How to Make Art

Sunday, September 4th, 2016

A friend asked on Facebook about art they could try / creative stuff they could do.  Here are a few random thoughts…

Find a Great Teacher

Find a great teacher who can teach you useful stuff.  Don’t find a lazy teacher obsessed with an old orthodoxy who just wants to take your money.

My first writing teacher had done every kind of writing from being a lesser known member of a famous poetry movement to musical lyrics to radio plays to quiz show “banter” for a comedian who could tell a joke but not write one to editorial journalism.  His classes were techniques, tricks, critical thinking about writing and just throwing stuff out there to try.  We did little writing or reading out of our stuff. I asked him why he didn’t teach the heroes journey.  He said it was past its sell by date.

My next two writing teachers had OCD about the Hero’s Journey and said it was the only way to write anything successful.  They filled 50% of the class with reading out our stuff and then pulling it apart.  One made a living producing Haynes manuals the other a string of BFI funded scripts for films no one had made with holes you could sail a ghost canal barge through (guess what one of the scripts was about).

I now get the first teachers point.

The teacher may be a book. But for every great book there is one written by someone who thinks the Hero’s Journey is the only way (or is contracted to write a book on writing books and isn’t really skilled to do anything more than write a Haynes manual on writing a novel).

Immerse Yourself

Consume examples of great art.  Go to exhibitions. Read books. Listen to Music.  Be prepared to not get or not like lots of it.  Hopefully you’ll find some you absolutely love.  (Mentally) dissect it all to help you understand what you want to make. Or don’t if that stops you doing it.

For every Damien Hirst exhibition (that left me cold) or Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots (that left me wishing they’d shown the colourful ones) I’ve found a Sonia Delaunay or The Vorticists or Mondrian that excited me.  OK – actually I tend to think that if 25% of exhibitions excite me I’m doing well.

Plus most us don’t have a shark, a chain saw, two large glass cases and a large supply of formaldehyde.

You May Be Ahead of your Time

Turners late work wasn’t understood at the time.  Francis Towne’s watercolours weren’t recognised till long after his death.  Unless you’re in it for the money if you’re enjoying it (and it’s not doing you harm) keep doing it.

Or Behind Your Time

There are lots of great paintings in the John Moores Prize exhibition but if I was painting something I doubt it would fit.  So called outsider art is probably 99% of art made and unless you need critical acclaim and Saatchi money who cares if the establishment don’t like what you’re doing because it’s not the current fad.

Start Small

Don’t try to write the great Brexit novel till you’ve written the great Brexit Short, Short Story

Go Big

Or just write the great Brexit novel and damn the guns/torpedoes/experts.

Do Plan/Don’t Plan

Just make a plan about planning.

Some people work better with a plan.  Some people work better without a plan.  Find what works for you.  Everyone else is wrong.  Including me.  And I do both approaches.

If you do need a plan don’t let the plan become the thing.  You can kill a story by planning it too much.  You need to discover as you’re going.  Research is fun but it’s not actually the thing.

If you find what you’re doing always gets lost along the way and never finished.  Try making a plan.

Don’t Stop till you’re Done

Some people never finish anything.  They just hop from one project to another.  Don’t be one of them.

Do Stop if you’re Done

That said if it’s really not working put it to one side and do something else.  Maybe you’ll figure out how to fix it.

Don’t Revise till you’re Done

Nothing kills creativity more than revising and revising the same bit over and over.  So finish it first and then revise it.

Don’t give Up

No really.  Keep trying.

Well ok maybe give up if you’re on the 22nd book in a series about alien abduction experiences of a character that is clearly a Mary Sue and the rejection letters keep coming.

Or if you want to be an actor but you’re really talentless and the only part you can get is unpaid and is listed on credits as “Man licking toilet”.

Revise the Hell out of It

Most easily done with writing and music but in art forms that can be honed revision is (usually) the key to great work.

1% Inspiration

When inspiration strikes don’t let that idea get away.

80% Perspiration

Lots of creativity is being prepared to do the leg work or knowing when to not do the leg work.

25% Tropes and Lists of Rules

Tropes define genres and forms.

List of rules for genres and forms may be helpful if you want to understand what you’re doing.   Once you understand the tropes and clichés and why they exist break them.  Or don’t bother with them in the first place.  Whatever works for you.

Play with Others

Finding like-minded people and learn from them.  Get feedback.  Give feedback.  Listen to feedback.  Find a mentor.  Find an editor.  Choose Life.  Choose Art. Smash a big TV set.  Glue the bits to a wall.  Sell it to Tate.

Don’t play with Others

Some of these groups / mentors / editors are just all about themselves and not about you.  Don’t feel you have to give a damn about them.  There are lots of examples of people who went to groups who were actually the only great in the group.

Try it with Others

Douglas Adams apparently used to tell the same story to lots of people he knew.  Each time he’d change it a little bit.  Basically he A/B tested the hell out of HHGTTG on his mates till he got it as funny as possible.

Sell Art

You want to make your fortune from creativity.  And you’re still reading my list?  Really?  You think anything on this list will help you make money? Go to art school.  You sell out 😉


Want to write – make up characters and write monologues for them.

Want to paint – paint lines on pages till you get how paint works from a bush.

Want to sing – sing in the shower just not on the bus I’m on in the morning.

Find the Right frame of Mind

Being in the right frame of mind helps.  Do/Don’t do things that change your frame of mind including meditation, sleeping, looking at random old pictures, reading translations of ancient Egyptian inscriptions, doing the washing up, listening to music, mowing a particularly large lawn, coding, thinking in other languages, doing equations or any other random mind altering activities.

Just remember to stay within the bounds of the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 which may define cat pictures as psychotropic if they change your state of mind.

Find the Right Tools

A bad artist always blames their tools.  So does a great artist who has the wrong tools.  Finding the right tools is important.  Some people are better with water colours or oils or pencil or crayon or elephant poo or acrylic or a typewriter or a camera or cross stitch or you know whatever.

Don’t become obsessed with this.

Find the Right Space

Some people can just make art wherever.  Some people need a space that they come back to.

Don’t become obsessed with this.

Find Time

Creativity is never going to happen without time.  If you’re writing the great Brexit novel you will need to take at least a 100 sessions of writing 1000 words each time.  Say that takes an hour a day.  That means finding an hour each day.  Some people find having the same hour helpful as it helps them find the right frame of mind.

Even if it’s the same time you’ll need to find some time.  In family situations this may require some understanding and negotiation.  It may mean turning off the phone, Facebook and Twitter.  Or become a modern hermit.

Do become obsessed with this.

Or not.


No really.

Do Do It

Some of the greatest creative minds I’ve heard of struggled for years with creativity.  I know of great writers who would walk their dog 5 times a day to avoid writing or who wall papered every surface in their house (including the inside of all their draws) to avoid writing.

So unless you’re art is wall papering and dog walking do do it.  Whatever it is.  Just remember no consuming mind altering cat pictures.

Don’t Turn Being Creative in to a List

Do what works for you.  What doesn’t work is just not helpful.

Especially this list.  It’s probably full of [insert word of choice here] as am I.

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