For many people, when they think about an artist at work, they envision uninterrupted marathon hours of studio time… something that isn’t realistic for most artists.
A studio practice needs to be sustainable – meaning you can keep it up for many years, whether you have family obligations or other jobs – without burning out. There are obvious necessities for a studio practice – like space and time – but to sustain a practice for a lifetime involves your mindset.
What is mindset? Simply put, mindset is the way you think. You can reframe the way you think to make your thoughts work for you, not against you.
I talk about the artist mindset in two ways: the mindset for your creative practice and the mindset for selling your work. In this post, I dig into how to cultivate an artist mindset to drive your creative practice. How do you prioritize the making part of the equation and keep creative momentum?
With mindset, people often focus on having a positive outlook. Positivity is part of it, but I advocate having a resilient mindset. The resilient artist mindset means being equipped to keep making your work even when you don’t feel like it. Develop the tools to carry you through lulls in your work and to break through blocks. Recognize that life might not be all kittens and roses, and you will have challenging moments. Having resilience lets you know that you can and will work through external and internal obstacles.
I’ve found nine keys to building a resilient artist mindset and sustainable studio practice.
1. Organize your workspace and limit decisions
Whether you have a dedicated studio or make your work on the kitchen table, the concept is the same: organize your workspace so you can get to work and clean up quickly.
For a couple of years when I lived in a particularly small apartment, a small cardboard box held all my materials, and I made my work on our dining room table. Because this was a small table and we used it for meals, I had to put away everything after making my work each day. This created some limits around the size and materials I could use, which was helpful because it forced me to make decisions before starting projects.
I mention limiting decisions because the less thinking you have to do when you start, the easier it is to make your work. So do a little planning: define a project, prepare a bunch of paper, panels, or whatever you’ll need to make your work, pick your medium(s), and commit to working on this particular project for a week or a month, or any length of time you’ll choose to dedicate to it.
2. Make time
One of the most frequently mentioned obstacles to a consistent art practice is being unable to find time. But what sounds like a time problem is often a mindset problem. I realize that with jobs, family, health concerns, and the myriad things that come up in life, you can feel like the universe is conspiring to make it impossible to create. However, the resilient artist mindset recognizes that it’s not about finding time. It’s about making the time. Maybe your other obligations mean you can’t have marathon studio sessions. Instead, I recommend you start by finding a consistent time to carve out 15-30 minutes to make something. First thing in the morning? Lunch time? Late at night? Find whatever works best for you.
Showing up repeatedly and regularly—even for relatively short amounts of time—can help you build a body of work. Make your studio time super concentrated. Arrange your workspace so you can maximize your work time rather than taking time to set up and clean up. Limit your decision-making process by doing a little planning and prep work.
Learning to say no and communicating your priorities with your partner, kids, or roommates will also go a long way in making this a reality.
3. Manage negative self-talk
Experiencing negative self-talk is a normal part of being human and of being an artist. Whether you call them the inner critic, self-doubt, or resistance (as Steven Pressfield refers to it in his book The War of Art), negative thoughts and emotions will crop up. Fear of failure, jealousy, perfectionism, or imposter syndrome can frustrate and even paralyze you as you work.
On the other hand, that internal voice can also challenge us to work harder and to make better work. When you notice negative self-talk or any of these challenging emotions, it’s helpful to acknowledge them before you try to work. To process these thoughts and emotions, I recommend writing morning pages, an exercise in free-form writing from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. Write three full pages about the negativity or the blocks that come up for you. You can also ask yourself questions and see what answers spring to mind as you write. Negative self-talk tends to come up more when you don’t create regularly. A daily art practice is the best antidote to this.
4. Go pro
I only went pro in my work as an artist after I became a parent. Going pro isn’t necessarily working full time as an artist or making a living as an artist, but rather showing up in the studio and getting to work even when you don’t feel like it. Think like a professional. You work when you’re not inspired, when you’re tired or don’t feel great, and when you don’t have any ideas.
Of course, there can be cognitive dissonance when I recommend getting to work even when you have no ideas or inspiration. Here’s what this looks like in real life: when I don’t have ideas or don’t feel inspired, I draw from life or make little abstract watercolors. This is my default mode between projects, so I don’t think too much. I just get to work. Eventually, other ideas will percolate. Remember: ideas come from making the work. This process often gets easier the more frequently you engage with your work.
Note: This does not mean working yourself to exhaustion or until you burn out. For example, it’s important to recognize the level of fatigue where you need to take a step back and take care of yourself. Although I’m a big proponent of getting to work, sometimes you also need to rest and rejuvenate.
5. Build a habit
Resilience requires an element of discipline, showing up and making time for your practice. There are no hacks and no shortcuts. Thinking of your creative practice as a habit or part of your routine will help build and sustain momentum. Sometimes you have to talk yourself into working, but just like anything else that’s good for us (waking up early to exercise comes to mind), the hardest part is getting started. Committing to those 15-30 minutes is the first step. Ask yourself: do I want to live with or without my creative practice? Check out Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit to read how she uses habits to create as a choreographer.
6. Trust the process
As I’ve mentioned, the creative process includes doubts and negative self-talk that pop up and slow you down or even block you sometimes. Your creative process is determined by what you make and how you make it. Having a resilient mindset is accepting these parts of your process and noticing the thoughts and emotions without losing momentum. You will gain more experience as an artist and get more confident, and it will get easier because there’s a certain comfort that comes with experience. Confidence makes it easier to take risks, to be brave and bold, and to accept uncertainty and even chaos in your work. Trusting this process makes it easier to break through mental blocks. Unless you are woodworking or creating in other planning-intensive media, you don’t have to have it all figured out when you begin.
7. A note for those with kids: Reframe your creative practice
I said earlier that I only “went pro” after having a child. One of the things we don’t often hear about having kids is that they can actually be good for our creative practice. Sure, having kids complicates things (to put it lightly), but if you are a parent—especially with very young kids—you can reframe your creative mindset. For me, having a child clarified my thinking. Along with the impression that time was speeding up (a common side effect of having kids and getting older), my priorities became very clear. I became ruthless with any time I had to make my artwork and found that I don’t necessarily get more done when I have more time available. Having a child helped me maximize my work time —however short or interrupted—and be more productive.
8. Have fun! You don’t have to be tortured to make “good” art.
You’re probably familiar with the myths of the starving or tortured artist. Some artists believe they must be unhappy or even suffer for their work to be valid. This is not true. You can be happy and healthy and even have fun (!) while making your artwork. You can enjoy making your work and still make work that matters.
Note: We can experience depression and anxiety and other states of mind that make it difficult or impossible to feel happiness. I’m not referring to that here. I’m talking about believing you must suffer to be taken seriously as an artist. So if you needed permission to have fun, make yourself a permission slip to HAVE FUN IN THE STUDIO. (Or at least don’t take yourself so seriously.)
9. Be flexible.
There will be days (or longer periods of time) when things aren’t going well or you simply don’t have time to make anything. The resilient artist mindset means understanding that this happens. It’s not the end of your practice. Don’t beat yourself up. Be extra kind to yourself and get back on the proverbial horse as soon as you can. Getting back into the swing of things may be tough, and you may have some false starts. This, too, is part of the process. Consider downsizing your practice to make it fit into whatever available time and energy you do have. I’ve made tiny drawings—one a day—when that was all I could muster. Take little steps over and over. I hope these tactics for building a resilient artist mindset help you keep up your studio practice no matter what.
If you’re looking for more help with your creative practice, check out the new course I’m teaching with fellow artist and TAA lead coach Sarah Guthrie. Find all the info here.
Creating a Life Worth Living, Carol Lloyd
Jessica Singerman, MFA: The focus of Jessica’s work as an artist is primarily painting and drawing, with some installation and video projects thrown in on occasion. She is interested in the human experience in the outdoors and specifically in getting more people outside communing with nature.
Jessica has taught college and community art classes since 2002, including drawing fundamentals, figure drawing, painting, design, art history, etc… Teaching is her way of giving back to her community by sharing her knowledge and love of art.
She also coaches artists one-on-one. Her area of expertise is helping artists tune into and build their creative muscle. She is a big proponent of taking small daily steps on the way to making a creative life.
Jessica earned her BA in Studio Art magna cum laude with Highest Honors in 2002 from the College of William & Mary, Virginia, and her Masters of Fine Arts in 2004 from the University of Delaware while on a fellowship. Her watercolors are the subject of a book published in 2017, Little Watercolor Squares, and her award-winning paintings and drawings are exhibited and collected internationally.
In previous lives, Jessica taught yoga and worked as a guide and project manager leading epic bicycle tours all over Europe, Central America, and Australia.
She rides bikes, runs, hikes and practices yoga, and lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina with her husband and their son.