Today marks the beginning of Thing-A-Day month, and I have several hours of guitar lessons to teach after I get home from work, so I don’t think I’ll have time to draw or record a song before midnight. Instead, I spent part of my lunch hour compiling a number of rules I’ve come across over the years that help me stay sane and productive as an artist.
It isn’t done until you’re proud of it.
My friend Joe McDalno wrote this in a blog entry a couple of years ago, and it’s resonated with me ever since:
The world has a ton of artists, of art, of games, of bands, of professionals. The amount of stuff we produce and participate in is astounding. And, as a result, the world has no need of things which are good enough. And I reproach myself for going to press with something that I told myself was “good enough.” If it isn’t something that you’re unwaveringly proud of, there’s zero need for it.
What doesn’t enhance detracts.
I believe Henri Matisse said “whatever doesn’t enhance a picture detracts from it.” I’m sure I’m paraphrasing, but I couldn’t find the original quote after casual searching.
Make art you want to experience.
Don’t worry about being original, or if your work is derivative. All that matters is that you like it, that you’d be impressed by it if you heard it on the radio or saw it hanging in a gallery.
Create much, reveal little.
For every work of art I release for public consumption, there are dozens that no one but me will ever know exists. Even so, I should be a little more careful about what I release. Your audience will think you are as good as the worst piece you show them, so choose carefully. Maybe spend a little time removed from the work before you make the decision to let it out.
Find inspiration in the classics.
There’s a reason the classics are the classics. Helvetica is over 60 years old, Futura is over 80. Kerouac’s On the Road and Miller’s Tropic of Cancer are still subverting young men and women after half a century, and Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue will still blow your mind.
Don’t be boring.
You can be cool, elegant, sexy, flamboyant, dramatic. But boring will bore your audience.
Challenge your skills and polish your craft with each piece.
When you are writing an arrangement for the guitar, try to write something you can’t play without a little practicing. If you’re drawing something, and you always have trouble with hands or foreshortening, consider making those elements an important part of the composition.
Style results naturally from skill & taste.
Don’t worry about developing a personal style. You can’t help it. After awhile, if you ever get good enough, you’ll begin to see your style as a product of your limitations rather than your skill.
If you’re the best whatever, you’re in the wrong wherever.
You will learn little, and find little inspiration if you’re the best in your circle of friends. You need to be a bit uncomfortable to grow, and surrounding yourself by people who are better than you are at something you think you’re really good at is a great way to make yourself uncomfortable.
The only way to master anything is by doing it over and over again.
I don’t believe in natural, God-given talent. I’ve spent years teaching myself to draw and design, and have labored over countless mistakes. I’ve logged about 33,000 hours playing the guitar, over 20k more than the Gladwellian Virtuoso Threshold.
Speaking of Malcolm Gladwell:
Talent is the desire to practice.
Your art is what you do, not who you are.
I’ve had a lot of problems resulting from defining myself as an artist. There’s lots of ego inflation and deflation going on, and I think that might partially explain some of the weird mental states many artists find themselves in. You have to try to remember that being a great artist won’t make you a better person, it won’t make people like you more, and it won’t make you feel better about yourself. If anything, you’ll be so absorbed in your work that you’ll neglect those who love you, people will think you’re aloof and elitist, and you’ll constantly torture yourself over tiny details of theory and technique that most people, even most of those who participate in your particular discipline, don’t know exist.
I know it’s hard, but try to separate your self-esteem from your work. Don’t forget that the most important things in the world are relationships with the people you love. They’ll be the ones who pick you up out of the gutter of deep existential depression when you can’t seem to draw that nose quite right.
Make something every day.
Which is why you are here.
The day is the atomic unit of your life. If you make something every day, you’ll have lived a lifetime of making things. And, to me, that is a life worth living.