The Discipline It Takes to Create Art

 

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

Over the summer, I 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 spent 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 focused and can be easily distracted.

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 focused 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.

About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of the Art Business Academy. Jason has helped thousands of artists prepare themselves to more effectively market their work, build relationships with galleries and collectors, and turn their artistic passion into a viable business.

13 Comments

  1. I have not developed discipline. I have many hobbies, watercolour, fused glass, lapidary, silversmithing, woodcarving, as well as stone carving (sculptures). I find I enjoy them all and rotate what I do. I find myself happier for deciding each day which art form I’ll do that day. It definitely makes a difference in the quality of my work.

  2. One point I’d like to make on discipline is this: It takes discipline to tell people NO. I’ve found that as an artist, people often think that your time is less important when you are self employed. Countless times I’ve had friends interrupt my working day with something that has nothing to do with my work. Want to go get coffee? Want to go to lunch? Want to go to _______’s house for (whatever)? Can I drop by for a chat?
    If art is your full time occupation, as it is mine, then it’s a job like any other–which requires a great deal of dedication and discipline. If the other people in my life would recognize that my work is actual WORK and not a hobby from which I can–or should–be willing to just drop the brush and go off to waste time, well that would be wonderful.
    I have a difficult time saying NO to friends and family; always fearing their disappointment or anger. And the reason it happens is because many (if not most) people view an artist as someone who’s “lucky to get to play all day long”; to them art isn’t a real job.
    Why DO many people in America have the view that art is somehow trivial or unimportant and not really work at all??

  3. I think I have been an organized person, to one degree or another, all my life. Growing up in a military family we always had our specific routines…from my parents wanting certain things done on certain days, in certain ways…and you followed along. To accomplishing a school, then work, then homework and rest routine in high-school. (This took discipline because I lived not far from a gulf coast beach which called to me often. ) As a young mother, I homeschooled my 3 kids. That task in and of itself taught me the definite importance of discipline. From there I entered the workforce again and in order to accomplish the “play time” tasks, I needed discipline to finish the “needed things”. Now in my artwork, in order to accomplish the paperwork part of my art business I must be disciplined. Therefore, I draw on all those years of practice pulling on the various ways learned in order to organize myself and stay disciplined.

    So, having said all that to simply say…discipline takes practice. It helps if you’ve had practice for years. If discipline is new to you…practice on. Don’t be hard on yourself if you fall short and get distracted. Simply pull yourself back in.

  4. Great article as always, Jason! I have to agree with Evan above that art making is hard work that friends and family members don’t always respect. Setting boundaries and saying “No” is incredibly important. But like exercise, I need to protect the time for my art, and then when I do my art, view it in small bites instead of this huge sacred project. I find that if I just step into my studio and set up my space, I’m making progress. Getting my work surface prepared is next. And then if I begin my painting, I find that it is often difficult to walk away. Most of discipline for me is just getting started and taking those baby steps….and before you know it, its finished. Of course, life happens like the dog getting sick, my husband needing a ride to the car shop, etc but for the most part, I can protect the time I have and get a lot of work done.

  5. discipline is not my forte. But I was able to carve out good blocks of time to get art done while I was a working at a job person. For 20 years my focus was making art and I was very productive. Then my world turned upside down and then the pandemic happened and I got sick and my momentum died! You would think now that I am retired that I would be able to discipline myself to do art on a regular basis and I have shamed myself for not being able to get that mojo back as yet. I think discipline is important but I think desire and momentum are even more important. I guess we can quibble about these being a part of discipline but I prefer to leave discipline out of it as it triggers me into rebelling! I need to be fluid with my time. Discipline denotes a rigorous adherence to a schedule that I can rarely keep or want to keep. I am a list maker and ever since I was a 3 yr old I have made lists. These help me arrange my time to get somethings done. But as ever the best laid plans for me have to bend to the forces within and without.

    1. Kay, what you say reflects much of what want to say on the subject. To me, too, the word “discipline” triggers rebellion. I lived the high-demand, very structured corporate life for many years, and abandoned it some 15 years ago due to a severe bout of depression.
      Eight years ago I blessedly found sculpture and would love to make a second career out of it, but…. I so far haven’t been able to find any structure to my days, without the need to “punch the time card” and show a boss that I’m the best at what I do. That almighty “God’s eye” looking down on me was, apparently, what made me be productive.
      Answering to no one but myself, procrastination is something I battle with every day. I am also a list maker, but that is about it for keeping me organized. My days are fluid and loose, but not necessarily in a good way.
      I need to find the determination to set aside time to work on my sculpture, not just go with the flow and only get down to it when I’m feeling inspired. Which, since the pandemic, is not very often.

  6. I’m caught in a couple of “catch-22” situations. I always made art as a child, and one time my father said if I had time to do that then other things (chores, homework, etc.) weren’t getting done. That affected me so deeply that to this day I feel guilty about not doing household chores if I’m painting and vice versa. This dichotomy is so bad, some days I can’t do either one.
    I agree with both Kay and Valeria about how the word “discipline” triggers rebellion in me too. While working as a free-lance illustrator, graphic designer, and fine artist, the deadlines kept me productive. But I got tired of doing art for others instead of myself. I wanted to try making art where I wasn’t always worried whether people would like it or not. About 5 yrs. ago I tried to do this, but since then I have only half-finished attempts at painting to show for it. I suspect I have ADD because I have trouble maintaining focus long enough to either start or finish a painting. I’ve tried to fool myself by making up my own artificial deadlines just so I could produce, but my brain knew the deadlines weren’t real, so nothing got started. Even making lists and trying to establish routines hasn’t worked. I don’t want to go back to painting for shows since that brings back bad memories of all the pressure that comes with it. I don’t know what to do.

    1. Hi Jo, Perhaps you should work out what it is that makes you want to paint. Is it the paint itself (that’s one of my motivations. I just love paint!) or do you like creating imagery? or are there particular subjects, places, people or ideas that intrigue you & you’d like to depict them? Researching subjects & ideas is just as important as creating the image on the paper or canvas. You could say it’s the First step in a process that results in an artwork. Discipline is just setting up a step by step process that gets you from start to finish. Make up your own steps. It’s interesting to analyze your own process & see where it works or where it can be improved or be flexible. Steps could include: Research; Setting up equipment; Preparing your canvas; Drawing up; Choosing Colours; Under painting; Layers of Paint; Assessment; More Paint or Finish. Depending on your style & medium these steps can be broken down further & others added. Then a bit of paper work is good to record the work & photograph it especially if you are selling it.
      Thank you Jason for your always interesting & useful Blog.

  7. I enjoyed reading discipline and what it takes to create art and the artists’ comments. The more time I spend in front of the easel I find discipline is a major factor in creating.
    Two of my favorite quotes by notable artists are:
    1. “You cannot make a major difference; Doing things in a minor way.”………Nelson Shanks
    2. Portraitist Chuck Close on the subject of being inspired to paint: “Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of
    us show up and get to work.”
    Thank you Jason for your thought provoking articles.

  8. This article has inspired me to be even more disciplined. I have found goals to be the best motivator. There is nothing better than deadlines to enter works into exhibitions to put pressure on making the most use of time.
    Even though I have 15 months till my next solo exhibition, I know I will have to keep being disciplined to produce my best paintings and the right number for the gallery space. This combined with teaching oil painting and sending miniature paintings to the USA and the UK I will have to keep on track.

  9. Studio time, 4 to 6 am, every day.

    There are about five projects the I look forward to, but they have to be firm;ly kept out of my thoughts and daily work. It takes so much concentration to attempt to bring a piece to a conclusion, in the limited time.

    Never mind, working step by step is the happiest thing to do. Matisse said, “Work is Paradise,” and it is.

    Sometimes I manage to slip in a little extra work on that piece during the day.

  10. I am not the most organized or scheduled artist in the world. Sometimes I go days without picking up a brush, but when I do, I am very disciplined about getting absorbed into my work and always get it to a level of satisfaction before stepping away. In this way, even if I don’t achieve what I was originally striving for, I can still feel good about my progress and often upon returning to a piece I started days before, and decide that I actually love it as I left it. This frees me up to start something new. By being disciplined about when I stop painting after I start, my productivity greatly increases and I end up with much more finished work that I’m happy with, and that keeps me motivated to keep creating.

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