The Truth About Inspiration

Inspiration is overrated.

I know, I know... I'm an artist, right? I'm not supposed to say that.

I get asked from time to time: "What inspired this piece?" and I'm supposed to come up with a great intellectual explanation. I've attended workshops and art seminars on storytelling, and artists are rightfully advised to sell our work always with "the story" behind it. Be it fact or fiction, we must relay some sequence of events, preferably starting with obscurity to sudden clarity, as if that can somehow give rhyme or reason to a finished painting.

Can I be completely honest with you? I'm not really fond of the question. Not because I lack inspiration, but because my art practice is not a linear one. I paint in cycles. Often working on several canvases at once. Some end up in the proverbial trash bin, and others make it to the other side. And guess what? I have no idea which pieces will be the successful ones.

So, I'm just going to call B-S on the whole inspiration thing, and here's why:

And that inspiration, man, when you find it, you'll know. It's like love. And just like love, if there's anyone out there trying to give you a roadmap or formula, know that they're drinking their own Kool-Aid or straight up just making this stuff up. I reject the notion of a singular idea leading to a singular painting. That some genius idea grabs hold of us and doesn't let us rest until we execute it to completion, and then we are out of work until the next big idea strikes. 

Perhaps Chuck Close says it best:

So in the spirit of showing up and getting to work, I wanted to leave with 5 ways to consistently cultivate your creativity so that you'll be equipped the next time you find yourself slipping into artist block.

1. In the process

Cultivate your creativity in your process. Painting is one big playground. Give yourself permission to get out of your own way, relinquish control, and just go for it. I'll be the first to admit, painting a lot of times is just experimentation. When I'm painting, my subconscious chatter probably sounds like: "I wonder what would happen if I place this color here, or scratch out this layer, or add in this texture?"

So many times, I am just so inspired by the process itself. I'll have a song stuck in my head, or a line repeating from a book I'm reading, or I'll be in the flow and random memories will just pop up into my consciousness. And then, BOOM! There's the title for my next piece. There's the feeling I'll want to convey, or the end result starts to form and I'll know what to edit out and what to take up a notch. I guess what I'm trying to say is, painting is fun. And I don't have to have a reason to do it every time. Sometimes, just being with my paints on a white surface, a good cup of coffee, on a sunny studio floor is all the inspiration necessary.

2. In the hope

Cultivate your creativity in your hopes and dreams. In speaking of inspiration, another misconception is that the way a painting looks is how the artist was feeling at the time. Gosh, wouldn't that be convenient? If, happy paintings came from happy people. I deliberately use happy colors in my work and people often assume, "Oh you're so happy to create work like that." This couldn't be more further from the truth.

I've created some of my cheerful happiest paintings when I was depressed. Not always, but the two do not depend on each other. And what a relief it is to know that my work doesn't have to depend on my emotional state. I can tell you that if it did, my body of work would be all over the place because that is the human experience. We're not consistent. But I believe our deepest, core desires are. We all want to feel joy. We all want to be connected to the world around us. We all want to be loved. And so we can let that define our work, continuously and always about: love, connection, humanity. You don't have to paint what you feel, but you can use the process of painting to be a healing one, and arrive at a piece of art that will lift your spirits by the time your finished. And that, in my opinion, is the most empowering thing about being an artist.

3. In the rest

Taking refuge in Bali. April 2016.

Taking refuge in Bali. April 2016.

Cultivate your creativity in the rest. It seems counterintuitive, but pulling back and allowing yourself to live outside of the studio is very important. Go out. Travel. Spend time with family. Spend time with yourself. Watch a season of something ridiculous. Chill. It may not give light to a new idea, and that's okay. You might run into Stephen Colbert at your local Whole Foods instead. I've learned that creativity is a muscle, and while challenges like painting 30 in 30 days and showing up regularly can definitely build your endurance, you can overwork it. Rest from being so damn inspired. Rest from art. And searching. And feeling so fricking much. Because, man, are we a sensitive bunch.

4. Through your previous work

Cultivate your creativity through your previous work. This is super key. In fact, this should probably have been #1, but here we are. As an aspiring artist, in the beginning you're trying to find your style and your voice. And naturally, so much of that is looking externally. But a key turning point in your art practice begins the moment when you start to look inwardly. Truly inward. Your work starts to speak to each other. Especially if you're painting on multiple canvases at once (highly recommend), one painting informs the next. This is when you're truly independent as an artist. And the freedom that you feel in that moment, even if just for a day, is one of the best feelings in the world. You're feverish with ideas. And you can't paint fast enough because you're just so into your own journey. You don't have time to second-guess yourself. You're too busy painting your heart out.

5. Via your peers

This is a controversial, one. But yes, cultivate your creativity via your peers. I love Austin Kleon's book "Steal Like an Artist". I highly recommend you read it, but in the meantime, allow me to digress for a bit. 

My background is in Sociology. Fun fact, as an undergrad, I completed an honors thesis (literature review, data collection, worked on it for 3 years, and all that, y'all). I thought I wanted to get a Ph.D. and I still indeed love social research. But anyway, much of my training still affects how I think today. One idea that sticks is this concept of a "unique contribution". Every thesis candidate and research student knows this. Essentially, it's the idea of synthesizing all of the existing work out there, weeding through the noise, and deciding what's missing. What can be remixed or reworked for the greater good.

And so for that reason, I recommend looking at other art, especially in the beginning and look to not only what catches your eye, but the gaps, and what you think you could do better. That's where you can find your place. And that's how you steal like an artist.

This was a very long blog post. But I guess the simple message is this: If you're like me, you're probably still learning and enjoying every minute of it. You don't have time for lofty ideas about art. You've got nothing to prove but the work itself. Let the art stand on its own. And if people connect with it, it will be instant. And if not, that's fine. You'll move on to something else that lights you up inside. Because that's the thing, when it's real, you don't need an explanation.  You feel it. That's inspiration. That's the je ne sais quoi, and no one owns it. Not even me.

What are your thoughts on inspiration and how do you cultivate creativity in your day to day life? Share more tips below! 

 

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