I’ve long been fascinated by the mind of the artist. I wonder what makes artists tick and what drives them to create.
As a gallery owner, I get to interact with artists on a regular basis. I have the opportunity to talk with them about their work and I get to visit their studios. I’ve also read numerous biographies about artists that have allowed me to see how artists develop over the course of a lifetime.
As a non-artist, I stand in awe of the talent and creativity I see manifest in the artworks I encounter. I admire the effort that has gone into cultivating raw talent into artistic skill and the work that goes into creating.
I also know that there are a lot of misperceptions about what it means to be an artist. The popular imagination is filled with romantic notions of the lone artist striving to achieve some kind of higher existence as he or she struggles to create in the studio. Many casual art fans believe that artists live an idyllic life, doing what they love all day long every day. Some who don’t understand art believe that artists are somehow shirking a “real job.”
Recently, I’ve begun to wonder how artists see themselves and how they think about the creative process. I’m particularly interested in better understanding how artists think about the work that it takes to create and how different artists approach this work. I would like to explore these questions, and I’m going to ask for your input through several posts. I look forward to gaining and sharing insights on the work of creating, and I hope that these insights might help you look at the work you do in new ways, and, perhaps, find ways to do make your work more satisfying.
So, let’s begin with a question.
Is Creating Art Hard Work?
We all know that it takes real work to create a piece of art, but does an artist look at this work in the same way other people look at their work? Is creating a job in the traditional way that we think of jobs?
It’s certainly different than working in a factory – doing the same thing over and over, following someone else’s design. However, I would imagine that the longer an artist has been creating, the more routine the creative process becomes.
As I began to do research for these articles, I reached out to some RedDot readers and asked them about their view of the work they are doing as artists. Their responses were enlightening. I can’t share all of the responses I received, but here are a few that are typical of the diversity of answers to the question “Is creating art hard work?”
Sometimes it is hard. However, there have been times when the ‘muse’ sat on my shoulder, whispered in my ear, and guided my hand…those few paintings or sculptures seem effortless (and they made me much happier). I still have to think about the ‘rules’ of a good work of art, the composition, color, line, shapes, etc. It is difficult to not overwork, to retain the spontaneity. It requires effort and focused concentration. It can be hard to reach that level of concentration and maintain it or even harder, reach it again when you resume working on your art.
Carroll Stone, North Port, FL
The short answer is yes. Now the physical act of making art is not considered in the same class as physical labour but in many cases it is. I manufacture my own canvases and panels when not working on assembled paper as a mixed media artist, and these works are generally larger than 2 x 3 feet. For example, moving a 6 x 6 foot panel on one’s own can be quite physical, as can painting with an outstretch arm, often at shoulder height or higher, or at awkward angles – as is needed with these larger works. Muscle and eye strain are common. Then there’s the abstract nature of being an artist where like any business you need to put out capital, as in raw materials, then storage in inventory, through to the sale (if it sells) including administration and finances, as well as marketing and networking to ensure your brand remains viable in both the short and long term of your copyright’s life (not necessarily your own). Twice the work for the potential of a return that is never guaranteed – this fits the description of hard work in my books.
Ben Benedict, London, ON
This is an interesting question, at times creating art can be difficult, especially when the artistic flow is on a down swing, some factors in being difficult can be due to a lack of incentive, maybe the project is more challenging than first thought, could be working with an unfamiliar medium for the first time. Most artists I know like to challenge themselves, otherwise they can become complacent in their work.
Josef Marion, Santa Fe, NM
I don’t see creating art as hard work at all although it is a process that has a number of peaks and troughs within it. The hardest part is getting around to creating art. Once I have got to my easel I can get lost in what I am creating. I guess the hard work is more around thinking about what to do with the art once it is created, e.g. keeping an inventory of work etc, deciding where and how to market my art, prepping for a show etc.
I feel that some aspects of creating art come easier than others. Some pieces simply flow better and feel easier to complete. Others are more difficult and there isn’t an appreciable difference in the result. I do think it would be a mistake to think that it should always be easy or to give up just because it is difficult. This answer does not include the marketing and selling of art-that is pretty much always difficult (but worth it).
We pretty quickly see that it’s as much a question of defining hard work as it is deciding whether creating art is hard work. I suppose that this is true of just about any profession – attitude makes a big difference. It’s important to note, however, that thinking of creative work as hard isn’t necessarily a negative thing. Many artists reported feeling a deep sense of satisfaction that comes with the labor of creating art.
What Do You Think – Is Creating Hard Work?
Please take a moment to complete this quick poll. I know that the first question may be a bit difficult to answer because creating art might be both, depending on the day. If you tend to think of your artistic practice more as hard work than pleasure, pick the first option, and if you find it to be pure pleasure more often, pick the second. After you take answer the survey questions, please leave your thoughts about the nature of the work you do in the comments below.
Keep an eye out for additional posts about the nature of the work you do in the coming days, as well as a post on the results of this poll.
Working as an artist is hard work when paintings have to be carried (especially with glass), packed and shipped, stored, moved, etc., and if you cut your own mats and do your own framing, that can be hard work and tedious, especially large sizes. I find myself constantly thinking about how I’m going to create my next piece. I think that creating artwork is mentally challenging because I’m always trying to create something new and I try not to be repetitive in my work.
As an adjunct art professor, I always say this to my students……
YOUR BEST ARTWORKS ARE A GIFT. THEY FLOW EFFORTLESSLY OUT OF YOU.
BUT THE ONES THAT CAUSE YOU TO STUGGLE ARE YOUR GREATEST TEACHERS.
Very well said.
My “struggle” paintings outnumber my “effortless” ones by a decisive margin. For my “struggle” paintings the struggle is usually not spread evenly throughout the painting process but weighted at the beginning. Once I get past the design/layout/block-in I often heave a sigh of relief and say “whew, now all I have to do is paint”…which can be very relaxing. Sure, I can still run into trouble then too but it is less frequent and more easily fixed.
A special category of hard work is the plein air competition and the quick-draw, which while uniquely satisfying can be quite hard work for me, especially if the weather is bad.
There is an interpretation of your question that may need further definition. One could assume you are asking only about the “creation” of the art, the other interpretation is more broad, “is being an artist hard work?” Although both questions may have the same answer I suspect the answer to the latter will almost always be a resounding “yes”. Being an artist is being an entrepreneur, and the effort, skill development, execution and self-direction of being an artist can be exhausting and as challenging, or more challenging than any “job.”
Creating Art, the actual process of creating, is the reward of all that hard work. The creating can be easy at times, or very difficult. As one of your artists mentioned, sometimes the creation of a piece just flows. The painting paints itself (for example) and your skills and preparation all come in to play in an effortless flow. That is rare however. Speaking for myself and the many artists I interact with as a gallery manager, we are often struggling to reach that next level with our work. We tend to focus on what we were not able to accomplish, a play of light, getting just the right color, a compositional challenge, brushwork; and we often don’t appreciate the finished piece for what it is. We are only critical of what it lacks. That pushes us forward, but it can be a challenge, as in hard work.
Then the reality of being an artist kicks in and I need to spend time studying, practicing, learning to achieve a new ideal with my work, and overcome those shortfalls. This part of creating art can also be enjoyable and rewarding, but there is no doubt it is hard work.
As a gallery manager I find it amusing and annoying how many times I hear some version of “I wish had talent” or “they’re lucky to be so talented.” Any artist knows that it wasn’t luck, but hard work, focus and dedication that got them to where they are. Yes, some people have a more innate talent but it has to be nurtured and built.
I’ll relate a conversation I heard from two very well-known and very successful artists one day. Both are full-time artists who support themselves, have won pages of awards, and paint, literally, a hundred or more paintings a year. The conversation went something like this: “Of all the paintings you do in a year, how many do you think are really good, that your happy with?” Answer: “Two or three, you?” Reply: “Same.”
These artists work hard every day at their craft. They don’t wait for inspiration, or good weather. They “work” at their craft. Every day. I’t would be difficult no to conclude that creating art is hard work. It is also difficult to believe they would continue to do it if it wasn’t rewarding. Hard work and reward co-exist.
Thank for putting that so perfectly, Tom. I agree with every word you said. It’s hard to get non-artists to understand the struggle.
Well said, Tom! I truly do have tons of fun when the creation is coming out well, and that feels effortless. But sometimes, the struggle is real! Marketing and shipping is the most of the “work” for me.
Being artists for us (and I think many artists) has meant being photographers, accountants, marketing managers, social media managers, web designers, tech support (i.e. trying to sort out computer glitches), video film makers, teachers and – sometimes it feels – last if not least, artists. There are two of us and we share out the roles and as we have become more successful, have been able to afford to farm some of the jobs out (web design, accounts). But for many artists hours are long and much of the work is tedious and not what we are good at. In a perfect world galleries would have been clamouring to take our work – that is what galleries are good at and set up for. But in the real world that doesn’t always happen of course. On the plus side constantly trying to keep up with new developments (we are currently trying to get to grips with NFTs) will hopefully keep our brains sharp into old age – after all does an artist ever retire?
Great article. I put out a lot of mental and emotional efforts while creating. At the same time I’m following the rules of color, line, shapes, etc. At this point much is intuitive. But, it’s exhausting. Some pieces just seem to flow. I find these very rewarding. Others are just simply grinding through the process until I know it’s good. I get the chance to see many beginners struggle through. Their resolve to learn basic rules is the difference whether they continue. Like any other trade, there are basic rules and structure that is necessary for a good product. But one thing is for sure, today I put a lot more sweat into my art and I also see a big difference compared to years ago. I go through a process with each piece. But, the results are far more rewarding today as well.
Speaking from experience, I create from my Belief and religious views. Meaning I pray about what God would want from me in Art. Once I feel like He is leading me to do a piece of work, I will start to explore more in depth and once I feel a tug and pull and a feeling of ahuh this is it, then I will start to view the material in which I find and see what He wants me to convey to others for viewing. I add things to the materials I find. So, if someone has pictures of nature and I see other pictures in which I want to be in the first picture I will add that….so it is like a puzzle putting the pieces together, only in the eyes of the creator. If He wants me to paint it I will but if He wants me to draw the art I will work in all shades and shadows. My art work goal is to make one see the art and believe it is a black and white photo. So YES it is hard work but so enjoyable to do the process. Because I never know how it turns out until it is finished. An adventure on it’s own.
I am a hot glass sculptor working in soda lime glass. There are certain physical considerations that may cause discomfort after hours at the torch, but the hardest part for me is the emotional “pain” when a piece I’ve been working on for hours cracks. The type of glass I use is very sensitive to sudden changes in temperature. This phenomenon can happen day after day and certainly takes its toll on me. At that time, keeping going is the hardest part.
Like others, handling the administrative aspects is hard, but I realize it’s something I have to do to succeed. I know I don’t spend enough time marketing, but I am pretty happy with the balance I’ve achieved.
I’ve made quilts for 40 years, and now I am painting in oils. When I was 18 I had so many ideas swimming in my head, I knew I would never make them all in my lifetime. Whether I’m sewing or painting, I can get lost in the process. I’d say yes it is hard work, but when it turns out beautiful, it is VERY satisfying! I’m trying to sell my paintings, but If I don’t, I will be sewing and painting for the rest of my life!
Throughout my art career I have produced art works in various fields: such as graphic design and advertising, painting and drawings for illustration, easle work and murals, both indoor and outdoor, some fairly large. In recent years I have had lucrative results in art commissions of various kinds. It’s has been interesting as an artist yo use my skills and techniques in all these various ways, but until you posed the question of how an artist interprets the work involved I had really never categorized it from that perception, but now I can say easily that the very hardest work was the physical effort necessary to create murals outdoors, a little less hard for indoor work. Commissions that require me to create within certain perimeters set by the client are not difficult for me in a creative sense, just a challenge and have been a great source of growth for me creatively. All other freelance works , and I work on a fairly large scale never seem like hard work at all. Ultimately, the passion I feel to create makes it all a pleasure.
The hardest part of the creative process for me is maintaining the disciple of showing up. I go to the studio on a regular basis even though I may not feel like being there. If I am not able even then to work, I clean and organize. It always jump starts me.
The main drivers for me are curiosity and working in series. I am working in clay sculpture and beginning my fifth year creating ravens. I never repeat myself. The process is slow and emergent, and the clay is alive. It needs much coaxing to dry evenly, to not crack, to respond to the firings without exploding or bloating ,and there are the glaze chemistry mysteries, potentials of many surface failures in the glaze surface.
I have learned to view failures as doorways to shift the imagery or the surface to something I would not have imagined or considered.
My mentors are the ravens I live among, studying them online and in books, mythology, and a Jungian respect for symbol.
It is the business end that stops me cold. It is the antithesis of the making part of art for me. I have great admiration for those who can find success in it. Nancy Chinn
Yes! It’s often difficult work both mentally and physically. I’m a bronze sculptor, for one part of my art business, and usually do the labor intensive mould work, wax pouring, and often the pouring of bronze. It’s sweaty, heavy work for my 5′ 3″ body and sometimes dangerous. Large commissions, with clay and armatures totaling over 300 lbs. or more, takes physical work. I have the scars to prove it! Mentally, it can be very hard work, too, such as planning and engineering large works because I must be able get large, original pieces to “hang” together. I love the research and planning and drawing, engineering the balance and structure, but most is hard work. Then, there’s the hard work just running the business, bookkeeping, negotiating projects, prices, and people!
An interesting question Jason. Something I have found personally in my art, or creativity, occurs in cycles or patterns. In my case it is 90 days of creating art and 30 days of not doing art as I have little interest in this 30 day period. I will read about it, go to shows, museums or take reference photos but I have no interest in painting. Usually the end of the 30 day period occurs with” hmmm I wonder” appears again . A shadow pattern on a wall. A scintillating color or light. All of this occurs on a predictable schedule but I also understand my art occurs at every day and stage of my life. It never stops.
I have helped a couple of artists with their being “blocked” by helping them to understand the cycles in their art as well. Searching questions as to how their time is allocated usually leads to answers that show a cycle. Understanding the cycle/pattern allows them to better use their time and prepare for the return of the muse.
Thank you, MM. That very nicely illuminates what I have been going through. I was close to identifying my pattern then your statement made it very clear. Again, thank you.
I’ll tell you what’s hard work: working in a fruit warehouse, brushing a fruit orchard behind the thinning crew in the cold, cleaning bodies in a low-rent rest home, grading five sections of Writing 121 essays in one weekend, convincing students plagiarism is an issue worth learning about, surviving thirty years in the public school system in the milieu of school shooters, race riots, and COVID. And that’s just my work.
I CHOSE to become an artist, to tackle all the challenges of an artist entrepreneur, and every single task gives me joy because this is my life and I’m in control of it.
Yes, hard work, but without the poison of futility.
As a glass artist, I find the work has gotten much more efficient and lucrative. The hardest part always was and is choosing the colors and making them go together well. Ever since I discovered audio books I can breeze through the other more mundane steps and even watch TV series and movies while working, like getting paid to learn or be entertained.
As a Plien-aire painter some paintings were easier than others but there were always logistics whether they were city street scenes or river scenes. Working conditions were usually uncomfortably cold or hot, and the psychological part was the hardest of all. I either felt like everyone within my scenes was actually enjoying them while I was struggling, or I was far away from civilization for days at a time.
I agree with Sandy (above). I was in the Canadian military for 33 years so I have a different view of hard work. I’ve read Liz Gilbert’s book, the Big Magic several times and she describes being an artist as being disciplined and organized. I agree. I drew up a business plan with 1, 5 and 10 year (realistic) goals. I regularly ask people to critique my work and am willing to make changes.
All you guys make me cry. In the USA almost everybody lives a charmed life in comparison to folks in almost every continent on this Space Ship Earth. As Sandy Brown Jensen has pointed out, hard labor is one thing….making art is another. Mental or physical, if one does not find joy or fulfillment: that’s hard work.
If it is a joy for you to endeavor to make art, or whatever your calling is, then it is not hard or difficult.
Really, artistic success in the USA is not all that difficult. Enjoy the journey, live your dream. For the viewer it is only reflected light that meets their consciousness and pokes at their dreams.
Is creating art hard work? Staying within the confines of the art work itself – the painting, the sculpture – I can best answer this question with an analogy to baseball. When a ballplayer runs down a ball hit deep into the outfield and snags it in with an over- the-head catch, he has exerted great strength, agility, focus and experience with the accomplishment. Hard work? Yes. Great pleasure? Yes. So for myself this is how it is – an integration, an intertwining of dificulty and challenges with pleasure and satisfactions. And when the painting is complete that’s the moment the ball plops into the glove.
As an artist, I struggle constantly between being satisfied with a painting and always striving to paint better. Some days, The Muse does come and painting seems effortless. A masterpiece is born. On those rare days, I feel like I finally know how to paint and I think, tomorrow I’ll remember what I did. The next day I set up to paint and reality hits. I make a mess. The Muse has moved on to someone else. I figure this levels the playing field for all of us to have a go at The Creative Life. I have thought many times to give up painting out of frustration and lack of ideas. But no sooner do I contemplate this thought and another idea strikes. Balance is the key and that is hard. And this doesn’t even begin to touch the business part of art.
Very interesting topic. In my case, art is like practicing a sport that you really love, sometimes you put a lot of energy and effort into it, but you enjoy doing it and there is a sense of satisfaction when you are done, like when you finish a hard workout. Sometimes is like going for a leisurely walk, just relaxing, taking it easy and going with the flow.
If it’s not hard work, then I’m not growing. If I didn’t want – need — to grow, then I would become a manufacturer, repeating items rather than inventing new ones.
Every day I step into my workshop and take a deep breath. Often scared frankly. I don’t know how to get that golfer to turn when the cuckoo calls, nor the chicken’s eyeball to wink. And there’s no one who has gone before me to tell me.
My horses have taught me that if I reframe what I interpret as fear into excitement the energy changes from shut down and inner focused to vibrational and relational. So, I make myself tackle clocks and get on my horse (most) every day. Once I do the anxiety soon turns into a wellspring of energy. Hard is healthy!
My horses have been my muses and kept me sane, you just have to be with them. they have such a big heart.
Due to medical issues,I couldn’t ride for a number of years , hopefully back in the saddle soon. There’s no better way to get back into your soul.
Hard? If hard only refers to physicality, then light to medium. But…
If hard refers to any overcoming of difficulties, then medium to hard.
Consider the introverted artist which many, if not most, are. Introversion has variously been described as being psychically drained when being around people as one has to be when building the business of selling. It is like Sisyphus pushing that boulder up the mountainside. Is there a reward when he gets to the top? Merely a moment and then he has to start over.
So, yes, hard.
My paintings or drawings start with a metaphor, a symbol or just a feeling. The beginning is always easy, it’s passionate and fast, but then the real work starts,,,sometimes it flows like a river, I’m one with the muse within me. But there are times I have to step away and relax and let go, I do sometimes get into small work to give myself some relief and be present to do what is in my soul to continue on the larger piece.
I did have some accidents in the last couple of years plus a double mastectomy, what made me realize,YES, sometimes it is hard work, when you can’t do what you used to do and you just be able to draw and start small.
Yea it’s hard work when you can’t do it ,,,but when you are ok you just live your passion and don’t think about it!
I see the creation of art as more of an adventure of my mind than work. The decisions I make creating my are intutive and rely on past experiences while trying to evolve forward. No work is involved. It is all a great distraction to the world and a willing submission to the process.
I don’t consider marketing, obtaining supplies and the like part of the actual creating process. That is like brushing your teeth and putting clothes on. Just something you have to do to function in your world.
Isn’t quite an either /or kind of thing. It’s the “Agony and the Ecstasy” both together; along with the sigh & the humdrum. Painting has been a wonderful relentless obsession for 50 years. It’s work I love. So much can go into the creative process—falling down from exhaustion, critical examination, heartache, quandary, joy, epiphany, pleasure, silliness, dreams, pounding nails, lugging stuff around, etc….
I grew up in a very tough industrial city and used to skip school to be in the sanctuary of an Art Museum; and found my self longing to take part in the mysterious conversation of Visual Art. I am a better teacher than business person, but then there is the work—painting.
This was a topic that is so misunderstood by the public and now I see why: we all see creation differently. Your question to me resides only in the act of thinking about, conceptualizing and executing the piece.I would say that I am tired after a day of painting, not while I am working because I am away in my world where time does not exist and hours with my arms held in place with will does not compute. After my day , then I am tired . I have explained to those who care to know that painting has the intensity of a final exam but one that last for hours. If you are really into the work a semi trance like state keeps you from noticing the fatigue.
One day at the endodontists , he explained how he was suffering from repetitive strain in his shoulder, just like the problems artists suffer from their WORK but for a lower salary.
Well that is my small donation to the cause .
The rest of the work to lug, pack, unpack, document, pay taxes is just not part of creation but the miserable part of being an artist at least to me.
Art is a piece of me I can express in a way I understand and others admire.it is not a job to me I enjoy every single aspect of my art.I t my alone ,time,a time to pour ally emotions out.
If you aren’t having fun creating, you’ve entered the wrong universe. Go off and find something that interests you and doesn’t feel like work. In the realm of creating, you’ll be totally absorbed, subconsciously going where your creative streak needs to go. Of course there’s thought, decision making, alternate routes, new ideas along the way, and that’s all the fun of creating.
The funny thing is, if you love making art, it doesn’t seem hard at all. Even if you are relaying buckets of paint up ropes to the top of scaffolding. It is a challenge, sometimes, to get it to go the way your vision is, but as an artist, I keep working, manipulating, changing and tweeking until it feels satisfying. Painting or carving blocks, both are like a treasure hunt where the form of the outcome springs to life. It is this discovery that is so exciting. It may be hard sometimes, but it never seems like work.
Then I might go home and have to deal with muscles and joints….