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6 Lessons from an Artist

In September 2014 I decided to become a full time artist printmaker. I didn't quite believe I could do it, but I knew that if I didn't it would always be in the back of my mind. Now that I work for myself it is easy to feel like I'm not moving quickly enough or that I'm not making the progress that I want, so it helps to take stock of the lessons that I'm learning and the barriers that I have overcome. Because the absolute best part of being an artist is moving beyond my limitations and surprising myself with what is possible. Here are 6 lessons that have been particularly important to me thus far.

1.) It is always uncomfortable, do it anyway

Simply saying out loud that I am an artist awakens a very real sense of impostor syndrome. Even as I write this I'm considering changing the wording. As someone who has historically shied away from the limelight and hesitated to boast publicly of any accomplishments, to speak of myself in this way turns my stomach.

Likewise, when I stand next to someone as they stare at my work, describe my ideas to a viewer, or send over a sketch to a commission client, I'm resisting the urge to retreat. And yet I fight these urges because after years of telling myself it wasn't possible, I've finally allowed myself to believe I can do this, and I'm not about to let that go.

2.) Creativity is a habit

Before I began making linocut prints I had ceased producing any art for a number of years. I have a deep rooted determination to create, and this was a source of anxiety for me. As I made the decision to begin creating art once again, I decided that what I needed to do was remove any value judgement about what I produced, and to measure my success by the simple act of committing at least 15 minutes each day to drawing or painting. This was a huge step forward and had a snowball effect on the progress that followed.

Now as I work as an artist in a professional capacity I implement this way of thinking on a daily basis. If I don't have an idea for a print, I sit down and try to figure it out, rather than waiting for inspiration to strike. To recognise that much of being creative is simply the commitment to doing it consistently is a highly liberating way to operate.

3.) Trust that the answer will come

Lesson number three has much in common with number two. Several months before I started making prints I heard an interview with Elizabeth Gilbert in which she spoke about the idea that creative solutions come not from within but from a kind of external divine voice. She went on to suggest that the voice speaks only to those who have put a certain amount of time into their craft and into a project in order to receive it. I know now that this is a relatively common perspective from which many creators view their pursuits. In his book The War of Art, Steven Pressfield describes angels as the source of the divine voice. The truth of the matter is unimportant, as its value lies in the way it helps eliminate the pressure of finding a solution, allowing us to concentrate solely on the act of working towards it persistently.

When I sit down to commit my time to the creative process, there is nearly always a period of frustration in which solutions don't come. And yet I have learned that if I sit long enough with the problem, there will be an answer.

By the same token, when I feel I am beating my head against the wall I need to take a step back, take a walk, draw a bath, or go have a talk with a friend.

4.) Nearly every setback can be viewed as a lesson

The week before I showed my prints for the first time I had a number of works laid out on the counter as I made sure I had signed and numbered them before taking them to be framed. I thought I had cleaned the counter thoroughly before I began, but to my horror I watched helplessly as drops of coffee soaked into the fibres of the Japanese paper on which my images were printed.

The good news of course was that these were prints and not paintings, and therefore could be remade with relative ease, although it would take several hours of extra work, and then another few days to let the ink dry. As I took a deep breath and fought back tears I decided instead to view it as a lesson in patience. Subsequently, each time I have experienced a creeping sense of doubt, uncertainty, or frustration with the rate of my progress, I have brought my mind back to the idea that all of these feelings are part of the process, and serve as a kind of teacher. This is not to say that I am able to avoid breakdowns entirely, but rather that I get past them more quickly.

5.) Look at the long term, but live in the short term

Back in high school I would begin each semester with a sense of optimism of how I would handle my academic tasks in the coming months. Each time I would make a plan for the months ahead I would later get overwhelmed by the big picture rather than focussing on the daily details. As a result I spent a lot of time stressing, and I never did quite as well as I wanted.

When I decided to work for myself I knew I would need to address this issue. My tendency is to consider what I want to achieve long term, think about the many different paths I could take to bring me there, and to get bogged down by indecision and information overload. In these moments I'm reminded that progress happens one step at a time, and that I need only focus on the next best action to keep moving forward. When I notice I'm in a rut, I immediately close all of the open tabs on my computer, tune out all competing advice, and make a list of specific tasks to complete.

6.) It is up to you to make things happen

This lesson I've learned intellectually but have yet to truly embrace. I have had a somewhat timid beginning tempered by my shy personality. My husband consistently encourages me to share more regular updates about my projects, as his own announcements of my prints on Twitter have led to several unexpected opportunities. Likewise I've watched my comedian brother, whose own ambition, sticktoitiveness and recognition that there is a back door to everything helped him to secure 8 shows during a 10 day family trip to visit me in London, not to mention all of his accomplishments back home in San Francisco. I've always been afraid to ask, especially when it involves honest feedback about deeply personal work. But the thrill of possibility and desire to overcome my resistance to fear, I hope, will force me to actively seek out new projects in the coming year.

If you're a creative person, what valuable lessons have helped you as you work towards your goals?

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