You stare at your workspace and it’s like there’s nothing there but an empty abyss of art materials and space where your masterpiece should be. You felt good when you woke up – refreshed and ready to make something come to life – but now you’re full of doubt. Everything you make seems to come out wrong and you can’t concentrate. Your head is full of dreams and ideas but, for some reason, they wont fall out of your head without creating something resembling an aborted fetus.
You get up, make yourself a coffee/tea, check your emails and social media and, after a couple of meaningless hours the void is still there and you decide to tackle it again. Thirty minutes later you give up, with nothing to show.
Welcome to Artists’ Hell. My name is Maki and I’m here to help. I can show you the way out, but, I’m afraid, you’re going to have to do the hard work it takes to get out. But heed this advice and you too can escape Artists’ Hell and become an art ninja.
FINDING THE MOTIVATION
Firstly, stop yourself and take a long, measured look at why you’re doing this. If you’re anything like me, you probably can’t help it. It’s like this compulsion. When I see beautiful art, all these ideas explode in my mind. When I see people sketching my fingers twitch. Sound familiar, perhaps?
I’m going to stop you again right there and ask you, in all seriousness, where you intend to take these ideas? Do you want to hold down a full-time job and do it for fun or do you want to make it into a career?
No, no, I didn’t ask you if you thought you were good enough! Forget that for a second and ask yourself where you want to take it. Next ask yourself what you’re willing to do in order to achieve that.
I’ve known many who’ve had a great time drawing, writing, painting or whatever for fun and it seems the moment they decide to take it seriously they lose the motivation and can’t seem to produce any work.
Ask yourself how much effort you’re really willing to put into your work and if it’s worth all the pain and hard effort in taking it all the way into a full-blown career. If not, stop pretending that it will happen if you go into it half-arsed. Which leads me to my next point…
GO INTO IT HALF-ARSED
One of the biggest killers of creativity is being too serious, I shit you not.
Everyone has a shedload of bad art in them. I still have hundreds of abominations to create and I look forward to making them gleefully. That’s right, with full-blown mirthfulness.
The key thing to realise is that you will always have bad art days. Always. If you think for a second that you’ll reach a point where you’re happy with everything you create, I’m afraid you’re sorely mistaken.
If you want to be serious about what you do, then be prepared to not take it too seriously. If you make something that you wouldn’t kiss your mother with, where, I ask you, is the problem?
Truth is, you need these horrors. You need them like Data needs his humanity. Your flaws are exactly what makes your art better. So lighten up- Why so serious?
LEARN TO TRUST YOURSELF
So, you’ve doomed yourself to a life of creating art because you thought you could do this, but now you feel like a failure. But you chose this path, did you not? Don’t back out now. It’s time to start reminding yourself of how you got into this mess in the first place.
In short, I advise you to quit whining and moaning. So you’ll never be as good as Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Donatello or Raphael. You may never be as inventive as Picasso or as nimble as Paganini.
So what? Who wants to be dead anyway? This isn’t about them, it’s about you.
If you practice your art, you WILL get better, simple as. Stop telling yourself you’re crap and start making shit. You may not get to where you want to be but remember: It’s not about where you’re trying to get to, it’s how you get there.
Humans seem to have this innate ability to, as soon as they have something they want, they get bored. Once you learn to draw faces you’ll want to draw them better. When this happens, congratulations! Take a moment to appreciate how far you’ve come. Don’t be so hard on yourself and remember, you’re coming into your own element. There’s no magic spell to instantly make you the queen of ink or the god of crochet. You have to do the work to get better, so don’t expect to be the big man without putting a lot of sweat and fun into it.
BECOME A CHILD
That’s right, I said fun. Have some fun, now. It’s easy to feel like things are a chore when you have a goal you’re trying to reach. You’ll find when you open your mind a bit more, relax and get playful, you’ll realise all kinds of wonderful things are possible. Try doing things differently. Like any evil good scientist, you’ll find that if you experiment you will get results. They may not be the results you were expecting, but they’ll be results none the less!
Think outside the box and get playful. Try different materials, mix media, do it upside down, and see what happens when you toss the rulebook out the window. Don’t Paint By Numbers and don’t do it missionary-style because everyone else seems to be doing it that way.
Making art is a very intimate thing and remember it’s all about you.
I cannot stress how important it is to stop being precious about every single thing you make and to start learning to do things wrong. Because eventually, you’ll get it right and it will be Epic.
Children are so much better at being creative because they’re not carrying the weight of the world around with them when they make stuff. So be like the child and start having fun.
I HAVE SCRIBBLES, NOW WHAT?
This is where your experimentation goes on hold and the critical side of you comes out. Not forever, mind you, just long enough to appreciate the excellent mess you’ve made. This is where you sift through all the crap and find the hidden gems. Did you play a riff that was totally off the wall whilst pissing about? Perhaps you found that painting with sticks whilst suspended from the ceiling was a surprisingly good idea. Maybe when you lopped the arms off the sculpture you’ve been working on laboriously for months paid off. Whatever you did, you have to do it again.
And then again. But slightly different.
Repeat Ad. nauseum it will turn your copper into 24k gold.
PAINT BY NUMBERS, THEN STEAL
This is a wonderful technique for becoming awesome at precisely the thing you want to become good at but, sadly, it’s one of the hardest things to do! It’s easy to think that you’ve got this whole thing sussed out by working from only what’s in your mind, but you still feel like you’re getting nowhere.
Learn from the best by copying their work. You’d be surprised by how much you can learn from copying the work of artists that you love! True, your copy will probably never be as good as the original, but, that’s not the point. The key is that after you’ve learned to copy the best, you can take your newfound knowledge and apply it to your own work.
It’s the not art that you want to steal but the method behind the art. Most artists call this ‘influence’, but don’t realise it. It’s a powerful tool so use it to your advantage.
LEVEL UP BY GRINDING
I think we’re probably all guilty of creating something beautiful. You create something so beautiful, in fact, that it seems that everything else you create is horrendous in comparison. It’s like beating the end-of-stage boss only to find that everything creature on the next level completely kicks your ass. That’s probably because you forgot to level up. You probably also only beat that last boss within an inch of your own life. You got lucky.
This is why we sometimes have to level-grind, as gamers, and it is exactly why you should level-grind as an artist.
For the non-gamer, that analogy probably went completely over your head, and I apologise. In essence, there’s no point in creating a great piece of art if you can’t replicate the results.
Yes, I know repeating the same thing over and over and over again is tedious, but you will be much better off for it, trust me. I did say there was hard work involved, correct?
When I groan at the thought of drawing the same character 20 times in a row in identical poses and the thought fills me with The Fear, I tell myself to stop being so negative. Instead, I try to view it not as a boring task, but a challenge. And even if it might be boring, I will have become much better at the end of it. Hell, that beautiful pose will forever be etched into my muscle-memory forever, only to erupt onto canvas at the slightest whim.
Simply as, when you learn to do something the way you like it, learn how to do it again and again or you’ll be cursed to forever have to live in the shadow of that image.
When I studied art at age 13, I could never understand why they made us draw fruit in a bowl. I had no intention of ever drawing a banana and two grapes, so why make us learn it? When I was 17, we drew nude models and it all started to make some sort of sense. Now, many years later, I realise that no matter how good your imagination is, there is no better teacher of art that the world around you!
Trying to draw from what you observe in the world around you will teach you everything you need to know, in terms of Getting It Right. From perspective to texture to lighting to sound and way beyond, if keep your senses open and really try to capture what you see you will become a better art-ninja.
MIND THE GAP
When I find myself staring at a blank piece of paper, or start a new project on my Digital Audio Workstation, I sometimes get gripped by The Fear. And it is precisely this fear which is the enemy of the artist.
Fear is indeed the mind-killer (AKA the little death).
So how can you prevent The Fear? Remember when I mentioned earlier about trusting yourself and to be like a child? I advise you now, more than ever to put those things into play. If your enemy comes in the form of a canvas, paint on it to put yourself out of misery. I don’t care what you paint, just paint. If you’re struggling to think of what to put down, let your mind wander. Paint something you see, paint random shapes, paint your unoccupied hand(s) (should you have them). Paint anything but do not let that canvas remain unpainted for too long, or it may devour your very soul (and will discourage you from painting it). It’s a paint or be devoured kind of world-of-art out there. When you gaze upon the abyss, the abyss also gazes upon you. This is, indeed, also true of blank things, so be prepared to mercilessly destroy them with your art.
If you heed this advice the art you want to create will eventually come to you.
DO ALL THE THINGS. ALL OF THEM.
I carry a sketch pad and pencil-case with me at all possible opportunities. Bored on a train? Oh, it’s a good thing I brought this sketch pad. Watching crap on TV? Well, I’d rather be having fun becoming a better artist. Want to impress a girl/boy? Hey, I’ve got this sketch pad full of drawings, wanna see?
There are infinite uses for having some way of working on ideas when you’re out-and-about. You could be struck down with inspiration at any moment, or you may simply be exposing yourself to new things to observe. Either way, do you really have anything to lose by being prepared? Without some way of working spontaneously, you may find sudden inspiration dies quickly and is easily forgotten.
And just as importantly, don’t wait for inspiration to strike you where you stand/sit/lie. Waiting ‘for inspiration to strike’ won’t make you a better artist, only a lazier one. In a day you have plenty of opportunities to become a better artist! After all, making something, anything, is better than not making something at all. Plus, you’re much more likely to find inspiration whilst making something than when you’re messing around in the shower. Be prepared to make a lot of crap work, but remember that crafting perfection is not the point. The point is to keep working until something awesome happens. And if you keep going at it, something awesome will happen.
SEE THE BIGGER PICTURE
They say that the devil is in the detail and, although that’s not necessarily true, it is (often) when you first start working on a piece.
Time and time again, I see artists getting bogged down in too much detail too soon. Imagine trying to ice a cake before you’ve baked it. That’s what too much detail too soon is like. Wrote an exciting riff but ended up with a boring song? Probably should’ve worked on the song before making the embellishments. That or you could be Steve Vai. Please don’t be Steve Vai.
Indulging in too much detail too soon can often lead to making bad mistakes. It’s far easier to correct work when you have a rough of the whole composition than to have to go back and tweak your hard-worked, but ultimately wastefully made embellishments at a later stage because they just didn’t fit in with the rest of your piece.
I know, I know, you want the goodies now, but haste makes serious waste and majorly bogs you down in the long run. It may even put you off doing your work altogether.
MAKE SILLY MISTAKES FASTER
Ever seen those artists who create sublime work in the blink of an eye? Want to learn a secret to unlock that superpower?
Yes. yes you do. Because being able to draw quickly means you’ll make more and better work. The skill to levelling up as an Art Ninja here is to make your mistakes and make them fast. This one kind-of ties in with the last point. You need to be quick on your feet and I don’t just mean with the work that takes forever. You have to practice drawing as fast as you can. You’ll be surprised at how much you’ll improve if you do practice your roughs/sketches quickly. Some of my finest techniques have been discovered whilst trying to capture exactly what’s going on in my image/music when I give myself less than a minute to draw something, or challenge myself to write a song in one hour.
Now, I can’t promise you that this work will be any good. Sometimes it will be downright abominable. What you’re striving for here in your Art Ninja training is not to create your finest piece of work, but to capture an idea/mood/observation. If it’s good enough for Monet, it is quite possibly good enough for you.
Hands, manos, mains, 手. Whatever you call them, most people find them annoying & difficult to draw, myself included. There’s always something that is difficult to (re)create with art, or that you’re plain-and-simple not very good at making. And that’s ok. Again, you have to trust that you’ll improve with practice. But that’s just it – you have to practice – which means facing your fears and challenging yourself to do better.
Many artists I know avoid drawing hands: either by giving people blob-fists or by obscuring them behind things/inside pockets. Let’s say for arguments sake you’re one of these people. How are you going to get better if you don’t keep trying.
Copy, observe, experiment, but don’t avoid- And again, don’t be afraid to make shitty pieces for the sake of getting better. Let the challenge drive you, not repel you. Be prepared to hate what you make. But given time and good observation/practice, you will inevitably get better. Eventually, you too can be an Art Ninja!
FIND THE TIME
We don’t always have the time to be artists 24/7. Some of us may struggle to fit doing art in amongst other commitments. You may even find it difficult to work on your art once a week.
Remind yourself of your motivations for making art and how serious you want doing it to be. Of course, you need to do your shopping and feed the cat, but are there other things which you could do to find the time instead.
It’s rarely the case that you won’t have the time to put in say, 15 minutes a day to doodle, knit, play ukulele or whatever. It’s just a case of prioritizing. Instead of watching TV, how about working for half an hour on that future best-selling novel you’ve been promising to make? Perhaps you don’t need to prepare a sunday roast twice weekly. Perhaps instead of always going to the pub with all your friends you could sit there on your own and relax whilst doing some work.
Surely there’s something small in your life worth giving up for the sake of making art?
Many artists have commitment issues. We start something that we think is exciting, get bored and want to move onto something else, something more exciting. And, often, that more exciting thing is just as boring as the thing we ditched in the first place.
I think writers tend to be the worst at this; probably because novels are really long. They’re a self-contained world of imagination, but they take a long time to complete. Going back, I want to emphasise that you should make silly mistakes faster. Editing and writing should not be happening at the same time and it’s the #1 cause of death of most novels and comics. Don’t let this happen to your work or you will end up regretting it. Just work quickly, get all the way to the end and then make it better. If you spend two weeks writing one page for a novel, it will take you more than 6 years to have a 300+ page novel. Take a leaf from NaNoWriMo’s books and your commitment issues may well disappear!
Another problem that occurs very often in not finishing large works is setting your standards far too high. Technically this is the same as trying to write and edit at the same time, but requires a slightly different approach.
Instead of saying “I’m going to write this novel about space aliens and pirates”, try to break it down into smaller, more digestible chunks of work. How does the story start? Do any of the characters die? How do they die? And how will you ever get the audience to love this character before you mercilessly spear them through the heart after a perfect touchdown? Plan out how things link together and concentrate on each part. And remember: don’t go into too much detail until you’ve got some bones to hang the flesh on, or you will get bored and frustrated.
Finally, remember to take joy in your small achievements. It’s much easier to finish long pieces of work when you don’t set your standards too high.
TAKE A BREAK
Finally, it’s time to take a break. If you work on your art 10 hours a day, 7 days a week, you will probably burn yourself out and you will likely hate both your art and possibly yourself for doing so.
One piece of advice that I’ve found really helpful is to stop yourself whilst you’re still having fun. Too much work and your passion will wither. Sometimes working little, but often is a really, really good idea and if you stop working with something exciting to come back to, it will ensure that you are plenty excited, refreshed and inspired by the time you come back to it.
Rome was not, apparently, built in one day.
Lastly, but not least, if you’re really having no fun doing art after all of this and you can’t seem to find the motivation to do it, then don’t. Being crap at art is not a reason to quit. Not enjoying it possibly is.
If you find yourself losing the motivation to keep going, perhaps you need to stop, or at least cut down (you art-addict, you). Enjoying your art should be what propels you but, ultimately, being an Art Ninja means that art will not always be fun. It is a long, hard road out of Artists’ Hell and you can either take the easy road and step it down a couple of paces or you can run the gauntlet and fight your way to Ninja Heaven (alongside all the other Ninja, such as Science Ninja, Marie Curie & Albert Einstein).
Blog-speed you, future Art-Ninja,
This is Maki Yamazaki, signing out.