What To Do When You Can’t Make Art!

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Frida Kahlo being unstoppable.

Have you recently had to deal with some big life changes? Maybe a newborn baby or another health related issue has stopped you from being able to make art.  You could have moved to a new house with a smaller studio space….or possibly your studio area is SO dang cluttered and messy you just can’t….You just can’t.  Whatever the reason you are not making art right now, you should know, that it is temporary.  I mean after all most of us have made art our whole lives.  This month I wanted to write out a few things that have helped me get back to work.

In July,  I was hospitalized for four days.  My kidneys have decided to basically give up.  Immediately I was placed on dialysis.  Now 3 days a week I spend 4 hours in an outpatient center hooked up to a machine that does the job that my kidneys once did.  12-14 hours a week is like a part time job.  And dialysis makes me super tired.  Some days when I get home I crawl back in to bed and sleep for hours.  I try to stay positive…but at times my new found landscape is depressing and on some days, paralyzing.   And as you might have guessed my art production and art business grinded to a halt.

Now it’s September…and it’s time to get back to work.  I feel it.  Plus many of my print orders and deadlines are screaming at me.  But how do I get back on the horse and make art….My schedule and energy haven’t changed much.  How can I get back to work?  Here are some things that are working for me.

1. REST UP – You HAVE to rest.  Whether it’s a health related issue, a new baby, divorce, moving, etc.  You need to rest.  We are going to get nowhere if you are weaksauce.  Take the time to sleep, get showers, relax and do the things that help you recharge.  *Sidenote – Drop the guilt.  A lot of us work so hard that when we rest we feel guilty.  Cut that shit out right now.  YOU deserve rest.  If you really work as hard as you do in your head you ABSOLUTELY need to take breaks and rest.  TRUST me…Guilt kills rest and relaxation.  Drop it.

2. SMALL BITES – After you have rested you may see clearly all of the things you SHOULD be doing.  And seeing it all at once will intimidate most people.  I mean after all being a working artist is like working 10 jobs.  Art Maker, Art Promoter, Computer Technician, Photoshop Master, Printer,  Delivery Guy, etc.  We do A LOT!  And there is a lot more to be done than just making pretty pictures.  Have you ever heard that question “How do you eat a whole elephant?” and it’s amazing answer….”one bite at a time.”

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

This is like that.  You have to start small.  You’re not gonna hop back in your studio and produce a Solo Show on the first day.  You have to look at all the things…and start small.  Send an email.  Call the vendor that you have been putting off.  Send one print out…even if you have a list of 30 waiting.  You have to start somewhere.

And many of us use this step to make a To-Do list.  The To-Do list can be a double edged sword here.  Yeah you can sit down and make the list and see all the things.  You can prioritize this over that….maybe make little stars next to the important things.  Or put deadline dates next to each item on the list.   And for the most part that is ok.  I mean when you were on top of your game the list helped right?  The problem I have with the list, especially when you are down and are struggling to make art, the list becomes a source of guilt.  It is a HUGE burden.  You’re allowed to do stuff without a To-Do List!   Skip it for right now if you can.  DO not let it add to your guilt and put you right back at step one.

3. BE PROUD –  I have a kid.  And on days when I am solo parenting it is an uphill battle all the way.  He is older now and a little easier, but when he was a baby, HOLY HELL it was all work.  I learned early on that you have to take your victories where you can get them.  That applies here.  If all you can do today is ONE thing towards your art business then you should be proud of that.  At least that is one more thing that is done that wasn’t done yesterday.  When you can celebrate or relish in your victories eventually you can look back at a string of production.  And THAT feels really good.  Action kills depression, anxiety, and a whole host of other things.  So even if it’s small….you deserve the gold star for doing it.

4 LIFE RAFT – In these times we all could use a little help.  So don’t be scared to reach out to your community and your network.  When I was a first year artist I would have loved to go help any of my mentors make prints, varnish paintings, or hang a show.  So maybe you have someone super eager to learn some stuff from you and come ‘intern’ for a day.  Or maybe you are just starting out….if you have made a few connections those people will likely understand what’s going on and help.  But you have to let people know you need it.  We are all so busy, we don’t always see that some people are struggling.  So speak up.  And if you have the ability, lots of artists would do this kind of work for a little financial support.  So don’t discount hiring someone to help you clean your studio, or babysit so you can work….EVEN if you work at home.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

5. STOP BEING HANGRY –  Are you drinking enough water?  Imagine the power of your favorite food improving your mood.  For me it’s Fish Tacos (thankfully still on my diet).  If I am ever in a bad mood or struggling….FISH TACOS always help.  Now I am not saying go eat donut everyday….Fish Tacos everyday would stop being a special thing.  But make sure you are eating well and treating yourself well.  It will make a big difference.  My studio mate Amy Ahlstrom (Check out her amazing work here) and I joke about how we plan to make a coffee table book about the crappy food we eat as artists.  Cold spaghetti while you stand with the refrigerator door open.  Eating leftover fried chicken while you hover over the sink.  Cup of Noodles…barely warmed up.  Eat better….feel better.

6. OUTSIDE THE STUDIO –  Sometimes my studio space feels like a chore to get to.  And other days when I am there too long it feels like I am trapped there.  All of which make it even harder to get excited about being there…..especially if I already don’t feel well or am exhausted.  Just getting to the studio can be a victory and a burden at the same time.

So SKIP it today.  Chances are you can do a lot of things outside of your studio.  Maybe you are having a hard time walking….got a laptop?  Maybe you can do some stuff right here on the couch.  Maybe you can send some emails or make a few calls.  Here in San Francisco coffee shops are FILLED with people on their laptops.  So maybe today is one of those days.  You can organize your photos, update your resume (really good if you need a boost), write artist statements, look  for calls for art, plot your world takeover and more all with a few pieces of technology.  Especially good for napping babies or folks that are debilitated physically.

7. BACKGROUNDING –  One of my techniques that has really helped me out over the years is what I call ‘Backgrounding”.  It is the idea that you don’t have to paint the focal object every time you paint.  There is a lot of panel prep, backgrounds, underpainting, and things that are a little less detailed that need to be painted too.  If you’re trying to get back to painting you may not feel like painting the portrait or likeness right away.  But you could handle doing some of the background work.  And a lot of times my muscle memory kicks in.  I get a feel for painting again.  I also use this trick if my lighting is low in my studio.  Paint the less important stuff….the other stuff will come.

8.SNAPSHOT –  Finally, the biggest thing to remember with all of this…Is that it is all TEMPORARY.  Your new life change is a big change.  And it has taken you out of your studio and your work for a bit.  It will pass.  You will adjust and start making art again.  As I said before most of us have been making art since we were young.  We make it compulsively.  We’ve made art on notebooks in class, doodling while on long phone calls or in doctor’s office waiting rooms.  We have made art through weddings, airplane trips, and funerals,  Nothing seems to stop us for THAT long.  So you need to understand that your break is only temporary.  You don’t even have a choice.  hehe.

And proof of that….During my dialysis I have been learning how to create art digitally with my ipad and Apple Pencil.  If I am gonna be stuck in a chair 12 hours a week I might as well be making art.

I hope these techniques help you get back to work.  I would also LOVE to hear any techniques that you have employed to get back to work during a tough time.  Thanks for reading and following along.  Get back to work…

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Written by Joshua Coffy

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