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How to be an artist

A friend/former student called yesterday with a pressing question for me: how to be an artist. It’s lucky she didn’t call a couple of weeks ago. I hadn’t been doing much work for a while, too much going on in my life: the wedding, trip to visit Tamar, Dan’s surgery, my exhibit in Antigonish, and general preoccupations with life itself. Now the show is up, my studio clean (but not empty), Dan’s health improving, the wedding festivities over, I’m drawn to my studio, to paint. I was in my studio cleaning up after a very productive morning when she called. So painting thoughts were foremost in my mind.

My first response was to tell her to be stubborn. Do it, make art, stay with it. Then it follows you must have self-discipline. This may not be what you want to hear but it is what you need to do. If you don’t make the art, no one else will. Students probably didn’t hear me but in most of my classes at NSCAD, I would begin by saying the best thing I can teach you is self-discipline. Actually, that may be no different than being stubborn. Set aside the time you need to make art and don’t let anything interfere. Don’t answer the phone, don’t make dates, just make art.

This takes a belief in yourself, that you can do it, whatever it is that you want to do. It doesn’t mean every piece you are working on is what you want it to be, or even good. It just means you know you will make that great work eventually. There were years, many, where I didn’t produce any work I thought was good. But I still believed that I would, soon. Soon took a long time to come and a lot of inferior work happened during that time. There were many paintings I thought were really good, had something important about them, and then later I realized they were just stepping stones and not really very good at all, not what I wanted them to be.

Then there is the issue of how to take criticism. With your work out there, it is inevitable. Someone is probably not going to like what you do. There is also probably some truth in what they say. So it is worth listening, thinking it over, placing it next to how you feel, learn what you can from it and going about your work with as much enthusiasm as possible.  There were times when people would tell me to stop working on a piece when it wasn’t what I wanted. I would keep at it and often it would die. I realized that the energy people were seeing early in a painting was what I needed but not that content.  I needed to work the painting more without loosing that energy.  So their criticism was helpful, eventually, when I was ready to hear it.

Then there is the pragmatic side of being an artist. You need good photos. You need a physical presence not just having the work but also a presence on the internet. A website, a blog, whatever it takes to get your name out there. It is important to apply for grants, possibly take workshops if they appeal to you, join artist organizations, network.  And presentation is very important. As much as you can, buy good quality supplies, as archival as possible. Present your work with the dignity it deserves.

Make your work a priority. Don’t underestimate yourself. Most importantly: have a studio. A space to make it happen. This is where self-respect can blossom. Often people ask me how long I paint each day. I’ve begun saying twenty-six hours a day. Everything is food for the work.

Basically, you gotta just do it!


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