Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Jerry Saltz offers ideas that can help anyone rise above the pressures—and fears—of being an artist.
Anyone who wants to be an artist, observes Jerry Saltz in his bestselling book How to Be an Artist, faces a raft of questions: What happens if you didn’t go to school for this? What if I suffer from impostor syndrome? How do I know if my art is working?
Anyone doing creative work wonders not just What am I trying to say? But, more deeply, Can I do it? In these seven tips adapted from his book, the Pulitzer Prize–winning critic offers ideas that can help anyone rise above external pressure—and internal fears—and do their best work.
1. You’ve Got to Want It
If there’s a Rule One for doing good work, this is it. Even an artist as seemingly unpromising as Jackson Pollock essentially willed himself to success. Painter Julian Lethbridge puts it this way: “To be an artist,” he says, “it helps to be persistent, obstinate, and determined.’
“These are the things that enable an artist not to banish, but to outwit the doubts that will come from many directions.” Whatever work you do, this drive, this need, is what will help you face situational and emotional headwinds.
Wanting it is what allows us to keep coming back to the work, feeling around for the ideas, inspirations, dreamscapes, and other thermal updrafts that will carry you through fear and doubt. Persistence, determination, and obstinacy give you energy. They’ll get you through hell, taking you from wanting it to doing it to living it.
2. Don’t Be Embarrassed
Making art can be humiliating. Terrifying. It can leave you feeling exposed, vulnerable, like getting naked in front of another person for the first time. The same goes for showing any new work to others—whether it’s a photograph, a report, or a new business idea.
It can feel like an opportunity for others to judge you as dull, or stupid, or untalented. All this is fine. When I work, my mind races with doubts: None of this is any good. It makes no sense. Anyone who sees this will know I’m a dope.
But, try thinking of your work as if it were birdsong. It’s made of patterns, inflections, a hundred tiny choices—all things that carry emotional and substantial meaning, even when those meanings are below the surface.
The most creative work you do will draw on everything about you—your memories, the time you spent working, your hopes, energies, and neuroses, the times you live in—and your ambitions.
Don’t worry about whether your ideas are “good” or “fresh” or “actionable.” Let go of being “good.” Instead, think about creating—and about the you that stands behind your creation.
3. Use Your Workspace
For any artist, the studio is a sanctum: an inventor’s laboratory, teenager’s bedroom, séance chamber, mechanic’s garage, and launch pad. The same is true if your workspace is a fluorescent-lit office or even a dining room table you clear off at night.
You are a god here, responsible for everything that happens. Here, you can look for new architectures, create your own constellations, and follow through on any idea you wish, no matter how silly-sounding.
When you come to your workspace in the morning, try getting into your body a little bit before you sit down to work. Breathe, pace, do whatever it takes to prepare yourself. Before you leave for the day, try to leave a little something unfinished. It’ll help you get back into your work the next morning.
The décor of your workspace will bleed into your imagination, so think about the postcards, photos, and personal objects you display there, and change them up regularly.
When you’re stuck, or feeling muddled, try cleaning your desk, moving things around, making new piles of old clutter. Maybe you’ll find something in a pile that sparks a new idea—mushrooms into fresh growth. And, you’ll be making space for what Goethe requested on his deathbed: “More light.”
4. There Are No Wasted Days
Your mind is always working, even when you think it’s idling. Even doing nothing can be a form of working—can be, if you learn to think that way. This is also true when you’re out walking, traveling, worrying, staying awake all night, whatever. All these things will be part of your work. Even when you seem to be going nowhere, things are happening. You are your method. Your life is part of your work.
“A bad day is a good day,” the painter Stanley Whitney said, “because a bad day is when you’re trying to take it to a different level.”
5. Have Courage
We’ve all done things in life that took real courage and sacrifice, even if others never saw them. We brave our fears, doubts, and demons every time we put forth new work. All good work has courage in it.
Grant your own work that agency. Put your faith in it. Let it clear a path for you to proceed. Asking others for guidance, looking for mentors, submitting your ideas to the judgment of others—all of this requires tremendous faith.
Take inspiration from artists like the now-famous Alice Neel, who worked away at her rough-hewn portraits up in her Harlem apartment, when no one else was doing anything like them. Or Alex Katz, making his big, flat figurative paintings in the face of the juggernaut of abstraction. Or Cy Twombly, who chose erratic scrawls as the carrier of his art. They allowed their work to follow its own intuitive logic, leading them to landmark careers.
Courage is a desperate gamble that will place you in the arms of creative angels.
6. Learn to Deal with Rejection
I tell artists to grow elephant skin, because they’re going to need it. Criticism happens, even to the masters. After a precocious debut, Claude Monet was rejected repeatedly by the Paris Salon. A contemporary critic wrote, “Does Mr. Degas know nothing about drawing?” In 1956, “after careful consideration,” the Museum of Modern Art rejected a shoe drawing Andy Warhol had offered them.
See? We critics are wrong every day. As one curator wrote, “A review is just you or me having an opinion.” When you get a critical review, it may well be that the critic couldn’t see far enough.
Don’t get taken down by bad critiques—they don’t define you. But don’t ignore them, either. Keep your rejection letters, bad reviews, and the rest. Paste them on your wall. Accept that any piece of criticism might have a grain of truth to it.
Maybe the person judging you just didn’t get what you were going for. Or, maybe you haven’t yet found a way to make your work speak to the people you’re trying to reach. That’s on you. Take it in. Don’t blow it out of proportion. Then get back to work.
I always tell anyone criticizing me, “You could be right.” It has a nice double edge. Sometimes the victim never feels a thing.
7. Deadlines from Heaven
Deadlines are sent from heaven via hell. When you have to finish a certain job by a certain time, the pressure can sicken you, make you feel rotten. I haven’t not been queasy with deadlines since I became a weekly critic. But, deadlines force you to muster the mettle to work.
Procrastination is a self-harming habit. Deadlines are important for forcing the issue, concentrating your work, prompting unexpected epiphanies, and keeping you living under the psychological volcano. If you don’t have a deadline, set one for yourself.
Many famous artists have even set their own one-day deadlines: Keith Haring, Pablo Picasso, On Kawara, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Henry Taylor, Frank Auerbach, etc. It’s a trick that helps you keep your mind open, your ideas always developing.
Get it done. It’ll change your life.
From How to Be an Artist by Jerry Saltz, with permission of Riverhead, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Jerry Saltz.
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- Rare Portraits of Famous Artists
- Seven 20th-Century Writers and Artists Who Defied the Status Quo
Cover image via Walter Sanders/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock.