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.”
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.
I started my blog in 2016 as a result of wanting to write for myself. I put my thoughts, ideas and what I learned as an artist down into words. The fortnightly goal of writing has helped me develop a better understanding why I feel the need to make art and process the world. I am writing about this mysterious thing inside me. I am discovering who I am and this is leading me to grow as an artist.
The intention is to create a regular and fresh content. Enhancing my online presence and finding an audience and evoking a conversation about what I do.
The blog has helped me learn to keep my writing simple, improving my clarity and persuasion thereby enhancing my skills as a writer. When I review another artist’s work, I write to discuss my influences. I seek to communicate what their work means to me and my sensibilities. I do further in-depth learning about a great many subjects that influence my art process and informing my unique perspective. The whole method of communicating my thoughts and ideas is a gratifying experience. I am proud of the results; I hope you enjoy the posts.
When starting as an artist rather than waiting for a big idea, I took my camera to the city. I took pictures of everything and anything that interested me. I just pressed and released the shutter. When l reviewed my photos, l realised that l was naturally discovering interesting material. My ideas came from living, painting and repeating.
When returning to the city with my camera, l followed my natural curiosity and my ideas deepened and expanded. At times it was hard to choose which way to take my work. It was essential to review and understand what l had. I took many directions but kept returning to taking photos of the city and taking them forward by painting them on canvas. The trick is not to give up Helsinki Bus Theory link.
I realised over time that my original idea was chasing some obscure knowledge through a simple process that I could repeat.
I feel like I have been painting the same painting for ten years as now I realise that my original ideas just got the work started. The original idea is still in my work but it has changed and developed in ways l could never have predicted. My work has grown to portray something unique that help us to understand our life on this earth a little better.
These seeds begin to germinate in many different directions like a plant does when it is attracted to light and water. It has taken many years for my original ideas and intentions to bloom into flowers. Now the interesting thing is not my original ideas or intentions. It is that l have found my way to communicate; my unique voice and inclination. As my work has deepened and expanded, it has lined up with natural talent, unlocking bigger ideas. Bigger ideas that l could never have predicted ten years ago.
The point of this post is that it is impossible to know where your practice as an artist will take you. One of the biggest challenges is learning to trust the decisions you make and to stop doubting yourself. Instead, l have developed confidence in my inner voice even when l can’t see where it is taking me.
My advice is to play, as there is no such thing as a mistake. Anything can lead to a breakthrough. If self-doubt is getting the best of you put your trust in a process and live, paint, repeat.
Over time when you review your work a way forward should reveal itself. Trust yourself and your creative process. Rather than paying attention to your own intentions, pay attention to what the work actually does. When the thinking and doing come together the work becomes more convincing.
My idea of success is linked to what l have rather than what l haven’t. It is common to hear of success being tied to financial wealth. That isn’t success for me; profit does not drive my artwork. I have the opportunity to discover who l am, to find my own voice, to find my true self through my art. My goal is to make better work today than l did yesterday, it is as simple as that.
I finished university in 2006 and when l look at my early paintings l can see l have taken small progressive steps each year. Now over ten years later l know l have made significant progress. However, l feel as if l have been making the same painting for ten years, each time exploring my interest in seeing the body in space. The concept of finding what my personal gift is and discovering my potential is more exciting than any material needs. That is why l have chosen this life as an artist, or maybe it has chosen me.
I see being an unknown artist as a positive thing. It enables me to consider the long game, to build on each day and to go deeper to see what the ‘it’ is. Many of my paintings are built up gently in the studio. Each painting supports the next one, thereby pushing me forward in a positive way. I have a conviction, a commitment and the determination not to give up. I believe firmly in what l am doing.
By doing art for myself, l can avoid criticism and avoid making commercial decisions. This allows me to find a way forward without manufacturing art. The art l make is more about emotions than constructions, more about art and poetry, and less about resolved ideas. I want to make work for myself that l feel really passionate about, l don’t want to dilute my work. l want to make the decisions about what needs editing before the public see it. I want my work to be the best that it can be. I realise that this may divide the potential audience. However, once the work is made public, it could potentially turn me into a public person. I’m not sure that l want that to happen. I want to make work for a small audience that appreciates and supports my work. More importantly, I want to make the work for me.
I am a figurative painter, and I want to get close to the source. I want to make work within an intellectual framework inspired by my muse, my muse being my experience of the city. This framework is the key to the art within me, allowing me not to overthink what l am doing and allowing me to initiate an inner response, thereby preventing me from being distracted by my head or my ego, competition with other artists or self-doubt. Reflection comes later, after a period of time, when l can contemplate and think about what l have made.
I want to make art as good as it can be. My competition is with myself and being better than yesterday.
Art is about using your creativity to make new connections to things around you. The intention is to reconsider what you previously thought to give you a better understanding of what life is really about.
Creativity in art is really about playing and experimenting. Taking two random things and letting things happen. Being overly self-critical or self-conscious can prohibit a breakthrough. You’re not trying to re-invent the wheel; you need to encounter discomfort and ignore any fears and tell yourself, this is for me and try not to worry what other people think.
You could connect something banal like house bricks, reflecting coldness and the mundane, as a wake-up call to the excesses of capitalism like Carl Andre and his artwork, Equivalent V.
You take on some of the big topics, like immortality, life and death by linking the cycle of life, with flies living and dying in a glass box like Damien Hirst, titled ‘A Thousand Years’ (1990).
Or you could take up a skill like drawing, painting or pottery and just get making and see where it takes you. The trick is once on a path, you’re bound not to know where the work is heading. If you thought you knew where your ideas are going, your artwork is probably stillborn or dead and lacks any inside energy.
The Helsinki Bus Station Theory by photographer Arno Rafaela Minkkinen explains some interesting and worthwhile advice:
The Helsinki Bus Station theory:
Some two-dozen platforms are laid out in a square at the heart of the city. At the head of each platform is a sign posting the numbers of the buses that leave from that particular platform. The bus numbers might read as follows: 21, 71, 58, 33, and 19.
Each bus takes the same route out of the city for a least a kilometer stopping at bus stop intervals along the way where the same numbers are again repeated: 21, 71, 58, 33, and 19.
Now let’s say, again metaphorically speaking, that each bus stop represents one year in the life of a photographer, meaning the third bus stop would represent three years of photographic activity.
Ok, so you have been working for three years making platinum studies of nudes. Call it bus #21.
You take those three years of work on the nude to the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and the curator asks if you are familiar with the nudes of Irving Penn. His bus, 71, was on the same line. Or you take them to a gallery in Paris and are reminded to check out Bill Brandt, bus 58, and so on.
Shocked, you realize that what you have been doing for three years others have already done.
So you hop off the bus, grab a cab (because life is short) and head straight back to the bus station looking for another platform.
This time you are going to make 8×10 view camera color snapshots of people lying on the beach from a cherry picker crane.
You spend three years at it and three grand and produce a series of works that illicit the same comment: haven’t you seen the work of Richard Misrach? Or, if they are steamy black and white 8×10 camera view of palm trees swaying off a beachfront, haven’t you seen the work of Sally Mann?
So once again, you get off the bus, grab the cab, race back and find a new platform. This goes on all your creative life, always showing new work, always being compared to others.
What to do?
It’s simple. Stay on the bus. Stay on the f*cking bus.
So play and make random connections. These new connections you make are only significant if they generate new meaning. Use your intuition to sense which have potential and to figure out the best to communicate this idea to someone. Make art from what is around you and try to make a comment about the world.
When telling a joke, the funny part comes when two different separate ideas connect, generating a new meaning, similar to connections within a successful work of art. Remember art is wonder! It doesn’t matter if someone else likes it or dislikes it. What is important is that your audience can’t stop thinking about it. The possibilities are endless. And remember to stay on the f*cking bus!
I have an inherent need to communicate and express something. I am constantly looking for a new way to read the world to understand the physicality of forms. I see my practice as an exercise of being a painter/curator of moments of our lives; reclaiming a more agreeable melody, restoring, reordering and decluttering to focus on what is truly important.
By focusing on the space and the possibilities of structure and composition, I hope to emphasise the beauty and harmony from the chaos in the city, to invoke a new reading of its noise, movement and pattern. By revealing things through a slow open process, my work uncovers the importance of the positive and negative space. Where rhythm, colour and form play off each other, and each shape takes it configuration and meaning from the next, as a metaphor for the qualities of a seductive poem or an intriguing piece of music.
There is truth in the paintings as I try to deal with the present tense and how these ephemeral junctures were for me. A situation and context where discoveries and revelations happen. There is a layered time as I grapple with evidence of awkward moments, aspects of failure and changes of direction. Leaving the physical traces of responding to mistakes, that relate to intrinsic qualities of being human.
Often I think viewers look at works of art and immediately ask themselves why did the artist make this? Understanding the original idea or intention of why I made it defeats my ambitions for this artwork. Instinct led me to paint this painting. My aims are never going to be clear.
“the only thing that matters in art is what that cannot be explained.”
A person viewing an artwork comes to see the work with their own unique background, knowledge, and history. Art does not have a purpose and function like a design. It is not essential to try and understand why I made this artwork. The artwork now exists on its own, and it has to stand up by itself.
Everyone sees things differently. Two things are put together, and they create meaning. The best artworks in my eyes mean different things to different people.
Like Duchamp said;
“the artist has only 50% of the responsibility and that is to get the work out, it is completed by the viewer.”
I’m interested in this part of myself where this artwork comes from. The parts of life I am curious about exploring and that I am hung up on. I’m not in control of what comes out. Creativity is instinctive, and it is buried within me.