Not quitting your art


Poster exhibit at the Pompidou Center

I've noticed recently that working on my art takes a different type of motivation then when I do work for other people. When I work at a job or do client work, it's all done on someone else's deadline. But when I work on my own schedule, I find I need new ways to keep producing work without that external pressure. 

Working without a deadline

"Only finishing work that has a deadline stems from honoring other people's needs more than your own." writes Jessica Hoffman in her book Growing Gills. We are so used to working toward other people's goals that working on something for yourself can feel not as important somehow. On top of that, if you grew up in a household with a lot of rules, it might feel like you're breaking the rules to work on your own projects. As psychologist Adam Grant points out, "Creativity may be difficult to nurture but easy to thwart."

Stopping and starting again

With creative work, it's easy to give up when things get too hard. You might get frustrated with a technique, set down your tools, and then not pick them again. Without that pressure from the outside, you might convince yourself that it's better to give up. In one of my favorite books Art & Fear, David Bayles and Ted Orland write:

Those who continue to make art are those who have learned how to continue—or more precisely, have learned how to not quit.

It's been shown that when students graduate from art school, many of them never make art again. The process of making art is one of continually stopping and starting again because if you stop and don't start again, you have actually quit. 

Not training to exhaustion

So how do you keep the momentum going without burning out? One idea that really clicked for me is the idea of not pushing yourself too hard. Steven Pressfield talks about this in relation to horse training in his book Turning Pro. Pressfield states, "Never train your animal to exhaustion. Leave him wanting more." He mentions that top trainers never push their horse "through the pain." They actually hold the horse back so it becomes more excited to run. A horse that is pushed too hard will never run as fast as a horse that runs for the joy of it.

Let your unconscious kick in

Probably the best way I've found to keep the momentum going is to do a little work at the same time every day. I find that working a little every day (seven days a week) goes a lot further than working longer only a few days a week. It's just easier to work at the same time of day because that's what you're in the habit of doing. I first learned about this from the book Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott:

You try to sit down at approximately the same time every day. This is how you train your unconscious to kick in for you creatively.

Courage by association

Finally, something that really keeps me motivated is looking at the work of fellow artists. You know that feeling you get after seeing an art exhibit that you love? You just want to go home and make some art yourself. David Bayles and Ted Orland agree that learning from other artists makes us brave, "What artists learn from other artists... is courage by association."

Since it's not possible to constantly visit museums and galleries (especially now with the pandemic) I try to recreate that inspiration on my own. I read a lot of books about artists and try to learn about their process as much as possible. For living artists, I check out their websites and follow them on social media. Simply seeing other artists putting work out there inspires me to do the same.