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The gently boring life of an artist
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Pass it on
I'm reading
The gently boring life of an artist
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
The gently boring life of an artist
Pass it on
Pass it on
Articles
17 May 2017

The gently boring life of an artist

There is no skipping over the slowness and the repetitiveness of the creative process.

Written by Steph Stepan

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

This is the wonderful Maira Kalman. Perhaps she doesn’t find the work boring. We definitely find her always fascinating. Photo by Anna Wolf.

The other day I watched a film clip of Picasso in his studio. It was all painting on a whim, a dog roaming around the studio and friends floating in. When I returned to my apartment in Barcelona, I looked at my half-finished illustrations and realised I was a bit jealous: my art life doesn’t feel spontaneous and exciting like this.

It’s not that I want to be regimented about things, it’s just that I find making something from the ether—an illustration, a book, an article—a tricky business. So I have to tell myself when to sit down and be specific about what I’m going to do (or not do) or I’ll never get anything done. I must plan to be uncomfortable. Over and over again.

At the moment I’m working on a series of illustrations for a picture book and I have goals like “two illustrations per week” and to-do lists that say “draw duck”, “paint pink house”, “re-draw flower pot”. Each day I sit down at my desk and then will myself not to run away.

I think the closest I come to feeling carefree—the Picasso version of what I imagined creativity to be—is when I manage to connect the dots. Dots doesn’t seem like big enough a word. Whatever it is I’m wrangling, it’s not lightweight. These moments come randomly and definitely not when I ask them to, but oddly enough I feel like I plan for them too.

I actually wrote part of this article on an escalator. A point, thank goodness, clicked into place. I find colour palettes for my illustrations in cafes (I like the green in a girl’s scarf against the pattern on her shirt). And I discover that one part of my illustration needs to move (duck should be on the left-hand side) while staring out of a train.

The thing is, I know these moments wouldn’t happen unless I was also doing the more tedious and uncomfortable work—the re-drawing of ducks, the scanning of paintings and the staring at my computer convinced that everybody else has an easier go of things. It’s as though the sitting down and actively trying to get something done is the trigger for the whole process. Later, maybe because I’m not trying so hard, the bits that I couldn’t figure out—a colour palette, a line in an article—tend to click into place.

And even when the task doesn’t exactly seem big (I am drawing ducks after all), I find the act of making something that’s original takes up so much energy that I don’t have room for much else. So I’ll have to ask myself things like, should I go out tonight? Hangovers last a long time these days and I’m very fuzzy when I don’t get eight hours sleep. All the while I can hear a trumpet outside my apartment playing jazz and I’ll think, oh dear, what has become of me.

But even harder than placing limits on my social life is placing limits on new ideas. They’re important too—and give me the exciting rush of forward momentum I so desperately want—but the truth is they’re quick wins.

Right now, there’s a series of illustrations about a leopard I’d like to make. His name is Leonard and I know how he moves and what he’s thinking. I can see the complete illustrations in my mind’s eye, whereas the picture book I’m actually working on feels like an epic mess in comparison. So I have to keep telling myself, no leopards! Focus. Okay, maybe just one leopard. Sometimes you just need a quick win to get you through the day.

With my leopard done, I can return to the piece of work I’d planned to do. Maybe it’s a more polished version of a sketch. Or, perhaps I’ll have to scrap my work and begin again—you really do have to kill your darlings. The bitsiness of it and the constant re-doing of work make me feel like I am never getting enough done. And the type A girl in me constantly complains.  “Come on, come on! Hurry up.” she’ll say.  “Surely you can do more than this. Surely something you both enjoy and are good at should not take as long as this.”

How can trying to be interested in the world, and make something that’s of interest feel so, well, boring? No one mentioned this at uni. All those productivity books seem to neglect it too. I can know my stuff about watercolour painting and chop up my time in all sorts of ways, but there is no skipping over the slowness and the repetition of the creative process. You just have to sit there, mind the leopards and get on with it.

And unless you are one of those lucky people who collaborates with others, making things also requires spending a lot of time on your own. And when we’re in the thick of things it’s pretty hard to see out of our own creative mess. I think this is what makes it hard to remember that these less-than-exciting feelings are not a sign that things aren’t going well. The end result of our efforts might be exciting, but the creative process is a lot less shimmery than this.

If you’re feeling a bit boring it doesn’t mean your work will be uninteresting. You’re not too slow or less talented—although you’ll probably have a hard time convincing yourself of this. It just means you’re doing the work. You’re making the constant and small steps it takes to get the work that matters to you done. And good on you, by the way.

Steph Stepan

Steph Stepan is an Australian writer and illustrator based in Europe. She is also the co-founder of Friday Best, a series of online interviews with young women.

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