33 rules to take you from clueless amateur to generational talent (or at least help you live life a little more creatively).
“Art is for anyone. It’s just not for everyone.”
Jerry Saltz has been the senior art critic and a columnist for New York magazine since 2006. He was the previous senior art critic for The Village Voice, as well as the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2018.
In November of 2018, he published an article entitled “How To Be An Artist”, which he later turned into a book in 2020. It’s mainly directed at people just beginning out in the art world but contains some great advice for people in all creative outlets. I’ve edited it for space, but the entire version plus lots more can be found in his book How To Be An Artist. The Amazon link is for information, but as always, please support your local, independent bookstore.
Step One: You Are a Total Amateur
Five lessons before you even get started.
Lesson 1: Don’t Be Embarrassed
I get it. Making art can be humiliating, terrifying, leave you feeling foul, exposed, like getting naked in front of someone else for the first time. You often reveal things about yourself that others may find appalling, weird, boring, or stupid. People may think you’re abnormal or a hack. Fine. When I work, I feel sick to my stomach with thoughts like None of this is any good. It makes no sense. But art doesn’t have to make sense. It doesn’t even need to be good. So don’t worry about being smart and let go of being “good.”
Lesson 2: “Tell your own story and you will be interesting.” — Louise Bourgeois
Amen, Louise. Don’t be reined in by other people’s definitions of skill or beauty or be boxed in by what is supposedly high or low. Don’t stay in your own lane. Drawing within the lines is for babies; making things add up and be right is for accountants. Proficiency and dexterity are only as good as what you do with them. But also remember that just because it’s your story, that doesn’t mean you’re entitled to an audience. You have to earn that. Don’t try to do it with a big single project. Take baby steps. And be happy with baby steps.
Lesson 3: Feel Free to Imitate
We all start as copycats, people who make pastiches of other people’s work. Fine! Do that. However, when you do this, focus, start to feel the sense of possibility in making all these things your own — even when the ideas, tools, and moves come from other artists. Whenever you make anything, think of yourself as entering a gigantic stadium filled with ideas, avenues, ways, means, and materials. And possibilities. Make these things yours. This is your house now.
Lesson 4: Art Is Not About Understanding. Or Mastery.
It is about doing and experience.
No one asks what Mozart means. Or an Indian raga or the little tripping dance of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to “Cheek to Cheek” in Top Hat. Forget about making things that are understood. I don’t know what Abba means, but I love it. Imagination is your creed; sentimentality and lack of feeling your foe. All art comes from love — love of doing something.
Lesson 5: Work, Work, Work
Sister Corita Kent said, “The only rule is work. If you work, it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work all the time who eventually catch onto things.”
I have tried every way in the world to stop work-block or fear of working, of failure. There is only one method that works: work. And keep working.
Every artist and writer I know claims to work in their sleep. I do all the time. Jasper Johns famously said, “One night I dreamed that I painted a large American flag, and the next morning I got up and I went out and bought the materials to begin it.” How many times have you been given a whole career in your dreams and not heeded it? It doesn’t matter how scared you are; everyone is scared. Work. Work is the only thing that takes the curse of fear away.
Step Two: How to Actually Begin
An instruction manual for the studio.
Lesson 6: Start With a Pencil
Don’t worry about drawing. Just make marks. Tell yourself you’re simply diagramming, playing, experimenting, seeing what looks like what. If you can write, you already know how to draw; you already have a form of your own, a style of making letters and numbers and special doodles. These are forms of drawing, too. While you’re making marks and drawing, pay attention to all the physical feedback you’re getting from your hand, wrist, arm, ears, your sense of smell and touch. How long can your mark go before you seem to need to lift the pencil and make a different mark? Make those marks shorter or longer. Change the ways you make them at all, wrap your fingers in fabric to change your touch, try your other hand to see what it does. All these things are telling you something. Get very quiet inside yourself and pay attention to everything you’re experiencing. Don’t think good or bad. Think useful, pleasurable, strange. Hide secrets in your work. Dance with these experiences, collaborate with them. They’re the leader; you follow. Soon you’ll be making up steps too, doing visual calypsos all your own — ungainly, awkward, or not. Who cares? You’ll be dancing to the music of art.
Carry a sketchbook with you at all times. Cover a one-by-one-foot piece of paper with marks. But don’t just fill the whole page border to border, edge to edge. (Way too easy.) Think about what shapes, forms, structures, configurations, details, sweeps, buildups, dispersals, and compositions appeal to you.
Now do this on another surface, any surface, to know what kind of material appeals to you. Draw on rock, metal, foam-core, coffee cups, labels, the sidewalk, walls, plants, fabric, wood, whatever. Just make marks; decorate these surfaces. Don’t worry about doing more. All art is a form of decoration. Now ask someone what ideas they get when they look at what you’ve made. They’ve just told you more about what you’ve already done. If the other person sees it in your work, it’s there.
Next, draw the square foot in front of you. This can be tight, loose, abstract, realistic. It’s a way to see how you see objects, textures, surfaces, shapes, light, dark, atmosphere, and patterns. It tells you what you missed seeing. This will be your first masterpiece. Now draw the same square foot from the other side. You are already becoming a much better seeing machine and you don’t even know it.
Lesson 7: Develop Forms of Practice
For instance, on the subway, while waiting or sitting around, practice drawing your own hands. Lots of hands on the same page, hands over other hands. Other people’s hands, if you want to. You can draw other parts of your body that you can see, too. But you have to look and then describe with your pencil or pen what you see. Don’t make it up! Mirrors are fine, even if you want to draw only where your cheek turns into your mouth. Play with different scales, make things bigger, smaller, twisted.
Exercise: Forget Being a Genius and Develop Some Skills
I think all artists should:
• Build a clay pot.
• Sew pieces of fabric together.
• Prune a tree.
• Make a wooden bowl on a lathe, by carving.
• Make a lithograph, etching, or woodblock print.
• Make one hokey Dalí-like painting or mini Kusama light installation to get this out of your system.
You are now in possession of ancient secret knowledge.
Lesson 8: Now, Redefine Skill
Artistic skill has nothing to do with technical proficiency, mimetic exactitude, or so-called good drawing. For every great artist, there is a different definition of skill. Take drawing classes, if you wish; learn to draw “like the masters.” You still have to do it in an original way. Pollock could not draw realistically, but he made flicking paint at a canvas from above, for a time, the most prized skill in the art world. You can do the same — your skill will be whatever it is you’re doing differently.
Lesson 9: “Embed thought in material.” — Roberta Smith
What does this mean? An object should express ideas; art should contain emotions. And these ideas and feelings should be easy to understand — complex or not.
These days, an artist might exhibit an all-brown painting with a long wall text informing us that the artist took the canvas to Kosovo near the site of a 1990s Serbian massacre and rubbed dirt on the canvas for two hours while blindfolded to commemorate the killing. Recently, while I was looking at boring black-and-white photographs of clouds in the sky, a gallerist sidled up to me and seriously opined, “These are pictures of clouds over Ferguson, Missouri, in protest of police violence.” I started yelling, “No! These are just dumb pictures of clouds and have nothing to do with anything.”
There is a different way. In the winter of 1917, Marcel Duchamp, age 29, bought a urinal at J.L. Mott Iron Works on Fifth Avenue, turned it on its side, signed it “R. Mutt 1917,” titled it Fountain, and submitted it to the non-juried Society of Independent Artists exhibition. Today it is called the most influential artwork of the 20th century.
This project of embedding thought in material to change our conception of the world isn’t only a new development. When we see cave paintings, we are seeing one of the most advanced and complex visual operating systems ever devised by our species. The makers of the work wanted to portray in the real world something they had in their head and make that information readable to others. It has lasted tens of thousands of years. With that in mind …
Exercise: Build a Life Totem
Using any material on any surface, make or draw or render a four-foot-tall totem pole of your life. From this totem, we should be able to know something about you other than what you look like or how many siblings you have. Include anything you want: words, letters, maps, photos, objects, signs. This should take no longer than a week. After a week, it’s finished. Period. Now show it to someone who does not know you well. Tell them only, “This is a totem pole of my life till now.” That’s all. It doesn’t matter if they like it. Ask them to tell you what it means about your life. No clues. Listen to what they tell you.
Lesson 10: Find Your Own Voice
Then exaggerate it. If someone says your work looks like someone else’s and you should stop making it, I say don’t stop doing it. Do it again. Do it 100 times or 1,000 times. Then ask an artist friend whom you trust if your work still looks too much like the other person’s art. If it still looks too much like the other person’s, try another path.
Imagine the horror Philip Guston must have felt when he followed his own voice and went from being a first-string Abstract Expressionist in the 1950s to painting clunky, cartoony figures smoking cigars, driving around in convertibles, and wearing KKK hoods! He was all but shunned for this. He followed his voice anyway. This work is now some of the most revered from the entire period.
Exercise: An Archaeology
Make an index, family tree, chart, or diagram of your interests. All of them, everything: visual, physical, spiritual, sexual. Leisure time, hobbies, foods, buildings, airports, everything. Every book, movie, website, etc. The totality of this self-exposure may be daunting, scary. But your voice is here. This will become a resource and record to return to and add to for the rest of your life.
Lesson 11: Listen to the Crazy Voices in Your Head
I have my own sort of School of Athens in my head. A team of rivals, friends, famous people, influences dead and alive. They’re all looking over my shoulder as I work; none of them are mean. All make observations, recommendations, etc. I use music a lot. I think, Okay, let’s begin this piece with a real pow! Like Beethoven. Or the Barbara Kruger in my head says, Make this sentence short, punchy, declarative, aggressive. Led Zeppelin chimes in with, Try a hairy experiment here; let it all show. All the Sienese paintings I’ve ever seen beg me, Make it beautiful. D. H. Lawrence is pounding on the table, Alexander Pope is making me get a grip, Wallace Stevens listens to my language and recommends words, Whitman pushes me on, my inner Melville gets grandiose, and Proust drives me to make longer and longer sentences till they almost break, and my editor cuts these into eighths or edits them down to one. (Writers need editors. No exceptions.) These voices will always be there for when things get tough.
Lesson 12: Know What You Hate
It is probably you.
Exercise: Make a List of Art
Make a list of three artists whose work you despise. Make a list of five things about each artist that you do not like; be as specific as possible. Often there’s something about what these artists do that you share. Really think about this.
Lesson 13: Scavenge
Life is your syllabus: Gather from everywhere.
Andy Warhol said, “I always like to work on … things that were discarded, that everybody knew were no good.” He also understood that “department stores will become museums,” meaning that optical information can come from everywhere, even from a Celestial Seasonings package.
Originality did not conveniently die just in time for you and your generation to insist it no longer exists. You just have to find it. You can do this by looking for overlooked periods of art history, disliked and discredited styles, and forgotten ideas, images, and objects. Then work them into your own art 100 times or 1,000 times.
Step Three: Learn How to Think Like an Artist
This is the fun part.
Lesson 14: Compare Cats and Dogs
Okay, this sounds ridiculous, but call your dog and it comes right over to you, placing its head in your lap, slobbering, wagging its tail: a miraculous direct communication with another species. Now call your cat. It might look up, twitch a bit, perhaps go over to the couch, rub against it, circle once, and lie down again. What am I saying?
In seeing how the cat reacted, you are seeing something very close to how artists communicate.
The cat is not interested in direct communication. The cat places a third thing between you and it and relates to you through this third thing. Cats communicate abstractly, indirectly. As Carol Bove says, “You don’t just walk up to beauty and kiss her on the mouth!” Artists are cats. (And they can’t be herded.)
Lesson 15: Understand That Art Is Not Just for Looking At
Art does something. In the past 100 years or so, art has been reduced to being mainly something we look at in clean, white, well-lit art galleries and museums. Art has been limited this way, made a passive thing: another tourist attraction to see, take a picture in front of, and move on from.
But for almost its entire history, art has been a verb, something that does things to or for you, that makes things happen. Holy relics in churches all over the world are said to heal. Art has been carried into war; made to protect us, curse a neighbor, kill someone; been an aid in getting pregnant or preventing pregnancy. There are huge, beautiful, multicolored, intricately structured Navajo sand paintings used in ceremonies to ask the gods for assistance. The eyes painted on Egyptian sarcophagi are not there for us to see; they are there so the interred person can watch. The paintings inside the tombs were meant to be seen only by beings in the afterlife.
Have you ever cried in front of a work of art? Write down six things about it that made you cry. Tack the list to your studio wall. Those are magical abracadabras for you.
Lesson 16: Learn the Difference Between Subject Matter and Content
One of the most crucial lessons there is! The subject matter of Francis Bacon’s 1953 Study After Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X is a pope, a seated male in a transparent sort of box. That’s it. The content might be a rebellion or an indictment of religion. It might be claustrophobia or hysteria or the madness of religion or civilization.
The subject matter of Michelangelo’s David is a standing man with a sling. The content might be grace, beauty — he was just 17, if you know what I mean — pensiveness, physical awareness, timelessness, eternal things, a form of perfection, vulnerability. This content is High Renaissance. Bernini’s David, made 120 years later, is Baroque — all action and drama.
When you look at art, make subject matter the first thing you see — and then stop seeing it. Try to find the content in a painting by Robert Ryman, who has been making almost-all-white work since the 1950s. Ask what Ryman’s (or any artist’s) ideas are and what his relationship to paint is, to surface, to internal scale (meaning what size brushstrokes were used in the work), to color. What is white to Ryman? Note the date: 1960. Why would he make this painting then? Would this have looked like other art at the time? How would it have been different? Ask yourself what else was being made then. How is the work hung on the wall? Is it in a frame? Is the stretcher or surface thick, thin, close to the wall? How is this like or unlike other almost-monochrome works by Ellsworth Kelly, Barnett Newman, Agnes Martin, or Ad Reinhardt? Is the surface sensual or intellectual? Does the painter want you to see the work all at once or in parts? Are some parts more important than others? Is every part of the surface supposed to be equally important? What are the artist’s ideas about craft and skill? Do you think this artist likes painting or is trying to paint against it? Is this anti-art? What is Ryman’s relationship to materials, tools, mark-making? How do you think he made the work? How might it be original or innovative? Why should this be in a museum? Why should it not be in a museum? Would you want to live with it? Why or why not? Why do you imagine the painting is this size? Now try a Frida Kahlo.
Lesson 17: See As Much As You Can
Critics see by standing back, getting close, stepping up and back; looking at a whole show, comparing one work to another; considering the artist’s past work, assessing developments, repetitions, regressions, failures, lack of originality; etc.
Artists see very differently: They get very close to a work; they inspect every detail, its textures, materials, makeup; they touch it, look at the edges and around the back of the object.
What are the artists doing? They will say, “Seeing how it is made.” I would say, “Stealing.”
You can steal from anything. You should! You better! Bad art teaches you as much as good art. Maybe more! Great art is often the enemy of the good; it doesn’t leave you enough room to steal.
Lesson 18: All Art Is Identity Art!
This is because it is made by somebody.
And don’t worry about being “political” enough: Kazimir Malevich painted squares during World War I; Mark Rothko made fuzzy squares during World War II; Agnes Martin drew grids on canvas during the Vietnam War. All art is a confession, more or less oblique.
Artists who claim that art is supposed to be good for us need also to see that there are as many ways of art being “good for us” as there are works of art.
Lesson 19: All Art Was Once Contemporary Art
Never forget this, that all art was made by artists for and in reaction to their time. It will make you less cynical and closed off and more understanding and open to everything you ever see. Please do this! It applies to all of us.
Step Four: Enter the Art World
A guide to the snake pit.
Lesson 20: Accept That You Will Likely Be Poor
Even though all we see of the art world these days are astronomical prices, glitz, glamour, and junkie-like behavior, remember that only one percent of one percent of one percent of all artists become rich off their artwork. You may feel overlooked, underrecognized, and underpaid. Too bad. Stop feeling sorry for yourself; that’s not why you’re doing this.
Lesson 21: Define Success
But be careful. Typical answers are money, happiness, freedom, “doing what I want,” having a community of artists, having people see what I do.
But … if you marry a rich person and have lots of money, would you be satisfied with just the money? Also, Subway sells a lot of sandwiches, but that doesn’t make them good.
What about being “happy”? Don’t be silly! A lot of successful people are unhappy. And a lot of happy people aren’t successful. I’m “successful,” and I’m confused, terrified, insecure, and foul all the time. Success and happiness live on different sides of the tracks.
Do you want the real definition of success? The best definition of success is time — the time to do your work.
How will you make time if you don’t have money? You will work full time for a long time. You will be depressed because of this for a long time — resentful, frustrated, envious. I’m sorry, that’s the way it is.
But you’re a sneaky, resourceful artist! Soon you figure out a way to work only four days a week; you start to be a little less depressed. But then on Sunday night, you’re depressed again, back on your ride-to-nowhere job that’s still taking up too much of your time.
But you are really sneaky and resourceful; this is a life-and-death matter to you. Eventually — and this comes for fully 80 percent of the artists I have ever known — you scam a way to work an only-three-days-a-week job. You may work in a gallery; for an artist or a museum; as a teacher, an art critic, an art handler, a bookkeeper, a proofreader, whatever.
Now you aren’t depressed anymore: You have time to make your work and hang out more; you are now the first measure of successful. Now get to work. Or quit being an artist.
Lesson 22: It Takes Only a Few People to Make a Career
Exactly how many? Let’s count.
Dealers? You need only one dealer — someone who believes in you, supports you emotionally, pays you promptly, doesn’t play too many mind games; who’ll be honest with you about your crappy or great art, who does as much as possible to spread your work out there and try to make money from it, too. This dealer doesn’t have to be in New York.
Collectors? You need only five or six collectors who will buy your work from time to time and over the years, who really get what you’re up to, who are willing to go through the ups and downs, who don’t say, “Make them like this.” Each of these six collectors might talk to six other collectors about your work. Even if you have only six collectors, that’s enough for you to make enough money to have enough time to make your work.
Critics? It would be nice to have two or as many as three critics who seem to get what you’re doing. It would be best if these critics were of your generation, not geezers like me.
Curators? It would be nice to have one or two curators of your generation or a little older who would put you in shows from time to time.
That’s it! Twelve people. Surely your crappy art can fake out 12 stupid people! I’ve seen it done with only three or four supporters. I’ve seen it done with one!
In 1957, gallery owner Leo Castelli discovered Jasper Johns while visiting Robert Rauschenberg’s studio. Castelli immediately offered Johns his first solo show. It was there that Alfred Barr, the founding director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, purchased three works. Additional works were bought by Philip Johnson and Burton and Emily Hall Tremaine. Before the show even went up, executive editor Thomas Hess put a Johns on the cover of ARTnews.
In 1993, Elizabeth Peyton’s New York breakthrough was staged by dealer Gavin Brown in Room 828 of the Chelsea Hotel. Visitors asked for the key to the room at the front desk. They went upstairs, unlocked the door, and entered a small studio apartment facing 23rd Street. There they saw 21 small-to-medium-size black-and-white charcoal-and-ink drawings of dandies, Napoleon, Queen Elizabeth II, Ludwig II, and others. Any of the works could have been stolen; none were. Since then, Peyton has had museum shows all over the world; her works sell for close to a million dollars. According to the hotel ledger, only 38 people saw the show after the opening. It doesn’t take much.
I can’t sugarcoat this next part: Some people are better connected than others. They get to 12 faster. The art world is full of these privileged people. You can hate them. I do. It is unfair and unjust and still in operation around women and artists of color especially, not to mention artists over 40. This needs to change and be changed. By all of us.
Lesson 23: Learn to Write
When it comes to artist statements, Keep it simple, stupid.
Don’t use art jargon; write in your own voice, write how you talk. Don’t try to write smart. Keep your statement direct, clear, to the point. Don’t oppose big concepts like “nature” and “culture.” Don’t use words like interrogate, reconceptualize, deconstruct, symbolize, transcendental, mystical, commodity culture, liminal space, or haptic. Don’t quote Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida. Those guys are great. But don’t quote them. Come up with your own theory. People who claim to hate or have no theory: That’s your theory, you idiots!
Important things are hard to write about. That’s the way it is. Deal with it. And if it’s pretentious to say, don’t say it.
Exercise: Artist’s Statement
Write a simple 100-to-150-word statement about your work; give it to someone who doesn’t know your work. Have them tell you what they think your work looks like. Note the differences.
(A) Don’t make writing a big deal. Just write, you big baby! You already know how to write.
(B) Never just say, “You tell me what it is.” That’s pompous bullshit. When it comes to your work, you’re the best authority there is.
Step Five: Survive the Art World
Psychic strategies for dealing with the ugliness (inside and out).
Lesson 24: Artists Must Be Vampires
Stay up late every night with other artists around your age. Show up. Go to openings, events, parties, wherever there are more than two of your kind.
Artists must commune with their own kind all the time. There are no exceptions to this rule, even if you live “out in the woods.” Preferably commune in person, but online is more than fine. It doesn’t matter where you live: big city, small city, little town. You will fight and love together; you will develop new languages together and give each other comfort, conversation, and the strength to carry on. This is how you will change the world — and your art.
To protect yourselves, form small gangs. Protect one another no matter what; this gang will allow all of you to go out into and take over parts of the world. Argue, sleep with, love, hate, get sick of your fellow gang members. Whatever happens, you need one another — for now. Protect the weakest artist in your gang, because there are people in the gang who think you’re the weak one.
Lesson 25: Learn to Deal With Rejection
In 1956, “after careful consideration,” the Museum of Modern Art rejected a shoe drawing by Warhol that he had given to the museum. Monet was rejected for years from the Paris Salon exhibitions. The work of Manet and Courbet was rejected as scandalous, sensationalist, ugly. Manet’s paintings were said to exhibit “inconceivable vulgarity.” Manet didn’t want to show with Cézanne because he thought he was vulgar.
Stephen King’s most renowned and first book, Carrie, was rejected 30 times. King threw the first pages of the book out. His wife went through the trash, rescued them, and persuaded him to keep writing.
The Beatles were rejected by Decca Records, which believed “guitar groups are on the way out,” and “the Beatles have no future in show business.”
But don’t just ignore criticism. Instead, keep your rejection letters; paste them to your wall. They are goads, things to prove wrong. You may be Ahab about these bad reviews, but don’t get taken down by them; they don’t define you.
Much trickier: Accept that every criticism can have a grain of truth to it, something you did that allowed this person to say what was said. You might be ahead of your time, but the person couldn’t see it. Or maybe you’re doing something that isn’t up to snuff, that allowed them not to appreciate your work, or you haven’t found a way to make your work speak to the people you want it to speak to. That’s all on you.
In general, you must be open to critique but also develop an elephant skin. And remember that nothing anyone says to you about your work can be worse than the things you’ve already thought and said to yourself 100 times.
I always tell anyone criticizing me, “You could be right.” It has a nice double edge that the person often never feels and that gives pleasure.
Lesson 26: Make an Enemy of Envy
Envy looks at others but blinds you.
It will eat you alive as an artist; you live in the service of it, always on the edge of a funk, dwelling on past slights, watching everything, always seeing what other people have, scanning for other artists who are mentioned instead of you. Envy erodes your inner mind, leaves less room for development and, most important, for honest self-criticism. Your imagination is taken up by what others have, rather than what you need to be doing in your own work to get what you want. From this fortress, everything that doesn’t happen to you is blamed on something or someone else. You fancy yourself a modern van Gogh, a passed-over genius the world isn’t ready for. You relinquish agency and responsibility. Your feelings of lack define you, make you sour, bitter, not loving, and mean.
Poor you. Too bad that all those other “bad artists” are getting shows and you’re not. Too bad they’re getting the articles, money, and love! Too bad they have a trust fund, went to better schools, married someone rich, are better looking, have thinner ankles, are more social, have better connections, or use their connections, networking skills, and education. Too bad you’re shy.
A secret: Almost everyone in the art world is almost equally as bashful and skittish about putting themselves out there. I’m unable to attend seated dinners. We all do the best we can. But “poor me” isn’t a way to make your work better, and you’re out of the game if you don’t show up. So grow a pair of whatever and get back to work!
Lesson 27: Having a Family Is Fine
There is an unwritten rule — especially for women in the art world — that having children is “bad for your career.” This is idiotic.
Probably 90 percent of all artists have had children. These artists have mostly been men, and it wasn’t bad for their careers. Of course, women were tasked almost exclusively with domesticity and child-rearing over the centuries, not permitted in schools and academies, not even allowed to draw the nude, let alone apprentice to or learn from artists. That is over.
Having children is not “bad” for your career. Having children means having less time or money or space. So what? Most children raised within the art world have amazing lives.
As artist Laurel Nakadate has observed, being a parent is already very much like being an artist. It means always lugging things around, living in chaos, doing things that are mysterious or impossible or scary. As with art, children can drive you crazy all day, make you wish all this could go away. Then in a single second, at any point, you are redeemed with a moment of intense, transformative love.
Lesson 28: What You Don’t Like Is As Important As What You Do Like
Don’t say, “I hate figurative painting.” You never know when you will see a so-called figurative painting that catches your attention. So don’t be an art-world undertaker pronouncing mediums dead! “Painting is dead,” “The novel is dead,” “The author is dead,” “Photography is dead,” “History is dead.” Nothing is dead!
Lesson 29: Art Is a Form of Knowing Yourself
Art is not optional, not decorative landscaping in front of the castle of civilization. It is no more or less important than philosophy, religion, economics, or psychology.
Lesson 30: “Artists do not own the meaning of their work.” — Roberta Smith
Remember: anyone may use your art — any art — in any way that works for them. You may say your work is about diaspora, but others might see in it climate change or a nature study. Cool.
Lesson 31: All Art Is Subjective
What does this mean? We have consensus that certain artists are good, but you may look at a Rembrandt and find yourself thinking … It’s pretty brown. That’s fine! It doesn’t mean you’re dumb.
It does mean that while there is one text for Hamlet, every person who sees the play sees a different Hamlet. Moreover, every time you see Hamlet, it is different. This is the case with almost all good art. It is always changing, and every time you see it anew, you think, How could I have missed that before? Now I finally see! Until the next time it rearranges your thinking.
This brings you into one of art’s metaphysical quasar chambers: Art is a static, non-changing thing that is never the same.
Lesson 32: You Must Prize Vulnerability
What’s that? It’s following your work into its darkest corners and strangest manifestations, revealing things about yourself that you don’t want to reveal until your work requires you to do this, and never failing in only mediocre or generic ways. We all contradict ourselves. We contain multitudes. You must be willing to fail flamboyantly, do things that seem silly and that might get you judged as a bad person.
Lesson 33: Be Delusional
At three a.m., demons speak to all of us. I am old, and they still speak to me every night. And every day.
They tell you you’re not good enough, didn’t go to the right schools, are stupid, don’t know how to draw, don’t have enough money, aren’t original; that what you do doesn’t matter, and who cares, and you don’t even know art history, and can’t schmooze, and have a bad neck. They tell you that you’re faking it, that other people see through you, that you’re lazy, that you don’t know what you’re doing, and that you’re just doing this to get attention or money.
I have one solution to turn away these demons: After beating yourself up for half an hour or so, stop and say out loud, “Yeah, but I’m a fucking genius.”
You are, now. Art is for anyone, it just isn’t for everyone. These rules are your tools. Now use them to go change the world. Get to work!
The arts can be a lonely profession. So many hours of solitude, reflection, tapping into what’s deep in our hearts, and trying to channel our inner voices and create works that reflect our true values. Every day, no matter which direction we look, we see a world that is becoming more and more hostile, more divisive, and more violent. In response, we try to create a bubble around ourselves, shielding us from the anger, the injustice, and the fear. However this, in turn, can lead to feelings of isolation and detachment.
Creative people on the whole are much more sensitive to these external forces. We feel the pain of others, the negativity, the excessive bullying and the criticism. This so often can lead to self-doubt, feelings of inadequacy, and hopelessness.
It is in these times of uncertainty that it is most important for writers, artists, poets, photographers, and all other creators to speak out, to make our work, to dig deeper, and use our talents to speak out against the ugliness, the screamers, and the hatred, and to remind ourselves and everyone around us of the beauty and life that still remain and still belong to us.
All too often, it is the creative souls that are crushed by the loneliness, the mental anguish, and the feeling of having nowhere to turn. Sometimes just writing down your thoughts surrounded by people in a café or a library can help, or having a weekly phone call or cup of coffee with a friend to just check in. But sometimes, nothing seems to help, nothing seems to be enough. If you’re struggling with depression, isolation, excessive anxiety, or other mental health problems, there is no shame in asking for help.
Please, if you or anyone you know is suffering alone through mental health issues or suicidal thoughts, call one of the numbers below for help.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration National Helpline
Crisis Text Line
Text “HELLO” to 741741
National Suicide Prevention Hotline
Being creative and productive don’t always go hand in hand, or in my case, they constantly argue and smack each other around a lot. As I continue to dig deeper into the creative process, I’ve found many systems centered around the Getting Things Done mindset and experimented with a good amount of them. Most are so “task-oriented” that they leave little room for brainstorming, spur-of-the-moment ideas and side trips, and just what I’m going to label as “creative freedom”. Now many people are very successful in writing down a list of tasks to accomplish during the day, and one by one checking off each one. I’ve seen pictures of several bullet journals that make me want to take a nap after just reading them. And if these methods work for you, I celebrate you for being so orderly and precise.
There are so many things that can be put on those to-do lists…things we need to do, ought to do, should do, might do, want to do… it’s impossible to ever get to the end. The entire day is spent just checking tasks off the list.
In his book Four Thousand Weeks, Oliver Burkeman has developed what he calls the 3/3/3 method. Here is a summary of his premise…
“Those of us who spend our working days doing things with computers and ideas and words (instead of, you know, actually building houses out of bricks, or something) face the omnipresent challenge of how to organise them. My case may be fairly extreme, but at most points, each weekday, I could choose to tackle almost any of the items on my plate – and while that freedom is exhilarating, it’s also daunting. This is where it’s useful to follow some rule for structuring the day, like the 90/90/1 Rule, or the Most Important Tasks method, to name two I’ve found beneficial.
It’s not that any one rule is the objectively right one. These aren’t natural laws. But a simple heuristic is useful because a) it makes it easier to decide what to focus on; and b) for reasons that remain slightly mysterious to me, it provides much more motivation to actually do what you intended. In that spirit, I offer a rule I invented – or, if I’m honest, cobbled together from various sources – and which has served me well for months now. Following an intensive process of focus grouping and brand development, I’ve named it the 3/3/3 technique.
Every normal working day, my intention is:
• to spend three hours on my most important current project, having defined some kind of specific goal for the progress I aim to make on it that day;
• to complete three shorter tasks, usually urgent to-dos or “sticky” tasks I’ve been avoiding, usually just a few minutes each (I count calls and meetings here, too); and
• to dedicate time to three ‘maintenance activities’, things that need my daily attention in order to keep life running smoothly.
1. It’s non-comprehensive in terms of tasks. It’s not a grandiose attempt to find time for all the things I’d ideally like to do with the day; nor is it an attempt to organise every single thing I do most days (family activities, phone calls with friends, housework, school runs, etcetera). It’s just an effort to pick a handful of things that matter, and to try to ensure that no matter how the day pans out, they get done. On a good day I might do more. But that’s extra, not part of the plan.
2. It’s intended to take less than the time available. Most weekdays, I get about eight hours to control largely as I wish, and it’s no coincidence my 3/3/3 activities account only for about six of them. This isn’t a foolproof way around Hofstadter’s Law (Hofstadter’s Law: “A task will always take longer than expected, even when Hofstadter’s Law is taken into account.”) But it does mean I don’t embark on each day as if on a tightrope walk, needing everything to go exactly right in order for me to make it through the plan.
3. It’s loosely structured, not overstructured or unstructured. I’ve reluctantly come to accept that while I’ve used and preached it in the past, and admire those who stick to it, rigorous “time-boxing” – assigning a specific task or type of task to every hour of the workday – isn’t for me. One of two problems always arises. Either things don’t go as planned, and I find it hard to roll with the punches by repeatedly revising the plan. Or things do go as planned, and the plan starts to feel oppressive; I resent having to spend the day trudging my way through it. The 3/3/3 method gives shape to the day (for example, I know I need to do those three focal hours before anything else, or they’ll never get done) without boxing me in.
The most revealing thing about the method for me, though, has been how it functions as a form of “active patience”, training me to be satisfied with accomplishing less on any individual day as a way to accomplish more over the long haul. It’s tempting to disdain a plan as modest as 3/3/3 on the grounds that you can’t possibly afford to get so little done each day – so you adopt a far more ambitious plan instead, or simply dive in without a plan, intent on (say) writing for seven hours straight, or blasting through your admin backlog.
“The man who works so moderately as to be able to work constantly,” wrote Adam Smith, “not only preserves his health the longest, but in the course of the year, executes the greatest quantity of work.” Yes, doing less is a way to be kinder to yourself, and to be more present to the world around you – but paradoxically, it’s also an excellent way to get more done.
I’m currently using this method of trying to be more productive with my time and add an additional hour a day for reading. It keeps me moving forward towards accomplishing my goals but feels less restrictive than the more rigid methods. It also encourages a more positive mindset and continued focus on the end goal. At the end of the day, it’s more about what did get done than all the little things that didn’t.
There are times in our lives when we become so absorbed in our daily activities and routines that we often forget to pick up our heads and see the special people and things around us. We’ve gotten so used to seeing them, that we no longer see who and what is really there. Instead, what we do see is the dust on the pictures hanging on the walls, the pile of papers building up on the table, the stack of unopened mail in the kitchen, or the shoes forming a pyramid at the front door.
It’s so easy to become distracted and unfocused with our overextended schedules and the massive amount of information that the world presents to us relentlessly. Just processing all this information can leave us drained and inattentive.
Sometimes it’s necessary to take a step back from our lives to see what’s right in front of us. Often, all it takes is simply moving these things from where they are for us to notice them again.
A few suggestions for seeing things in a new light…
1. Rearrange the paintings and artwork you have hanging on your walls. You loved them when you bought them, but when was the last time you really noticed them? Move them around and replace the ones you aren’t crazy about with something new.
2. Switch out some family photos on the walls, tables, or mantle with more recent ones. Or better yet, take some new pictures this weekend, frame them, and put them out.
3. Move some of the furniture around. Start with a few smaller pieces, and create a new cozy reading area or an inviting conversation nook.
4. Change some of the things you have displayed. That crystal clock your mother-in-law gave you that you never liked but felt compelled to leave out? Replace it with a bowl of shells from your last trip to the beach, that sculpture you picked up on your vacation, or maybe a pretty wine bottle that you and a loved one shared.
5. Put the piles of papers, unopened mail, and unread magazines in some matching baskets or bins. They are much less visually distracting, as well as more manageable.
6. Take everything off your bedside table. It’s the last thing you see at night and the first thing you see in the morning. Replace only what you need, and a few things that inspire you or have special meaning.
7. When you do have the time to dust or clean, you don’t always have to put things back exactly as they were. Move things around and you’ll have a better chance of noticing them.
8. Get rid of all those half-finished projects you have no intention of ever finishing. Hide them in a closet, give them to someone else, throw them away…give yourself some space and remove the stress attached to them.
9. Replace those generic office supply storage containers on your desk with some favorite objects. Dad’s coffee can from his workshop makes a great pen holder, Grandma’s teacup is a perfect paper clip holder… Have some fun finding and using things you have and love.
10.. Take 10 minutes out of your day to really see someone important to you. Pay attention as they speak, hear what they’re saying, watch their expressions. If they can’t be there in person, make that phone call. Tell the people in your life how important they are and that they matter to you.
Life can easily get overwhelming and distracting. Take a few minutes to clear your mind and your space. By simply moving things around and surrounding yourself with the people and possessions that matter to you, you’ll find it much easier to change your focus to what is truly important, and with that, gain a much better perspective on your life.
The following are excerpts from the book Daily Rituals-How Artists Work by Mason Curry. He has researched and documented the rituals, routines, and daily practices of some of the greatest creative minds in history, from Benjamin Franklin to Beethoven, from Silvia Plath to Picasso. We all have our own individual ways of summoning the muse, of flexing our creative muscles, of getting our brains and bodies aligned to do our best work. Here are a few examples of how some well-known creative individuals spent their time.
Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995)
The author of such psychological thrillers as Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley was, in person as solitary and misanthropic as some of her heroes. Writing was less a source of pleasure for her than a compulsion, without which she was miserable. “There is no real life except in working, that is to say in the imagination,” she wrote in her journal. Fortunately, Highsmith was rarely short of inspiration; she had ideas, she said, like rats have orgasms.
Highsmith wrote daily, usually for three or four hours in the morning, completing two thousand words on a good day. The biographer Andrew Wilson records her methods:
Her favourite technique to ease herself into the right frame of mind for work was to sit on her bed surrounded by cigarettes, ashtray, matches, a mug of coffee, a doughnut, and an accompanying saucer of sugar. She had to avoid any sense of discipline and make the act of writing as pleasurable as possible. Her position, she noted, would be almost fetal and, indeed, her intention was to create, she said, “a womb of her own.”
Highsmith was also in the habit of having a stiff drink before she started to write- “not to perk her up,” Wilson notes, “but to reduce her energy levels, which veered toward the manic.” In her later years, as she became a hardened drinker with a high tolerance, she kept a bottle of vodka by her bedside, reaching for it as soon as she woke and marking the bottle to set her limit for the day. She was also a chain smoker for most of her life, going through a pack of Gauloises a day. In matters of food, she was indifferent. One acquaintance remembered that “she only ever ate American bacon, fried eggs, and cereal, all at odd times of the day.”
Ill at ease around most people, she had an unusually intense connection with animals-particularly cats, but also snails, which she bred at home. Highsmith was inspired to keep the gastropods as pets when she saw a pair at a fish market locked in a strange embrace. She eventually housed three thousand snails in her garden in Suffolk, England, and once arrived at a London cocktail party carrying a gigantic handbag that contained a head of lettuce and a hundred snails-her companions for the evening, she said.
David Foster Wallace (1962-2008)
“I usually go in shifts of three or four hours with either naps or, like, you know, fairly diverting do-something-with-other-people things in the middle,” Wallace said in 1996, shortly after the publication of Infinite Jest. “So, like, I’ll get up at eleven or noon, work til two or three.” In later interviews, however, Wallace said that he followed a regular writing routine only when the work was going badly. From a 1999 radio interview:
Things are either going well or they’re not going well…I’m working on something now and I just can’t seem to get it. I flounder and I flounder. And when I’m floundering I don’t want to work, so I invent draconian “All right, this morning I’ll work from seven-thirty to eight-forty-five with one five-minute break”- all this baroque b.s. And after five or ten or a dozen or, you know, as with some books, fifty tries, all of a sudden it will just, it will start to go. And once it starts to go, it requires no effort. And then actually the discipline’s required in terms of being willing to be away from it and to remember that, “Oh, I have a relationship that I have to nurture or I have to grocery shop or pay these bills” and stuff. So I have absolutely no routine at all, because the times I’m trying to build a routine are the times that the writing just seems futile and flagellating.
David Lynch (b. 1946)
“I like things to be orderly,” Lynch told a reporter in 1990.
For seven years I ate at Bob’s Big Boy. I would go at 2:30, after the lunch rush. I ate a chocolate milkshake and four, five, six, seven cups of coffee with lots of sugar. And there’s lots of sugar in that chocolate shake. It’s a thick shake. In a silver goblet. I would get a rush from all this sugar, and I would get so many ideas! I would write them on these napkins. It was like I had a desk with paper. All I had to do was remember to bring my pen, but a waitress would give me one if I remembered to return it at the end of my stay. I got a lot of ideas at Bob’s.
Lynch’s other means of getting ideas is Transcendental Meditation, which he has practiced daily since 1973. “I have never missed a meditation in thirty-three years,” he wrote in his 2006 book, Catching the Big Fish. “I meditate once in the morning and again in the afternoon, for about twenty minutes each time. Then I go about the business of my day.” If he’s shooting a film, he will sometimes sneak in a third session at the end of the day. “We waste so much time on other things, anyway,” he writes. “Once you add this and have a routine, it fits in very naturally.”
W.H. Auden (1907-1973)
“Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition,” Auden wrote in 1958. If that’s true, then Auden himself was one of the most ambitious men of his generation. The poet was obsessively punctual and lived by an exacting timetable throughout his life. “He checks his watch over and over again,” a guest of Auden’s once noted. “Eating, drinking, writing, shopping, crossword puzzles, even the mailman’s arrival-all are timed to the minute and with accompanying routines.” Auden believed that a life of such military precision was essential to his creativity, a way of taming the muse to his own schedule. “A modern stoic,” he observed, “knows that the surest way to discipline passion is to discipline time: decide what you want or ought to do during the day, then always do it at exactly the same time every day, and passion will give you no trouble.”
Auden rose shortly after 6:00 A.M., made himself coffee, and settled down to work quickly, perhaps after taking a first pass at the crossword. His mind was sharpest from 7:00 until 11:30 A.M., and he rarely failed to take advantage of these hours. He usually resumed his work after lunch and continued into the late afternoon. Cocktail hour began at 6:30 sharp, with the poet mixing himself and any guests several strong vodka martinis. Then dinner was served, with copious amounts of wine, followed by more wine and conversation. He went to bed early, never later than 11:00, and, as he grew older, closer to 9:30.
To maintain his energy and concentration, the poet relied on amphetamines, taking a dose of Benzedrine each morning the way many people take a daily multivitamin. At night, he used Seconal or another sedative to get to sleep. He continued this routine- “the chemical life,” he called it-for twenty years until the efficacy of the pills finally wore off. Auden regarded amphetamines as one of the “labor-saving devices” in the “mental kitchen,” alongside alcohol, coffee, and tobacco-although he was well aware that “these mechanisms are very crude, liable to injure the cook, and constantly breaking down.”