Here comes my resistance. I’ve been told to do yoga every day, to play the piano every day, to write every day, to meditate every day, to exercise every day, and, yes, to paint every day.
I am not convinced that forcing oneself to do something—just do something, anything—is going to spur ones evolution. I see plenty of evidence to the contrary. I would not want to start churning out poorly thought out multiple versions of a stale inspiration just because I haven’t taken the time to generate a fresh original vision. I dig my heels in at the notion of painting just anything I see or think of, like the tourist who shoots hundreds of snapshots but composes none of them. Nothing against artists who copy themselves just to keep busy, nor against tourists who photograph everything—or the painters who resemble them.
I’m just not made that way.
I have more ideas than I know what to do with. But I suspect that maybe everybody does, they just don’t notice them or act on them.
A while ago I wrote about “just doing stuff.” I am not talking about that now. This is different. Taking on a project, and musing ones way through it is not the same as forcing oneself to take up a daily discipline. Picasso talked about starting a drawing and not knowing where it would go. That’s “just doing stuff.” I don’t recall him suggesting that anyone has to force herself into it.
There are many artists who work every day, and I am sure that on many days they are less than eager but they do it anyway. That’s fine. They don’t have to be forced to work against their will by some essayist. They are compelled by something else, and I think I know what that is.
You’re hot on the trail of something and you don’t want to stop. Sure, some mornings it is hard to get started, but what gets you going is a larger, internal purpose.
Look at live art, art that has stood the test of time, and you can feel it. It’s a powerful experience. You can sense that artist exploring, pushing ahead, and fully engaged. (And sometimes I don’t get that feeling, and those works leave me cold.) Those artists kept at it because they were almost there. They were on the verge of “getting it” and couldn’t let loose.
It’s the impossibility of actually “getting it” that keeps us going forever. If we ever got it and kept on getting it, things would become boring, because that could happen only if the task was too easy or we were deluding ourselves. Get bored, and we will have to force ourselves to continue—but we won’t get any better. More practiced, maybe, but not better.
Think of Monet and his haystacks or his Rouen Cathedrals. I get the sense that Monet said to himself something like, “I’d like to try that haystack backlit, or on a foggy day,” except he probably said it in French. I find it hard to believe that he forced himself out there to perform a drudgery. Maybe he did, but I don’t see it. Not in him and not in many dozens of other artists. Instead I can feel them swept along by a great purpose.
That, in fact, is what I believe makes a great artist great. A mission. Artists who have stood the test of time were in pursuit of a large idea, and were motivated by it. El Greco wanted to portray spirituality, Cezanne to signify solid form, Matisse to interlock great shapes of color. You can disagree with any of these interpretations if you like, but if I have incorrectly named their large goals, still my point remains that they had such goals.
It is purpose that motivates the artist to work steadily—not a magazine essay or quips about inspiration.
Picasso said “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” I disagree. Inspiration can occur at any time.
I just read in one of Robert Genn’s newsletters that Grant Wood said “All the really good ideas I ever had came to me while I was milking a cow.”
Authors on creativity commonly cite the shower as the birthplace of many of our finest epiphanies.
And, finally, consider the still-relevant 17th century French philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes. This prolific thinker received his best inspirations while lying in bed, which he undertook prodigiously. It was while flat on his back, watching a fly on the ceiling—or so the story goes—that he conceived the profound mathematical invention that linked geometry and algebra: Cartesian coordinates.
Inspiration is everywhere.
But “they” are right; inspiration is over-rated. And the muse does not motivate. That’s the other half of why it is pointless to sit around waiting for her—it’s too easy to just keep sitting and chatting with her!
So this is what it comes down to:
The casual artists, the hobbyists, paint for the pleasure of it. There is no point to forcing themselves to work because then it would not be pleasure. Leave those good people alone!
The more serious artist has a meta-purpose, a purpose behind the immediate purpose. If an artist feels that forcing herself to work is a good idea, then she must believe that her art has significance and value. She has to discover the meaning of her work—its mission—which will motivate production, and she will be compelled to report for duty regardless of her mood or level of inspiration.
Read, think, discuss, experiment, practice—but don’t let anyone tell you what to do every day. Learn how to stimulate your own inspiration and find your purpose; then action will come.