When a man knows he is to be hanged . . . it concentrates his mind wonderfully. Samuel Johnson
If you were to ask me for help getting started as a painter, you might expect to hear the following: "Experiment! Try new things! Follow your passion and see where it takes you!"
Nope. My advice would be two words: "Set deadlines.”
I know, that's a real buzz killer. Here you are, looking forward to being a free spirit in the temple of your studio, and here I am suggesting you act like a cub reporter in a newsroom. But hear me out--my words of wisdom are based on years of studying artistic angst, with myself as research subject.
Early on, I had an appreciation of deadlines. In art school, one of the most important lessons I Iearned was how to finish a project on time, even if it meant working from lunch until the birds sang outside my window at dawn. After graduation I supported myself with freelance illustration, and that provided more practice completing an assignment, not when I wanted to, but when I needed to. Then the time came to figure out how to make a living as an artist--and I floundered.
It occurred to me, alone in my studio, that no one cared whether I finished a painting—or, for that matter, if I ever painted again. The drive to keep going needed to come from just one person, and that was me. Yes, I had absolute freedom to create, but I realized I'd do nothing without some structure. I still needed the deadlines I'd left behind.
So I invented deadlines for myself. Finish four paintings in January, apply for three juried shows in February, approach two dealers in March. Then, finally, after a year of making them up, I had a real deadline from a gallery.
And I learned that, just like a hanging, a solo exhibit really does "concentrate the mind wonderfully."
Inventing deadlines is its own kind of creativity. It takes imagination to figure out a good next step to help our art develop. Maybe it’s creating a series of ten large landscapes, or photographing new work for a catalogue, or finishing a piece in time to show a dealer scheduled for a studio visit? I have time limits set right now for all these projects, and my guess is, I’ll blow right through them. I usually don’t meet my self-imposed deadlines, but that's ok. They keep me moving in the right direction.
Art is a completely self-motivated profession, and requires a degree of self-delusion. We artists need to convince ourselves over and over that someone out there cares if we start this painting, see it through to the end, and then begin another.
And, yes, whether or not we pick up our brush and get to work matters, to ourselves if no one else. We meet our most important deadline every day we try, once again, to make real the images we see so clearly in our mind’s eye.
The still lifes that illustrate this post are by Avigdor Arikha (1929-2010), who is considered one of the finest perceptual painters of his period. He worked only in natural light from direct observation, and set himself the deadline of finishing every painting in one session.
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