Most artists I know fluctuate between believing they have created something truly brilliant and can't wait to expose it to the world and thinking they are crap and can never produce anything good or worthwhile. Maybe both are necessary for being an artist.
Without the highs of the artist ego we could never get past the rejection by galleries, buyers, unsold pieces, unsold shows and just the basic ignoring by the art establishment, critics, etc. How else could someone go into a profession that is self-employed, pays one of the lowest annual incomes and keep going? Where is the incentive to get up and get into the studio to create? Well, I guess it isn't all artist ego, but at least that helps get us past the rejection, believing in ourselves when no one else does.
Then there is the down time. When we compare our relative success to others that started out at the same time as us, when we feel we just can't seem to make anything good, when we feel like we are just spending what little we have on supplies, studio rent and everything it takes to run a business and getting no return year after year. In Canada, writers and artists are two of the only professions that Revenue Canada recognise as not having the normal amount of time (2-5 years) to start making a decent living as a self-employed business and so we can indefinitely claim expenses on our tax forms without making any income when other business cannot.
So where does that leave us when we are further along in our career and aren't where we want to be? I seem to be just coming out of a 10 year hiatus. Ten years ago I finished my masters degree, got married and moved to a small city in Northern England. Yes, I was in shock, but like everywhere I've lived there was an art community there. But something stunted my production and my growth as an artist. And these things are worth analysing.
Firstly, I believe any huge life change like getting married, having children, even renovating a house seems to stunt my production and my focus. My husbands piano teacher, a world class concert pianist, told him that when she did renovations she was unable to play or practice the entire time. These things shift our focus, unbalance us for long periods of time, and don't always seem like the obvious reason because often they are good things. Natalka Husar, a Canadian artist, once told a class I was in that artists need low maintenance relationships so they can get on with their art. Your art must come first. I can't say I want to agree with the last statement, but I thought the first one was dead on. I am lucky to have a low maintenance relationship and still I found the change from being solo was huge. I shifted my work schedule to match his earlier one because I had the flexible job. But really what I hadn't calculated was that I needed those evenings to just sit with work and contemplate how they had gone and to leisurely wrap up each work day on my own time. I needed the feeling of indefinite time. Perhaps I could have worked evenings for a couple of days a week. But then life had changed and I wanted to be with him in the evenings just as much. I also want to add that I have one of the most supportive partners in this life I could ever wish to have. He has never made me feel as though I should be pulling my weight and getting out there and getting a "real" job. He has always been supportive of my doing my art. I do insist though, that my art must pay for itself, so my art funds itself, my studio, supplies, etc. Everything else in our life he funds. Bless that man.
Secondly, as soon as I had a chance to become a full-time artist I did. And there are huge advantages to that. When I lived in Toronto there were only 3 of us full time in a studio of about 24 artists. But we 3 were always in because we had the pressure of having to pay bills. We were so creative in getting commissions, exhibitions, and sales because we had to be. Most of the other artist we rarely if ever saw. When I was about to get married, my studio mate said to me that things would change. She saw my drive and she warned me that when I was married to someone who made a comfortable living my drive would wane. She was also right on that account. I went from making a modest living to making a few sales. Some years I did very well, but mostly I could not have sustained myself. So if I had stayed single and not married someone with an income, then life would have made me a successful artist? No, I think then the worry that I was lonely and what was I going to do in my old age for retirement funds, etc, etc would have kicked in.
So what changed for me? Believe it or not I had a kid and that seems to be doing it. I think I was slowly dreading the idea of having a child, although I couldn't imagine not having one. I was independent, loved working in my studio, getting exhibitions, selling art. But to look back over the last 10 years, I wasn't at my best. My drive was gone. I have had shows over the years, but the work was not what it should have been and I argue with myself I should be further along in venues at this stage. So what happened when I had a kid? I had zero personal time in every single 24 hours, 7 days a week. I was in absolute shock! I did bring the baby to the studio but not much got done. But it made me value my time so much that I realised I needed a plan. When the child was one years old we decided that I would go back into my studio 1.5 days a week on my own. I spent the first month of that just planning out my attack. And here is what it looked like.
-I MAPPED OUT 15 SERIES OF PAINTINGS I WANT TO MAKE. These are series I have put off over the years and they are new series I have recently thought of. Some of them are small "study" series and some are monumental series I want to make. I also have a list of single pieces I want to make for specific commissions, trades, gifts, or gallery top-up. I am a prolific and fast painter in general. Although some of the work I am gearing up to do (I am saving the best series until last) will take me considerably longer to execute.
-I MAPPED OUT WHAT BLANK CANVASSES AND BOARDS I HAVE AND WHAT I HAVE TO MAKE FOR EACH SERIES. Yes, I make all my own stretcher frames and stretch my own canvasses. This does take time but saves me heaps of money. I mean HEAPS! I only make them as I am about to do a series. And because I am not swimming in sales at the moment I have no choice.
-I MAP OUT WHAT GALLERIES, BUYERS, INSTITUTES, I WANT TO AIM EACH SERIES AT. I formulate this list by travelling to different cities and visiting the gallery districts, mapping out where other artists are exhibiting that may have similar buyers to mine, going to art fairs and circling galleries on the map that seem appropriate to my style and level of art, and looking at artist submission sites. I also include galleries that have said they want to give me a show in the future or have showed interest in the past but I was too much in a rut to do much about it.
-I MAP OUT MARKETING THINGS I NEED TO DO. New business cards, revamp website, Facebook fan page, Twitter feed, Instagram, etc.
-I CLEAN MY STUDIO AND MAKE IT A SPACE I WANT TO WORK IN. I think this can hinder an artist as much as anything else in life. You know how you like to work. I like a big open space with little going on other than my art on one side and all my stuff organised on shelves and racks in a corner. Some artists like to get their studio fully lived in before they feel like it is really their space for creating. I also had to stop sharing a studio because I couldn't properly concentrate when we were both or all in there. My studios I have always loved just sitting in. That is my sign. If I want to just hang out there then it is good.
-THEN I GET TO WORK BY PLANNING EACH WORK TIME. I have such limited time in my studio now that I have to have a list of things that I want to accomplish that session. Of course my sense of time and what I can get done in it is often not accurate. But at least I come into the studio with a focus and an aim. That is not to say I don't procrastinate or just get so overwhelmed at times by the list that I can't seem to do anything. But currently I have an Open Studio I am working towards in 1.5 months time.
So that is what I have done. Once the work starts mounting up it is much easier to do all the rest. I feel incentive and excitement that I have new work. I get excited about how it will look on my new website, I get excited about which galleries might like it. With work you can start all the other processes of contacting galleries, applying for submissions, etc. I've heard a quote that "you can only steer a ship that is moving". Don't wait around for things to happen to you…MAKE THEM HAPPEN! If you aren't moving there is nothing to steer.
I can get so excited that I sometimes stop working. Not good! There really is no end to what can distract and send an artist off course from producing work. This is what I have ultimately realised. The best thing is just to stay focussed, keep away from people who are discouraging you in it, and just keep going!