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Monday, May 21, 2012

Learned In Art School ... And Elsewhere

I've been assembling this list for one reason and one reason only: So I can remember all the really important stuff that I've learned over the last few years. I share it here first and foremost because the items make me sound smart, and second because you might find them useful. No. Kidding. I'm sharing because I think they're important.

1. Make Work Daily. You'll improve faster. You'll remind yourself that this is what you want to do, and this is what you do.

2. Set Your Own Standards. Make them higher than the standards your mother sets for your work. Make them higher, even, than the client's, if you have a client.

3. Be Intentional. Be intentional about your projects and be intentional about how you use your time. This means not waiting for The Muse, whose watch has been broken since, like, 500 BC. You would not have to be intentional if time were limitless, but I have found that not to be true. This is disappointing, but it's what we have to work with.

4. Notice More; Judge Less. The noticing eye is open to seeing connections. The judging eye is a tiny little cataract-riddled thing.

5. Be Unreasonable (sometimes). Bobby Chiu's great book The Perfect Bait was my first encounter with this idea in a form that made sense to me. It means that if the only way to get better is to, say, rise at 5 a.m. and practice your scales or work on your rendering or write your book, and a little part of you says, "But 5 a.m. is an unreasonable hour!" then the correct response is, "Yes, it is unreasonable. And still, I will do it."

6. Be Interested in Something Outside Your Art. Be curious. Follow your curiosities. Become expert in something, or at least more expert than your friends. My friend Sarah has learned a lot about coal mines and poker. This makes her a better artist in many ways.

7. Travel. Sometimes that will mean, "Go to Paris!" Sometime that will mean, "Explore the parts of your city that scare you." Both are travel.

8. Don't Get Addicted to Comfort. If you get addicted, it means that comfort will always win. And comfort does not want you to get up at 5 a.m. to work on your book.

9. Give Safe Haven to Neither Self-Doubt nor Self-Pity. They are boring. They are forms of narcissism. They are forms of procrastination. Say hello to them politely, offer them a fake smile, then escort them directly out the back door, to the little wooden shack even your dog won't live in.

10. Choose worthy heroes.

11. Draw Your Material from Life. Art and artists resist absolute rules, but let's just say it tends to be a good idea to draw the owl's feathers because the owl feathers spoke to you in some way rather than because you saw a cool way to render owl feathers in someone else's illustration on It's better to write a short, clipped paragraph because it precisely conveys the mood of the meeting your characters have found themselves in than because you always liked Hemingway.

12. Respect the Dreaming Child. This is the part of you that wants to bound toward paper or canvas or computer to record your genius story or drawing or idea.

13. Respect the Dispassionate Grownup. This is the part that can stand back and assess what the Child has made, and offer helpful suggestions.

14. Always Keep Separate the Dreaming Child and the Dispassionate Grownup. Whenever they try to play together, they make a big mess. Force them to communicate by messenger pigeon.

15. Be Realistically Confident. Work from your strengths, whatever they are. In the beginning of a project (or a career), your strength might be your enthusiasm and ideas, or your mastery of a particular technique.

16. Expand Your Skills. Confidence cannot be given to you like some "participation award" for showing up to soccer practice. You get it by getting better; then by getting good; then by excelling.

17. Make the Stuff Only You Would Make. Not because there's any real sin in being "derivative," as the music critics like to sneer, but because you're just here on Earth for a little while. So record you, not them.

18. Be Grateful.

19. Study the Work of Others Like a Pro. This means noticing techniques, influences, the way the artist has solved certain problems, the finesse with which he or she has employed detail. Admire it. Scrutinize it. Accept inspiration from it, if it comes.

20. Resist, Like a Pro, the Temptation to Compare Yourself to Others. Such comparisons encourage Self-Doubt and Self-Pity to ring your doorbell.

21. Thank the Universe for Making You An Artist. Even though art and writing and music are hard, you are privileged to have the kind of spirit that wants to do this. So say "thank you." Say it every day.

22. There Is Always Another Way. Successful artists are about experimenting, improvising, duct-taping and work-arounds. If you think you've said something in the ONLY WAY IT CAN BE SAID, that doesn't necessarily make you elite. It might just mean you're thinking too small.

23. Fill Up on the The Wisdom of Youth. Most of my life, I revered people older than me for what they seemed to know, and for what they could teach me. Going to art school with (at first) teenagers — young enough to be my own kids — taught me that smart starts early. I learned to respect them for all they knew and all they had taught themselves, and each other. Did they have it all together? No. But neither do I. Youth + Experience is a magical potion, no matter what side of the equation you're on.


Anonymous said...


This is poignant and wonderful. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom+youth through this post. I find it inspiring as an artist, and will also have my first-semester freshmen read it, as well, in the Fall --- especially the part about "working from your strengths, whatever they are."

Most appreciatively,
Barbara Chira

Kay said...

thanks for the much needed reminders..and congrats!!

The Collage Experience said...

Love this post Karen! I'm going to print it out and tape it on my wall. Thank you!

David McCann said...

Good Morning Karen! It's 530 AM! And your comments were the perfect way to start my day! They rank with the Jesuit offerings / the great ones that George Washington followed all the days of his life! Happy Day!

Nin Andrews said...

Wow, I need to print this on my forehead. Think it will fit?

TaxidermyRobot said...

Wonderful Karen! :)