New Year, Same Deal

It’s the new year (a little late I know) and that marks the time for reviewing last year, making promises about the new year and generally trying to take stock of life. A number of blogs out there are running posts about the top twenty ways to get ahead or ten tips for creativity and I decided to throw my hat in the ring as well.

Here are my five rules to live by as an artist in 2012:

1. Make mistakes

If there is one thing that will stop your progress as an artist it is the crippling uncertainty of ‘what if it’s not right’. The only way to make sure that your work isn’t too light/dark/clichéd/different/dull is to never make anything at all and I guarantee that won’t help you. A million brilliant pieces in your head is no good to anyone but the troll of regret that sits on your shoulder telling you about all your missed opportunities.

So make mistakes. Pick up your charcoal/brushes/stylus and get to work – if after 8 hours you decide the work is no good then throw it away and start again with lessons learned. Mistakes teach you to be a better artist, not having the chance to make mistakes teaches you nothing at all.

2. Draw like an athlete

Your ability to create, to render your ideas into a physical form, is a skill that will take your whole lifetime to develop. If it was easy, everyone would do it and they don’t (when someone says ‘I wish I could draw like you’ they aren’t being nice, they are being honest). I believe that anyone can draw, in the same way that anyone can complete a marathon if they put their mind to it. However, the majority of people are not willing to put the time in. It takes dedication to get up every morning and run several miles before work, to eat healthily every single day and give up nights at the pub in favour of more running. You can’t take a few months off because your muscles start to return to their regular, every day use and all that hard work is wasted.

Drawing is no less demanding. You need to train your hands and your eyes and you need to keep them in peak condition or your drawing will start to atrophy. So develop a drawing exercise regime – carry a sketchbook with you and make shaky, odd drawings on the bus or train, draw your friends, family or pets. Draw landscapes out of the window or your own feet and hands. If you find yourself with spare time but no subjects, carry a small book of photographs with you. Doodle when you are on the phone. Seek out a life drawing class if you have time… do whatever you have to, but remember to keep drawing.

Oh, and remember rule 1.

3. Seek out your peers

For those of you lucky enough to have had formal art training, you may remember the feeling of being surrounded by other artists. For me, training at a relatively small art college was a god-send and mixing with other artists on a daily basis, not only in illustration (ranging from the comedy cartooning of Tom Plant to the dark-edged, feminine line work of Vicky Newman) but also in a wide range of other disciplines from sculpture to film making.

It is easy to believe the image of the lone artist, locked up in his garret creating masterpieces, but the simple fact is that you are not alone in your problems. It is sometimes hard to explain creative block or tonal inconsistencies or trying to strike the balance between tone and line with non-practitioners, no matter how much they know and love you. Other artists may not only understand, but have advice and support as well as the inevitable inspiration of discussing different working practices.

Look for local studios, exhibitions, craft fairs and of course internet forums and talk about your work, discuss your problems and learn from the mistakes and triumphs of others.

4. Get some perspective
An inevitable consequence of seeking out other artists is the comparison of skills and work. In fact, the fear of this can often be a reason to avoid seeking out the help that is available and can lead to the inevitable ‘her work is amazing, mine looks awful’ thoughts that are no help to anyone.

There is only one piece of advice that can be given to this: Get over yourself.

To assume that your work is the best in the world is the height of narcissism and more importantly, it is the result of poor comparison. If you didn’t believe you were the best artist in the world then why feel bad that another artist has created work that is different or in your eyes ‘better’ than yours? There are not two artists in the entire world who have the same ideas, background, interests and techniques. We are each individual and walking our own paths. The great masters have had ample time for their lesser, early works to be lost to history and living artists do not exhibit every piece of work in their studio. Art is a skill that unlike others, doesn’t peak in your mid twenties – you will still be looking to improve on your death-bed.

So instead of saying ‘her work is amazing, mine sucks’, switch on your critique and ask ‘why is her work amazing?’ – is it the lighting or the brushwork? Is her composition superior or is it the use of subject matter? Do you prefer her work because of the detail level in comparison to yours or does she have a stylisation that overcomes flaws you see in your current work? Answer those questions and apply them to your own practice – take onboard the lessons that will achieve your own aims and discard those that don’t.

5. Remember to exist

Life, training and deadlines all tend make us live as though we are just keeping our heads above water. We have huge to-do lists and social commitments and things that we actually want to do but don’t have the time for. In all of this it is easy to forget to take stock of things, to think about whom we are and how we work.

You have to make the time to think about what helps you create. If watching movies is a source of inspiration then make time for it. If you need a quiet, relaxed place to meditate on the nature of your next work then make sure you do. If you need to unwind with friends or listen to music then it is important to do so. Being an artist is not just a job that starts at 9 and finishes at 5, it is something you are. Everything you do is a part of your working practice – eating well, getting exercise, relaxing with loved ones or making sure you have a tidy, clean studio all influence your work and help your mind get into the right place to be creative.

So don’t shackle yourself to your easel and berate yourself when you aren’t there, recognise the things in the rest of your life that help you create and embrace them with open arms.

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