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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29 Comments

  1. Recently I have brought something from my daily yoga practice into my life as an artist. I’ve forgotten the yogic term, but the idea is letting go of any expectation of the result and focusing on just the action, the process. For me, this means focusing on just what I can control – and taking joy in that. As an artist, for example, I can focus on the artistry and quality of the paintings I produce; I can’t really control how others will react to them. Focus on the doing of the task, and trust the outcome to fate, if you will.

  2. I find that without some discipline, my life and attention are too fragmented to feel I actually accomplish much. Todoist has been a great help to establish discipline, allowing me to list and schedule tasks that need to be done, reminding me daily of what should be on my agenda for that day or week, and giving me the satisfaction of being able to visually check off my daily accomplishments. Even so, our frequent travels interrupt the routine I’d like to maintain for my studio work. The routine gets broken and it usually takes a solid week after we get home to pick up again. I’ve learned to give myself permission to vary the routine on our travels–reference photos and sketches in lieu of finished paintings, for instance. And a condensation of blog writing preceding extended travel so I can preschedule posts and then enjoy the trip.

  3. “Discipline” , I’m wondering, could be a mindset that is open to opportunities.
    I have always seen this as underlying the process of self-assigned projects. My mind and habits are wayward. They always have been. But somehow I have this reputation of getting things done and people just know I’ll bring the project in as done and successful.
    DO I want to be “disciplined” and one project focused? Yes.
    Have I needed to do that? Apparently not.
    Is there frustration in not working like everyone else? A bit.
    Where do the nagging questions of “What if” and “Suppose” that seem to swirl around fit on?.
    Those have to be modeled for students. That’s what I did what I did with the 10-12 year olds I had in the G&T Arts and humanities. I still hear from some of those students and they mostly say the design studio where they got to come up with their own project was a turning point.
    The word “disciplione” is also applied to the notion of the body of knowledge we carry with us. This implies that we are in a sense perpetual students so maybe part of the heart of what we face is that burning curiosity which can be both a b;essing and a curse.

  4. Six years ago I instituted “Studio Time” one afternoon a week. I announced to my family and friends and then worked very hard to honor it. I found out that if I honored the time, so would others. Now, “Studio Time” has expanded, but I and everyone around me know that when I set the intention to work in the studio, it is serious business. This has had a huge effect on my work.

  5. Oh boy, it’s hard! But I do it every week!

    One gets into friends and developing relationships to network and show ones work, or a following. Keeping all that up and working along with doing art, you must schedule and block out the same times every week, or you won’t create. When I get off balance I feel it and hon things in. I would suggest to anyone they must be set-up and select the strongest part of the day they like to work or create. I am a morning person, so I create until I find a good stopping point. I even go as far as setting up how much time a week I MUST create. Although it sounds insane, it’s really important to keep momentum. I can’t always paint or create when I simply feel like it.

    I agree that staying with one thing at a time is best.

    Recently I have decided to go dark for about 8 weeks and let friends and contacts know. I am coming up to a show and feeling stressed, so this will help.

    So many folks think all it takes is those creative thoughts and thats it! It’s way more than that. But, when you have set-up the time each week consistently that’s when magic and continuity happens. If not your creative time will become problematic, and unfortunately may become discouraged.

    I encourage my students to do the same.

    One other thought: I know summer is harder with family and friends. So I work especially hard for 4-5 months after the Holidays, and the quiet in winter; and from September to Thanksgiving very hard. It helps with disappointment during the times you find it hard to paint, then when I do have more time I am especially happy. I also catch up on mailing lists, marketing and friends at those more demanding times.

  6. I think discipline accompanied by goals and the drive to accomplish them are the triad of superpowers that make achievement possible. It’s a lot easier to make art (and that’s a good thing in itself of course) than to choose to make a career out of it. I think that’s the difference – to be working toward your an art career as an end goal is one heck of a lot of (rewarding) work. It helps if you really really want it.

    I recently had an owner of a gallery I was prospecting say to me, when we set up an appointment for a review of a body of work, that he really liked the paintings but wanted to see the results of the review, that some artists were more driven than others. I told my partner this, as well as a good friend. Their reactions were the same – “Oh, he doesn’t know you yet”.

    I guess I’m pretty driven. But even with that, I do find it hard sometimes to head into the studio. It’s that discipline thing, and having the eye on the goal, that gets me in there even when I’m sick and tired of painting (a space I never dreamed I would get to). I see my flaws all too well; it’s that end goal that keeps me on track.

  7. I go through phases. My goal is to be present. Not doing one thing when I’m thinking about the next. It is challenging sometimes because life beckons me to do things that I would rather not do, but if I don’t do those things life ends up chaotic. When I’m in limbo I’m the most uncomfortable. Because I am committed to being a professional artist, not just a hobby artist I have steps that I take. Not to be a kiss ass, but the book you wrote Starving to Successful really has helped me get the order straight, and I’m a big list maker too. It is easy for me to go into too many directions at once because I’m interested in so much about life. Lists are my friend! Another point I would like to add is pleasure, and enjoying life. I believe that you have to be disciplined in all areas of your life, or maybe it would be better to say committed. Decide what is important to you and schedule time for all. An equal balance is key! In Australia I saw a sign that said 888. It means, 8 hours of sleep, 8 hours of work, 8 hours of everything else per day. (Family, play, chores, spirituality, etc.) I think 888 is a good quality to strive for. “Back to the studio” 🙂

  8. For me it is an issue of Will over distractions. I took a class called “Ferocity” taught by Steven
    Kotler, who has been studying and writing about top sport performers in the world. Steven writes about the new brain science about how “Flow” works. Flow is when you are running fast until a hill comes into view. Most runners will slow down, and gear up for the hill. Professional long distance runners are trained to attack the hill, they INCREASE their energy and pace until they enter “Flow” which gets them up and over the hill. I wanted to try this out on my art production, up and over those annoying obstacles we all have to deal with. Steven says in the class, that he could NOT believe that he could possibly work faster at his writing. However, he applied the same techniques in his writing time during the day, the athletes were using in their sports activities. He said that he was able to DOUBLE his writing production! Then he said again, that he did not think he could write faster (with quality) than what he had progressed to. Sure enough, he was able to DOUBLE his writing production! I thought, well, I think I will try these techniques to get my paintings done faster, because I sure am SLOW!! Sure enough, I went into FLOW and I doubled my art production. I am now really working on that new brain science information, and applying it to PRODUCTION of art, an area I have been weak in for a long time. It sure makes production a LOT MORE FUN! When we go into “FLOW” the QUALITY is there, along with speed. He has written several New York times bestsellers on the subject…

  9. The way I achieved discipline was by getting accepted into an art show and then painting, cutting mats, and framing like crazy to get ready for the show, all while raising my nine children. I had to have a purpose for painting.

  10. I found I needed to get a studio out of my house to keep disciplined about my time. At home there were never ending chores. Because I have been working part time (teaching/freelance jobs) with varying schedules for many years, it was a matter of finding a place more than time. Having a studio to work in for freelance and act as an office for the various adjunct teaching helped me go there instead of home. In my studio I am there to work. My tools & materials are there. Even though my work schedule is erratic, I am in my studio at least 4 days a week doing something productive.

  11. Artists many times are loose canons. Some work hard others don’t.

    For me I wish I could work harder and have more concentration…like a brain surgeon. I don’t need to be smart like a brain surgeon, I would just want to be able to work day and night and concentrate on projects. I got ADD and can’t concentrate for too long. I wonder what I could accomplish if I could concentrate?

    …but, when the subject of ‘if’ comes up, it reminds me of an old saying. “If grandma had balls she would be grandpa.’

  12. When I set measurable goals and track them, the needed self-discipline tends to happen. Does this take the creative joy out of painting? Not at all.

  13. Routine and making a list are definitely the best way I have found to keep focused.

    Routine:
    What has helped me the most, is being aware of the hours when I am the most productive and using those hours as my studio time. For me, it is early in the morning so I get up around 5 and get to work. I helps to just roll out of bed and get busy. That is why I love living in my studio because all I have to do is grab a cup of coffee and start. By noon I am ready for a break so then is when I clean up, take my dog for a walk, eat and take care of whatever else needs to be done.

    List.
    Another thing that has helped me a lot is to jot down ideas as they come. I have found that if I keep a little note pad by me I can jot down ideas for upcoming work as they pop into my head. Then I don’t have to struggle come up with the next project because it is there for me to access. It is my to do list of most important things I need to do.

  14. I believe self-discipline is a form of self created ‘stress’. We often feel that stress in our lives is a bad thing. Too much stress is certainly that but without a sense of urgency (self created stress) we never get to that time to create. It’s nice to have it blocked out and calendared but we also need a strong drive to get to that point in time that helps us avoid the interruptions. Some call this prioritization, okay if that works for you go for it but what I feel internally is just a little bit of stress that goes away once I’m in my happy place and I can now create. It’s almost always rewarded by the feeling of satisfaction and joy that comes from creating something. These two feelings (satisfaction and joy) along with stress drive me.

  15. Hi Jason,
    I appreciated your 4 steps to disicipline and everyone’s comments. I feel driven to paint and often find myself dealing with distractions. I try to paint everyday but realize working at the same time everyday and allowing blocks of time for projects is a good way to get things done. Also regular life habits help create a harmonious rhythm in life which also allows more time for painting! I have to use my will to paint to overcome distractions.
    Santana

  16. I am an old (68), experienced artist, art instructor and founder of the Pastel Society of North Carolina. I have competed Statewide, Nationally and Internationally and have been grateful to have sold many paintings, fulfilled several commissions and graciously accepted several awards.
    Weathered by life’s unexpected experiences and because of the burden of the pain at times that came with it, I have been, unfortunately, separated from my essential, artistic soul at times, so, I thought. Yet, God has been good to me. I have recovered from several misfortunes and I am still creating great, wow paintings. I, only, share this which seems to be amazing to me, the overall reactions from those I, rarely, share my painting images with, except, occasionally my immediate family. Discipline is a capital lettered word from my early life and I agree despite life’s intrusions somehow what you have always practiced kicks in even through the distractions that seem overbearing linger at times for awhile. Such is the path of life no matter your specialty.I guess once you are born an artist always an artist. Creating is our best friend, just, waiting for us to move forward. How so very lucky and grateful we are to have been given this wonderful blessing in our lives.

  17. Oh boy, now there’s a great superpower, for sure! Discipline.
    Well, I’m probably the queen of distractions on this blog list! I love spending time with my horse, cruising on Facebook and Instagram. If I was making $25/hour using, what I believe is the alter-ego stimulus [Facebook], I’d be a millionaire! But, I’m not.
    So, everyday, I ask myself…is this what you want from life? What do I need to do today to make a difference for tomorrow? Who do I want to be and how may I contribute to a higher cause?
    Those are questions I ask myself everyday, written on my fridge, on the car dashboard, in my tack room at the horse ranch…and for me, it works. Since everyday, I have a small win and make progress on my goals. I also do not put more than eight items on my to-do list. It’s called “chunking”, as Tony Robbins explained.
    Therefore, discipline comes, first, from appreciation and gratitude for who I am & what I have. Then, repeating my mantra of [what do I want out of life] questions, allowing a little flexibility to roam the internet to enjoy technology, a chunked to-do list and never giving up.

  18. When I worked with galleries, got paid for writing articles and blogs, and basically was way-more busy than I am now, I was focused and disciplined. Now that I have a lot of margin and freedom, I struggle.

    I struggle with choices. When I worked for someone else or was in school, there was a set curriculum – I just did what I was supposed to do and did my best, but when it comes to working purely for myself without deadlines or paychecks, my brain says I can “take it or leave it”. Problem is, that sentiment does not move me forward or help me accomplish things that I very well could be.

    Thank you for writing this blog Jason. I can’t begin to imagine how busy your life is. Just recently, I decided that I need to be connect socially through my work – socially in real life that is. Being accountable to people to show up with work in hand is a great motivator.

  19. Excellent article from Jason. One of the best ever! Discipline is what either fails or exalts your art accomplishment.

  20. I have to have lists for almost everything in my daily life. Actually, I have daily lists and long-term lists to keep things rolling. Try to keep a specific afternoon for art. What really helps me going is my Wednesday afternoon class, when I teach portraiture. I have to get ready for it, collect new materials, etc. Most often, while doing that, I come across faces, that inspire me for my own art. I usually make a mental, or written note.
    Having read through the responses to Jason’s article, I realize how different we are from one another. But, we all agree that some sort of discipline is necessary in our artistic endeavors.

  21. I went back a few time to reread your words as they are very helpful..it seems though when you become so strict in your discipline you become uptight and instead of taking a break to refresh you are so determined to create you body of work you may not be enjoying the art that you are creating..as you see I am not very disciplined but like in anything thing in life especially in the artistic world there is no right or wrong as you do what you love but if income is a factor yes I do understand a more strict way to create..well done Jason

  22. O. M. Gosh!!!!! THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT I NEEDED TO SEE TODAY!!! It’s the info, suggestions and kick in the tush that I need right now!! So thank you, thank you, thank you!!!!!

  23. I have been struggling with self-discipline for a long time. That’s why I had to thank you for your thoughts on the subject. You’ve given me a little blueprint of a method on how to get myself moving.

    Thank you!!

  24. Discipline as far as my painting goes has never been a problem, I love to paint. Just set down and start painting, and I can paint all day and night, as a matter of fact 33 hours straight is my record. Sometimes when I hit my studio and get going, I will stop long enough to get up and shut the door, if it is shut, everyone knows not to bother me, if open, come on in and chat, or what ever. My discipline problem probably comes in when I am creating, and not wanting to get out and sell. I prefer to sell my art myself, especially at Fine Art Shows, that is my expertise. I also Paint while at the shows, this gets people involved. Discipline—yikes 3 bad shows in a row, then I start finding other things more important than getting back out there selling. No problem getting into the Studio. But with out the sales, what good is the studio time. We own a small Ranch in NW Montana, and I have tons of projects going on indoors and outdoors, but, if I spend all day out working on the ranch, then I am in my studio a minimum of 8 hours that night. And like I said, sometimes when I get painting, I loose track, and paint for way more than my 8 hours. And the last 3-4 years, Fine Art Shows are not doing that well, so the more I paint, the more I need to get out traveling and selling. In the past 40 years as a professional Artist, I have tried to start my own gallery, but wow, small town USA is not great for Art Gallery Life. Both times, I tried on a shoestring, and ended up closing up because I was to cheap to hire someone, and I am not the type to set in a Gallery 9 hours a day, 6 days a week. So I always end up back on the road. So once again, my discipline problem comes at selling time. Lately I have been working on Social Media a little bit, O YIKES, I am not cut out for that. Computer time is really hard for me…writing this is probably the longest I have used a computer in months…

  25. I had a head start by default with learning early on that for most practical purposes no one’s going to take care of me but me. These days I am so used to self discipline that it’s hard to pinpoint what I do that works to maintain it

    I do ask myself every day what I want to achieve at the end of it, or the week, or month, and if what I am doing at the moment is helping me get there.

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