Detail of painting “Layers“
What I’m about to write is probably very obvious to everyone, but since I’ve allowed myself to forget this time and time again, I decided to write about it anyway.
As a reminder to myself.
As a reminder to you.
Some of us do art purely because we enjoy it. Some of us have aspirations — we want to participate in art shows and make a living from our work so we can spend even more time doing it — and goals like that can sometimes get in the way of enjoyment.
Recently as I was working on a new painting of mine, I noticed a curious thing. This got me into thinking about how we can set ourselves up for more success in our art in ways that may not occur to us. (It sure hasn’t occurred to me before)
For the first couple of days I was working hard at building up the first layers of the painting — making sure all proportions are correct, then painting the skin and taking care that all the values are correct… It was difficult work and all the time I was questioning whether I was doing it right.
Then one morning, I finally started painting details of the lace and as I was getting into it, I started feeling not just content, but enthusiastic. I really enjoyed the process of painting as I was putting in all the tiny strokes with one of my finer brushes.
I stopped and noticed it, and realized that this is what I really enjoy the most in the art creation process. This is what I loved the most when I was just starting out with art — drawing and painting the details.
Sure, learning anatomy and capturing the human appearance accurately is important — but I would lie if I said I enjoy practicing anatomy.
I felt I was the happiest way back before I ever started learning it, and my figures were all skewed because “anime proportions” were all I knew.
Sure, experimenting with mixing paint and trying to get exactly those elusive skin tones is exciting and done well, it can really bring your painting to life. But that was not what I got into art for. My first drawings were done in graphite and ink.
Figurative art is hard work (and abstract art perhaps is too, I have very little experience with it).
If there is any expectation of what constitutes as good drawing or painting, you’re always concerned with meeting this expectation. Expectations create uncertainty, and uncertainty often creates anxiety in young artists because we haven’t had enough failures under our belt too see that it’s not a big deal to fail. To us, failure is scary.
I get the biggest emotional reward when I see the work finished before me, and it looks like I imagined it, or even better than I imagined it (it can happen!). But if the process itself is not enjoyable then it will feel like a chore, not very different from working at a job for a month so you get a few moments of joy on a payday.
I read in an article on 99u recently that studies found that focusing on the goal can actually prevent you from doing the work. In short, while the long term benefits can help you get started on the project, while you’re in the process it’s better to be focused on the enjoyment in the process itself and forget all about the big picture.
I was doing it all wrong.
Masters say the journey is more important than the destination. That’s a very noble truth, and it would be practical to live this way, because the journey lasts for a looong time, and when we reach the destination we’re only there for a precious moment, and when the moment is gone we’re back at square one.
I’m not a zen monk that can enjoy the moment regardless of what is going on. Often I am frustrated by the moment, by the difficulties that arise, by the uncertainty of the outcome… As I started paying more and more attention to the various aspects of art, it became increasingly difficult to lose myself in the flow — that magical point in space and time where everything else disappears, and only the creator and the creation remain.
Flow is wonderful, and it’s something more worthy of aiming for than the goal itself. But getting rid of goals altogether is difficult for me. So the best I can do to attain flow is to identify which parts of the art creation process I enjoy the most and milk them for what they’re worth.
Turns out, I get the most emotional reward during painting or drawing details. The tinier the better. My favorite brushes are ones labeled 2, 0, 0/0 and 3/0 (any mathematician would cringe at these numbers).
I love painting and drawing tiny lines, tiny dots, tiny shapes and tiny ornaments.
Now, I don’t like repetitive and predictable work so pointilism is definitely not for me, nor is filling up large surfaces with tiny patterns.
I need a little variety, and I especially like when my hand is moving in fluid motions.
For example, a lot of people told me I paint hair very well. There are several reasons why this might be. First, I find the hair very forgiving. You can paint curly, straight, short, long, and nobody will tell you it’s wrong. Miss the shape of the nose by one millimeter and the entire face looks way off. Your hand slipped and that lock of hair is suddenly a centimeter longer? Nobody cares.
Another reason is I just enjoy painting the tiny highlights and strands at the end of locks so much, and it shows in the final result. I give a lot of love to hair, perhaps more than absolutely necessary. I do it because I enjoy it.
I was never good at drawing big. When I’d get a large sheet of paper in primary school, I’d squeeze my drawing on the side and left three quarts of the paper empty (my art teacher didn’t like that). Bold, expressive brush strokes scare the crap out of me. I practice it sometimes to get out of my comfort zone, I smudge pastels with my fingers, but I find it so challenging, and I don’t see myself doing it in my “real art” any time soon.
In any case, I know what my strong points are, and what my weak points are.
The problem is that on most of my art I don’t utilize it nearly enough. I don’t give myself enough enjoyable moments where I just paint, knowing I’ll do it right because I can’t ruin this one thing I do so well.
I focus on the anatomy, the composition, the values, the skin tones, the textures… and I don’t give myself a break. When I do that for too long, I get fed up with painting. It happened a few times and every time I felt desperate because I had no idea why this one thing I love so much has become a thing I don’t enjoy anymore.
It’s a scary thing for me to say this publicly, but it’s the truth and someone needs to say it — sometimes I just can’t enjoy creating art.
It feels like a never ending struggle up the “mountain with no summit” (as my mentor Chris Oatley calls it), like being lost in a cycle of goals and achievements.
Sometimes I get burned out and can’t seem to enjoy creating art and it becomes work just like any other.
Can I prevent this from happening ever again? I don’t know. But I know more about what I enjoy and now I’m thinking about how to plan my future paintings so that I get as much fun as possible.
Some possible ways it can be done:
- Plan the subject of the work so that it contains motifs I’ll find enjoyable to paint/draw
Honestly I never tried this before. I just sort of think up a piece and roll with it. I never think twice about adding things just for the sake of having fun! What a loss.
- Alternate between working on the big, important areas and details to maintain enthusiasm
- Whenever I feel the work is getting frustrating, stop to look forward to the next phase that’s more enjoyable. “There’s just a tiny bit more to go and then I’ll have fun!”
That seems like something that can make a difference for me.
I’ll try it out and let you know how it goes :)
Now back to the question from the title of this post. What do you enjoy the most about creating art?
Are you using this to your advantage?
How can you use it even more?
I’d love to hear your ideas!
About Nela Dunato
Artist, brand designer, teacher, and writer. Author of the book “The Human Centered Brand”. Owner of a boutique branding & design consultancy that helps experienced service-based businesses impress their dream clients.
On this blog I write about art, design, creativity, business, productivity and marketing, and share my creative process and tips. Read more about me...
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