What Kind of Art Do You Want to Make?
What kind of art do you want to make?
I don’t think that enough artists ask themselves this question. Not what kind of art you think you SHOULD be making - what do you WANT to make? It’s really ironic, given that we consider artists to have the most freedom in the world, but so many artists like myself feel constrained.
You might feel constrained by style. Maybe you started out as a primarily abstract painter, but you feel pulled toward more illustrative portraiture. Or maybe you only used bright, inky colors before but now you want to switch to graphite. Or maybe you’ve been a painter, and want to change to photography. Can I really shift that dramatically? we ask ourselves. What will my Instagram followers think? Will it seem like I’m copying this other artist who inspired me to change? Will anyone take me seriously?
You can also feel constrained by your materials. Maybe you are trying in vain to make your heavy body acrylics flow like watercolor, or you are frustrated by how washed out your watercolors are on the canvas. Or confused by whether or not you can use oil pastels with soft pastels, on acrylic or oil, what about with Sharpie? Our materials can extend our reach, but they can also be limiting. Am I even using these right? we ask the paint tubes.
Maybe your skill level doesn’t match where you want to be. You have great ideas of beautiful floral paintings, but when you try them everything looks 2D and you can’t figure out how to define petals on those vague blobs. Maybe you’re majorly attracted to expressive artwork, such as Elaine de Kooning’s work, but your brushstrokes come out more clumsy and broken. I can’t do it, you think. I’m totally kidding myself to think that I can be free and expressive.
More often than anything, above all of the other possible reasons I mentioned, we are constrained by not believing in ourselves.
I don’t know about you, but I always assumed that artists were a lot more confident than I see myself being. On the internet I’ve defined myself as an artist, but in the mirror I see someone who is afraid - afraid that they aren’t truly creative, and that they’ve just been fooling everyone (this is called “imposter syndrome”). That the ideas have dried up forever and are not coming back. That along the journey I lost something. I worry that every time I begin a new painting, it won’t work out. I worry that I can’t change my “style” too much or I’ll look like I don’t know what I’m doing. I worry that I’m supposed to look like I know what I’m doing.
What are we going to do with these thoughts and fears?
The only thing that makes me feel better is hearing other artists relate to this struggle. I’ve been reading the book, Van Gogh: The Life by Naifeh and Smith and it’s become super clear that Van Gogh had these doubts about himself and his ability to paint his whole life. The Atlantic wrote this amazing article gathering some creators feelings on getting over the fear of failure, and Jerry Saltz took to Vulture to provide 33 rules that will help us become the artists of our dreams, fear and all. The entire book Art & Fear talks about all of the things that we’re afraid of and provides wonderful counterpoints to help move us forward to the place where we can actually get to work again. Here’s a quote from that last one that I read and reread constantly when trying to instill myself with the courage it takes to create:
Making art can feel dangerous and revealing. Making art is dangerous and revealing. Making art precipitates self-doubt, stirring deep waters that lay between what you know you should be, and what you fear you might be.
Ted Orland and David Bayles, “Art and Fear”
So today, I want to invite you to spend a little time with your Artist Notebook/Journal and this question:
What kind of art do you want to make?
If music helps you, turn on music that feels like the art you want to make. Make yourself some coffee or a bowl of grapefruit gelato. Try to immerse yourself in the expression of what you want through other mediums and surround yourself with them while you think. If you need sunlight, take your Artist Notebook and this question out to the lawn or the poolside. If you need quiet and stillness, do that. Should there be flowers, or even just a spritz of J’Adore? Engage all of those other senses with inspiration that feels aligned with what you want your art to be like or feel like, even if you’re not quite settled on what that art looks like yet. In fact, it’s better if you don’t know yet! I truly think that choosing music, snacks, and environment to “set the mood” can help put you on the path to the most honest answer to this question, “What kind of art do you want to make?”
I’ll tell you a little bit about what I did and wrote for my answer:
I think back to my most happiest moments, and I immediately zero in on this time that I’m super nostalgic about. It was back in high school when I would ride around with my friend Kristen, and we would listen to a lot of pop punk and pop. It wasn’t high brow music at all, but we were obsessed with upbeat bops like this (omg it’s literally so bad, I mean, they are using autotune….but this is a place safe from judgement, right, and I know all of the damn words still). The point is that this was a time that I can remember feeling truly free and hopeful of the future. So I’ll play music from this time, or something that’s more recent but makes me feel similarly, like Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Runaway with Me.” My apartment is really white but full of sunlight, so there is an expansiveness about it that helps me think and feels really good. So in this environment I recently wrote the following answer to the question, “what kind of art do you want to make?”
I am craving wildness. Color. Not anything too dark and nothing that feels old or sophisticated. I want whimsy, not serious. I want painting to feel like play, not work. I want it to be saturated but offset with plenty of white space (quiet). I want the canvas to be like an unloaded toy box. Not stiff. Messy and festive. Joyful. Expansive. Broken. Full of wander. Doesn’t have all of the answers, but has some pretty good questions.
I didn’t edit that at all! See how I wrote it out in a very stream-of-conscious, honest way? I want you to try doing the same thing. It might help to then think of your influences who fall in line with your own descriptions. For me, Eric Carle and Lillian Farag come up. It can help to think of artists who fall in line with the type of work you want to make. Try creating combinations, like what if Tim Burton and Eric Carle collaborated on a children’s book? Go outside of your genre, too! What if Lady Gaga and Wes Anderson got together to make a movie? What would Joan Mitchell write if she did poetry?
Make sure to spend time with this question. Come back to your list/paragraph throughout the day, and keep the journal nearby for ideas that come to mind as you fall asleep.
As a bonus to dive even deeper, you can consider these questions, too: does the description of what kind of art I want to make match the art that I’ve been making? Did it ever match? If so, where did I deviate? What was it like the very first time I made anything?
I would love to hear your thoughts in the comment section!