Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Keeping it Fun

An art student recently wrote to me with the following problem:

So the thought occurred to me yesterday. I was doing my quick sketch and portrait drawing yesterday and I realized my brain was turning to mush. It's not that it wasn't helpful; both classes are, but I just realized that I wasn't having fun anymore. It really dawned on me right before I went to bed when I told myself consciously to just have fun drawing. I felt like I wasn't even able to do that, because I just started looking at my proportions and line work and other technical things.

How do you keep this whole art making thing from becoming a chore, and remember to have fun, especially as a professional artist? —Missing The Fun.

Dear Missing:
It's a good question. We can get so wrapped up in the technical stuff that we lose sight of the fun of art, the things that got us hooked on drawing in the first place.

What I used to do to get away from the occasional dulling effect of art study was to go sketching at the zoo or to bring my sketchbook to the boxing match or the bus station. One thing that makes art fun is using it to connect you with unusual experiences and encounters.

For example, the day before yesterday I was sketching an old truck chassis in a rough neighborhood and three girls came up and one of them said, “You should be an artist!” Another said, “I can’t draw, but I can sing!” And then a mechanic came out and told me the history of the truck. I had a blast, because I had never drawn a chassis before.

If you can use some of those quick sketch and portrait skills to draw an interesting character that you meet, your brain will come instantly into focus.

I think it also helps if you can always be working on personal paintings driven by your deepest emotions, whatever those emotions are. For those pictures, put your attention on the feeling you want the painting to convey. You don’t have to show them to anybody. Listen to your favorite music as you work on them, and let intuition take over. Rationalism and analysis can help you develop your craft, but you have to stoke the fire of your inner artist too.


Dan Gurney said...

The little girl who remarked that you should be an artist has a bright future in human resources, don't you think?

Vicki said...

I think any time you are working on a skill, it starts out fun, and then as you work at it, it becomes drudgery. If you stop there, you will never develop. All artists know that you have to go through the dull, uphill times, in order to come out into the sunshine again where it is fun AND you have skills that you didn't have before.

S.M. Bittler said...

Thank you very much for this!

"but you have to stoke the fire of your inner artist too."

Yes, indeed - good words to remember. :)

Oscar Baechler said...

Drawing at the zoo is the BEST! I live three blocks from a zoo and have a membership, try to get there as often as possible. It's always filled with little kids, and what's great is even on a really bad off-day for your drawing skills, they're amazed!

Best thing I ever heard at the zoo: a toddler, while pointing to the male jaguar's large and protruding testicles, exclaimed "Look mom! A jaguar egg!"

I actually start every sketchbook by writing a brainstorm list on the front cover, that usually looks like this:

"1. gestures
2. Heads
3. Fully rendered scene
4. Monsters!
5. Caricatures
6. Whatever D&D character I'm most recently attached to
7. Naked ladies
8. etc. etc. etc...It's basically a list where, if I'm feeling jaded or tired about art, I can turn to it and quickly point to the idea that would instantly get my art blood flowing again; hence "monsters" having a category of its own, because it's what I loved drawing as a kid.

Rich Adams said...


The story of the three girls is really touching. I draw at art shows and get similar comments from adults. It never strikes me as odd when a child asks, "Are you drawing that?" but when it comes from an adult I realize how alien art can seem to people who don't do it.

I had a question about maintaining the creative fires during deadline work... I am currently working on a huge number of animal drawings for a commercial project. I don't have time to go through the creative process I'm used to on normal drawings (taking the time to create an emotional concept and executing some kind of statement). What is your advice for this kind of work? Is there hope for conveyor belt artwork?

Thank you for sharing your knowledge in your blog. It is a fount of inspiration for other artists out here in the ether.

James Gurney said...

Thanks, Dan and Rich. I think people ask dumb questions because they just don't know what to say. Oscar, you're right: no matter what you do, most people just love it because it's magic. And I'm glad you mentioned drawing from the imagination...that's what just about all of did when we were drawing for the pure fun of it.

Vicki, I'm glad you talked about the learning process. You know you're in a good art program if you feel like you're brain is getting rescrambled. We all tend to find safe ways of finding easy success in drawing and painting, and a rigorous program really reshuffles the cards in your head.

jeff jordan said...

When you have a "Day Job" and do art after work and on the weekends, it doesn't prepare you for dealing with becoming a full time artist.

When the dream comes true, nobody told you that NOW you have to create every day. At that point it stops being as much fun, and truly becomes work. Who ever thought it could become boring? So I set my sights higher, in terms of what I wanted to accomplish. Now I often reach the edge of despair as I progress thru some particularly ambitious painting, wondering why in hell I ever wanted to be an artist, or why I ever thought I had what it takes to create meaningful work that says something new.

And often, just as I can feel my mind starting to slip away, somehow I find myself doing what needed to be done, and hard as it can be to believe, I manage to pull it off. Come up with something I can be proud of.

This life is not for everybody, and as often as I wonder what else I might do, I can't figure out anything that would make me happier. Then it becomes worthwhile. For me it has become that ability to transcend the fear of failure, knowing somehow I can get it right if I just keep working, and that's what keeps me painting.

My word verification for this post is "endere." Change one letter and it becomes "endure." Nuff said......

E Colquhoun said... when are you going to post the drawing of the chassis?

James Gurney said...

E: Since you asked, I'll post it tomorrow.

James Gurney said...

Rich and Jeff--you both said it well...the professional life has its mindnumbing aspects: tedious contracts, unhelpful clients, collectors or dealers who want the same old thing, marketing committees who make idiotic demands....

I just take comfort in reading about Bach and Mozart, who wrote some of their immortal cantatas or the sublime Requiem under incredible professional pressures.

As you suggested, Jeff, the Fun and Frustration of the working life often go hand in hand, and you don't get the one without the other.

Anonymous said...

As for the fun in it, personally I find that the more I dig into the technical stuff, the more fun I have. I guess it’s highly individual how we feel about these things. The biggest danger for me is being distracted by other things – I have a lot of different interests, and sometimes, something else seems much more attractive than another day at the easel. For most of my interests, I don’t mind having some periods where I am less active, because that’s on a pure hobby level and I have no particular ambitions in these fields, but I do want to keep drawing and painting all the time, as that’s something I feel that I could end up being reasonably good at.

The best cure I have found is other people. It can be a simple thing as drawing a birthday greeting card or something for a friend – their reaction usually reminds me that this is actually something that I can do well enough to make something that others will enjoy (unlike if I, say, play a tune on my clarinet for them!).

Steve said...

Great post, with wonderful comments. Adding to the thread set forth by Rich and Jeff....when David Halberstam gave the 2000 commencement address at the University of Michigan, he had this line:

As the noted philosopher, basketball player and sports commentator Julius Erving—Dr J—once said, "Being a professional is doing the things you love to do on the days when you don't feel like doing them."

I've been surprised how often those easily remembered words come back to mind.

Super Villain said...

i got to respect that your sticking to the "grey socks pulled all the way up" look, haha, especially in a rough part of town.... i think people have gotten jumped for less then that, haha!

James Gurney said...

Goo Goo--High socks are the style of the future. I'm wearing tomorrow's fashions today.

Well said, CeGeBe and Steve!

Douglas Ferreira said...

thanks for sharing!great reading experience and totally eye candy this blog!(I hope it's allowed to use "eye-candy",like I used,related to drawings)
Also I just finished reading Journey to Chandara,great book!

And best wishes from this side of America!

Stephen James. said...

Well said, well said.

Been trying to apply these principles.