The Struggling Artist: Why You Hate it and Need to Embrace It
Recently I completed one of the most massive art projects I’ve ever agreed to do—a 24-hour mural project that took place in downtown Reno. My paint assistant and I were exhausted through the entire project. We were up at 7:30 AM on Saturday morning, and we finally went to bed at 3:15 PM the following Sunday afternoon. As much as I adored this project, two words kept ringing through my head. Never. Again.
My mural is now in downtown Reno, in an incredibly prominent location. I can’t believe it honestly. I feel way too lucky and am still shocked I was ever selected in the first place. I’m not trying to humble brag—if you see the winners of the contest, you’ll understand why I’m shocked.
The mural that I did isn’t really why I’m writing this post, but it did give me the idea to write it. What does it mean to truly struggle as an artist? What do you do when it feels like the struggle is never over, and progress is never made? How do you know when to trust your gut and at other times perhaps ignore it?
The struggling artist is a concept very old and very proven. Artists struggle. People hate them, then admire them, then hate them again, then they hate themselves, then their work adorns the walls of galleries across the world for years to come, protected by state of the art security and curatorial experts. Yet, that big picture only makes sense from the distance we have that allows us to study the artists of old. The concept and reality of struggling artists though I think is more than just trying to pay bills. It’s really the life of being an artist altogether.
Struggle for artists can mean lack of drive—a stagnancy so overwhelming you doubt everything, a lack of motivation that leaves you without anything to show. Perhaps this is due to the unwarranted comparison on your part to other artists (“how are THEY successful and I’m NOT”), or a lack of inspiration in your own life. Your day to day life exhausts you mentally and physically, leaving you in silence when you approach your easel.
In a more defined sense, the struggle can also mean your work lacks your desired outcome—it’s not “right”, it’s off, it doesn’t show your message properly, or it’s just not “ready.” I think this stage is especially common for young emerging artists. You actually push yourself through those first phases of struggle mentioned earlier, and you find yourself saying “really, this is it?” You finally saved up the money for materials, budgeted the time, made a plan ... and you hate it. Perhaps not hate, but you sure don’t want to show anyone this new collection and don’t know whether it’s time to scrap the pieces or keep trying to salvage them.
I think the latter phases of the struggling artist are equally scary to the first two. Final. Doubt. You made the pieces. You’ve even sold a few, and gotten high compliments on some of them. But are they good? The lasting good you can speak of for years and years. Not perfect, not Picasso, but good? This conversation I believe is solely between the artist and the work. Is it good? Is it right? Am I good, and right? Everyone says “you know when it’s right”—your wedding dress, your future spouse, the perfect home, what to name your children. You just KNOW. But for artists, we wait for this same feeling. And what if it doesn’t come? What do we do? What do we do when we just don’t know?
Each of these phases, I think, speak to the burden and difficulty each artist faces with each project. Currently, I’m in the midst of a large scale project for the city of Reno, as well as 7 paintings that have been paid for to me I haven’t yet painted, as well as 3 other large scale murals I need to make drafts of. All of that doesn’t even include the personal project I’m dying to do and would kill for the time to complete. I say this all to say, I’m really, really overwhelmed. And in each of these projects, I’m in a different phase of doubt and struggle. And when I go to bed at night, I ask myself, “Am I even doing the right thing at all? What if this is all wrong?”. How can I really know? Making bad art is terrifying to me. But making a bad life of it? Oh goodness. Anything but.
The good part and bad part is the answer is the same: You can’t know. You just can’t. Not now anyway, unless something strikingly obvious comes your way to make that clear (*fingers crossed*).
When you lack any and all inspiration to make a project happen ... that’s OK. But keep working.
When you don’t see your vision clearly and you think you’re making garbage ... that’s OK. Find a friend, get their opinion, seek informed counsel. But keep working.
When you don’t know if any of this is worth it at all ... that’s OK. If you still love the process, if it’s still what you want to do when you wake up every day and what you think of when you go to bed—trust the process. Keep working.
Following this post, I hope to write on more concrete tips for struggling artists, and how if you’re reading this and are not an artist at all, can help an artist you know.
Long live the struggle, and long live embracing it.