This is an excerpt from Art Inc.: The Essential Guide for Building Your Career as an Artist by Lisa Congdon Published by Chronicle Books, 2014. To learn more about how to make a living as an artist, join Lisa for her CreativeLive class, Become a Working Artist.
As an artist you have the opportunity to create your own unique stamp on the world. This is the artist’s voice and it’s a mixture of message, style, and technique. Everyone has a different process for finding his or her voice. It’s not something you can simply learn through books or study. It requires you to pull from deep inside yourself to find what moves you and to express that through what you create.
Developing your voice can be a lifetime journey, a continual process of discovery and reinvention. As you get older, your values and drives may change and you may learn new techniques—and all this affects your voice and the work you create. Everyone’s progress will be different, and there is always a bit of trial and errorinvolved. If you create work that doesn’t feel authentic, that’s also an important realization—and helps eliminate what you shouldn’t be doing.
Create Art for Yourself
Often when you start creating art, there’s a common misunderstanding that there is one correct way to paint a picture or throw a pot—that the process you learned is the method everyone is supposed to use. Your initial technique will likely be a great foundation, but make sure it doesn’t become so fixed that it locks you into just one style or even subject matter. It’s an incredibly liberating moment to start making work that reflects your identity and core aesthetic—not that of your teachers or your classmates.
When making art, it can feel scary to change your work even slightly, especially if you are used to doing things in a particular way. But doing something differently, however small, automatically pushes your work to a new place. You can take small risks by using different colors than you normally use or adding or subtracting a medium. It might mean trying a new subject matter or narrative. In the process, you may discover that you need to take even larger risks. The results of these risks are what will set your work apart.
Push Through Difficulty
My painting teacher used to talk about the “painting curve,” a line that looks like the letter U. He said that when you begin a painting (or other form of art), you are at the top of the U. Things look clean and wonderful in the beginning. But as you develop a piece of work, it often gets messier; that is the bottom of the painting curve. He insisted that working through the bottom of the painting curve—the point at which we think our work looks horrible or awkward—is critical to making good work. Working through the complexities of a piece to the point where it looks and feels wonderful again—rising back up to the top of the U—helps develop your technique as well as your unique voice.
Find What Inspires You
Inspiration does not always come to us in a flash. We often have to go in search of it, especially when we feel stuck. Finding inspiration means discovering the things that make you excited—even when they have nothing to do with your art practice. If you go on a trip, you might find inspiration in architecture, landscapes, or traditional patterns found in old cultures. Whatever speaks to you, infuse these visual stimuli from your life into your work.
To work through anxieties or find out what ignites your interest, it helps to carry a journal to do daily entries. Maintaining a journal with both written and visual thoughts is a long-standing tradition among artists that helps you ignite creativity and work through blocks. There is no right or wrong way to keep a journal. You can use a book with lined or unlined pages; it can be a written diary with stream-of-consciousness thoughts or a purely visual notebook with pages of drawings. One thing that is helpful, though, is to choose a journal size that is portable, so that you can carry it around with you. Make a habit of writing or drawing in your journal every day. Some days you’ll have only a quick five minutes and other days a whole hour to devote to it. Don’t worry about whether your writing makes sense or your ideas or drawings are any good. Eventually a pattern will emerge that will help unlock your mission as an artist and even identify new avenues for exploration.
Take a Break from the Internet
To hone in on your voice, you must first abandon the messages in your mind that tell you how you should be doing something, so that you can free yourself to create art that is authentic to you. Sometimes we get caught in the trap of comparing ourselves to other artists. The Internet is a great place for artists to sell and promote their work, but it can also be a distraction. At any time, you can open your computer and have immediate access to the work of thousands upon thousands of artists. Looking at the work of other artists can be motivating, but it can also be intimidating. You might question whether your work is original enough or, conversely, whether you fit into any particular trend. Turning off the computer, finding your own inspiration, and exploring your own creative process may get you much further than studying the work of other visual artists.
Detach from Other Artists’ Work
Many artists go through a period where they feel a need to make their work look like what they consider “good art,” like creating work in a vein similar to their favorite contemporary artist or the work of an old master. Consciously or unconsciously, artists may initially hold ideas about what is acceptable and good and what is not. To carve out your artistic voice, you’ll need to detach yourself from images of what you think constitutes successful work. This might mean a period where you avoid looking at the work of other artists on the Internet or books with images of your favorite work. “Pay attention to your inner compass,” advises artist Josh Keyes. “It’s easy to get caught up in the speed and blur of social media and exterior influences and expectations. Get to know your center and what propels and ignites your creativity.”
To learn more about how to make a living as an artist, join Lisa for her CreativeLive class, Become a Working Artist.