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What kind of intention is required of artists?

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Intentions offer the impression of agency – but art processes can also thrive on chaos. The main intention that artists will require is the one to stay curious, and determined to establish their personal processes to continue making art.

Art is often thought to require intention, but that’s not necessarily true. We want to live in a world influenced by our intentions, since this gives us the impression of agency – of power and control over the world. Reality doesn’t necessarily confirm this though: randomness can influence the world just as much. You often can’t influence beyond your initial leanings and affinities. Work, network, business and personal development thrive on both intention and randomness. Art might be their love child. Life brims with their synchronicities.

Unintended situations and mistakes can set the stage for intentional further steps. Order and chaos constantly overlap and expand each other. Your grasp of the situation, your sensitivity and empathy are the best possible navigation tools. Especially when thinking of art as a process to express contemporaneity, and witnessing the many unintended aspects of life surrounding us, the “best” art might actually be the result of unintended choices: you can create sloppy work if you’re sloppy or lazy – and might expertly express something relevant about the Zeitgeist. Since the arts don’t feature monolithic, fixed quality judgments, you can use processes as sloppily or exacting as you want, without resulting in works that are inherently better or worse than the rest. There simply isn’t a connection between a work’s creation process, and whether it will appear “good” or “bad” to others. What ultimately matters is whether your practice is authentic to you. Instead of intention, focus your authenticity – intently.

Work, network, business and personal development thrive on both intention and randomness. Art might be their love child.

What’s ultimately required of you is the curiosity and determination, the intention to carve your own work processes, and thus a (mental, emotional, physical) space that suits you – even though it might feel like a niche, it is still yours, and thus essential. If it enables you to establish processes and collaborations that feel good enough to continue going, then with luck and business dedication, and a sound understanding of what success means to you, this success might actually follow. Along the way, unexpected situations will arise: conversations with people who care about your work; job opportunities and collaboration requests; these might influence your idea of success, and create an ever-more holistic version of it.

But this all is based on a rather humble idea: that artists need to work on establishing a life that enables them to continue making art.

How do I increase the commitment (and thus pressure)?

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Beginnings require commitment, which often feels like the first obstacle to get going. This is a conundrum: one is required to start, in order to.. start. So what can be done to make beginnings easier? Consider experimenting with the following strategies, to see which work best for you:

  • Minimize stressors: Understand what causes you stress: fears (of failure, of facing your inabilities, of feeling incompetent), the wrong working environment or materials (a moldy or dusty storage space, lack of heating, a studio that’s too noisy; cheap colors that fade), etc. There’s a range of conditions you might need to be met, in order to begin anything. These conditions might be unclear to you, so it pays off to investigate them: if you feel uncomfortable because people are watching you; if you are supposed to work silently, yet inherently need to use noisy tools; if your environment has to stay clean, yet your process creates a mess; if you need more time than you have available, etc. Minimizing stressors can precede commitment, and represent the groundwork to getting going.
    Note that humans aren’t terribly good in understanding their actual needs; removing all stressors can lead to a state of boredom and rot that ultimately only benefits creative decay. We all know established artists with the nicest studios and work visibility, who don’t really have a strong game going anymore; analyzing stressors can never be straight-forward, but will benefit from a deep psychological self-awareness.

  • Previsualize: Previsualization lets you think about the intended work, with the intention of finding upcoming challenges; it’s a form of anticipation. This turns stressful obstacles (encountered during production) into expectations: you previsualize because you want to find obstacles. You can use all sorts of methods to previsualize: 3d software, pencil sketches, a mind map or bullet list, etc; the closer the previsualization medium relates to the final medium, the more exact your predictions will usually be. Understand that you can’t anticipate all challenges emerging from a creative endeavor; you don’t have to: the idea here is to ease your way into a work, not to solve it beforehand.

  • Gradually increase the authority of your tools/materials/environment/collaborators: Everything can have authority over us – not necessarily because of its own volition, but also because of our own, internalized attributions: a successful artist working next door; expensive paper we got as a present; the urge to record on cassette tape (instead of doing it digitally): the more authority we ascribe to a thing (or person), the more pressure we might feel. This can stall our experiments and progress.
    To improve this, use tools, materials, environment and collaborators that have as little authority over you as possible. Increase your awareness of your authority ascriptions, and find alternatives that let you experiment more freely: use free or cheap doodle material to sketch your idea (use your living room to sketch a performance, instead of a proper stage; use cheap paper instead of a canvas; loan out a camera instead of buying one). Go sit on a park bench or at a café, if your studio and its many options drag you down. Collaborate with non-judgemental people.
    Once you feel comfortable enough with what you want to do, mindfully (re)introduce the things to which you attribute higher authority. Use this heightened state to test your idea further, and repeat this process until you’re sure to know exactly what you want to accomplish. Once you use the final, most authoritative items, there will be way fewer choices to make, and thus less chances to mess up your work.

  • Learn to take initiative: Learn to anticipate that beginnings can cause stress. Once you get past the initial stress threshold and are embedded within the actually activity (editing, performing, writing, etc), your mind, in focused pursuit of an activity, often calms down: you are in the zone. There’s a flow. This can already be experienced upon reading a book: opening it might take considerable self-persuasion – yet once you’re immersed in it, time flies. Your attention is captured. This is true even though you might be aware of this dynamic; the more often you transcend your inhibition to begin something, the more likely you’ll experience the rewards of being in the zone. This knowledge can help you anticipate and circumvent compensatory actions meant to generate short-term satisfaction: eating sweets, checking mails, diving into social media. Pursuing a more worthwhile activity serves your long-term satisfaction – if only you’d begin to take initiative.

  • Understand resting periods: Understand that for those activities whose beginnings cause stress, their impact can be cushioned by scheduling rest periods. This creates focused work phases intended to progress: beginnings can be easier if they only demand thirty minutes of attention. Stay attentive to your ability to concentrate, and schedule your rest periods accordingly; if you notice getting tired, it makes sense to rest: your frustrations might otherwise rise exponentially.

How do I investigate my work?

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Consider experimenting with the following investigation strategies, to see which work best for you:

  • Goal-less exploration: When there’s no obvious urge to steer in any direction, experiment with goal-less exploration: like a musician zoning into practicing their scales, gradually morphing into playing a tune that’s based on the practicing scale. Like someone learning to typewrite, yet subconsciously forming and typing their own words, sentences and paragraphs. Like someone experimenting with sound while editing their video, discovering a new way to visualize their work. Goal-less exploration can start with your movement on the street, clay or plasticine, paper and pencil, paper to fold, or a smartphone’s video camera: any tool that doesn’t require an actual financial commitment can offer this: where large works easily demand attention and respect to both beginners and professionals (already just for the money required for the physical materials and tools), starting out can be eased by using tools, media and processes that don’t cost a lot, or might even be free.

    Goal-less exploration starts with free, low-commitment tools: sheets of paper from the family (or office) printer, as well as a pencil that’s lying around. This lets you explore without fear of failure, because the material doesn’t demand respect. If this doodling (with clay, on paper, on camera) leads to an idea, itch or urge: pursue it. Repeat the idea and flesh it out, making it more specific, more according to the vision that gradually forms in your mind. 

  • Repeat previous successes: You might have specific compositions, specific ways to operate your tools, specific materials or paths to use that led to creations you’re happy with: if in doubt, see whether you can repeat them. This will show you whether this path holds the potential for a deeper inquiry (resulting in a work series, or simply a better knowledge of the craft required to pursue your work). Understanding and repeating previous work might give you the courage for further explorations.

  • Create work series: Creating a series of works lets you increase your understanding and sensitivities, simply because you get to dig deeper into the process, tools, contents and aesthetics required for its creation. Once a topic or aesthetic, a sentiment feels relevant to you, why not invest the time to deepen your understanding of it: your work’s quality will usually benefit from it. In addition, this will help you establish a body of work, which often increases your artistic credibility (since you’re seen as someone willing to pursue and balance specific ideas). It also results in higher availability of works, which can be advantageous in case of collector interest in a sold piece (since having a series will let them see further works of the same kind).

  • Investigate your topics: Investigate the potential topics​ of the works you gravitate towards: if for example you enjoy a specific figurative drawing you made, try to find out what you specifically like about it – whether it’s the figure’s posture, the facial portraiture, whether it’s about color, composition – or the emotional bond you felt when creating the work. By increasing your understanding of the potential topic you’re navigating, you gradually create a multidimensional, evergrowing reference system to expand and dive into: your artistic home. This helps you to explore that home in a somewhat structured way:  which artists have created similar works, over the centuries? Who ever used similar styles or tools or materials? Investigating your work is a core practice of being an artist: if you aren’t curious about your work, who ever will be?

  • Verbalize your ideas: Take time to write down ideas – in prose, keywords, bullet lists etc. Create tree hierarchies or mind maps to connect your ideas to generalized topics, and see what insights you can retrieve. This is an exciting way to learn about your work, already because it’s a low-commitment way of translating your ideas: not yet into physical manifestations, but into words that usually can easily keep the vision – whereas actual works always also represent the sum of our inabilities. Verbalizing your work in this fragmented way can also help you to communicate about it elsewhere (in studio visits, to collectors or curators, etc). It can become a stepping stone to writing an actual text about your work, which is usually more demanding.

How do I focus?

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You focus by using focusing strategies that work for you (keep experimenting!), and by establishing realistic attitudes about art and creativity.

We need focus to dive deeper into what we do. It’s unlikely to experience our own greatness without intention, attention – and focus. This takes time. Experiment with focusing strategies, and establish realistic attitudes about art and creativity. Processes don’t just work out of the box, but might need adaption for your situation. Success benefits from appreciating the small steps.

  • Active focus phases: Experiment with active focus phases, meant to make you radically present for a limited time: disable all notifications on your digital devices (buzz, sound or visual cues from your smartphone, tablet, laptop, etc.). If there’s a landline (lol), detach it. Commit to doing this in increasing time spans – you can start with fifteen minutes, and then double it to thirty once you feel ready for it; or you simply use it for the amount of time that feels right, without measuring. You will ultimately find your own path and rhythm.
    (Understand that apart from focus, your artistic practice can also benefit from inattention and subconscious actions: being tired, exhausted or inattentive can still bring your work forward. It might temporarily create uncomfortable results, which can have more power and potential than the decisions made intentionally.)

  • Form habits: Focusing on work promotes the rewarding possibilities of flow states and progress, but requires much more dedication than procrastinating or staying inattentive; doing anything is more challenging than doing nothing – activity requires more than passivity. Once you want to get something done, your mind will usually offer tempting alternatives: being on social media, replying to messages, etc. These actions offer quicker rewards to the brain than the slow-roasting complexities of most work tasks, which make them tough competitors for your attention.

    Establishing habits that define when and how you work can lessen the hurdles of actually pursuing your work. The less you have to think about the setup of work, the more likely you will “simply slide” into doing that work. Identifying and disabling distractions (leaving your phone outside of the work area; setting it to “do not disturb”, using white noise via headphones, or noise cancelling technology, etc.), establishing specific work routines (when to be in the studio, when to take breaks, when to do phone calls or replying to mails), using habit stacking (“after I prepared coffee, I sit down to read my emails”; “after I mix colors, I sit down to clean my brushes”; “after I got up, I take ten minutes to write my morning pages”, etc.) are powerful strategies to enable your mind to get into working mode – and to stay there. Consider reading more about habits, it is very powerful knowledge.

  • Identify your needs for a conscious lifestyle: Your mind needs clarity to focus on your work. While artistic processes can benefit from subconscious decision-making (e.g. by being tired, exhausted or intoxicated), there is power in consciousness: to have the mental capacity to understand what you do. The less distracted your life setup is, the more focus you will have for your work and its challenges. Removing alcohol and drugs, identifying toxic relationships, limiting partying, establishing good sleep and fitness routines – these will enable a more quiet life, at the cost of missing out on drama that can fuel your work and passion.

    The challenge is to find a path through your life that isn’t ideological (“Drinking is obviously wrong!”, “I need to be in bed every day at 10pm, so I need to leave your party now”, etc.), but self-aware and dynamic. You want to party and meet friends, you want to experiment outside the ordinary – it will make life worthwhile. But you want to end the toxicity in your life, because it does the opposite. Consider coaching, psychotherapy and deep introspection to understand and establish somewhat “ideal” surroundings for the life that you want to live.

  • From itch to urge: Sometimes you feel an inclination: a word, a feeling, a tendency towards a process, material or medium. Let this itch become an urge: doodle around with the prior, to create space for the latter. What starts out as curiosity about a certain aesthetic or semantic, can lead to the absolute self-demand for a deeper inspection and inquiry about that curiosity’s potential. Don’t ignore your itches. Listen to your inclinations, and implement them. See where they lead you.

  • Demystify inspiration: Inspiration is one of the buzzwords of creativity, often thought about as appearing out of nowhere, especially to the lucky and talented few – with the implication that the rest of us simply aren’t that lucky. This is not true: inspiration can strike you randomly (on the bus or when watching TV), but can also be fostered by active introspection. You can create inspiration: Sit and think about what work to do next by going through its various aspects: what material and content will you use? How might these influence the work’s interpretation? How do you feel about this interpretation? Do you want to wiggle it a bit further? What describing attributes come to your mind – do these support your vision? How can you strengthen or weaken certain interpretations? What other works might make sense to get created alongside? How would you envision an exhibition featuring these works? Take a pencil and paper, or whatever other low-commitment tools work best for you, and brain-storm away.

  • Find inspiration: Even if you feel to be entirely without ideas of your own, you can proactively create space to finding inspiration – by exposing yourself to the world: become an active experiencer of life. Visit exhibitions (museums usually charge you, galleries won’t) and libraries, read books or magazines, watch documentaries, participate in discussions: inspiration is everywhere, as long as you actively want to find it. What were the last events that really excited you? Was it a sports game, your cat or dog, the way someone treated someone else; someone’s voice, a movie or TV series, a tune or perfume? Increase the awareness of your passions, to understand whether you want to investigate them further for your art practice. Become attentive to life and to your interests, and inspiration can be found in unexpected places.

  • Imitate others: Imitate other people’s work to learn more about yourself, by using appropriation as learning strategy. Understand whether it’s a certain topic or aesthetic that excites you, and see what happens upon making it yours. The idea is not to create a direct copy, but to appropriate the original into your artistic universe; to see it through your lens, and let that lens define the result. To imitate with the goal of creating something new and personal. This way you don’t need to worry about plagiarism: if your focus is to find and establish your own voice, you won’t become a copycat. If you pursue your own path deeply and authentically, you will only ever appropriate specific fragments, ultimately establishing your own themes and forms – simply because your interests are unlikely to totally coincide with the work you reference. This way, imitation can help you find your own voice – with the works that might have excited and triggered you years ago, often no longer being quite so exciting to you today.

  • Understand your apprenticeship status: Entering a new field confronts you with your curiosities, but also brings in new frustrations – no matter how experienced you are in other fields, entering a new territory will often make you feel like a rookie. Expect to misunderstand timings, processes, materials and tools – and your abilities. See the power of accepting these frustrations: as a beginner, failure is often all you have – because it only serves as the starting line. Every skill you acquire will stay with you, and will work for you henceforth – and no skill was ever acquired without a person’s openness to failure. Accept the journey into the arts as a brainstorming process within which there can’t be any actual mistakes; since every mistake will help you grow, the only way to fail is not to try.

  • Withhold judgement: Accept that there are no quality standards in your art making, except the ones you define – and even these are subject to change (through time or modified aesthetic ideals). Accept that in the arts, there can be no tolerance for other people telling you about allegedly “correct” ways of using tools, materials or processes. Become an empty mind, a beginner’s mind; become accepting of whatever inspires, motivates and enriches you. Withhold judgment about what you do, until you really, really know what you’re doing.

How do I start?

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You start making art by embracing an exploratory mindset, which helps you to investigate the potential quality ideals of your work.

Starting something can be both magical and frightening: beginnings require us to transcend our fear of failure. They let our hopes for success meet the realities of our abilities, and of our willpower: sometimes doubts win, and we stop before ever having begun. Beginnings can be complex – you might not know what to do, how to go about it, or even why you’re getting started. Your actions might become a beginning, without you yet being aware of it.

Beginnings are a frequent challenge for artists, maybe more so than for others: entering a new project with unknown parameters, a collaboration with unclear outcomes. Kicking off a new medium, starting one’s first sculpture ever, or a new series after the previous one didn’t resonate with others. Apart from curiosity and a certain willfulness or giddiness, beginnings require hope – and the belief that we can be more than we are right now. They are quintessentially human.

Beginnings require hope, and the belief that we can be more than we are right now. They are quintessentially human.

The beginnings of artistic processes can be unexpectedly erratic, since they can’t rely on external quality ideals – processes can legitimately begin without knowing where they are meant to go. These quality ideals can exist upfront (as the result of previous artistic interrogations, or general personal semantic or aesthetic preferences), or have to be established while pursuing the process, resulting in them often being inherently experimental. The notion of artistic processes having to be experimental is so normative to some, that sometimes an artist’s authenticity is judged by it: if your art is visually similar to your previous work, or that of other artists, it might be seen as inauthentic (“You’re just copying yourself!” or “You’re just copying others, instead of pursuing your own vision! Art is only art if its processes are unstable!”). This can lead to artists feeling self-conscious once their processes become more established and stable – as if there’s only merit in the pursuit of unknowns. The actuality is that the art making process has different phases: some more experimental, some more production-oriented. Both are necessary.

Artistic processes often don’t have a clear sequence of steps to pursue; there might be knowledge about tools and materials, but little absolutes about how to reach the goal (which doesn’t need to be defined upfront). With neither processes nor goals being clearly defined, artistic processes often start radically erratic and open-minded, and can benefit from a certain naivety. How to ever get somewhere this way?

Exploratory Processes

Many creative processes follow a predefined, sequential formula (“do this, then that, then that, ..”); they offer a sequence, and thus guideline, within which creativity (and thus personal choice) finds room. In the arts however, there often is neither sequence nor guideline – the processes can be more fundamentally open and exploratory: you can draw a figure or an abstraction on your piece of paper, or you can fold the paper, or rip it apart, or burn it and create work out of its ashes. You can draw a figure on paper, but focus on the pencil being used up (and not what you were drawing).

Exploratory artistic processes need to establish what they are about, and how they go about it. In the case of process-oriented artistic practices, this pursuit can even represent the goal, with a specific end condition being used instead of otherwise defined quality criteria: a certain time having passed, materials having being consumed, etc. These practices ultimately don’t need anything but the urge to start: one can doodle and experiment freely, to end whenever it feels right. For goal-oriented practices, the artist needs to develop some sort of understanding of where to get to, and how to get there. For production phases, one would usually want to know both these aspects; for exploratory phases, one ultimately needs neither: it suffices to get going, and stay sensitive towards one semantic and aesthetic ideas.


Various Process Modes
Formula-, process- and goal-based processes

Finishing and Quality Criteria

Finishing something requires you to understand and reach that thing’s finish line – which in arts is represented by your quality ideals: when does a painting, a sculpture, a novel, a dance fulfill the various criteria that you require of it? These quality criteria can be aesthetic (“A blue sun has been sculpted in a way that’s pleasing to me”) or conceptual (“Thirteen body movements have been made between 6:07 and 7:06pm”) – offering endless potential for confusion to laypeople. This is made even more volatile by quality ideals not only being highly personal, but also being subject to time: a specific variation of a sculpted blue sun might look beautifully complete to Artist A, but decidedly worthless to Artist B; these personal points of view do not stand in conflict with each other (although certain people will, antagonistically, lecture others about which quality criteria they feel to be “right”), since everyone is ultimately required to have their own ideas about what’s finished or good – it serves as the basis for contemporary arts’ endless multitude of quality ideals and works. In addition, an artist’s ideas about finishedness and perfection don’t have to be consistent over time, but can vary in extreme ways.

Volatile Quality Criteria in Art
Quality criteria usually change over time (Artist A), and between people (Artist A vs. Artist B)

It’s possible to finish an artwork even if you don’t understand whether it’s done – you can simply decide that you’ll leave it where it stands. If you don’t understand your quality ideals, you cannot know whether your current work satisfies them; you need to start interrogating (this might be the case because you are new at making art, or because you are experienced, but enter a new medium or concept where your ideals don’t feel adequate). You do so by embedding yourself in the processes of creation: either by using the tools and materials (pencil, hammer, your tablet, etc.), or by conceptualizing your quality ideals theoretically (“I want bold lines and large canvases”, “I want fragility mixed with cheekiness”, etc.) – or both. You increase your sensitivity and your judgment.

Over time, this fills the initially empty pot of quality with purpose and intent. Your ideas about a work’s (potential and actual) quality ideals will emerge from being immersed: you understand them because you focus, and experiment with your decisions. Before this can happen though, one has to begin – potentially without yet being able to properly understand where to go. This isn’t nearly as bad as it sounds; it’s like hiking with the intention to explore, which requires you to stay attentive and calm, and to carry on. You start without compass or map – but by walking, you get a better understanding of the territory, and the many options you have. Your walking becomes compass and map. You aren’t an explorer because you reach a goal; you are an explorer because you explore. Art requires a lot of this – it enables you to understand the territory, and your place(s) within it. You will get to judge which views you enjoy better than others, which in turn will give you moments of joy. The more of them you have, the better your life will often feel. Yet having a view at all starts with your first step: the beginning.

While it’s impossible to finish a work with unclear quality criteria, it’s absolutely possible to start working on it. Quality is a vacuum, which can eventually be replaced with purpose and intent. Quality can emerge from exposure to, and being embedded in a process. Before this can happen though, one has to begin – potentially without yet being able to properly understand where to go. This isn’t a bad situation – it’s like hiking to get somewhere unknown: you can’t get there without starting off, even though you might not always know whether the direction makes sense. You start without a compass or map – but by walking, you get a better understanding of the territory, and where it all might lead to. Your walking becomes compass and map. You aren’t a hiker because you reach a goal; you are a hiker because you hike. Art requires a lot of wandering – the more you can set up processes whose views you enjoy, the better your life will be. Having a view at all starts with your first step: the beginning.

In an open field like art, it can be hard to understand why to choose any specific direction over another – all of them are possible, and often mean the same to a beginner. There’s just not a strong compass yet. To establish one, consider using the following 3-tier structure:

  1. To focus
  2. To investigate, and 
  3. To gradually increase your commitment (and thus pressure).

Consider reading the chapters for a detailed discussion of each of these topics.

What general challenges do I have to expect as an artist, and how can I lessen their blow?

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Artists should expect various hardships on their path to establish their own processes; they will need to establish structures in regard to work, network and psychology. The meta-tools to do so are sensitivity and self-assuredness, with ego often working against us.

Instead of clear goals, the arts offer openness and ambiguities. They allow you to set up extremely individualized paths, within which almost anything can be done: you can choose your own processes and semantics, use specific media and materials in unexplored ways, and even define your own quality ideals – just to name a few. No one can really tell you what to do in the arts; you need to define your reasons of operation, through endless exploration, accompanied by the omnipresence of (often unexpected) successes and failures. To understand what you might want to do, you need sensitivity and self-assuredness:

  • Sensitivity: you need to refine your sensitivities to understand your personal wants and urges. The lesser these sensitivities, the more you depend on external stimuli to guide you – which rarely represent your personal ideals. The stronger your sensitivities, the higher the chances to actually fulfill them, and to be satisfied
  • Self-assuredness: you need to refine your ego, so that you can actually trust your sensitivities. Your self-assuredness guards you from all sorts of transgressions and missteps – at the ubiquitous risk of becoming self-centered and ignoring the world.

You need to find strategies and solutions for all sort of situations in order to better create the work you want to (or feel you have to) make. With introspection and care, you will find and establish beneficial processes, environments and collaborations. In addition to what’s happening in your work processes, your work’s visibility will grow. The following major challenges will require your long-lasting attention:

  • Work: You need to find the right emotional and mental spaces to push your work forward, in regards to content and form. You need to stay sensitive to your works’ potentials – even though you are the person most immersed in it, and thus the most prone to being blind to it. For this, you need to establish tools of realization and understanding: (a) discussing your work with yourself (through introspection, writing about your work, etc.), and (b) discussing your work with others (through studio visits, social media connections, exhibitions, etc.). You need to be able to convey the potential of your visual-mental universe. You need to become not only a builder of worlds, but also that world’s brand ambassador. You need the tools to let people know about your ever-changing, -transforming and -growing artistic vision. .

    Your work might start out positively basic, with just a pencil and some paper – but soon enough, you will feel the requirement for more complex infrastructure: a studio with storage space, proper lighting, camera equipment to document your work, a computer with the appropriate software to edit your works and portfolios, plus a reliable data backup. The better these solutions suit your needs, the more focused you will be able to work; the more complex they get, the more energy will be required for their maintenance. Finding solutions that strike the right balance between ease-of-use and complexity, between minimalism and efficiency, between autonomy and outsourcing, is an ongoing challenge. The  better you understand your needs, the more adequate your decisions will be.
  • Network: You need to establish a network of trusted, loyal, reliable collaborators from all sorts of sub-fields. This might ultimately include graphic designers, photographers, curators, text writers, frame makers, insurance brokers and generalist craftspeople to help you realize specific works or shows. You will likely need people who can offer financial support, but also others whose feedback lets you grow (instead of being surrounded by people who use your work as a platform for their agenda: to hurt, damage or dominate you). You need people with networks stronger than yours, who want to use it to your advantage, or at least in your spirit and intention. Support doesn’t always come as encouragement or reassurance; at times it arrives as (ideally benevolent) criticism – which is necessary if your actions are morally, spiritually, emotionally or economically unsound, or simply naïve or illogical. Sometimes support comes in clear words defending a vision or position, because you lost sight of it – good friends might at times disregard your ego.

    Your network is based on individual loyalties, and thus a complex result of how you engage with yourself and others: there will be no lasting loyalty from others if there’s no loyalty on your end towards them; and neither is likely to exist without your basic self-loyalty. Are you loyal to yourself? Do you understand the many ways you can abandon yourself?

    Networks are based on self-care and care for others: your self-care focuses on your mental, emotional, and physical health (healthy living and eating, reading and doing sports, psychotherapy or yoga, etc.); the less you care about yourself, the less loyal you are to yourself. Short- and long-term goals can require opposing loyalties, which makes this topic challenging: the more you understand the world and your needs, the potentially better your decisions. Your care for others shows in your capacity to listen, support, protect and provide for others: lunches, coffee talks, late phone conversations, family vacations, evenings or weekends spent together. You can rarely make up for uninvested time: if you continuously prioritize your work and ego before your kids, partner, parents or friends, it will likely result in spiritual loneliness – even if you, in theory, do have a family and children, or a long list of social media contacts. Weirdly enough, your network begins with self-care; but can only thrive on your attention to others.

  • Psychological knowledge: Both your work and your network are built on human interactions – even if you work on your own, far away from others, you’re still constantly surrounded by and embedded within yourself, a fellow human being. Being alive means to question life, and our potential place and purpose within it. That’s why you will benefit from establishing deep psychological knowledge about the inner workings of humans: it will help you better understand yourself, and to better know what to expect from your collaborators. Who supports you, who doesn’t, and who might even want you to fail? Who cares about you – and who doesn’t? These questions sound basic, because we’ve lived with them all our lives. Yet they nevertheless tend to benefit from the knowledge and experience garnered over decades. You might want others to understand and work towards your goals, without requiring you to be pushy or off-putting; you might not want to use money as your only currency. By properly understanding people’s motives and your mutual attractions, you can often find deeper, more intimate ways to connect. For all of this, you need to be able to let yourself accept help in the first place – if you’re unable to do so, you’re usually on your own; life is possible, but harder that way.

    We would all benefit from “mastering” human relationships; which would let us understand what’s actually going on between (and within) us all the time. It pays off to work on this. Doing so requires a deep inspection of yourself, your childhood, your traumata and pains; the more you know about yourself, the more you can know (about) the people around you, since each of us has their own traumata and pains, and their subsequent, individualized coping mechanisms. The more you understand and transcend your pain, the better you can relate to and support others. Life is more humble then. Books, benevolent friends, and obviously psychotherapists, mentors and/or coaches can serve as tools to get there. It requires a lot of insight to understand whether which of these tools are helpful, and actually work in your favor. Accumulating these insights is based on making mistakes, and trying to learn from them. Psychological knowledge is based on failure and not giving up, and thus very similar to the artistic process. Embrace it.

It’s impossible to sidestep life’s blows, but we can sometimes lessen their impact by anticipating them. You can expect certain challenges and anticipate potential solutions without being overly paranoid. The more you understand life’s complexities (other people, new situations, the pitfalls of a structured, domestic life, etc.), the more you will appreciate strategies that navigate you safely through them. Memories of failures can be used as platforms for future success. By being circumspect, open-minded and relentless in approaching your life and work, you will gradually find a path that will make it all a little easier. And who knows – these experiences and your increasing depth as a human being might inform your artistic work as well.

I want to become an artist – but am unsure whether I have something relevant to say. What do I do?

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Contemporary artists need to understand (and embrace) their authenticities. Doing so usually results in work that’s personal, and thus vulnerable – which is not a guarantee for (economic) success, but has a high likelihood of feeling worthwhile: because you focus on what matters to you.

Art is often thought to require the expression of something relevant – but.. what is relevant? There cannot be an absolute answer to this question: relevance is subjective. It’s also volatile and temporary: people change their preferences and relevancies all the time. It’s important to understand that sometimes, we need to express something of relevance – yet other times, the sheer act of expressing something creates the relevance. The former uses expression to manifest an “external” idea and incorporates it into art (an artwork about love, societal criticism, the portrait of someone, etc.); the latter might or might not do that (it could simply be an abstraction created without deeper contextual intention), yet can still create relevance and emotions within viewers. That’s the power of art: people getting attached to an idea they never knew of, because of a film, a novel, a song or a sculpture.


What might feel relevant to one person, might not ever faze the next one, and might not even face themselves at a later time. This usually means that you need to focus on what’s relevant (a) to you, (b) today – because these are the two things you can try to understand (side note: it can be argued that focusing on what “you want today” puts you way too deep in what’s already established, and results in you being unable to anticipate what’s upcoming and fresh. A good strategy might be to always go in the direction of authenticity: focus on the topics, processes, aesthetics and works that feel important and authentic “to you, today”. This way you might still miss what’s upcoming and fresh, but did at least focus on something that will be hard to regret). Take time to write down topics, ideas and contexts; aesthetics, role models, experiences and thoughts that you care about; this can become the navigational map for the current phase of your art life.


Even if you have a good understanding of what’s relevant to you, you might still be unsure whether your personal relevancies can matter within the system of art. Let’s deconstruct this worry by discussing art as transgenerational group effort, benefiting from diversity: there cannot be a single artwork or artist that fulfills, all on its own, the “idea of art”. No single piece or person could reflect and highlight life in all of its aspects, depth, joys and sorrows – and that’s not even a problem. It’s more healthy (and humble) to understand art as a blend of opinions of ideas; not just of yours and your contemporaries, but of our entire species – from the deepest past into the widest future. Each one of us is but a pebble in the sands of time. We can all just express what we know and feel; yet if everyone does that, art becomes a chorus of diversity, only limited by the (mostly diversity-lacking) systems of the art world. Your work might be of little relevance to art history, but it’s very few artists where this is ever different. Influencing art history might not even be the best goal; instead, it might make more sense to focus on yourself: is your work relevant to you? If so, there’s a high likelihood you will continue to create and challenge it, and work on making it visible. Your personal relevancies are maybe the most essential aspect of your artmaking.


The more you create work that’s relevant to you, the more personal, and thus vulnerable life gets: caring creates vulnerability. That’s why artmaking requires courage – how else to express and exhibit your deepest feelings and ideas? Once you care, your work won’t just be another performance or another short film, but an honest expression of how you view the world. Others might make fun of it, misunderstand or ignore it. This would be disturbing, but could happen: they might dislike it because they dislike you personally, or because it touches a topic they are deeply uncomfortable with. Neither of you might know this – potentially even resulting in weird antipathies: if you create a highly sterile work, some people will despise it for its lack of emotions. If you create a highly emotive work instead, some other people will despise your over-abundance of public emotional release. It’s important not to take either situation personally, or as worthwhile feedback of your work – it’s usually not. Sadly the opposite, positive feedback, also might not help you too much (beyond the initial burst of joy, which isn’t nothing): feedback simply highlights the alignment of personal relevancies and affinities, not an absolute value of what’s relevant. Values are personal. Relevancies are individual. Vulnerability is human: creating work that’s personal makes you feel, and gives your life meaning.

Instead of discussing relevance, consider using individuality as metric to judge your work: what matters is whether what you do is authentic – to you. No one but you can judge your authenticity; if relevance is a currency, your individuality has the highest value. In a world of global brands, any individual approach will stand out as unique and rare: push for it. This effort might feel naïve, sad and laughable to some people – but that would be a difference in values (between them and you), and could not ever be an absolute judgment of value. You can handle that.

What talents or skills do I need to become an artist?

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The main skills required by artists is willful curiosity, and the endurance to establish your own work processes, based on this curiosity. Specific knowledge about predefined artistic processes is not essential (but can be exciting and enriching).

Sometimes it feels as if certain people are meant to be artists, while others could never ever become one. A lot of people still believe in the notion of preexisting talent or excellence; according to them, artists are often thought of as rare geniuses. This is outdated. In actuality, the idea of talent is mostly used as (self-)mythologizing marketing strategy – or even as defense strategy by those who don’t want to fail, or even start trying: “If I can’t do something today, for sure I’ll never be able to do it. After all, others can do it so well already: why bother starting?” If this was true, life would be static; we wouldn’t ever be able to learn something new: another language, a new hobby or craft. People couldn’t ever change jobs or raise children – simply because ten years ago they didn’t know how to do it either. Life wouldn’t feature change.

At the same time, people rarely talk about talent when discussing less romanticized, more down-to-earth activities (like learning to cook or how to ride their bike). Yet in the arts, especially by outsiders, it’s often used as metric of excellence. Considering the many hours required to master any complex craft, the reality of “talent” becomes obvious: while it can be a kickstarter, it will never outweigh someone’s sheer power of will: whoever truly wants to become a chef, skateboard pro or jazz guitar player, for sure won’t be hindered by their perceived lack of initial talent. Rather, they’ll approach the new field according to their character, and find ways to turn alleged shortcomings or flaws into their signature style – with a mixture of humbleness and boldness. In addition, remember that talent can at times be problematic: if it creates arrogance and a wrong sense of security about a field’s complexity, and one’s position within it.

What About Talent?

If discussing talent and arts, here’s a controversial idea: Contemporary art is an especially amazing field for those without talent, simply because it doesn’t feature a unique, static set of expectations towards content or form. Resultingly, there isn’t (and can’t be) a specific set of skills required to become an artist. If you’re blind but want to paint, if you want to film but can’t afford camera or editing software, if you’re insensitive but want to sculpt, then for sure there can’t be a better place than the arts. Don’t misunderstand: the arts are not a place for dilettantes. Amateurism and incompetence will always stand out as signs of bad quality – but the arts even have room for these: Since tastes are subjective and temporary, what might be perceived as “bad” by someone at some time, will feel like actual bliss to others, or the same person at another time. For an artist to make proper “bad art”, they need to embrace and expand on specific ideas of that quality – which is far away from operating naively. As long as you pursue your work authentically, continuously questioning and expanding it, and ignoring destructive criticism, then your work can thrive – entirely independently of preexisting talent or skills.

That’s why in today’s world, the most general requirements to becoming an artist are 

  1. your will to be curious, and 
  2. the endurance to establish your own work processes, based on your curiosity.

For these to exist, you need to show up – there can be no art without it. Instead of cliché sufferings, artists should expect the hardships experienced by anyemerging entrepreneur or business person: slow recognition and sales, a lack of structure, all sorts of financial worries, the requirement to do side jobs, the doubt of whether it’s all worth it. The beginning artist’s journey brims with ambivalence: to be faced with one’s inadequacies and lack of competences, a general joy that frequently gets mixed with frustration; unexpected learning curves, the depth of the medium’s history far exceeding one’s previous expectations, surprise about the field’s lack of diversity, anger about the field’s unfair distribution of wealth, etc.

What an Openness..

Because of fine arts being such an open field, with such a myriad of qualities to experience, it can be hard to understand whether your work is “good” or “good enough” – and even whether you yourself are succeeding or failing. How to know such things? A frequent strategy in the world outside is to compare ourselves to others: if we are similar to specific aspects of successful people, then surely we are in some way successful as well? Because of the open nature of art though, you are not likely to answer these questions through comparison; art simply doesn’t offer comparison metrics like e.g. sports, where you can judge excellence by comparing numbers.

We often start making art because of the impact that other people’s had on us – so on a certain level, it makes sense to compare our work to the one we love. While these comparisons can fuel your artistic imagination, it’s tricky to compare yourself to others; their surroundings, socialization, their culture and spirit usually cannot easily be compared with yours. No two people swing their brushes identically, mix their colors identically, use the same techniques in their modelling software.

The challenge instead is to create the best work you can, and this work will always be the consequence of your surroundings and socialization, culture and spirit. It’s a consequence of the tools and infrastructure available to you. That’s why it’s better then to compare yourself with (a) yourself from the past, or with (b) your potential; the former focuses on what you already achieved since (focus on past), while the latter focuses on what you still haven’t managed yet (focus on future) – and to use other people’s art mostly as inspiration.

Otherwise, you risk experiencing art through a tainted, stained, maybe even cynical filter – to start despising the art world you crave to get accepted by, as much as potentially your work and yourself. It can then become difficult to appreciate or enjoy someone else’s works and achievements – even your own. By seeing this potential dynamic, it becomes a choice: it’s possible for you to instead engage the world with a realistic kind of positivity. One way to do so is to not compare your work (and yourself) naively.

It might make more sense then to take some distance, to take a breath, and to not define the artist’s job by what you might like and enjoy about it – but by the hardships you’re willing to endure: are you up to face the challenges listed above, and find your own path through them? Sometimes  it’s not about what you want from art, but what art wants from you. While this book suggests many strategies, the meta-advice is to 

  • stay utopian (“I know I can manifest this feeling/thought/idea!”),
  • while firmly being rooted in the realities of our world (“I know I have to work hard doing x/y/z to make my work visible!”).

Artistic skills and traditional notions of talent really have nothing to do with these.