The Discipline it Takes to Create Art

 

“Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishment.” – Jim Rohn

Over the summer, I’ve had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with my kids. We took several road-trips, and we undertook some home-improvement projects together. My kids range in age from nine to seventeen, and I thoroughly enjoy their company. They are old enough to appreciate the world with avid curiosity, and Carrie and I are having a lot of fun introducing them to new experiences.

Recently, we had a discussion on a profound topic: superpowers. The question was, “if you could have any one superpower, which would it be?” I’m sure this is a discussion every child has had at some point, and my kids began talking about the advantages of various powers: the ability to fly, invisibility, super-strength, super-speed, and so on. Cogent arguments were put forth for each, and then my daughter asked, “which power would you have, dad?”

I thought for a second, and then said, “Discipline. I would like to have super-discipline.” The kids looked at me quizzically – this wasn’t any superpower they had considered before. I went on to explain that it seemed to me that many of the great feats and accomplishments of history were achieved through vision and discipline. The best part of this superpower, I explained, was that it is actually achievable by mere mortals.

My kids rolled there eyes and said it didn’t count. “Lame,” my fourteen-year-old son said. I argued my case a bit more, but finally gave in and said that if they wouldn’t allow discipline as a superpower, I would take the ability to travel through time.

While discipline might not make the cut as a superpower, I would argue that discipline, especially self-discipline, is critical to one’s ability to achieve success in life. The ability to dream big and set goals is important too, but I would argue that without discipline, it’s nearly impossible to achieve anything worthwhile in life.

I feel this is especially true for artists. I marvel at an artist’s ability to get into the studio and work persistently toward his or her vision. An artist, it seems to me, must have an incredible drive to work day after day through difficult circumstances. It takes real discipline.

But what is discipline, and how does one acquire it?

Google’s dictionary defines self-discipline as “the ability to control one’s feelings and overcome one’s weaknesses; the ability to pursue what one thinks is right despite temptations to abandon it.” This seems like a great start, but how does one obtain this ability? How are the temptations overcome?

Over the years, I’ve spend a lot of time trying to cultivate self-discipline. It hasn’t been easy. I have aspired to do many things – build a successful art gallery business, create a strong family, and publish an engaging blog :-), to name a few. I’ve discovered that each of these goals is hard to achieve, and that there are many temptations to abandon those goals. I’ve worked very hard to develop discipline to work toward my goals. I’ve also learned that, for me, it isn’t enough to tell myself that I just need to be more disciplined. I struggle to remain focussed and am easily distractible.

I hope that some of what I’ve discovered about self-discipline will help you in your creative process. Before I share what I’ve learned, however, allow me to share what I heard from readers about discipline.

How Discipline Affects the Artistic Process

Several weeks ago, in preparation for writing my article about the hard work of creating, I asked readers how they feel discipline (or lack of discipline) affects their work. Their comments gave me an idea of the importance and challenges of maintaining discipline in the studio. Here is a sampling of the comments:

Discipline involves getting set up and prepared to paint. Lack of discipline affects my work by allowing household chores, gardening, caring for pets or obligations to friends to consume all of my time. To be able to paint, an artist must be selfish with their time.

Kim Blitho – Matong, Australia

 

If I am disciplined – setting aside frequent work days and following through on them – I get plenty of artwork done and I think my technical skills improve. There are times I can’t do this, and I feel my work suffers if I am more sporadic in my approach.

Lori Bradley – New Bedford, MA

 

My disipline with my art never lacks. Sixteen, eighteen hour days are not uncommon. If I’m not painting I’m working all the other areas that go along with producing art and selling..I love the challenge and have never not wanted to do it.

Mike Palmer – Jackson, MI

 

Discipline is key in creating and producing any form of artwork or design. One must be disciplined with their time, energy and focus.

Bentley Buran – Santa Monica, CA

 

I am not a social painter, I am more comfortable working alone, listening to CDs or Pandora. This discipline helps me to concentrate on what I need to do to be successful at art. I often meet with other artists after work and we share ideas and help each other. I feel that my schedule helps keep me focused, and I have the freedom to rearrange the routine if I feel it is important

Jenny Lankford – Marshall Texas

 

Discipline is everything. Without it, I find it very hard to stay organized and be creative. Structure and organization clear my head and give me the breathing space I need to be artistic.

Emily Randolph – Phoenix, AZ

 

I’m a reasonably disciplined person – I think it helps but it’s not everything. Showing up and just starting is worth a lot. Once you get started, it’s like eating potatoes chips, you can just stop with one – you keep going.

Cindy Wagner – Huntsville, AL

Techniques that Have Helped in My Development of Discipline

These comments reflect my experience with discipline as well. While developing discipline is a long process, I’ve found four key approaches that have helped me become more disciplined.

Routine

First and foremost, I’ve learned how important it is for me to have a routine and, as much as possible to stick to it. Life is crazy, and there are always a myriad of activities that need to be done. I find that if I’m not careful, I can easily spend all of my time stamping out fires and never working toward my goals.

It’s even harder for me to concentrate if my weekly schedule devolves into chaos. I’ve created a daily routine that allows me to get to work early and focus on my big projects first. I try to rise at the same time every morning, I leave for work at the same time, and I block out regular time each day to work on certain projects. When I’m in my routine it’s much easier to work in a focussed way. I never have to wonder what I should be working on at any given time – my routine tells me.

I’m very reluctant to allow intrusions into my routine.

I know many artists struggle to create a routine because they have to juggle full-time jobs, family responsibilities and other priorities before they can get into the studio. I would argue that even if there are only a few hours a week available to create, it’s best if you can make those hours into a routine, and then protect that routine with all your power.

Eliminate Distractions

The time that we do have to work and create is even more fragile today because of the myriad of distractions that are ever-present. Electronic devices are powerful tools, but they are also powerful distractions. If at all possible, I would urge you to turn off your phone while you work, or at the very least, silence your notifications. Every time you pause to see what’s happening on Facebook or to respond to an email, you lose momentum and your precious creative time slips away.

Work on One Thing at a Time

I’ve learned that if I want to accomplish something, I have to concentrate on it. While writing this post, for example, I’m not also trying to develop a new marketing plan or rehanging the gallery. All of those things are important, but I’ve learned that when I start a task, I need to stick to it until it’s finished, and then move on to the next. I would far rather finish one job, than start three and not complete any.

Make a List

I find that having a to-do list helps me keep my focus. The act of writing down my tasks helps me feel I’m in control of them, and it also assures me that I won’t forget to do anything. I discipline myself to never do anything that pops into my head right when it occurs to me. I put it in my to-do list so that I can make sure I’m completing the tasks of highest priority first.

 

How Have You Developed Discipline?

What have you done to cultivate discipline in the studio. How do you motivate yourself to stay on track? What are the challenges you face in maintaining discipline? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

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15 Comments

  1. Have been a practicing professional artist for 45 years now. in the early decades painting in marathon stints of 10-14 hours plus time for the inevitable business activities. As the ownership of businesses increased along with intl travel to service those businesses time was reduced to 6-8 hours even if painting in a hotel room or drawing designs on a long haul 10 hr flight to London which i did every 4 weeks for years. After spinal surgeries can now paint 3-5 hours only with business after that given physical limitations. [advantage is i can do more in 3 hours now than in month early on in carrear] Paint every day and all things and commitments are set aside to accommodate that process. no exceptions.
    to succeed in the arts the time must be put in. richard

  2. It drives me nuts when friends, clients or aquaintances say; “Oh! … it must be so nice to work whenever you want to and take as much time off as you want anytime you want.”

    As every professional artist knows, this is as far from the truth as you can get! They have no idea of the self-discipine it takes to be sucessful in this most competitive field.

  3. Discipline is perhaps one of the most important requirements for a successful artist. It can be difficult for many people, because we are wired to be social creatures, and working in a solitary atmosphere can be challenging at times. Get in the habit of being in your studio at a specific time, as you would to any other job, and set your work day to a committed number of hours per week. Even if you are not in the mood to create, or mentally feel blocked, you need to show up. Before you leave the studio( ie: in the evening ) make sure that it is prepared to go in the morning, or upon your return to work. Have your tools in order, so that you are not wasting time. Let your family, friends and others know that you are not to be disturbed within a certain time of the day. Keep yourself focused as well. Making a list of objectives for the following day is important. Post that list where you can see it. It may be something real simple such as: (1) “Call my gallery re: framing for the show. (2) Finish color study for current painting, and (3) Post to social media. Being able to check those items off daily sets a pattern for disicipline. It really boils down to one simple thing…If you are not a person who can establish self discipline, or who is not willing to work at it, then more than likely you are not cut out to be a “professional artist”.

  4. I think the answer is much more rudimentary. When making any decision – what to purchase or even whether to get up out of bed – I ask myself: is this going to further my goal of creating more art? The pathway to art is circuitous and rooted in raw emotion. Discipline also includes stating an intent and following through – unless at some point you find that your intent is not leading toward making your art. YOUR art, not just any old art.

  5. My great uncle was a cartoonist for the Chicago tribune, he dedicated his life to writing children’s books and illustrating them and publishing a cartoon strip for the papers called the teeny weenies. When I met him I was about 10 years old I told him: “I’m going to be an artist.“ Great uncle Bill replied: “it’s going to take a lot of work.“ This thought has stayed with me my entire life. It was college when my father started talking to me about discipline and it’s importance.

    I understood what my father said but it was very hard to concentrate on a discipline when you’re young. I’m a very social person and I love my friends and to do things with them and for them. So I struggled with these two concepts early on. On top of this women are supposed to start feeling like they need children and they should get married and have them. For some reason in my mind I knew that if I had kids I would never do my art. Some people can balance that, others cannot. I was one of the latter I was sure. I would be some kind of supermom and relish in my family and all of their endeavors instead of focusing on art.

    I began to see that I needed to limit my friendships as well so that I could work on disturbed by social distraction. After I married I had a very understanding husband who supported my art. I was able to focus on doing my art because I joined a small cooperative gallery where I had a studio. There were other focused artists there and they were no distractions except for the daily running of the studio and gallery. I was able to work with an older mentor artist who was very disciplined and painted every day. We became great friends and painted together constantly.

    Today after 29 years, I still am in this gallery. It is my studio. One of the keys for being totally immersed in my art, is to have a studio outside the house. There have been many times when I had to work at jobs to support myself. Being able to go to my studio was like going to work. (Only a lot more fun!) Today I am able to manage the publicity for the studio gallery, be the editor for the website, and produce most of the printed material. Electronic devices are a terrible distraction Especially when people are calling or sending you text messages. But they can also provide you with the zoom classes in art or wonderful seminars from a museum such as the Met. To maintain your discipline, find a studio outside the house and look at it as your job to go there every day and work. It will help you maintain your discipline!

  6. I have found the book: “Self-Discipline in 10 Days: How to go from Thinking to Doing” by Theodore Bryant to be very helpful in keeping me a disciplined artist. I actually re-read sections almost every year or any time I feel I need a bit of self-discipline.

  7. Along with all the practical insights and techniques already mentioned, what helps to draw me into my studio every afternoon as scheduled without fail is when I’m deeply excited by the project I’m working on. I’ve found that when I am moved by my current work nothing gets in the way of my engagement. I am currently painting a canvas for an art prize competition – the competition inspired me to really reach beyond previous efforts with my most ambitious project yet – my subject matter requires meticulous fine detail to pull off the effect and my skills and painting techniques seem to be rising to the occasion – almost as though being pulled out of me … I delight in the canvas unfolding before me so much so that before I go to bed every evening I pop into my studio for a few minutes just to behold the day’s progress and the emerging work of art! As a result I’m experiencing passion and joy in creating this piece – more than I’ve ever experienced before – that has made me particularly fierce about carving out the time in my studio daily … and doesn’t feel like so called ‘discipline’! I don’t think again that I will paint something I don’t truly love as a project.

  8. This is a wonderful blog. Lots to think about. As a creative person, it’s often challenging to be disciplined. Like you, I am easily distracted. But, when I settle down and start painting in my studio, it’s amazing to be in the “zone,” and lose track of everything except making art.

  9. When it comes right down to it, artists make art. They don’t just think about making art or talk about making art or go to openings and see art–they actually make art. Without discipline, it’s really hard to make art. I guess some people are more internally driven than others. I am lucky that way. At 65, I still work a part-time day job and put in 25 to 30 hours in the studio each week. I raised a family and when they were gone from the “nest” began caring for my parents. Although not always financially successful, I have never stopped working or been at a loss for ideas. So I don’t know what to tell people who can’t get motivated to paint, sculpt or draw. Maybe start out just setting aside one hour several times a week. Then bump it up to two hours. A lot involves negotiating with loved ones. And get rid of your TV.

  10. I believe discipline is important to achieve success as a artist but just as crucial is to learn to prioritize your goals to achieve prosperity as a artist. Making a list of goals (getting ready for an exhibition, establishing a strong social media presence, finishing a series, etc) and then writing down a list of your daily activities and highlight the ones that will achieve your goal as a artist. Then try to put those first in your daily actions. With that adding the measure of discipline.
    It is like having a delicious peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch. If you don’t start first with the peanut butter (goals) and just putting on the jelly (discipline) all you will have is a jelly sandwich. Or in comparison you don’t have a complete artist work/discipline analogy.

  11. These days I make sure to have an hour a day to paint and an hour a day to write. I loved the days when I could paint for 6 hours straight, but they are long gone. Between arthritis and other health issues (like losing my sight in one eye and a pulmonary embolism) I am just happy to do what I can. Happy to be alive.

  12. The word djscjpline also attaches to the word vocation. Both are what artists understand to be the driver of their processes whether they admit it or not.
    Vocation is literally a pronouncement. I am — fill in the rest. In order to state that, one must have at some level, an inner realization that whart they say tells a kot about who they really are at their deepest level.

    Vocation is as simple as answering the question, “Are you a painter?” It’s a simple question with a simple answer Yes, No. Depending on the answer, the rest follows pretty quickly.
    When it comes to evidence (What have you painted?) there has to be a painting or two that feels like there has been thought and accomplishment.
    How that happens is what we do to get it to happen and it’s our own pathway. We sometimes make too much of others’ methods thinking that is better than what we are doing.

    I am of the belief that the accreted processes and routines, whatever they might be, serve to assist and guide, liberating the thinking and the visioning that is our vocation.

  13. We all need loads of discipline as professional artists. But this post made me think: Discipline for what, exactly?

    When I first quit my day job, I knew I needed to be disciplined, but felt a little scattered. Discipline has never been an issue for me, but I wasn’t sure how or what needed my attention the most! Where do I spend most of my time? How do I organize my days?

    Determining goals and then setting a routine based on those goals is probably the most important thing to do. Like most artists, my goal is to sell art. In order to do that, I have to produce art. Each day I paint, with a target number of paintings per week/month/year set beforehand. I make sure I’m in my studio putting in those hours to produce work for my buyers and galleries. I schedule time to paint in the morning when my creative energy is at its highest. I paint even when I don’t feel inspired. If I follow my goals, I know I must produce those works. As soon as I begin, things usually click into gear and that issue of not feeling inspired goes away.

    Also, to follow my goal of selling art, I must do daily “art business” tasks. This involves the discipline of setting aside 2 hours more or less of email communication, talking to galleries, checking in with buyers, social media posts, searching for new possible customers, and creating newsletter publications. This is a necessary part of being a professional artist and requires the most discipline for me. But if no one knows about my work, no one buys it! I like to schedule this for the afternoon when I have spent much of the creative energy painting.

    To round things out, I realized early on that I needed to include time for activities outside of art. Being in a home studio, I have the opportunity to work constantly. While it gets things done, I have to make a very conscious effort to schedule time each week to do things non-art related. Like getting together with friends, hiking, gardening, or whatever. If I don’t schedule this, I just keep working, then get frustrated that I’ve lost this aspect of my life. I will feel as though time is going by and I never see friends, go to a movie, or do anything else. We must have a balance of activities in our lives. In the end, too, I feel that this time away from art actually refreshes and enhances my work.

    Anyway, does this idyllic schedule work every single week? No, because life… but this is what I use to guide my business, and it creates order, a feeling of accomplishment, and a way to reach my goals. Discipline is what it takes to make it happen.

  14. I try to get into the studio for 2-3 hours a day. I spend most of my mornings cleaning and doing yard work. My wife works from home and keeps herself busy. When I go into the studio to work she may come in and check the printer for things she needs for her work. Sometimes we will talk about things of interest and other times not speak at all. To me painting is something I do to pass the time. Beats sitting around watching TV. I don’t try to keep people out while I’m painting, thats just not right and has nothing to do with “creating art”.
    Working on my art is kinda like working out. Its pretty easy to just wait another day or two then before you know it a lot of time has passed and to me that is were the discipline comes in. You need to set a routine and stick to it. So far so good.

  15. What a great question. If I could have one super-power, it would be either to produce the art I do more quickly or to be able to multi-task with complete attention on each task. In reality, the creative process , the craft, the decisions are so important and I cannot resent the time creating art takes me because the results are thrilling. I am blessed with determination and tenacity, which some people would say I’m plain stubborn. I believe my family instilled discipline in me. I do not do well emotionally without it. It keeps me “knit together”.
    The comment by Deb Ewing absolutely describes the impetus of my own self-discipline: When making any decision – what to purchase or even whether to get up out of bed – I ask myself: is this going to further my goal of creating more art? The pathway to art is circuitous and rooted in raw emotion. Discipline also includes stating an intent and following through – unless at some point you find that your intent is not leading toward making your art. YOUR art, not just any old art.” I spent several years in school trying to make other people’s art and was not adequately good at it, thankfully as I now see it.

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