To start off my post, I’m going to apologize to Susan. Susan (le @kungfupussy) is a peach, and asked me to do a post for her, I swear, a year ago. Well, I’m going to make good on it. Now. Believe it or not, it has taken me this long to figure out what to say. Well, that, and the fact that artist’s best friends are procrastination and justification. So: Susan, my dear… I am sorry. I am honored that you asked me to be a part of this, and I wouldn’t have waited this long for me.
Art is a funny thing. It’s both damning and saving, rewarding and robbing, complicated and simple. In today’s day and age, it is difficult, and not often practical to spend all day just painting, or writing– it’s painting in your off time, writing at 7:30am before class, or playing around on a keyboard at 3am when you wake up to pee and can’t fall back asleep. My hope is to shed a little light onto how to reconcile the life of the artist with the life of a regular person. I can’t help you with your “real” life– but I can try to help you with your artistic one.
THE SEVEN THINGS EVERY ARTIST (AND/OR CREATIVE TYPE) SHOULD DO
Simplicity may be one of the hardest things for an artist or creative person to achieve. I don’t mean simplicity in composition or style, that pops up everywhere (See Ernest Hemingway or Franz Klein). I mean simplicity in your creative space. For instance, if you like to reference symbolism in your paintings a lot, put your symbolism dictionary close by, but keep your encyclopedia of Russian Prison Tattoos (yes, all three volumes), on a shelf, where it won’t clutter up your desk (that was not a joke, I do this and have these books, shut up). If, as a writer, you really enjoy listening to Nat King Cole on vinyl, keep your five favorite 33’s next to the needle, and the rest, in a crate in the basement. My point is simply that the more space you have open to work in, the happier you will be. I’m not saying don’t have creative flow, for instance, I have tons of tchotchkes around my studio– but they DO NOT interfere with my workspace.
The second part of this is the economy, and by that I mean your personal economy. I try to, once a month, clean up my studio space. But once a year, I take everything off the shelves, and everything off the desk, and after I clean it, I make sure to put less back on/in than I took off/out*. As an artist, you will collect. Every artists I know does this. It might only be an owl figurine one week, and a pine cone at Christmas, but this adds up. Speaking of, does anyone want six bird’s nests? I was gonna dip them in clay or resin and make bowls, but I am just so busy (again, not a joke, shut up).
The point? Decide what is important, and leave the rest alone.
*There is one exception to this rule: books. You can never have enough books.
EXPERIMENT: JUMP in The Pool, But Swim In Safe Waters
In my reasoning, experimentation is the lifeblood of the creative process. Experimentation is what will make you find who you are as a creative person, and will be the key to keeping your work fresh. I challenge you to jump into every experiment with abandon, going across mediums, across genres, across styles. Jump into the pool, and do so fearlessly. If you are an acrylic painter, try painting in ink. If you normally write comedy, try out literary horror. Challenge yourself to try new things– new foods (a real pomegranate, a kumquat!), new authors (Susanna Clarke), new styles of music (Hard bop).
You also need to know your limits. Artists, I tend to find, have a very hard time knowing when they are not the best suited for a particular job, or when to separate their bodies of work from a hobby. I for instance, love clay. But, I am not the best at clay. I am sure if I sat down and took more classes, I would get to a point where my work was acceptable, or even good–but my clay work will never be on the same level as my paintings— and I have to be okay with that. Clay can be enjoyable to me as a hobby for now, and forever– but it will not enter my professional creative lexicon at my current level of aptitude.
In a nutshell, I find that experimenting is about exploring yourself, and accepting yourself. Accept your limitations, embrace them, but do not let them hold you back.
TAKE CARE: Your Physical Self Is Your Most Important Tool
Physical bodies often get neglected by artists. We are so busy, who has the time, the energy, or the urge to work out? And wouldn’t you rather just eat a burger while you work than spend that precious hour you have to spare making pasta and then cleaning it all up? Whine, whine whine. Stop being a lazy ass, and do it. On a personal level, this “thing” is hardest for me. I like eating crappy food, I love relaxing, and I hate cleaning up after a meal. I promise that you will not regret following this step.
I also recommend knowing the physical toll of whatever art form you work in. As an oil painter, I know that keeping hydrated is a challenge, especially when working around mineral spirits and other heavy chemicals. Same goes for anyone who works in a dark room, or with photo-chemicals– stay hydrated, and fail to do this at your peril. Being hydrated helps keep your mental knife sharp. This step is a lot of common sense stuff. If you write, and you wear glasses, wear the right prescription. If you get exposed to a lot of harsh chemicals, consider gloves, or at least be prepared to wash your hands a lot. If you use your hands for your art, invest in a great hand cream, I suggest something with hemp in it, or Burt’s Bees Almond Milk Beeswax Hand Creme. This will stop you from getting split skin or cuticle problems, and will make you very popular with your lady friends (or guy friends, I don’t judge).
TL;DR: Take care of yourself, fool!
DEVOUR ART: Clean Your Plate and Ask For Seconds
I cannot stress this point enough. This is, truly, what I feel the key to successful artistry is. I want you to consume and expose yourself to as much art as possible– and if you’re a painter, I don’t just mean paintings. If you are a writer, I don’t just mean literary work. If you are a musician, I don’t just mean new bands. Expose yourself on a daily basis to new artistic vibes, and I guarantee this will help you with getting through creative blocks, and into more interesting compositions. And this also means venturing outside of your environment! Go to your local galleries, go to your local museums, attend free lectures at local colleges– creative work is all around you– use it as a springboard! To get you started, I have a list of musicians, artists, writers, and more for you to devour:
Music: Feist, Rasputina, The Black Keys, Angus & Julia Stone, Tune-Yards, Amanda Palmer, The New Pornographers, Yacht, Frederic Chopin, Only Son, Pokey LaFarge and The South City Three, Regina Spektor, Deep Cotton, Arcade Fire,
Writers: China Mieville, Susanna Clarke, William Carlos Williams, e. e. cummings, Gaston Bachelard (consider The Poetics of Space required reading), Truman Capote, Sylvia Plath, Stieg Larson, Neitzche, Justin Evans,
Artists: Alex Gross, Al Columbia, Egon Schiele, Robert Hardgrave, Judith Ann Braun, Caravaggio, Jeff Soto, xx, Femke Heimstra, Rothko, Mark Ryden, Marion Peck, Jim Woodring, Kate MccGwire, Mark Weber, James M. Smith, Brian Despain, Keith Haring, Andrew Wyeth, Andy Goldsworthy, Gustav Klimt, Michael Page, Andy Kehoe, Cy Twombly
Television and Film: Weeds, Upstairs Downstairs (modern version), Santa Sangre, Doctor Who (current reboot), Archer, Nosferatu (Possibly the best silent film ever), Carnivale, Dead Like Me, Summer Storm, Pan’s Labyrinth, Videodrome, Melancholia, Judas Kiss, Sherlock, Girls, Futurama
Obviously, these choices are slanted towards the art, music, and media that I like. If you don’t like ANY of it, then that is fine. The point is that you can’t find new and amazing ideas without looking.
REUSE IDEAS, REUSE CANVAS: Pay Attention to Shelf Life!
Often times artists get mired down in commitment to an idea, to a piece. When I started painting professionally, I was dead set, for example, on only creating narrative works of art. At first this was not a problem, it created a challenge, a goal for me to strive for. However, it began to make it difficult to grow as an artist, especially because I was not paying attention to the shelf life of a piece. Pieces would sit half finished for months, and I would keep making excuses as it why they were not being finished.
Finally I realized that sometimes an idea may be fantastic, but for any number of reasons, it soured on the cotton. And I also realized that it is a better use of time and canvas to sometimes paint over a less than successful work, so that a more successful idea could root, and possibly see completion. That doesn’t mean that an idea must die. Some of my favorite concepts have been painted over because either timing was right, the color wasn’t right, or any other number of reasons. And that is okay. Many times this allowed for me to reconsider the concept, and improve it, incorporate it in other works, and even occasionally realize it was too flawed to use, and scrap it. This is also the kind of thinking that allowed me to start thinking more about other kinds of paintings that I could do, and helped move me away from strict narrative painting. This concept easily is applied to other forms of art. Don’t let your love for an idea cloud your judgement in regards to its worth.
Ideas are not concrete, so don’t treat them like they are. And even more importantly, if an idea is not working, then take it back to the drawing board. Painting over an old piece and starting a new piece is a better use of a neglected canvas than letting it sit and sour.
MONEY MOVES: So Take It!
Some of the best advice I was ever given came from a professor who I did not see eye to eye with. I am happy that our mutual dislike for each other did not get in the way of this advice. Someone had approached him with interest in buying a piece of my work, and when he informed me of the offer, I was torn over whether or not to sell. He told me that when he was in college, he saved pieces of his work that he loved, turning down offers to sell. But when he went back to the work after he graduated, he found that he was really no longer in love with the work, and threw it out. His advice to me was that it was better to sell a piece now, and use the money to further my art, then to hoard it and eventually hate it, either because you are sick of looking at it, have no place for it, or have progressed beyond that skill level and find the work flawed. And since he said that to me, I have followed that advice without any shred of regret.
Now, that lesson comes with two caveats. Although I urge you to sell your work when you can, you CANNOT give it away. For example, don’t sell a painting for $25 when it is worth $400. Don’t write an article for free if you spent 6 months in research. You also can’t overvalue your work. I was in a group show a few years ago and was told by multiple artists that I undervalued my work. But I stood by my decision, not charging thousands simply because the painting was large, and low and behold, not only was I one of the few that sold, but I was paid more than enough to continue making art, and go out for a really nice steak dinner or two.
STEP BACK: Nothing Is So Important That It Needs To Be Made in Six Foot Neon
Creative types often trend towards the dramatic. And sometimes, that can get in the way. My final piece of advice for you needs little explanation: step back.
Art consumes my life, and I love that. However, I also sometimes find that I can get knocked off balance if I don’t take time to contemplate my place in the universe.
Stop, take in the world around you. Just be. It does more good than you realize.
Images by various artists, including Cy Twombly, James Jean, Egon Schiele, Robert Hardgrave, Esao Andrews, and others.
Kyle Joseph Johnson is a Production Designer, artist, and creative-type from St. Louis, Missouri/ Los Angeles, California. He is currently working on a new body of work, tentatively titled In Other Rooms, In Different Worlds, as well as a short story collection of the same name.