Motivation and the Right Stuff

Art is a tricky profession. You don’t show up for work every day with the promise of a regular paycheck and benefits, and a boss who keeps you on track with regular performance reviews and assignments. You never know when the paychecks are going to come, and staying productive and motivated is pretty much all on you, with the caveat that a lot of people are watching and giving input on what you should be doing. Knowing what motivates you is key to a long career, and what motivates you is also responsible for the growth of your art.

I’ve been focusing a lot on my motivation to create over the past year, and how to keep it pure. It’s easy to get distracted by shiny things. You have a tough week in the studio and then 600 people “like” a painting on Facebook, and all of the sudden you have validation. You speak at a convention and have your name in flashing lights, or you get invited to a high profile museum show, and you think you really are somebody. You win an award at a show and everyone fawns over your work. Shiny things!

Adulation is a great confidence builder for those of us who struggle with self-doubt in the studio, but it’s also addictive. I believe that it can be the death of growth when it becomes an artist’s main motivation. I’ve experienced this cycle where you win an award and you’re on top of the world, and then you get rejected from a show and you’re in the depths of despair. It’s unhealthy, and it makes it difficult to create. My gut tells me that remembering my true motivation for painting is what should keep me somewhere in between those peaks and valleys, but the execution of that is the hard part. Those shiny things beckon.

I had a crisis of confidence about this time a year ago, as many artists do from time to time. My best-selling gallery closed, I was undergoing a transformation in my style, and everything I did in the studio seemed to be a struggle. I would do a painting I hated, and post it on Facebook, and get a zillion likes. The next week, I’d do a painting I loved, and post it, and get little response. I started to question what I was doing. “Nobody likes this, is the new direction my work is taking bad?? Everyone likes that, but I don’t – should I still do more paintings like that??”

I started to question my career choices. I had decided that the plein air scene wasn’t where I wanted to be. I wanted to do big studio paintings, and spend more time on my work. I wanted to do less paintings, but think more about my style and what I was painting. But as everyone posted photos of all the shows they were traveling to, I started to wonder if locking myself in the studio was a bad thing. “Man, looks like that guy is really successful, maybe I should be doing that?”

I decided to stick to my guns for a year and see how it worked out, and so I stuck my head in the sand a little bit. I stopped blogging. I did a lot of paintings that never got photographed or posted for anyone to see. I did what I needed to do to market my work, but I also spent a lot of time in my studio allowing myself to fail. People would ask me why I was riding my bike so much and not painting. I would laugh – I was painting, I just wasn’t posting. After a while, I started to see a lot of humor in it. “If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there…” is an awful lot like, “If an artist does a painting and doesn’t post it all over the internet, does it exist??” And in that humor, I started to see the farce of all those “shiny things,” and remember my true motivation for painting.

I’m in this long-term. I hope I have decades more to develop my craft. I paint landscapes because I love the land. And so I’m focusing on what moves ME. I spend a lot of time moving through the outdoors, on my bike, on my feet. And I spend a lot of time in my studio trying to translate what I see out there into a two dimensional image that might move someone the way the landscape moves me. Remembering this is what will keep me afloat next time I have a crisis of confidence (and I am sure there will be a next time).

I just watched a video interview with landscape master Clyde Aspevig that got me thinking about all of this again. Aspevig is a fantastic artist, and you can tell by his paintings and his words that he’s motivated by a deep love for and understanding of the land where he lives. He paints the landscape because he loves it, plain and simple. Not because that’s what sells, not because galleries tell him what to paint, not because he wants accolades or wants to be liked. This isn’t a guy who shows up at a lot of shows or teaches a ton of workshops. He’s not on social media. He’s outside, exploring the land and painting what he finds. And he’s successful because he’s a fantastic painter. His business model is a bit extreme (because he’s earned it with a long career based on selling solid work), and most of us have to do a lot more trekking around to sell our art, but I admire the pureness of his motivation.

I like being connected to artists across the world, and participating in shows, but there’s something to be said about tuning out the noise and coming back to yourself when you step up the easel, and I think that the best artists know how to do that. I hope I can too.

I think I just wrote this entire post to remind my future self to think about what matters the next time I get distracted by too many shiny things.