What is the single worst advice you have ever seen when it comes to making art?
For me, it’s from the book “The War of Art.” I literally could not finish the book, so disgusted was I with the premise.
Here’s an army person saying that you will feel resistance, and if you give up, you weren’t fighting against that resistance hard enough. Booyah!
I mean, it sounds like it could be true, right? Do you want to achieve something? Then you have to work hard! Fight for it! Only then will you succeed!!!! Which makes sense as he was in the army. Of course, he would see everything as a war.
Maybe this is true in hugely competitive fields, where you climb a hierarchy. In sports, for example, you want to be the best, and you are competing against others. You want to train harder, eat better, et cetera, all in service of that achievement.
But I genuinely believe this book and this idea are harmful to artists. Having to fight and compete is the polar opposite of what I think artists have to do. Let me explain.
There are other ways of competing. For example, imagine that you invented an entirely new sport. You would instantly be the best at it worldwide, simply because no one else was doing it. You are the only one doing that sport, and therefore, you are, by default, also the best at it. You are instantly the world champion.
This, I believe, you can do with art also. You can develop your style, your voice, your expression, and show your unique vision, say something about the world that is uniquely your point of view, told in your unique way, and you are immediately not competing against anyone else anymore.
You are immediately the best at it.
And there are so many things no one is trying yet! I was thinking just the past month that Webtoons has shown how vertical scrolling can be a great experience for reading comics. But you don’t have to do that on Webtoons! You could do that on a blog. Or, you could let people read a vertical-scrolling comic in a newsletter! No one else in the whole wide world is doing that yet! If you did that, you would instantly be the best newsletter email comic in the world!
Back to the topic of whether creating should feel like a battle.
I have been coding for many years. It was an obsession for me, an addiction. I would code at work, and then after work, I would go home to code some more. I was addicted to it but in a good way. It felt like a game, like completing levels. And enjoyable activity. I didn’t feel resistance! Ever!
Tell me, what do you do if you don’t enjoy playing a computer game? You quit playing that game, of course, and you find something you DO want to do. You don’t force yourself to keep playing; you don’t FIGHT that so-called resistance! You listen to it!
And THAT, I believe, is the right way to pursue an activity. You have to make it feel like play. Be a child again.
1) make it an activity you enjoy, like with games, where you enjoy every second because of the great gameplay because it’s such fun to handle the controller; find the drawing tools you enjoy drawing with.
2) Finish things. This is like the equivalent of completing a level. It feels gratifying to do so. You get a rush of endorphins and feel good. It feels like defeating a level boss in a game.
3) If you do feel resistance, then listen to it! Don’t fight it! It’s your subconscious trying to tell you something. Maybe switch up materials, draw something else or try a different medium even for a while, like sculpting or writing. The silent, creative part of your brain tries to tell you something, but it can not express itself in words.
Betty Edwards’ book “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” explains that you draw better if you clear your head of words. There is this silent part in your brain that you can then start to listen to. You feel it getting excited about beautiful lines. And it will try to tell you when something is wrong. It just can not do so with words, like your rational part of your brain, that loud, opinionated know-it-all that is always talking loud. Listen to the silent part in the brain, don’t ignore it! Your brain is trying to tell you something! Make changes. Maybe you have the wrong goals, or perhaps you are working in the wrong medium or with the wrong materials?
Don’t force yourself to keep doing something you don’t feel like doing! I mean, the whole purpose of making art is that we want an enjoyable life.
Why would you force yourself to keep playing a computer game you’re not enjoying? Why not make your art creation process as addictive as a game?
Here’s another thought: you can not compete against people who do enjoy the activity. I am sure Jimi Hendrix enjoyed playing guitar so much that he was addicted and couldn’t stop himself from playing every minute of the day he could. The best writers are probably as addicted to it as I was to programming.
Practice Drawing This is about drawing challenges. But should you force yourself to practice fundamentals if you don’t feel like it? NO! Rule number one is that you enjoy the activity. It is helpful to know the fundamentals, and it is beneficial to recognize when a fundamental needs work. Do you need to become better at perspective, anatomy, composition, pen, or brush control? IF YOU FEEL LIKE IT, you can maybe practice it some. But don’t practice it so much that you don’t feel like drawing anymore. Let it go and try again later.
If you ever see a child learn, it is quite a sight. They often try something, fail the first time, almost succeed the second time, and then do it the third time as if they had always done it that way. They know certain things are over their head still, and they are okay with that. They keep playing.
They don’t know they are learning, by the way. They think they are playing.
Most things we learn through play.
Some things we don’t learn through play. Children have to go to school to learn to read, write, and do arithmetic. You don’t learn that by yourself. You need a teacher to guide you with that.
The same holds for art fundamentals. Learning these is something you have to put effort into.
But children should be able to play too. And as an artist, you need to play too. Too much school and children would suffer. Too much fundamentals practice and an artist would suffer.
I firmly believe that artists do need to learn the fundamentals over time. These are the skills you will need in the future, no matter what you do.
We all need to be able to read, write and do arithmetic even if we just want to go shopping for groceries.
Learning the fundamentals helps you express yourself more accurately as an artist, so I firmly believe that artists must understand them.
But you don’t have to learn the fundamentals FIRST before you become an artist! You ARE already an artist. Dip your toe into learning the fundamentals occasionally when you feel like it, and discover an area where you want to become better at expressing yourself more accurately. But don’t let that overshadow the fun and play.
Be like a child again. Play! Tom Fox says something interesting in his Domestika course: they are just lines on paper, don’t worry too much if lines come out wrong! And indeed, children don’t worry if things come out wrong. They don’t stop drawing. You don’t stop playing computer games when you fail at a level! It’s just a computer game! You have fun with it and try again!
The War of art suggests that art creation is a war, that you should go into it as a soldier, as a marine, and I respectfully beg to differ. You should be like a child. Art creation should feel like play.
Don’t be a soldier. Be a child.
As an example, I just had eight new ideas for blog posts just this morning! They just came to me and I wrote them down. However, often, I can’t come up with ideas for blogs, and then I just go do something else that inspires me at that moment, like drawing or programming. I don’t force myself through that resistance. That’s frankly a stupid idea! I play, I have fun, and then one day my Muse whispers eight blog post ideas into my ear and, inspired, I write them out in one go.
Don’t fight like a Marine! Play like a child.
This week, try to do the following: each time you feel resistance to start working on your art, give in to that resistance, but replace it with a creative endeavor you feel like doing. If you want to draw, but you don’t feel like it, maybe you feel like writing? Or perhaps you would like to record a podcast, or do origami, or create a new recipe, or sculpt, or maybe you feel like making music or singing or dancing?
Make sure it is something creative and that you are actively working on it and not just passively consuming media.
It’s a bit like being a child again. Children live in the moment; they enjoy the moment. They decide every moment what they would like to be doing. Try to be like that as an artist.
Listen to the so-called resistance. Your brain is trying to tell you something. It is trying to tell you it wants to do something else. So do something else creative.
As you probably know, I have a certain fascination with the possibilities online provides for artists to re-use the art they made. And also that I love to cartoon. And this week, I was contemplating combining those two.
The New Yorker is still the main “market” for cartoons, and they innovate in this area also. In the past, artists would submit ten or so cartoons a week and the New Yorker would maybe buy one off them. Later, they created a website where companies could license cartoons, essentially re-using the cartoons.
Relatively recently, they came up with the idea of a cartoon caption contest which is a huge success and also artistically interesting! People submit thousands of captions every week. Thousands. For just one cartoon. Imagine the potential for cartoonists! Drawing a cartoon can be a day’s worth of work, but generating cartoon caption ideas, I am finding, can be done much quicker if the cartoon is right.
The New Yorker is doing it so that their audience can engage with their brand. The people who submit captions really feel like they are part of it, contributing to the iconic magazine in a meaningful way, adding to the canon and history of that monumental institute.
But I got to thinking; could it be a handy way for cartoonists to generate many cartoons by thinking up many different cartoon captions for the same cartoon?
I went to study what was going on there. They choose a cartoon that has some conflict in it somehow and that has something really strange happening. The trick is then to find captions that make sense of the situation in some odd way. After that, you should only select the funniest ones of course.
And I’m having a ton of fun with it!
I’ve just started as you can see. But to give you an example; this cartoon:
(You can add your own text to the gift cards for this one.)
They may not be all that funny. In fact, maybe none of them are funny. But, multiple captions for one cartoon, as an idea, I think has potential!
It suddenly also makes it possible to create evergreen “content” that you can use for timely events also anyway.
I am having fun with this. And we’re supposed to be having fun with this, right? I am just playing around with things other people are not trying. And maybe there is a good reason they are not doing this, but I am having fun with it anyway!
It’s the very opposite of the drawing-from-observation type of representation as with cartooning, you try to do the exact opposite and you try to turn everything into a symbol instead. And it’s refreshing and feels liberating to do something that you're not supposed to be doing. Artistically, at least! Don’t go breaking any real laws!
I mentioned Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards, still the very best book to read for people who are looking at getting into drawing.
I wrote here about trying to be like a child again.
This post discusses how you can make things more fun by gamifying your art process.
Next article: Should You Go To Art School?
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