Having a private sketchbook is vital to my creativity.
The key is that it has to be exactly what that word says. It’s a book for your sketches. Not a showcase for your finished drawings. Not your completed masterpieces that you expect to eventually show the world.
You can have those too if you want. But you need to have one book that is for yourself. It has to be a place where you feel safe to make mistakes, and to just draw what your muse inspires you to create, even when you don’t really know what she’s saying, and she’s mumbling her instructions to you around a mouthful of cake. Chocolate cake. With a sticky ganache frosting. Mm…cake….
Find time to purposely not draw for a (real or imagined) audience. It’s hard these days when we want to post everything we make on the internet. For accolades, for acknowledgment, and for confirmation that we made something worthwhile. It is easy to slip into a mode of creating that hungers for this feedback, so much so that even when you think you are just doodling, you’re doing it with the thought of how it will be received by your viewership. But when that’s all you create for, you’re not drawing for that little voice inside you that is your creative guide. The only way you’re going to find your own style and not be derivative of someone else is by paying heed to that voice.
There’s one of the ironies. When you worry too much about being derivative, that’s when you fall into the trap. When you’re being genuine to your own desires though, “derivative” is just someone else’s opinion!
When I’m playing in my sketchbook, I have to constantly remind myself to shut out the audience. I can feel the urgency tug at me, telling me that I’m not creating anything productive, that I’m not producing the next gallery piece, or brainstorming ideas for the next commission in my pipeline. And yet, I find that when I am not imagining eyes following every line of my pencil, the ideas that come to me are the real gems. It’s hard, because it’s a contradiction of what your brain tells you should be logical. My mind wants me to plug away at the things that require doing, but when I relax and play instead, those things get done better, more powerfully, and sometimes even faster.
It’s not an all or nothing proposition I’m advocating. The feedback of our peers can be vital for growth. They have fresh eyes that can point out things you no longer see when you’ve been sketching and erasing for hours with no progress. The community we have as artists is uplifting and inspiring. I also find a competitive spirit takes hold of me sometimes and pushes me to try things I would not have thought of on my own. But there has to be a time when you usher all of them out of your mind, and gently shut the door for some mental alone-time. Learn from your peers, but also learn from your own experiences, and your own interface with the world.
In the 1960s, modern art critic Clement Greenberg made the declaration that painting was dead. Of course, he wasn’t the first to proclaim that there was nothing new under the sun, nor the last. Innovation in art receives an obituary every decade or so.
Whether or not that is true doesn’t matter. While Art loves an audience, Artmaking isn’t about that. It’s about being in the creative present. About the conversation you have with your muse and interpreting what she gives to you for that tenuous translation from mind to paper. When you’re in the moment, Artmaking can’t be about the audience, or else it becomes too self-aware. In so doing loses the truth of the creator’s voice. That is when it truly becomes derivative, and a mere parroting echo of what the artist thinks the world wants to hear. You have to deafen yourself to the tempting voices that tell you you’ll be a success if only you fall in line and paint <overdone and popular subject matter X>. On the other hand, if you really feel it in you, and <overdone and popular subject matter X> is what’s closest to your heart, and moves you in your gut, then it doesn’t matter how many other people have painted it, or how they have painted it. You seize it and make it yours. Don’t paint a dead subject. Paint the living one that you feel inside you, and then it will be better than anything that was contrived and forced.
As artists, we’re all inspired by the creations of those around us. We’re inspired by what we see and what we experience. But how you process that information, how you filter it from your senses to percolate through your brain and then flow out through your hands and fingertips: That’s when you find your own voice. Practice how to translate directly from the source (your eyes, reality, your own emotions and experiences), and not via someone else’s pre-translated version of the world.