In 2012 Neil Gaiman gave a commencement speech for the University of Arts in Pennsylvania. Neil Gaiman is a writer of novels, comic books, graphic novels, audio theatre and films. He was born in Hampshire, UK, and now lives in the United States near Minneapolis. Neil’s most notable works include The Sandman, Stardust, American Gods, Neverwhere, Coraline and The Graveyard book. He has also been honoured with many international awards. His speech is packed full of helpful advice for creative people.
I thought I would write this blog post and highlight many of the learning points l found in it.
“Instead of having a career plan, make a list of everything you want to do and just do the next thing on the list.”
“Goals are like mountains in the distance.” Set them and be clear what they are.
“Do things that feel like an adventure. Learn to write by writing. [For a painter, learn to paint by painting]. Stop when it feels like work.”
“A life in the arts, is sometimes like putting messages in bottles on a desert island, and hoping that someone will find one of your bottles, open it and read it, and put something back in a bottle that will wash its way back to you: appreciation, or a commission, or money, or love. But you have to accept that you may put out a hundred things for every bottle that winds up coming back to you.”
“Nothing I did where the only reason for doing it was the money, was ever worth it.” If you do things you’re proud of and if you don’t get paid, at least you will be proud of your work.
“The problems of success. They’re real, and with luck, you’ll experience them all. The point where you stop saying yes to everything is because now the bottles you threw in the ocean are all coming back, and you have to learn to say no.”
“Write fewer emails, write [and paint] more.”
“Get out there and make mistakes.”
After you have finished copying things remember, “The moment that you feel that, just possibly, you’re walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself. That’s the moment you may be starting to get it right.”
“Do the stuff only you can do.”
“You should enjoy it, let go and enjoy the ride. Don’t worry about the next deadline or the next idea.”
“Make up your own rules.”
“Pretend that you’re someone who is already successful… and pretend to be wise.”
“Make good art!”
“And now go, and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break the rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make good art.”
I have a modern house and l love having modern art on the walls. I try to make my art collection personal to me.
I also enjoy spending time in London visiting museums and galleries. I appreciate having time to look at a variety of artist’s work and considering their different styles and types of work. Artists are generally in the know and are usually very helpful. I also try to go to alternative spaces to meet artists. I learn a lot by talking to artists and uncovering who they admire and who influences who, and what they think about other artists. If the same name keeps cropping up l take notes and do my own research on them.
I often go online to find which dealers are working with particular artists. I sometimes go on Artnet.com to see the prices that artists sell their work for, it gives me a better understanding of the art market.
I like to visit art school on their open days like the Royal College of Art or the Royal Academy Schools. It’s an added advantage to spend time in an art school, l may come across a piece l like and try to remember it’s been done before. Having knowledge of what has been done in the past is particularly important if you are looking to buy or make modern art.
I listen carefully to the advice l get from galleries, curators and collectors. Personally, I’ve never used art consultants but l have heard that they can be very helpful. I don’t follow trends, l like what l like. I am interested in art that is personal to me.
On entering my studio, I often find myself in a low emotional state, where I am not in the mood to make work. This often happens when I have rushed around to get the kids to school, tidied up and done some basic housework. On those mornings I feel worn out before the day of work has started. I am very conscious that I am tired and overwhelmed with life and it all pressures. However, I am also often determined to try to move out of this negative state of mind and get back to being productive.
I have realised that by preparing what I am going to do the night before, as explained in a previous blog post, helps me to know what to do first. But sometimes my energy is so low not even this is enough to get me going.
In order to wake me up and change my energy levels, l find a hot or a cold shower helps to reinvigorate me. I follow this by sitting in an upright position and focusing on controlling my breathing. I think about what I am grateful for, what I appreciate and what makes me feel alive. I appreciate my relationships, I have a lovely family and happy place to live. I am grateful and lucky to have the opportunity to be creative and paint regularly in my studio. The last part of this re-focusing is to go for a short walk to remind myself of my conviction as an artist. A change of location can make a big difference. I feel the sun, wind or the rain on my face. All this takes no more than 30 minutes.
The real trick is to do more of what works and less of what doesn’t. My unconscious mind needs time to sort itself out. I need space to pose open questions concerning my next piece of work. I mull over issues and gently filter out my distracting, conscious thoughts. This process stops the excessive focus on myself and feels like a reset and a physical transformation. It creates a natural high until I can’t wait to get back to work and I haven’t got a moment to lose.
I always felt I excelled as an artist when I painted, ‘Hopes and Fears’. The idea and success of ‘Hopes and Fears’ seemed to come out of nowhere. I started painting, and the result just happened. It just seemed to work without a lot of effort. I had painted one of my greatest accomplishment to date, and now I want to understand its success so I can reproduce the results.
I had been overthinking about what was working within my art. I kept trying and became confused. Then I slowly began to realise that when I am not trying to reach a solution, when I’m in the shower or going for a walk, ideas pop in my head. I slowly learnt to realise that I need to get out of my own way to allow my creativity come through.
1. Remove the pressure I put on myself
It took time to realise that l need to remove the pressure l put on myself. If a solution to a problem is not apparent, I need to try to stay calm and have a clear mind. If my thoughts are racing, a walk, mediation or a stretch, helps. Another way to remove the pressure is to carry out a simple, unrelated physical task, this helps me to halt the tendency of over thinking and trying to find a solution. Once there is no pressure my mind becomes comfortable, and my natural creative side leads the way.
Sometimes it can take six months to realise how to move a piece of work forward. If this happens, I often turn the painting to the wall and work on something else. I now have many paintings going on at once, so it is no longer an issue.
2. Studio time is play time
I look at studio time as a way to challenge myself and play. I find it is exciting to stretch myself and learn new things. I am often curious and try things I haven’t tried before. I find that this outlook enriches my world and my work.
2. Artists don’t need to know everything
It took me a long time to realise I don’t need to know everything. I only need to be competent in the area I am working in. It is more important to understand how to be creative and how to get into the creative flow.
3. Creating problems
When a designer works, often they are given a brief, and they need to solve a problem and come up with a solution. Instead of addressing a problem I am trying to create one.
4. Holding things back
I want the viewer to come to the work with their life experiences and baggage, and see what they see. I want them to be intrigued by my work. I look to create ambiguity so the viewer has reasons to ask questions. I am not laying all my cards on the table; I am holding things back.
5. Nothing goes to plan
So many times I have wanted a painting to go well and too often nothing to goes to plan. I have learnt to come to terms with this and change my expectations. My new outlook tells me to expect everything to wrong. Then when a mistake happens I think maybe it has happened for a good reason, and I wonder if l can learn something new from the error. This change of outlook means I can now quickly put it in perspective. If this does not work I ask myself these questions. Can I save the situation/work? What are learning points? Can I repeat it and do it better next time? How long will this take? Do I need to quickly move on and forget about it and do something else?
6. There is a key to success in every failure.
7. After a successful painting, I ask myself can I develop a series?
Sometimes a piece of work cannot be repeated. But I often consider if I could add slight changes and repeat parts would l then be able to make a series!
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I have often encountered problems in the studio. It has taken me a long time to realise how to put it in perspective and move forward quickly. I might have an issue with a painting, and the next step would be unclear, and I would sit there contemplating ideas to solve it.
I have learnt to realise that at a certain point, of staring at the painting, I am not going to find a resolution in that moment. I now reach a point when I know I need to move on to another piece of work. I usually have two to three different art projects or paintings running side by side. Now I turn the painting to the wall and move on to the next one.
I have heard the phrase, ‘it is best to sleep on it’, many times, but now I do. Within a few days or weeks, a solution normally comes to me. I have been aware the dilemma resolves itself in my head, but I was unclear how until I read, ‘Sleep Smarter’, by Shawn Stevenson.
In Stevenson’s book, he explains the benefits of relaxation and rejuvenation when we are asleep. After he looked into many scientific investigations and is confident that a good nights sleep with lots of REM sleep cycles helps you to;
improve your efficiency,
organise your memories,
process the day,
and make better decisions.
Apparently when we sleep there no longer the usual biases and preconceptions that we have when we are awake from our conscious mind. We can make more informed choices to resolve a solution. We can think through new ideas, thoughts and directions where we can take our work. That explains why, when I have blank moments, like when I’m in the shower, a solution jumps out from my subconscious mind.
In studies, after twenty-four hours of being sleep deprived, it is likely you will make twenty percent more mistakes, and it will take fourteen percentage longer to do the exact same thing. When we are being creative and wanting to make favourable decisions being sleep deprived prevents us from making good choices and being effective. When we force ourselves to make decisions when we are tired we often do things, that will need re-doing at a later date.
It is also not related with how much sleep we get. More sleep does not necessarily equal better sleep. Quality is much more important than quantity. Stevenson suggests a list of quick tips that help improve the quality of your sleep;
A caffeine curfew at noon. (Caffeine lasts 8 hours in your body),
Exercising in the morning is the best time to exercise,
Avoiding blue light from your screens and device by having a screen time curfew, where your not looking a screen 20-60 minutes before bed. Other helpful, useful technology tips include using the Flux app or Apple devices with night shift built in to reduce blue lights before bedtime.
To prevent feeling exhausted establish an evening bedtime sleep ritual, where the bedroom isn’t an entertainment hub. Taking a bath or reading light fiction helps me to create a sleep sanctuary, giving your mind time to unwind.
If you’re in interested in learning more please read ‘Sleep Smarter’, by Shawn Stevenson, it was worth a read.
I am always looking for ways to improve my output, whether I want to be creative or when I need to complete business tasks. I recently read ‘Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule‘ an essay by Paul Graham. Paul Graham is a blogger, computer programmer and entrepreneur. He is known for Lisp, his former startup Viaweb (later renamed, Yahoo! Store), co-founding the influential startup accelerator and seed capital firm Y Combinator. Let me explain how Paul Graham’s essay helped me refine my time to help me be more productive, especially in the studio.
Paul Graham’s Maker’s schedule relates to computer programming. His maker’s schedule is generally about scheduling creative time, an uninterpreted period of about half of a day. As an artist, the idea of a makers schedule helps me to keep my studio time and business tasks separate. The night before or at the start of each day, I like to write a plan of what I want to achieve. This way when I walk into my studio I begin with the creative time.
The Manager’s schedule is cut into appointments of around an hour long, sometimes longer, sometimes shorter. Business tasks generally require a closed mind as there is little creativity. When working on business tasks or managing a project, it is important not to let them stray into your studio time as this can be a time and energy killer. I have learnt to batch business tasks or managers tasks into blocks which l use for emails, social media activities, meetings and admin tasks. I try to schedule these tasks to be completed in the afternoon or evening.
During the studio time I have found that there are two extra categories within maker schedule, not mentioned in the essay, that apply to the way I work. When I am trying to solve a problem I need to be creative and in an open mind frame. It can be hard to get into the state of creative flow; but once I am in it, interruptions would spoil my artistic output. I need to be in a relaxed, less purposeful mode where l am more contemplative and playful, allowing my creativity mind to take over. Sometimes I just need to look at my latest work and contemplate the next step and the future direction to take.
Often when I am away from the studio, my mind subconsciously continues to play around with solutions. Part of the reason I like to plan before I reach my studio is so that I have time to consider the direction my work is heading before I arrive. If my mind is given time to wander on different subjects my brain makes connections. Although this to time ponder the problem can be uncomfortable, I often acquire the confidence to know what direction to take my work during my next studio visit. This allows me to work directly on the task with highly focused intensity and resolve issues.
There is lots to be done every day. In the creative open state, sometimes my mind wonders on to business tasks or things going on in my personal life. Any job or thought that interferes with my creative flow has the potential to stop me achieving my most important goal for the day, which is always to make new work. I keep a pen and paper nearby to write these thoughts and ideas down so I can get them out of my mind and resolve them later. This approach leaves me content and happy that I have focused on the most important thing first and to leave the other stuff till later.
It took me a while to figure out this solution to my artistic day, but it all fell into place once I had read this essay and had time to think it through. Case in point, when I take my mind off my studio work and am finished for the day, it is amazing what creative breakthroughs I have achieved. I hope you like these thoughts and this link to ‘Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule’ helps. Please read my related posts;
One of the lessons and obstacles I have learnt to deal with is being a perfectionist. Over the years I have visited many galleries and museums and enjoyed looking at other artists work. I use to look at other artists work and compare my work to theirs. But l now realise that looking at other artists work and comparing mine to theirs is counterproductive.
Instead of being helpful the visits made me focus on my insecurities as an artist. I would ask myself; Am l talented? Is my work good enough? And, what if no-one likes my work? I was creating an impossible mindset to overcome. These thoughts were very destructive. However, I slowly came to realise I need to accept what I do and who I am by making my studio free of judgement.
Self-judgement is a learned behaviour that comes from living in our type of society. By comparing my work to someone else’s, I not only noticed that my work was not perfect, by someone else’s standards, I observed that l had changed my standards. These thoughts made me confused as to who I was making the work for; an audience or myself.
By thinking my work was not good enough against someone else’s standards, it was impossible to be playful and enjoy what I was doing. Without the freedom to play and take risks, my work had become stifled and dull.
To be an artist, I realised I need a lot of self-belief. I needed to bring excellence to every I do. By measuring myself against myself, rather than against others l came to realise that art is not like sport, it is not competitive; it is subjective. I needed to reassess what I see as good enough.
I now know that when I go to a gallery, it is useful to compare my thoughts and processes to other artist’s but not their output. I realised that if I wanted to make successful artwork, I had to find a way through experimentation, trying things out and playing to improve what I have already created. Once I realised this, I was able to show up at the studio with a different intent. An intent to be present in the task and make better work than I did yesterday. From that point on I couldn’t help feeling good about my output and about myself.
It is amusing to me to remember how naive I was when I finished art school. I expected to be a finished article, ready to be able to take on the world. However, I slowly realised I had a lot to learn to be a successful artist. All I really had in place at this point were a couple of foundations. I had learned to resolve problems through experimenting and by researching.
I can remember trying to make a particular grass coloured green that would work well with other colours on a painting. It was very frustrating working on a painting and being pleased with the results and then completely spoiling the painting with the wrong colour; in this case, green. I mixed cobalt blue with cadmium lemon. Instead of arriving at the right mix, I had a dullish green mix on my palette, once applied, it destroyed my painting.
I was already aware that complementary colours such as red, purple, blue, green, yellow and orange, create the colours around the colour wheel, these complementary colours can bring out the inherent characteristics of each other. But when it came to improving the colour harmony in my paintings I need to build on my knowledge.
I researched and read about the differences between student and artist quality oil paints and their depth of colour. I realised to lift my paintings to be true, vibrant and durable I needed to spend more on my materials. The outcome of this was that I stopped using student quality paints. I researched the classic palettes that artists have used for centuries and filled in the gaps in my selection of paints. I acquired the classic palette with artist quality paints. Titanium white, cadmium yellow, cadmium red, ultramarine blue, yellow ochre, raw umber, burnt umber, burnt sienna, venetian red, indian red and ivory black.
I realised I needed to experiment with colours to see their real characteristics and this can’t be carried out while the paint is still in the tube. Not only do I need to be able to see the colours; I need to know what proportions to mix them in to give the shade, tone and hue I require.
To resolve the problem, I spent a few hours creating colour swatches for my studio wall. My first task was to make a value scale of cobalt blue with titanium white. By varying the saturation of colour, I created a tonal value of one to seven. One being the lightest and seven being the darkest. I extended this with other blues to see their tones and shades.
Through this simple task, I was able to understand the attributes and the properties of the colour. I completed this for all my colours. It enabled me to make a better selection and create a more harmonious colour scheme in my paintings; well almost…
I soon realised that I was now able to choose the right colour in a tube but what if I needed to mix paint to get make a particular colour. After all, there are millions of colours and in my classic palette there are only nine colours, plus black and white. I set about making colour swatches with all my blues individually mixed with all my yellows in value scales, so at least I could start with an understanding of green.
I expanded this further with other colours. With this simple guide of colour swatches, I resolved many of the problems I had been facing. I realised the only way to make some colours, like a deep violet, I would need to purchase that colour separately. By carrying out the task of creating colour tests swatches, it has helped me to remember colours a lot better.
I had solved the problem through research and experimenting to get a better understanding and knowledge of my palette and the colours that were possible. This has made the process of choosing the right colours to mix together a lot easier. It certainly helps to make me feel more confident and decisive when using colour to invoke the physical, physiological and psychological responses I am looking for in my paintings.
If you talk to people who procrastinate when in the studio they will often say…
‘First l have to travel to the studio. Then l change my clothes, so l don’t get paint on them. Next l usually choose some music to listen to and make a cup of tea. Somehow, l need to unwind and turn my mind off from all the stuff that’s been happening in the week and focus on being creative. It’s hard getting started.’
However, if you talk to an artist who doesn’t have this problem, they might say, ‘you just pop into the studio and start drawing.’ If you then ask them about the steps involved, they will say, ‘there is just one step, you just get started.’
We all have this ability to make some things simple and other things complex. Daily success in the studio can be simple. ‘Just decide what to make before you get there, arrive and get busy. But it doesn’t mean it is easy.
Ernest Hemingway offered this advice to a young writer, “The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel, you will never be stuck. That is the most valuable thing l can tell you so try to remember it.”
The first thing I am drawn to do when I arrive at the studio is to check my phone. I have personal errands, reading the news, checking my bank account, paying bills, following up on loose ends, researching things of interest on the internet plus personal messaging and social media messages. If I walk through the door and allow myself to have unplanned time, I’m finished for the day before I have even started. All the personal errands need their own block of time on my calendar, later in the day so I first have 3 hours of quality studio time. If you notice your mind is making things complicated and stopping you from getting started, turn the dial towards simplicity in your mind.
I prepare a simple problem in advance that I can explore or play with when I arrive at the studio so there are no obstacles. I set up a clean sheet of paper and a form of inspiration like a photograph. This is often enough to prevent obstacles. The inspiration needs ideally to be a simple interesting problem to resolve through a quick sketch.
I have found it is important not to be judgemental about the outcome. If it is a mess, I can always do it again. There is no such thing as failures in my studio as I learn from every mistake. I am pleased if I have picked up a pencil I have started, that way it has been successful. Now I’m in the open creative mode it is easy to move on to something more challenging.
At the end of each day I organise my work with the juicy ideas laid out with your pencil and paints ready for your return, aswell as a quick piece of work to get me started. By leaving my work prepared for the next day, I just arrive at the studio and start working. There is no need to stop and reflect on what to do.
It also means that by preparing what you are going to do, you have the night to ponder it sub-consciously while you are asleep. Thereby allowing new insight to come forward without you having to think about it.
For further ideas about how other artists have developed strategies, I recommend reading the book: ‘Daily Rituals: How artists work by Mason Currey.
There are many challenges to making good art. I would like to share some of the problems l have overcome along the way.
When l was starting out as an artist l hoped that a fantastic idea would hit me like a lightning bolt! I thought to be a successful artist all l needed was one great idea. I now realise that for me, ideas work better when they come while l’m working rather than having an idea before l start. Pablo Picasso said, “inspiration does exist, but it has to find you working.” You need to trust that inspiration and creativity will be there when you get deep and into the flow of your work.
In the past self-doubt and my ego have often made me freeze in the studio. The impulse to freeze can be overwhelming, it feels like being caught like a rabbit in headlights when you’re not sure what to do next. I have come to realise that these feelings are perfectly normal and are to be expected. Previously, these freezes made me lose my way, but over time l have realised that everyone who is creative has thoughts and fears of failure at one point or another. In the Guardian Newspaper, Susan Hiller discusses her daily battle.
I realise by wanting to be successful as an artist; l am volunteering for self-doubt. Success comes to those creative people who overcome this problem. I have learnt how to get out of my own way, calm an overthinking mind, to channel myself to get back on with my work.
Part of the creative process is making mistakes and stumbling on the way through the process. Mistakes are essential to figuring things out and working out what works. Previously they have felt like the end of the world. I have learnt to adjust my mindset, and see these mistakes as beneficial learning opportunities to figure what doesn’t work. Now when mistakes or accidents happen, l understand that it was meant to be and l am able now, to quickly move on with a new sense of purpose, taking on board the newly learned knowledge.
I have also learnt about the importance of technical skills in making good art. I have realised however, that although technical skills are essential to make good art, it is much more important to know how to be creative. By learning how to be creative and how to get into the creative flow, it is possible to use technical skills to broaden your artistic output.
I recently realised that an audience is not initially drawn to your work because of your idea. Through creating, when the object and making become inseparable, the resulting work is much more intriguing than a big idea. An artwork is successful when it communicated something to its audience that the audience relates to and understands. My potential audience and hopefully collectors will buy into my work because they know why l made it, instead of what and how l made it.
When I’m feeling self-doubt, when things don’t go my way or when I’m overthinking, the best advice l learnt through these challenges is to get out of my own way. There are no short cuts to making good art, just lots of small steps along the way. So get working, make mistakes and enjoy the process. Like everything in life that is worthwhile, it takes hard work and perseverance. Making good art is about finding your unique voice through your artwork and figuring out why you want to make it. By communicating the ‘why’ through the work you can make better sense of this world, and make good art!
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