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.”
As humans beings, we have an extraordinary ability to recognise an image and label it. A silhouette of a person is instantly recognisable. A two-dimension shape of the figure is not human, but we can read it as an image of a person. I am interested in using this extraordinary ability to record and to explore the structure and nature of reality.
My new painting, ‘Empire State of Mind,’ has a lot to do with how my mind is working on and wondering about my instincts regarding perceptual information. I am trying to show and paint what I see. I’m not inventing; I’m investigating how things look. I’m an image maker, painting the previously hidden nature of things. I receive an emotional response from an image as I discover an optical relationship and create a striking composition. I have stepped away from the conventional representation of reality in order to be competitive with it. The deeper I go into this practice of painting, the more mysterious it becomes.
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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.
As an artist, my work is an extension of me. Each painting has its own interesting story to tell and I enjoy disclosing anecdotes of how the work came into being. A painting has its own power. When a striking artwork makes a connection and speaks to the viewer, it invokes a deeply personal relationship.
Everyone reads each piece of art differently. I find it very gratifying to discover how art lovers respond to my work. I love to hear different and engaging interpretations. I get an overwhelming feeling of happiness when I can see this connection occurring on a persons face as they light up.
Art is not about the potential value; what it costs or what it is worth. Art shouldn’t be seen a financial investment or a commodity. A vibrant, bold and skilful painting should bring pleasure and make you think. It should add an extra dimension to any room it is hung in.
Owning a piece of art is about looking at it and enjoying it. This emotional affinity creates a tremendous, heartwarming feeling. Once the purchase is made it becomes part of its owner’s life and integral to their home and their identity.
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After working too much I took some much needed time out.
As well as being an artist and working full time, in my ‘spare’ time l am also a RFU rugby coach for an under 10s junior rugby team. Rugby has always been an important part of my life. This year for our weekend away, our tour, we played a local team in Herefordshire, near Wales and we also went Paint Balling!
The rugby tour is an opportunity to provide memories that will last a lifetime. It gives the young team and Coaches a chance to get away from home; to get to know each other and build better relationships and teamwork. There are always many laughs and excellent camaraderie, especially when the boys and men are dressed up as Grannies, and Ladies as Granddads!
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;
With consumerism at the forefront of western society and seen as the purpose of life, we live to work, to earn and to consume, this is a significant part of our lives. However, I find myself drawn to expressing an alternative view of life through my art. Why do I paint..? I want to communicate what I see.
Although many people see painting as being based on traditional values and having a limitation to address contemporary issues, I believe that painting offers the challenge of finding new meanings. I see it as a way to create new insight and uniquely capture people’s imagination. Some people might see this view of painting as naive, that nothing is truly original anymore in this postmodern society.
But for me, other forms of communication don’t compare with the excitement of art. They don’t come close to allowing me the opportunity to look in detail at the interesting and unexplained things l see about me in this world of ours. I am interested in the position that a painter has in relation to the world. I discover things through painting. When I paint, I am looking at the history of art, the present and the future by painting myself and the world.
Through painting, I have a chance to investigate something that is evasive. I continually have to ask myself what it is that I see. I try hard to identify what it is, as it continuously slips. I never get a chance to see what it would be like if l did something else while painting because, what I love about painting is that you can’t undo the last mark. It is utterly instinctive, for me this makes the process of painting is addictive. I’m always hoping for improvement, but realising that grasping a frightening clarity by showing my true soul and that of the world is unattainable. But I keep coming back to try again. The question nearly always arises; do I risk spoiling it by continuing or do I start a new painting? I am a risk taker and painting suits my way of working and what I want to communicate. I love taking risks as l try to unlock the world about me.
I have a deep down urge to try to master a form of expression where I can communicate my unique view, where I am part of the painting. When I feel this, I feel like I am doing what I am here for. I get deep joy and despair, anxiety and confidence. I feel more alive.
This painting titled ‘A pocket full of dreams’. Take a moment to stop and think what this painting says to you. Pull back the curtain, to consider what it means to be human. In my view, people rely too much on words.
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.