Friday Tips: The Discipline of the Artist

David, by You Know Who

What many people outside the arts don’t understand, is that succeeding in this gig takes as much discipline as it does for the CEO, Athlete, Lawyer, Doctor. In many cases it takes more, since you already have the day job, and for your night job your calling happens to be to a calling that we almost never feel equal to, in which we regularly disappoint ourselves, and from which the check is normally late–often by a decade or two.  Sticking with something for which you may never get paid–and doing it with full-blown passion for years on end–takes real discipline. 

Define “success” how you want, but to me it means succeeding aesthetically first, and financially later–which for most artists simply means turning some form of profit.  However you do define it, this kind of discipline is no screwing around. You don’t get there by going to all the parties, hanging out in all the bars, and talking about all the great work you want to do. If you believe in yourself, if your goals are realistic, and if you’re driven, then you clamp your mouth shut and work your butt off. Why? Because you’re giving something to the world that is bigger than you, and more important than you. In a sense you are serving others, and that requires great discipline. The end result will speak for you. Then you can go to all the parties and bars, at least until you start the next piece.

The misconception is that artists indulge in substance abuse, are hopelessly idealistic, and devoid of discipline. This is hogwash. Some of the most disciplined people I’ve known have been sculptors, painters, and glass-blowers. Not only did they work very hard, but man they had guts, laying everything on the line in a risky profession: their finances, their dreams, their futures. Some realized the dream, most did not, but every one of them lived with courage and dignity and often a self-effacing humor. It’s that last quality that will often save your sanity when all else is failing. Oddly, it’s also a quality that can allow you to laugh off your failures, and persevere through to success.

Sure this is a tough life, full of sacrifices and hardship (although not like those of a Vietnamese rice farmer). But I wouldn’t trade it for a million bucks–though I might for two.

7 thoughts on “Friday Tips: The Discipline of the Artist

  1. Your book and words have inspired me and continue to do so in this post. You challenge me to be a better artist, and I love it. Thank you, because your work is not in vain.

  2. Hi Paul,
    As always, you are right on target. It’s a long journey we’re on if we decide to stick with it. The financial reward is often less than we hoped or further away than we would like. In the end we continue to make art because life wouldn’t be right for us without it. Thanks for your words,

  3. Alex: That’s good to know. I’d like to think I inspire more than discourage. Same with challenge. We all to set seemingly impossible goals. The cool thing is our amazement when we begin to achieve them, or at least come close.

    Angelita: Quite right: I’d go nuts if I didn’t write novels and scripts. The same is true for most of my artists and their work. Or as good old Jim Brothers likes to say: “You gotta love it more than sex.” Well, I’ll settle for “as much as sex.”

  4. Paul, This entry really struck a chord with me as I was once CEO of a small software company. It’s no easier in the art world, actually quite a bit harder, but the pace, at least for me, is quite a bit slower!! Hope you don’t mind my referencing this post in my own blog –

  5. Ay, reference away. Glad to be of use.

    Pace. Mine used to be slower–before I undertook all this responsibility. Now it’s not unlike being CEO of a small software company. Well, I’ll just have to expand staff some more. The goal is to cut down to 50 hours a week by Jan. Yeah, right.

  6. You know, Paul, every single word is true and I am glad you said it.
    I worked my bum off when I was still in my regular job in the computer industry and was unhappy and sick about it. I am now working even more (7 days a week) and cannot believe I am doing this deliberately but instead I am living my true life now, without all the safety ropes I had before, being more disciplined than ever. Sometimes it is hard to keep everything going especially when things are not going so well as you anticipated but boy how I have learned to be persistent! So much strength you can gain from a finished painting and so much joy. Never again I would exchange these feelings for anything else.

    Only sometimes it makes me angry and it hurts when people see your achievements only but not the hard work that is involved, the commitment that you have to give to yourself as an artist and to your environment. As usual the world is full of ignorance and predjudices.

  7. Hear, Hear!

    I remember back in college, someone with a different major noticed that I had much better grades than she did, and remarked, “I wish I was an art major, so I could get such good grades, too.” Sarcastically, I responded, “Yeah, we just sit in class and color all day!”

    Art consumes so much of an artist’s time and energy… not just in the creation and promotion of it, but also it is infused somehow into every moment of life so that I am not really able to give my all to anything or anyone else. Painting is a jealous lover, indeed! My family and I pay the price, gladly, with our frugal lifestyle and intermittent social life. I am very lucky that I have a husband who believes in what I do, and accepts the sacrifices that come with it. I have heard of more than one marriage that was not able to withstand the hardship that this business takes, much like what can happen with other busy professionals and their relationships.

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