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 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!
If you like my post and would like to read more please join my mailing list here.
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 am taking positive steps to make me more productive in the studio including things like planning and reviewing what I am going to do in the studio before I arrive and creating some studio ground rules.
I have a list of current projects and series of work l am trying to complete. Before l go to my studio I write down a short list of next steps l need to take, often between two or three depending on long each one will take. This brief list is handwritten in my diary, so it is clear to follow. This way I know what my first task is, therefore avoiding beginning with an extended period of uncertainty. Of course, uncertainty when painting is always present, but I try to remove it at this stage with preplanning.
To choose the right tasks, I ask myself a series of questions; If l only achieve 2-3 tasks in a day what would these tasks be and would l be satisfied if l only get these done? If I made only one work of excellence, which one would make an enormous difference and have the greatest consequences?
To help keep my mind clear and on creative studio time I write down all the distractions l might encounter on a to-do list. Plus l avoid all office and business related tasks while in the studio to avoid all low-level activities. Even if these tasks are urgent, I still try to do them after my creative block of time of one to three hours. The creative time must come first.
The rules I have put in place while working are;
Phone on silent, select music quickly (if I choose to listen to any at all), no tv or video, no newspapers, no friends dropping by, no emailing, no internet research unless it is related to making my next work, therefore no diversions and distractions from the creative task ahead.
If you like my post, please join my mailing list for my monthly email newsletter or if you have any suggestions to improve productivity in the artist’s studio please comment below.