How to Be an Artist: 10 Tips

(Adapted from How to Be a Writer: 10 tips from Rebecca Solnit)

I’m numb to most advice I see online these days. There’s just so much of it! But every once in a while a wise someone speaks up. I love Rebecca Solnit. I love her writing and her unique perspective as an essayist, cultivated through years of quiet introspection and deeply insightful observation about the world. So, I perked up when I saw the above column she contributed to Literary Hub.

I thought I would adapt her thoughts for the visual arts arena, augmented by my own experiences. (I injected artists’ language into her quotes in brackets here and there, to make the message more clear.)

  1. Make art. Make lots and lots of it. There is nothing more important than this. Make the art you truly want to make. Carve out a little time every day to do something but make sure what you’re doing is art.  Here’s where I differ a little on the popular advice to make something every day. Sure, it’s nice to knit and to bake, and to craft ornaments for the Christmas tree, and these are creative pursuits. But don’t kid yourself. You are not making art and if you are knitting a scarf at the cost of studio time, you are stealing from your true purpose. If you love to knit more than you love to paint, or sculpt, or whatever, then by all means follow that passion. You are a creative and a maker, but if you want to be an Artist with a capital A, you have to make your own original art.  Because putting one foot in front of another on this road you are travelling means making one piece after another, one sketchbook page after another. Day by day.
  2. Remember that artmaking isn’t the same as producing. Obviously the work doesn’t get done if you’re not painting, drawing, or snapping the shutter on the camera. However, being an artist means living in the world of your art all the time, constantly seeking inspiration, planning, composing, sketching, and later, tweaking, over-painting, proofing, editing, deleting, subtracting. I find there is a cycle to creating every piece and a large part of that is not even spent in the studio. I am constantly thinking about my paintings and drawings, even when I am shopping for groceries. Often in the morning, I will take my coffee into my studio and, as my cat sits purring on my lap, I will drink in my paintings. I think about what they are saying and how I could change them for the better.
  3. Look at art. And don’t look at art. Look at good art and don’t live in the present. Live in the deep past. Look at cave paintings, Caravaggios, or Appalachian folk art. As Solnit wisely points out, “[Art] is not high school and it’s not actually necessary to know what everyone around you is wearing, in terms of style, and being influenced by people who are being [shown/raved about] is going to make you look just like them, which is probably not a good long-term goal for being yourself or making a meaningful contribution. At any point in history there is a great tide of [artists] of similar tone, they wash in, they wash out, the strange starfish stay behind, and the conches.” Everyone is guilty of this and to some extent you must imitate in order to get good and to find your own style. However, at some point, you have to find your own original voice and that means getting away from absorbing the other work out there, or at least compartmentalizing those experiences. Rather than looking at art influences, cultivate your own worldly passions. Study lepidopterology, car mechanics, computer coding, biology, whatever hooks you. It will feed back into your art in many ways. Look at Herman Melville who spent time as a sailor and was even a whaler for a time. It gave him something to write about, fortunately for the world. Jerry Saltz recently argued cultivating worldly interest was the way contemporary art could escape the trap of solipsism and Art History and I think he has a point.
  4. Listen. Don’t listen. Feedback is great, and useful, and stimulating for ideas. From your curator, your artist friends and colleagues, your family, your Instagram followers. It can also be painful and confusing. Anyone who has suffered through a critique in school can attest to this. It can also be useless when it comes from the people who love us and like everything we do.  That’s why you have to take what’s useful to you and leave the rest. And when you are in a groove or a flow, listen to yourself and no one else. “Listen to your own feedback and remember that you move forward through mistakes and stumbles and flawed but inspiring work, not perfect pirouettes performed in the small space in which you initially stood. Listen to what makes your hair stand on end, your heart melt, and your eyes open wide, what stops you in your tracks and makes you want to live…” Make art for other people, but don’t listen to them too much.
  5. Find a vocation. This is something I’m thinking about more these days. Solnit’s words struck me as just right for me at this stage: “Talent is overrated, and it is usually conflated with nice style. Passion, vocation, vision, and dedication are rarer, and they will get you through the rough spots in your style when your style won’t give you a reason to get up in the morning and stare at the [blank canvas] for the hundredth day in a row or even give you a compelling subject to [paint].” If you’re not passionate about your subject, then why paint/sculpt/photograph it? This gets at deciding what kind of artist you are and that really has to do with finding out who you are, what you love and care about, and what you want to say.
  6. Time. You have to find the time or make the time to practice your art. Don’t be too social, control your spending (thus negating the need to work two jobs to fund your lifestyle and getting no time for art.) I am  a hermit on the weekends because I not only need big chunks of time to paint, but I also need time to decompress, read, and think. If I were a social butterfly I’d spend all my free time in recovery and not in the studio. Also, every hour adds up. If you can get up early before work, or take 30 minutes during lunch, get out a sketchbook and use that time.
  7. Truth. All the greatest art has one thing in common: it expresses some kind of truth. Getting caught up in style, color, and decorative aspects will take you further and further from the truth. The same goes for imitating the art you admire. You may love an artist’s work but the minute you start making art just like theirs, you are trying to express a truth that isn’t yours. Express your own truth. Obviously, this applies to all kinds of art, from realism to abstraction, to performance art.
  8. Joy. There has to be joy in what you’re doing. Even on the days when the work sucks and you start to believe that you suck. And there will be many of those days. If nothing else, take joy in your birthright. Solnit points out, “Shelley says poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the universe.” Same goes for artists, who might be called the “eyes” of the universe. On those hard days, remind yourself that at least you aren’t manufacturing bombs, or fracking, or selling useless things to gullible people. When the lack of joy gets in the way of the work, make a list to remind yourself of the joy this work has given you. The peaceful moments, the groundedness, the unique perspective on life. To be an artist is to be gifted in so many ways.
  9. What we call success is very nice and comes with useful byproducts, but success is not love. This is despite the fact that being noticed on Instagram comes in the form of hearts. Looking back on my life, I realize that nothing really means a thing without being open to love and welcoming it into your life. Art and love cannot exist independently and success – however you wish to define it – has nothing to do with it.
  10. It’s all up to you. And you know it. Everything you need is within you, “underneath the noise and the bustle, and the anxiety and the outside instructions, including these ones.” I say ditto on that last point.

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