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Saturday, April 21, 2012

5 Ways to Keep Creativity From Becoming "A Job"

"Eggs Planted"
Oil on linen - 6x8"
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I recently posted about the pull of commercially driven work and how it can be a road that leads us away from heart-centered creativity.

Of course if you are a professional artist, a good portion of your time needs to be dedicated to commercial output, and if you are joyfully engaged in the process of creating this work, then you are lucky enough to have the best of both worlds. Yay!

What I want to focus on are solutions for the rest of us, those who feel the angst and discontent that can come with external parameters and pressures increasingly overtaking our creative space. Several of my coaching clients are professional artists, and it has been interesting to find that almost every one of them has brought this topic to coaching. Clearly it is more the norm than an anomaly - so I thought it would be beneficial to offer up some suggestions for dealing with it.

Earn Your Living Another Way
Okay, might as well get this one out of the way right out of the gate. If the compromises of making a living from your art are interfering with what you really want for and from it on a fairly regular basis, then maybe earning a living from it is getting in the way. It's possible the best choice is to find something else you love to do for a living that won't require the same kind of compromise, and free up your art making time to be a total playground - no rules, no parameters, no demands other than the ones you want for it.

What's that? Really bad idea? Okay, I hear you - the dream is to make a living at this gig. Hang in, got some other ideas:

One for Them, One for Me
Not a bad strategy - you paint one for the market, one for yourself, and repeat. Honour this intention and it's highly likely that more than half in the "one for me" pile will be better than the ones in the "one for them" pile, so you'll have more than enough commercial work, but without feeling you're painting in a box.

Intentionally Segregate Your Creative Time 
I have been on this path for a while now, and it is the best way I have found to paint commercially while still honouring what I want most for my art, which is to be continually growing and excelling. I consciously segregate my painting time. When I'm painting for the market, I don't try anything super daring, difficult, or out of my comfort zone. I stay within my skill level and strive for competent work.

Then I schedule painting time in which I am either painting a subject that is not likely to sell in my market (but I am captivated with), or trying something that is totally about challenge and skill building. If I thought about saleability in these sessions, I would have shackles on before I even started. Again the end result often winds up marketable, but it is the mindset while in process that is paramount.

Paint First - Schedule a Show Second
It seems to me the system is backwards. Current system: Commit to a show date with your gallery and then start painting for the show. The only reasons I can think this makes any sense at all are:
  • the gallery can slot you into their show schedule for the year and start advertising
  • the artist has a job to get done - read "discipline" - which (speaking as someone who has issues with discipline) admittedly is a pretty valuable reason to do it this way
  • ideally the artist is going to get a big fat pay cheque at the end of it - but no guarantee there
Those reasons aside, this is so far from optimal when viewed in terms of creative freedom it boggles my mind. Right from the start there are parameters: the number of paintings, when they will be completed by (this is the biggest killer of honouring the creative process ever - don't even get me started...), the general sizes they'll be, the subject matter, etc.

I have been thinking about this a lot lately and here's what I've decided makes way more sense. Paint the paintings first, whatever you want, however many turn out, as long as it takes, the only goal being to explore what's possible. Once you have created a body of work you're happy with - call your gallery and ask if they'd like to book a show. I'm going to test drive it - will let you know how it goes. :-)

Add a Creative Outlet That is Not About Commercial Work
In addition to your creative "work", I have found it is a real asset to have an avenue of creative pursuit that is completely outside of something you would try to sell. On those days (or weeks) when you feel stuck or stalled, it is a place to go where your creative flame can burn in a different way. Choose something that is fun and engaging, and most important - freeing. An added bonus is that your "real work" will definitely benefit in indirect and magical ways.

I have found a couple of wonderful creative outlets that I'll share in upcoming posts, and I'd love to hear if you have some of your own.


  1. My entire being quivers with the fact that I am doing everything you suggest here. With the exception of planning a show and I'll pull and Edith Ann on that one ... "I don't want to!"
    I can't wait to see what you will post regarding what you are doing as alternative creative outlets!
    You know I have been making cards ... kinda like scrapbooking, and people are shaking their heads at me over this! Oh well. I've toyed with pottery and now I'm wanting to play with mixed media. And damn it I'm going to!
    Great post, Liz!

    1. Hey Alice, the whole point is in the "Not planning" of the show - nothing to not want there - just painting.

      And you always do what you damn well please my friend...

  2. After not enjoying painting for a recent pre-planned and themed show, I came to the same conclusion you propose, paint first, on whatever theme suits me currently, and find a venue later. I don't know if it will work out, but it certainly is more fun, and more interesting. And I'm learning, which is, after all, the whole point. Thanks for a great post, Liz.

  3. Great subject matter...thanks for bringing it up, Liz.

    I think a lot depends on an artist's basic nature. I have watched in awe some artists who have produced the same commercially successful imagry for 15 to 20 years. Yikes! They are the lucky ones who have found it possible to accomplish this feat quite happily.
    In my case, no matter what the work is, I find it impossible for me to stick with the same thing day in and day out. If there are alternate routes I will drive a different route just for the heck of it. In my teaching , different methods are explored and individual techniques encouraged. In my own paintings I have always painted for myself inbetween the bread and butter work ...and have not wanted to share these intimate explorations.
    I learned a long time ago to save a good painting here and there. Having a show is much easier when your best work is already on hand.
    For a different creative outlet
    I will get into some form of a craft or more of a decorative form of painting.
    I am not a happy camper if I am not producing at least something...good or bad.
    Looking forward to reading your creative outlets so I can try something new.

  4. Thanks for the comments girls!

    Julie, I feel it depends a lot on what each individual artist's heart wants for their art, and I believe for some to be successful financially is their truest dream in this area. Bravo to them, they are following their dream and finding contentment and fulfillment. I feel for those of us whose heart primarily wants challenge in the spirit of growth and expansion, this formula just will not lead to happiness.

    As I'm writing this to you, it occurs to me that this is similar to humans in general – some will push way out of their comfort zones in pursuit of growth, and for others there is simply not a calling to do this.

  5. I enjoy your insights so much. They are so in line with what is going on with me and seem to always come at just the right time.This post is so serendipitous. I just got home tonight from teaching a two day weekend workshop where I surprised myself by telling the group this story. I think it is such an important lesson and you say it so clearly.
    Last May, I attended a workshop by myself and something shifted. I learned to give myself "permission" to do what ever it takes to make ME happy. (And to stop bowing to any "RULES".) Living at the beach that summer, I literally "hatched" a plan to do a series of paintings about "architecture in the light at the beach". There was no goal other than to challenge myself to paint bigger and freer and say what I had to say as simply as possible. I couldn't wait to work every day and was more energetic and excited about what I was doing than ever before. I felt so good about where this was taking me, I figured the paintings would end up somewhere. Then, out of the blue, I got an e-mail from the Copley Society suggesting I submit a proposal for a solo show in the Red Room. I got accepted last week and the opening is June 14! The best news about all of this is that I have no angst and no pressure. In fact, most of them are already framed! It's clearly a great way to work!
    Thank you so much for all your insight!

    1. So cool and inspiring to hear this Nancy - way to go! And for the record, I don't think anything is out of the blue. :-)

  6. Wow! Thanks so much for this post, Liz. I'm struggling so much with this right now. My market demands wildlife, which I find a bit tedious, and I love to paint figurative work...doesn't sell at all. So I've been trying to take the "one for them, one for me" approach...but in tourist season, it gets a lot harder.
    I also agree that we should paint the pictures first, and have the show later. The other way around is way too exhausting and demanding.

    1. Thanks Tahirih - perhaps for you the formula is "tourist season for them - off season for me."

  7. Absolutely LOVE what you are saying here Liz - so practical and relevant - keep it coming PLEASE and thanks so much

  8. Great thoughts! As a middle school math teacher and artist, much of what you said resonates with me. Thanks for sharing.