Why Artists Need To Slow The Hell Down

Have you ever seen a ballet dancer’s feet?

One of my best friends in high school was a serious ballet dancer.

…serious about her craft and serious about her gnarly feet.

She wore those bruises and blisters like a badge of honor.

…and so did many in her dance class.

A detail of French Impressionist Edgar Degas oil painting “The Rehearsal” shows several ballerinas rehearsing for a recital, painted in warm reddish browns.
Edgar Degas

I was once present for a conversation in which they compared their various injuries in a collective attempt to gross each other out.

Another friend, a non-athletic like me, had to leave the room because the sympathy pain was making him queasy.

I tried to join the fun by showing off two of my left fingers.

I often practiced guitar with such intensity that my calluses split or broke off. That’s the only thing that could make me take a break.

…until I heard a story about guitar-hero Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Stevie Ray Vaughan playing guitar at a concert.
Stevie Ray Vaughan

The story goes that one night, during a typically aggressive performance, he lost a callus. On break, the club owner found “SRV” in the dressing room, super-gluing the flapping callus back onto his finger so he could finish the show.

I tried it.

It worked until the MacGyver’d callus on my pinky finger broke again a few days later. The dried super-glue prevented the worsened wound from closing so it took forever to heal.

…but for a few precious moments, dancers thought I was the cool one.

Then they laced-up their ballet shoes and took their starting positions for rehearsal.

The rowdy group grew still and silent.

The coach counted off.

The 1870 oil painting "The Dancing Class“ by French Impressionist Edgar Degas depicts a ballet class at the Paris Opera.
Edgar Degas

…and for a few measures, they filled the room with magic.

…until one dancer tripped, collided with another and everyone had to start over.

My point is that when people think of ballet dancers they think of the elegance, beauty and effortless impression seen on stage.

The audience sees the satin shoes.

…but not the swollen, purple feet inside.

One of the most important mindset shifts in the career of any professional artist is a shift in focus from performance to practice.

…from the stage to the studio.

The 1874 oil painting "The Dance Class“ by French Impressionist Edgar Degas depicts a ballet class supervised by famous ballet master Jules Perrot.
Edgar Degas

Our culture has a very bad habit of promoting performance while obfuscating the practice behind it.

This habit skews expectations, scatters attention and stifles patience.

…and it’s not just a social media problem.

Social media is, obviously, a big part of the problem now.

…but effective practice has always tested our patience.

…because almost nobody applauds the process.

…but without effective practice, there’s no performance.

…no stage without the studio.

A photo of the marble “Mattei Athena” statue at the Louvre.

So this is the first of a three-part lesson for artists who are ready to develop effective professional practices upon which they can depend for efficiency, consistency and quality in their work.

Today, we’ll begin by busting six common myths about practice.

…myths that, if left un-busted, can lead to physical injury, damage to our mental health, wasted time and energy, burnout or rage quitting.


The Crucial Question That Could Save Your Art Career [Part 3]

In parts one and two of this series, I emphasized that most artists will never find a financially sustainable career until they develop a complete, professionally viable skill set.

…but why invest the time and energy necessary to develop a financially sustainable art career if you don’t love the work?

…or at least like it?

We saw how Mary Blair struggled to pay the bills with her passion for fine art, then settled for a steady paycheck in animation.

…but got bored with the work just a few years later.

If she hadn’t given animation one last chance, by joining Walt Disney’s visual development research trip to Latin America, she might never have discovered the skill set from which she derived creative fulfillment, a steady paycheck and her legendary career.

Today, in part three, I’ll share how and why I wasted a lot of time pursuing a career I never loved and three steps you can take to avoid the same mistake…


The Crucial Question That Could Save Your Art Career [Part 2]

In part one of this series, I posed a mostly rhetorical question:

Are professional artists (whether aspiring or experienced) foolish to believe that their work could be both financially sustainable and creatively fulfilling?

This page from 'They Drew As They Pleased, Vol 4' by Didier Ghez shows a collection Mary Blair's character designs for 'Sleeping Beauty'.

Then we observed a struggle between these two extremes in the early life and work of Mary Blair, a genius of color and design who became one of the most influential artists in the history of Disney animation.

…but before that, she quit.

…after just fourteen months at the studio.

…and then abruptly changed her mind.

Today we’ll learn that, after her return to Disney, Mary Blair discovered, in effect, one crucial question that led to an elevated role in which she soon found the work to be both financially sustainable and creatively fulfilling.

…a crucial question that led her transformation from versatile mimic into the marquee artist of Cinderella, Alice In Wonderland, Peter Pan and the animatronic wonder It’s A Small World.

…a crucial question that every professional artist (aspiring or experienced) would be wise to apply.


The Crucial Question That Could Save Your Art Career

To pursue a career as a professional artist is to expect a lot from your job.

…more, it seems, than most people expect from their own.

Professional artists and those who aspire to the same status expect the work to be both financially sustainable and creatively fulfilling.

A watercolor self-portrait by Mary Blair featured in Mindy Johnson’s book ‘Tinker Bell: An Evolution’.

Some people seem satisfied, simply, to find a day job they don’t hate and compensate for any lack of creativity with hobbies.

…and others view their vocation as a tolerable compromise that buys time for the art they place at the center of their lives.

Regardless of which takes priority, it often seems that we have to choose: Art or a steady paycheck.

But why would it have to be one or the other?

Why couldn’t our work be both financially sustainable and creatively fulfilling?

Why couldn’t our work be both financially sustainable and creatively fulfilling?

Are we asking too much?

Is it even realistic to imagine?

In this first lesson of a course titled You’re A Better Artist Than You Think, we’ll introduce a crucial question that could save your art career (even if you don’t have one yet) and rethink a common belief that often prevents artists from becoming professionals.

But, as with every lesson throughout the course, we’ll begin by looking to history for answers. (History always has answers.)

This photo featured in John Canemaker's book 'The Art And Flair Of Mary Blair' shows Mary Blair's illustration of two giraffes from 'It's A Small World.'

Today we’ll hear the “origin story” of Mary Blair, a mid-century Disney artist whose “renown in the company,” writes historian Nathalia Holt, “was second only to Walt’s.”

In her life and work (which is on display throughout this post) we’ll find a more vivid picture of what it means to make a living from one’s creative passion, what often blocks many of us from a similar experience and how this fundamental shift in the way we think about the art vs. money conundrum can affect the quality of our work, whether we find it fulfilling, our sense of self, of belonging, of motivation and inspiration.

Click through to continue part one…