, insufficient by itself but a necessary condition for success.” Perhaps this is so, but I am firm in my conviction that lopping off body parts, ala VanGogh is not an absolute “condition for success.”
Getting ready to begin
by Jon Conkey, Mora, NM, USA
Motivation for me is surely lacking some days. I often “carry on” despite my lack of enthusiasm; uniquely, once I begin applying paint, the motivation comes back! I have learned that for me, it is more of a problem starting: laying out paint, cleaning brushes, drawing the subject, organizing my area, wondering what palette of color to use, is the light right, etc., all play into this reluctance. I believe that the lack of motivation may be caused by all the little details that get in the way of actually doing the thing at hand. Being prepared is a fine way to motivate oneself; so the inspiration does not flee while we get ready to begin.
by Chris Riley, Edmonton, AB, Canada
Summer is especially tough for staying in the studio. That doesn’t need apology though. There’s life to do too. Although… we still need to work. Since my basic philosophy is art should be accessible to everyone, I decided that after a fairly successful “art walk” debut that the sidewalk or outdoor market is a great place for people to get to see some without the pressure of the feelings we get when we are in a room and afraid to ask a stupid question and can’t wait to make exit. I do a Saturday market only. I love it. I don’t sell something every time but I love the interaction with the public. I get calls later from my cards and most importantly it kept me painting all summer when many other duties beckoned. They will always be there. But that thing you have in your head to get out right now will pass and be replaced if you don’t give it its due when it calls.
Trick yourself into it
by Dennis McMahon, Markham, ON, Canada
My own little secret to get motivated is quite simple. I tell myself I’m only going to paint for a half hour. Before the half hour is up, if I’m keeping time, all I’m thinking about is the painting in front of me. I paint for a few minutes or an hour, leave it, then a while later come back to it. I may do this several times in a day. I find it helps to take breaks and just think it out. A lot of times I end up following the painting, like following a movie. It can get very exciting. I think a lot of us have a problem getting motivated from time to time. We have to find our own way to cope with it. Remember, painting is fun. Like magic it brings you into another world. The trick is to trick yourself into entering that world.
Avoiding avoidance mode
by Barbara Merrill, Boise, ID, USA
I know that when I find myself doing “busy work” in order to avoid going into the studio (meanwhile beating myself up mentally the whole time because I’m aware I’m doing that!), all I need to do to get myself back into production mode is to lay aside the present project and start something different and new. I will often visit my art supply stores and buy something new to try out, read an art book or magazine with an eye to what’s new in that field, on the lookout to catch that one phrase or idea that will pique curiosity. When I get excited to try out a new idea, plan or technique, I get back into the studio. Once there, the work flows steadily again for a while. When the old project is brought out again, what needed to be done next will sometimes be obvious. Then, reflecting on that period when you were “stuck” and out of production, you can tell why you were in avoidance mode.
Leave time for quiet periods
by Nikki Coulombe, Lewisville, TX, USA
Sometimes it’s just a matter of putting pencil to paper, or a change in mediums, or change of tasks. But if that is not even possible, maybe a good rest is in order. There’s one tip that Mike Salcido knew already: consult friends or colleagues for support, because everyone feels this way sometime. As Artists we see our worth dependent on our production, and while true in the mundane earn-a-living sense, nothing in nature (and we are part of Nature’s system) can continually flog out results. The production of quality requires certain factors, and one of them is rest and reflection; we need quiet periods. Strawberries only appear for three or four weeks out of 52. Even the best nurseries know that the same plant cannot yield yummy strawberries every day of the year. We are product-oriented thinkers, and sometimes that gets in our way of allowing ourselves to have space and time to be silent.
Changes and incubation time
by Martha Deming, Remsen, NY, USA
I find it helpful to switch mediums (I do both pastels and watercolors) now and then. They are so different and each has much to teach that can then be applied to the other. They keep me curious and excited about what I’m doing. Also something as simple as just picking up a pastel stick and making a mark on a piece of Wallis or brushing across a wet piece of Arches with a loaded watercolor brush is enough to get me started and keep me going as well. A third motivator is to take on a whole new subject matter that I’ve never tried before. Right now I’m working on a series of 12 pastels of Holstein cows and having so much fun. I’ve never painted a cow before, but I see my neighbor’s cows often and their spot patterns have inspired me. Sometimes, too, you just need to step away and take a rest from painting. Wanting to paint will come back in its own good time and you’ll be fine, or even better than you were before. It’s sort of like an incubation time for ideas. Spend it going to art museums, shows, reading art books and magazines and talking with art friends.
Enthusiasm and innovation
by Richard F Barber, Anshan City, China
I have always taught my students the following: Enthusiasm = interest = learning = knowledge = success. If you are enthusiastic about what you are doing in your life, it opens the doors that seem to be closed, because your mind is open to everything around you to obtain the knowledge you are seeking, so you tend to look deeper into the environment that surrounds you and see things in a different light. I call it, “Stopping to smell the flowers.” We are all guilty of taking things for granted and accepting things for what they are, but as artists we must look at things in a different light, we must be more inquiring, more innovative. These are the main tools in an artist’s toolbox.
The Wonder of the Here and Now
by Connie Tom, Willard, MO, USA
Like many others, I have let events of the past or anticipations of the future nearly consume my thought life for today. I would realize that I wasn’t nearly as productive as I could have been. Then I’d feel cheated… like I have lost out. I try not to do that anymore. I try to make the most of every moment, because I know I’ll never get it back. Two tidbits of wisdom to ponder have helped me to change that:
“We are either like a thermometer or like a thermostat. The first is controlled by the environment, the second controls the environment.” (Author unknown)
“Yesterday is the past, tomorrow is the future, today is a gift – that’s why it’s called ‘the present.’ ” (George Bernard Shaw)
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2006.
That includes James Culleton of Montreal, QC, Canada who wrote, “My motivator of all motivators has to be materials. If I have a stack of blank canvases around, the likelihood of me painting increases. You can’t paint without paint, now can you? So to all you artists out there, be well stocked and inspiration will surely come knocking.”
And also Thomas Young of Cuyahoga Falls, OH, USA who wrote, “One key word is missing from this letter: vision. Without it I can not produce anything of merit. It motivates, sustains and dispels doubt.”
And also Aliye Cullu of Gainesville, FL, USA who wrote, “My husband Michael Campbell and I have made a revision of the keys to the independent creative life: Wake up as an artist; be an artist each day. Do what is before you to do. Be still, open, and willing.”
And also Susan Watson of NE, USA who wrote, “It would help if every well-meaning person you know did not feel the need to ask, ‘Are you doing a lot of work?’ ‘No.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘Buzz off and leave me alone.’ I don’t have to do it just because I can.”
And also Mark D. Gottsegen of Greensboro, NC, USA who wrote, “Being an artist is a job, or a need: I have to do it.”