Previous month:
January 2016
Next month:
April 2016

February 2016

Missing Inspiration? Why 400 Sketchbooks Are Not Enough

Standing in the cookie aisle, I suddenly realized if I told the truth about where my inspiration comes from,  she wouldn’t believe me.

I could have said 18 years with over 400 sketch books and I still don’t have a handle on it, but I opted for the short answer. You know the cliché about 99% perspiration. Because, like many creative misunderstandings, people want to believe in the idea that their artist toiled away in seclusion before the epoch discovery that became their painting, and who am I to disavow them? Besides, the artist’s struggle is more like a selfie-battle that gets all tangled up in lofty ideals than it is a search for inspired perfection. But since this woman held emotional ownership in the painting, and recognized me between the Twinkies and Oreos, I did my best to maintain my artistic mystique.

So why is Inspiration so elusive?

Perhaps because we are really, really good about making it complicated. Take the idea that hard work and hours of effort go into that genius moment. Hard work is necessary - to learn and perfect skills, explore techniques, all that craft related stuff. But hard work has little to do with the real blocks to inspiration, which reside in our brains, in our addictions, and the fears growing out of misconceptions.

Why is it that we don’t believe in our own work?

When we let our brain take short cuts, we forget what we’re trying to do. Every day we are inundated with thousands of images, are constantly reevaluating our own ideas, and stressed out with the idea that a disinterested public isn’t going to give our work even the 27.2 seconds of looking at art that research says most people spend. It’s exhausting, and our brains go into auto pilot, making assumptions in an effort to function more efficiently.

Take Pinterest as an example. As an idea for honing creative skills, I have a love-hate relationship with my boards, neatly classified by genre. As a pre-screening tool, my brain loves the ease of scanning images and selecting those that grab my attention without any real effort. I can pin for twenty minutes and feel as if I’ve spent hours exploring the world of art. When people re-pin I get an idea of which artists are growing in popularity, and how many other pinners have boards similar to my own choices. It’s a reassuring form of crowd sourcing, proof of the evolutionary aesthetic choices that have become so popular in our culture.

But while Pinterest tells us we are in the mainstream with our visual preferences, it also kills the idea of originality. More often than not, after an hour of studying your boards you come away not inspired by the way other artists solve problems, but discouraged. When everything looks the same and it’s all been done before, might as well just kick back with a good book or the game. This could be a symptom of visual overload, since the brain can only absorb so much before it switches to something more interesting, or maybe it’s the playoff game or a really good book. But either way, visual overload is an inspiration kill.

And speaking of the brain

Our brain is basically a computer that entertains itself by solving problems. Some problems are boring, and others become boring when that auto pilot part of the brain informs the problem solving part that, oh, yeah, I’ve got all I need out of this painting. It’s one of the theories behind the ability of artists to engage the human imagination through deconstruction or a minimal amount of detail. Patrick Cavanagh says “Artistic license taps into the simplified physics used by our brain to recognize everyday scenes,” and this idea may be the reason why you can feel excited about a concept one moment and bored the next. Take the experiment by Niko Tinbergens with the chick and the “super beak,” or the distortions of Van Gogh.  Super exaggerated aspects in art can be disorienting to the eye, but trigger pleasure centers within the brain that humans find emotionally addicting. Without appreciating this battle behind the artist’s purpose of creating mystery and the viewer’s addiction to solving it, we end up solving our own mysteries. And mysteries solved are yesterday’s news.

Still not convinced?

Then why does your initial rough in with gestural marks and beautifully simplified values turn in to such a boring painting? Why the expectation of something wonderful that thrilled your artist’s brain fizzled when the messages got to your logic-controlled dominate hand?

And speaking of those fears and expectations

There is no denying it. On some level, everyone who has identified as an artist has also identified with the Big Experience. It’s all tied in with the flow, with artistic callings, with producing meaningful work. Art History does a good job of indoctrinating the culture and you have to admit, the romanticized version of creating some visual image in your basement with the power to change the world has kept more than one person up at night. So if you still harbor the idea that art is a form of a higher calling (which it still might be, but the idea and the goal can be crippling to your inspiration) here is a  quote from an entertaining, anonymous Art Handler when talking about the type of artwork he hangs: 

“I often deal with wealthy women. They usually fall into one of two categories: plastic surgery housewives or power suit business types…The first type doesn’t really know much about art at all and is … like, “Where do you think this should go? Does this look good with this?” The second type knows more about art but…I was hanging it in the living room as they observed from the couch. Their conversation for the entire hour was 40% plastic surgery and 60% cosmetics, with the occasional praise of the artwork purchased.”

So a quick answer about inspiration is impossible.

It is true that artists report feeling like the act of creating is essential to their identities. And the fear of not living up to that reality insures the safe zone, ignoring brain short cuts and allowing distractions and excuses to take away the blame. Believe me, you don’t need to hang in the Met. I’m relieved when someone tells me my work hangs on their wall and not still under the bed after fifteen years because they haven’t “gotten around to framing it yet.” (True story).

Realize that your brain tells you the painting is boring because you’ve solved all the mysteries. Don’t cripple yourself with unfounded fears of not measuring up, or meeting the expectations of others who don’t exactly count. Inspiration comes when you set a challenge for yourself, not from painting to the common denominator of crowd sourcing. Be mindful. Make friends with the addictions you feel and know that the emotions are real. They are yours. Use them to bring inspiration into your art.

For more inspiring ideas, stories, links and videos, please visit my Facebook page,  Ancient Artist: Developing at Art Career After 50