The Only Way to Get There is

To Know Where You're Going

Coaching Tips for Artists

You want to be successful as an artist, right? One of the best ways to accomplish that is to have a cohesive coherent grip on what you're doing, why you're doing it, and where you're going-- and the more cohesive and coherent that grip is, the better. As an artist consultant, advisor, and coach, one of the most common problems I see with artists is that they make art more or less at random, like they're wandering the vast creative wilderness. First they make some of these, then they make some of those, then they make some like this, then they make some like that, and so on and so forth until they're sitting on top of a great big pile of miscellany.

When I ask them what they're doing or why everything is so different, they often tell me they don't really think about it; that's just the way they make art. Or they say they don't want to get bored, or they want to be sure they have something for everyone. None of these approaches make much sense as long-term strategies for artists in search of success. They're fine if you're making art for yourself only, but if you expect to go public at any point, having a more well-thought-out game plan is highly recommended. Having a clear sense of direction is not all that necessary when you're just starting out and exploring your options, but as you advance in your career, sooner or later people will start asking about what you're up to and what the point of it all is.

Now it's perfectly fine to make whatever art you want to make while you're hard at work in the studio. Experimenting with different styles, techniques, mediums and subject matters is what creating great art is all about-- fearlessly materializing whatever ideas come to mind in order to see whether those ideas, when transformed into art, are as brilliant as you thought they would be. But at some point, the experimentation should begin to evolve into a more focused and directed approach where you take the ideas that really work or that really intrigue you or that you really love and explore them in deeper and increasingly more meaningful ways rather than continue down the path of randomness.

At this point, let's take a moment to reflect on how you see your artistic agenda playing out. When you say you're making art, what does that mean? How do you decide what to make? How do you know when to start? How do you know where you're going? How do you decide what goes where in each composition? How do you decide what it's going to look like? When do you know what it's going to look like? Or do you just let your art happen? How do you know when it's done? How do you decide what to make next... and next... and next? I ask artists questions like these all the time, and I get a surprising number of blank stares and "I don't knows." You'd think their bodies temporarily leave their minds, go off to the studio on their own, make some art and then come back and reunite with their brains when they're done.

"Nobody cares about these kinds of questions," artists often say. "All people care about is my art."

But they do care about them; everybody cares. And you're the one who should care the most because the better you understand your creative process, the more focus and direction you can apply to your art, meaning that you become increasingly purposeful and decreasingly random in how you work and what you create. Regardless of whether you're aware of it, understand it, or can quantify it, every time you make a work of art, you follow a certain course of action from conception to creation to completion. Art doesn't just happen in a vacuum without you being conscious on some level of what you're doing; it never has and it never will. So given the choice, you might as well think about what you're doing while you're doing it rather than just doing it. It helps, believe me.

But wait, there's more. Not only does your work become more purposeful and directed when you have a good clear sense of what you're doing, but you can also communicate about it better with others, and the better others understand and appreciate your art, the deeper their connections to it become. And the deeper those connections, the greater your chances of expanding your audience, attracting new fans and followers, getting more shows or exposure... and most importantly for your artistic survival, making more sales. Nobody buys anything they don't understand, and if you don't understand your process or are unable to convey the underpinnings of your own art, how do you expect anybody else to get it? And no matter how much someone likes or even loves your art, love is hardly ever enough-- sooner or later they'll want to know more.

An artist once told me about a little experiment he did. He gave people two entirely different explanations about the exact same piece of his art. When he got personal and said it was a response to certain challenges in his life, not only was most everyone interested, but they also wanted to know more. The explanation actually invited dialogue. However when he got obscure or technical or academic, like telling people the painting was a chromatic study inspired by some obscure artist who hardly anybody knew, all people got was confused. They politely nodded, thanked him, and moved on.

See how even a simple one-sentence explanation can significantly affect viewers' responses to art? Imagine the reaction if he'd said the art wasn't about anything or that he had no idea what it was about or that it was about whatever viewers wanted it to be about. Those answers would have been worse yet. Nobody wants their questions thrown back in their face. I mean if you don't take the time to reflect on your art and engage with interested parties about it, who will? Even a brief, well-worded phrase or description on Instagram or Facebook is often more than enough to increase viewers' interest.

This doesn't mean you make stuff up, by the way, but it certainly seems to indicate that the better you understand and can talk about your art on a variety of levels, the more interest you'll generate. Think about it. Take two identical paintings-- each the same size, subject matter, price, artist, and so on. One comes with an explanation and the other comes with nothing. Which would you rather own? If you're like most people, you want the one with the explanation-- the one with MORE, not the one with LESS, and certainly not one with NOTHING.

Have you ever heard of a successful artist with a long and distinguished career where nobody knows anything about their art or why they created it? That the art's all there is? You will NEVER find that. In fact, you'll find exactly the opposite. The more successful the artist, the more information is available in terms of documentation, writings, explanations, analysis, and understanding. You can find out plenty about every aspect of a well-knows artist's life and work, and more and more information becomes available as their story continues to unfold.

On a personal level, the more successful the artist, the better they can answer just about any art-related questions anyone can throw at them. These are the artists whose art you see in the best galleries and museums. They know in great depth and detail what their art is about, what they're doing, why they're doing it, where they're going, how they're evolving, and what their futures hold. And they are almost always more than willing to talk about it.

Unfortunately for many artists, figuring out why they do what they do or make what they make is not an easy task. They've never really thought about it before and wouldn't even know where to start. The good news is there's always an answer and that the overwhelming majority of artists-- including you-- create art purposefully, not randomly, and are perfectly capable of verbalizing it. This holds true even those of you who may not think about or reflect on what you're doing, who may be on automatic pilot because you've been making art for so long, or who find yourselves in some altered state of creative fervor while your art somehow happens. Regardless of how much or how little you're in touch with these details, your art still begins, middles and ends, and you can still figure the cognitive component out.

For many artists, all this means is they just have to get back in touch with their creative process. Perhaps you've been creating art for so long, the problem isn't so much that you don't know what you're doing or why you're doing it, but rather that you've just plain forgotten. Once upon a time, maybe even as far back as when you were young, you absolutely positively knew what you were doing and why you were doing it every single time you set out to make art. But the more art you made, the more automatic making it became, perhaps even to the point where you no longer had to think that much about what you were doing anymore.

No matter what your circumstances, you can approach this discovery or rediscovery process in a number of ways. For instance, try going back to when you first decided to become an artist and reconstruct your career forward, or start at the present and deconstruct your career backward, or take a finished piece of your art and reconstruct its story from conception to completion as best as you can recall. You don't necessarily have to think about all this stuff while you're making the art; you can do it after your done if that works better for you. But at least do it. Contemplating the development and evolution of your artistic existence from time to time in order to increase your self-awareness is always a good thing.

If you're at a loss for how to begin, a great way to start is to sit down and do a little writing, stream-of-consciousness style, on whatever comes to mind about your art, life as an artist, progressions of career events, your creative process, your current work and so on. Better yet, keep a journal or take regular notes on your art-related thoughts, ideas, and experiences as they happen. Pull words out of the air and scribble them down, words you think have some relation to your art, descriptives, etc. Don't be self-conscious, don't be afraid, forget about what other people might think, don't worry about grammar; just barf yourself up a great big pile of garble. You'll have plenty of time to sort it all out later.

You can do the same thing by spontaneously verbalizing about your art in the privacy of your home or studio. Just start talking and see where it goes. The great thing about verbalizing is that you can actually monitor or reflect on what you're saying while you're saying it-- almost like a dispassionate third party-- and evaluate as you go. You can either record yourself as you go or if you say something that catches your attention, pause for a moment and write it down. I get plenty of great ideas for my articles that way-- by speaking or dictating rather than writing. Many times, talking things out can be far more enlightening than thinking or writing in silence. This is not necessarily easy. It can be tough if you haven't done it before, but the potential upside is well worth the effort.

This exercise may seem a bit airy-fairy to some of you, but the good news is that it really works. If you take it seriously, you'll accumulate some pretty interesting thoughts, observations, and insights. You'll begin to see that every moment in the production of every work of your art counts. The progression of your life as an artist happens for a reason and has its own precious significance. Even if your art is about randomness, it's random for a reason, a reason you've decided on.

Now a few of you may be so ingrained in habit patterns that you can't see the forest for the trees. So if you're completely stuck, a good alternative might be to have someone who knows something about art either jumpstart the process by asking relevant questions. Or let them read whatever you've managed to write, see whether they can follow it, and then dialogue with you from there. A little objective perspective from the outside may be exactly what you need.

Several questions to help get you going:

* When do you make art? Are more spontaneous or on a fixed schedule? How or when do you start the process?

* Do you have a routine, a ritual? Where do you go, how do you lay out your supplies? What's going on in the background while you're making art and how does that influence you?

* How does your art evolve? Are you intentional right from the start or do things evolve more spontaneously as you go?

* What do you think makes your art satisfying or worthwhile and why-- not only to you, but to others as well?

* What is your art about? Is it about you? About thoughts, philosophies, themes, events or other people? Is it about beliefs? Memories? Is it a commentary? Does it tell a story?

* How do you know when you're done? What makes you step back and say, "This is it, this is perfect, it's exactly what I want?"

* Is there a logical progression between one work of art and the next? Does one lead directly to the next? Or is there little or no connection? How do individual pieces of your art relate to one another?

* What do you think your art communicates to others?

* Take every opportunity you can to speak with people about your art. You can learn an awful lot from everything anyone says, whether you agree with it or not. It's pure insight into how people are impacted by your art as well as guidance in how to make sure they understand the most important aspects of your work. The fact that anyone takes precious time out of their life to engage with you about your art is a blessing.

The goal here is to identify and clarify your purpose, direction, focus, and desire to be an artist-- and ultimately, for you to create art that impacts not only you but also the lives of others. The better you understand yourself and your creative process, the more effectively you can get the word out to the public, assuming that's something you want to do. Get your raison d'etre in order and people will notice. They'll be intrigued, they'll get involved, they'll want to know more. And if they have questions, you'll have the answers-- good ones. This is your big chance. Remember, the only way to get there is if you know where you're going.


Are you interested in assistance with any aspect of your art or art career? If yes, I'm always available to advise. Give me a call at 415.931.7875 or email Tell me what you need and I'll tell you what I offer.

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(art by Patrick Martinez)

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