I kind of cringed when I wrote that subject line. I used to think like this. In the past, usually when my art was not going so well, I would look outside of myself for answers. Maybe I hadn’t sold anything or was just feeling kind of unconfident about what I was making. It just somehow seemed that everyone in the world was doing better than me. What ever it is, sometimes when things aren’t going so well here, we look over there, to see what others are making.
And then, if you see art that you love and it appears to be doing all the things that yours is not, such as selling or appearing any number of ways, all better than your own work, it does seem logical that you just might make your work more like that work. In fact, you just might try, when nobody is looking, to copy that work.
And that is a problem. Not so much because, as we all have found out, it is not so fun, but because it is not at all the right path to lead you back to where you belong. Where you should be starting. Where you should be paying attention: your Art.
We need to be inspired. It is essential to look at others work. Especially work that is going where you would like to go someday. But we need to do it with a particular set of questions and goals. Ones that help us get the benefits of looking at others work but also keep us in our own artistic lanes. Remember there is something in this art that is calling you to it. And that is what we are after.
Here are the questions I use when falling in love with someone else’s art.
What specifically are the qualities of the admired art that attract you?
Really go deep with this question. Write down the specific aspects you admire.
Compared to your art… Is it more colorful? More loose? Is it the subject matter or the feeling of the finished work that draws you to it?
Does my art have some of these qualities already?
It might be possible that all you need to do is strengthen these qualities in your own work to improve it. In other words you just need to push your art further.
What would I change about this admired work if I were making it?
In other words what don’t you like about it?
In asking and then answering all three of these questions, you are framing this attraction in terms of your own art.
Let others work help inform you about where you want to go. The whole creative world is self-referential. All of us are influencing one another. The successes of others should inspire you. After all, if it possible for them, it is possible for you too.
Take a dive into what others are making, but do it looking through the lens of your own art. You always need to be driving your own car. Not somebody else’s. There is no room in their car anyway for you. Drive yours. Stay in your lane. Sure, listen to the radio as you go, but don’t try to become it. Just listen and let it inspire you as you go. It is the soundtrack to your movie. Your art. Your life.
I recently tried something new – I started working on a piece of canvas pinned to a wood panel. What ended up happening was totally unexpected and so cool!
Watch the video and let me know what you think – what happened when you brought something new to your practice?
In gratitude, Nicholas
I just started working on a painting and already it’s looking pretty good. The problem with this is that it’s too early for this piece to be anywhere near finished. In order to move forward I’m going to have to push the composition and in effect ruin the piece a bit. It’s always a bit scary to do this, but I know in the end it will make the piece stronger.
Do you ever have this with your work? What do you do when the piece starts to look good before it is truly finished?
In gratitude, Nicholas
I have just one thought this week and it keeps coming up again and again for me. It has to do with one of the primary, worthwhile reasons to make your art. It has nothing to do with what you hope to get out of it. Not monetarily. Not even notoriety. None of that.
And even though art making is what brings you alive it isn’t even about that part either.
Sometimes Art making is super hard and pushes you to your edge. Some days it feels like you are totally ill equipped to be even trying. Other days you feel like you and your art are on top of the world. But that isn’t the reason I am talking about either.
The reason is entirely outside of ourselves…
And this is it:
Making personal, authentic art gives the rest of the world permission to do the same.
If we have the courage to step it up, to actually investigate what, who and why we are, in connection to our art, then it offers, by example, the possibility for others to do the same. And this has a huge impact in the world.
What begins quietly in your studio by no means stays there. It becomes part of something moving, something bigger.
This shared momentum; this rising tide of creativity and possibility is the best place to be as an artist. I think most of you have experienced this place. The support and inspiration found by witnessing the success of others makes anything possible for the rest of us.
I know first hand that I first make my Art firstly for me but I also know that it is not just about making art for myself anymore. I also know I need to make it for you too. We need to make it for each other.
And that, makes it all even more worthwhile.
Art making is so often a process of adding, removing, and then adding again. I do this constantly with lines, which are some of my favorite marks to make.
Watch the video and let me know what you think – what are some of your favorite marks?
In gratitude, Nicholas
Have you ever noticed that when you are making your art and it is all working out that it is almost as if you are not entirely there? You are driving the bus but it seems like you do not have to try very hard. Almost like it is driving itself. Art making sometimes can feel that easy.
I love it when that happens but it rarely stays that way for long. If I overthink and concentrate too much I lose that ability to just let the art unfold naturally. Instead it feels hard and somewhat forced.
I realize I tend to tighten up when I am over focusing on a new technique or, perhaps, trying something I haven’t before. It seems like the making of the art just goes slower. It becomes more effortful.
However once I have learned that new something, once I have done it a few times it starts to become second nature again. I think it just takes time to integrate new information. And then I start to get those days that art making feels super easy again. It is like I am not even trying.
It reminds me of how I did things as a child. I remember just naturally getting involved in something, following my curiosity wherever it wanted to lead me. There was no agenda. No particular reason to do anything except for the simple joy of doing it. Everything was approached that way.
This is actually how I wandered into art in the first place. It was simply enjoyable.
I found this quote the other day by Pablo Picasso “It takes a long time to become young”
Which got me to thinking.
Maybe that is why it feels so refreshing to occasionally get totally in sync with our creativity. When our art just flows. It feels good, especially now, as busy adults with a world of concerns and long to do lists following us around. Maybe when we fall into that easy place where art making is simply effortless it is a reminder of what is still possible. The way it is supposed to be. Or rather the way it all started out being in the first place when curiosity and joy were simply enough.
The wonderful thing about fine art is that you get to make what you want. Making Art at its best is unbridled personal expression, free of concerns for making it a certain way or pleasing anyone beside yourself. There are very few things one can do in life that carry such freedom.
It is no surprise then, that when Art is made for someone other than yourself it becomes trickier. It could be a friend, an institution or a collector. Anyone peering over the shoulder of the artist, who has a vested interest in the outcome, can often make the creative process more challenging. It no longer becomes just about pleasing yourself, but becomes about pleasing others as well. If it seems hard sometimes to please yourself, then it becomes doubly so when others are on the sidelines waiting.
You might have guessed by now that I am mostly talking about commissions. Those projects that are often instigated by someone who has seen something you have made before, that they love. And of course it is no longer available, which makes it that much more desired. The only solution is for them to commission you to recreate it again – not as an exact copy, but something usually close.
The artist must now create in a different way. This new way of creating, this thinking is no longer solely the artist’s. It is easily affected by the wishes and concerns of the waiting patron. It can be very difficult to not think about the comments and concerns of the interested party who has possibly put thousands of dollars on your studio table. We all want to please. I know I do. Unfortunately this can stifle the creative process.
It seems so easy to point at something done previously, probably something done effortlessly and without particular thought, and think it can be remade again. This hasn’t been my experience. The second time around almost always becomes tiring or even worse, incredibly rigid and stiff.
Usually it is both, but since it assured a sale where there wasn’t one, I usually agree. It always seemed so possible, such a reasonable request. I am, after all, an artist. What is the big problem?
Over the years, however, I have become better at doing commissions. I actually enjoy them now. What really helped me was coming up with two rules, commitments to myself actually, that I now follow. If I do, then everything is much easier. Maybe they can help you too.
You have to be excited.
I never accept a commission unless I genuinely want to make this particular piece of art. I have to be somewhat engaged and in alignment with the premise. For example, if it is making something derived from very, old work I probably won’t accept the commission. I no longer make Art in the way I did 10 years ago. I don’t want to go backwards, so this is a definite no. It has to be current. In short, I have to be able to become excited about it. I know for certain if I am not excited, the art will fall flat.
Make it yours. Always.
The second commitment to myself is my personal guarantee. I tell myself that at any point and for any reason, if the client is not entirely happy, they are under no obligation to purchase. If they are not totally happy with the commission then I will keep it. This puts me squarely back in the driver’s seat of making the art according to just my sensibilities. It doesn’t matter at all if the client accepts it or not. I just have to like it so much, it must be so strong, that I would gladly send it to one of my galleries, or better yet, keep it myself. This painting, in other words, is made to please myself.
It becomes almost incidental that there might be a buyer waiting for it – or perhaps there is not. Strong work sells. If I love it, then someone else will too. And in the end the primary experience, the lion’s share of the value is not the price but the experience of creating something you actually really, really like. I get that regardless. It must be a win for me no matter the outcome.
Interestingly, if I truly love it, almost always the waiting buyer will too.
These two commitments seem obvious but it took me years to figure it out. Maybe you have a knack for doing commissions, a way that makes everyone happy. Especially you.
If you do I would love to hear about them.
In gratitude, Nicholas
As I’m getting ready for the next Art2Life workshop in Mallorca, I’ve had the pleasure of being able to ride my bike around a bit. I haven’t been riding with any kind of plan, and have just been going from one place to the next, enjoying things as they come along.
It strikes me that there is a parallel between riding your bike this way and art making, about the importance of being in the present and not dwelling on what’s next.
Click on the image to watch the video and let me know what you think – when you are making art, do you find yourself in the moment, or somewhere else?
In gratitude, Nicholas
I’m at the edge of the Western Sahara, where the desert meets the sea, learning how to kite board. The landscape is striking in its vast emptiness – for miles and miles there is next to nothing, just sand.
In this severe, sparse environment, I couldn’t help but start thinking about the parallels between this place and art making.
Watch the video and let me know what you think – I would love to know.
In gratitude, Nicholas
The steep path from the small Moroccan Berber village seemed like it was better designed for the local mountain goats than us. It traversed the dry rocky mountainside, zig sagging up and up all morning long till finally, it found it’s way to the very top. The pass. It was here, high up in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco that the small group of friends I was trekking with found something quite unexpected.
Instead of the usual summit marker made from gathered stones, there was a lean to shack. An open walled bus stop kind of a structure that offered a spot, out of the sun, to rest. This bench looked out over the valley far, far below.
No sooner had we sat ourselves down to rest, when there was a rustling noise and we were welcomed by a small, vibrant elderly man offering us, of all things, a glass of cold, freshly squeezed orange juice. Smiling, he pulled a cloth back from a tiny table. On it was a very old hand press and under the table was a huge sack of Moroccan oranges.
This man had gotten up before the sun rose and carried all these oranges up to this very, very high pass in anticipation of the small handful of people who, like us, just might arrive tired, hot and thirsty.
It was entrepreneurship in the most classical sense. Creating additional value of something – in this case a glass of orange juice, simply by offering it in a circumstance that increases its desirability. It was such a simple, beautiful idea. As I sat drinking my second orange juice, which by the way, was the sweetest glass of orange juice I have ever had, I thought about how this idea of scarcity, the notion that the value of something rises in direct relationship to the availability of that something.
Our art for many of us is that something. It is the single most unique thing that many of us produce. The numbers of works an artist can make in her life is limited. There will only be so many and then there will be no more. It is possible however, that a collector of art or a buyer who is interested in your art might well find something similar to your art. There are, after all, some many similar kinds of work of work out there.
I continued to think about this situation as I began my slow descent down the other side of this mountain pass. This successful orange juice seller is demonstrating an important principle that directly relates to the selling of our art…
Where our art is offered, matters. It is important to place, display our art in a place that enhances its uniqueness. In other words there optimally should be no other similar kinds of art anywhere near yours. For example pay attention to the venue or the gallery that might show your art. It is preferable that yours stands out and that there isn’t any art similar to yours.
Always push your art to be as unique as you are. Continue to pay relentless attention to making your art absolutely your own. Do what you love. It is essential that we leverage the individuality, the uniqueness of you. If your art feels like you, if you love it, it will be utterly unique based solely upon the fact that you already are absolutely one of a kind. If there simply is no other art quite like yours, then the buyer can only satisfy his / her desire with your art. Therefore, the likelihood of a sale is dramatically increased.
I bought that orange juice because there were on other options available to me on that mountain pass, and the alternative was just the same old warm water I had been experiencing all morning. Your art wants to be like that orange juice. Rare and utterly desirable.
How is your art different than any one else’s? This is a great idea to articulate. Go ahead and leave a comment below. It will be not only helpful for you but for other’s as well.
About the picture…this is the picture of the orange juice seller. He explained to us that one of the big problems he was having in his business. Sometimes his customers, who could not understand his broken English, thought he was saying the price of his orange juice was “fifty” dirham (the Moroccan currency) when what he was trying to say was the very similar “fifteen” dirham. And so they would not buy as they thought it was too expensive. I sat down and made him this sign for his stand, which restated the correct price. And this seemed to make him very happy.