Motivation is a difficult subject, because it is so personal and varies greatly from artist to artist. Needless to say, there is no perfect regime or guaranteed recipe for productivity, and this is one of the most interesting things about art. Frank Auerbach famously took one day a year off from painting, until eventually he denied himself even this luxury. Meanwhile, Gerhard Richter has said, “I could spend my life arranging things. Weeks go by, and I don’t paint, until finally I can’t stand it any longer.”1
Nevertheless, it can be helpful to discover what works for other people, and so here are some guidelines – practical and psychological – that have helped me over the years.
To begin with the most general, to be motivated in the studio you need to be comfortable on your own. Being alone is an integral part of creativity, essential for the incubation and development of ideas. This isn’t such a problem when you’re desperate to paint, but most people find there are still times when being alone in the studio makes you restless. This is why I see painting as a form of meditation, with the aim of becoming totally absorbed, immersed in the moment. Generally a painting is going well when I’m completely lost in it: my mind doesn’t wander, I can hear myself breathing, and before I know it four hours have passed.
Thinking about your practice as a state of mind also helps with that other major psychological challenge – overcoming self-consciousness and the pressure of expectation. As Phillip Guston put it: “When you start working, everybody is in your studio—the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas—all are there. But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you’re lucky, even you leave.”2
For me the main question of motivation, then, is how to find this state, or how to persevere when it’s just not happening. Most artists will tell you they have certain habits and rituals to help them to ease into a painting. You can create focus out of familiarity by developing a routine. This is a sort of professionalism – think of Einstein who famously wore the same outfit everyday. Likewise, Bonnard began each day with a walk, to make notes and gather inspiration. Note-making and sketching is a great way of gaining momentum, as is looking through your sketchbooks. I also have a few pieces of music that help me to focus.
Obviously habits and routines form part of the wider question of discipline. You develop them as part of a long-term, consistent practice. Most artists agree that it’s a good idea to treat your work like any other profession and turn up each morning for work. Even if you’re not feeling particularly inspired, the act of going into your studio, just to see what happens or to reflect on your work, is good for your sense of resolve.
It is important, though, not to let discipline become an obstacle, a sense of obligation that confines freedom and creativity. You could think of discipline as a commitment to yourself. Furthermore, getting away from the studio at least once a week is important too. This allows you to come back to your work with fresh eyes, new inspiration, new solutions. So spend a day sketching somewhere else, or visiting galleries.
I should also say something about when paintings take a bad turn – when the euphoria disappears, replaced by an uncomfortable sensation in your stomach, and you feel defeated, like a beginner. Naturally, this is one of the most difficult parts of the process, but therein lies the answer – it is just part of the process. Remind yourself that you’ve been here before, and things will come right.
To emphasise this I stack the finished paintings that I think are successful around me in the studio, so that I can look for inspiration in my own completed work. I also make sure that before I end a session, I have a plan about what I want to do next, then I’m always mulling this over when I’m elsewhere – in the shower, or while cooking. This produces a sense of urgency to get back and resolve the painting.
Another time I find particularly challenging is being in between paintings. Finishing a painting can be like finishing a great book – you’re not quite ready to move on. This is when procrastination can set in and, in the absence of a project to work on, procrastination can quickly turn to self-doubt and despair. The simplest and most effective remedy for this is to have more than one painting on the go at any time. This means that when you get stuck you can turn to a different painting, and when you finish a painting you aren’t left with the sense of having to start again.
Finally, when struggling to get going or to find inspiration for whatever reason, something I can highly recommend is to keep a graphic journal about your life, much as writers use a journal or write letters to get their thoughts flowing. Doing this is not only highly therapeutic, but lets you reconnect your feelings and your creative hand in a context free from the pressure of serious work. You should value anything that reminds you the reason you are making art is because you want to.
1 http://www.nytimes.com/2002/01/27/magazine/an-artist-beyond-isms.html?pagewanted=3 2 http://www.thenation.com/article/shelf-life-philip-guston-carolee-scheemann-and-ilya-kabakov/