I’ve heard that there are two kinds of creativity: the short burst and the long haul. The short burst results in a finished work created very quickly, like The Beatles’ song “Yesterday,” which Paul McCartney wrote in less than a minute after waking up from a dream. He just scribbled down some notes and Whammo! A hit!
Then there’s the long haul. This is where the creator reworks and reworks a project to bring it slowly to completion. An example of this is Leonard Cohen’s song, “Hallelujah,” which took him 12 years of reworking, sometimes in agony, before it was finished. His steady work habits brought about his success. It wasn’t dramatic or glamorous, but for him it worked. To me it’s encouraging that with persistence, anyone can succeed in creative work, at least in theory.
I’m not sure that all creators fit neatly into one category or the other, but I’m definitely a long-haul type. I sit there for days, picking away at a little painting, not caring how long it takes. If I feel the need to rush through a painting and compromise the quality of the work, I should find something else to do.
I read recently that two things are required for successful creative work: a point of view and hard work. Notice that there’s no mention of talent there. Talent is real, but it’s not everything. First come the basic skills, then the building up of good work habits, then you hope you have something worthwhile to say. I could make beautiful, accurate paintings of white cups all day long, but without something original in the painting, it’s just a technical exercise. That original something: that’s point of view. For me, I’m slowly developing mine, or maybe I’m just slowly developing the courage to tell the truth in my paintings.
I believe in hard work, but I don’t believe it’s necessary to put in 12 hours a day in the studio, or even 8. My modest 4 hours a day is sufficient. First, because I so often struggle with low energy, it’s all I can do. Second, it really doesn’t matter if I create 12 paintings in a year or 40. What matters is that I’m doing my best. I never rush. I never blow off the advice in my critiques. I don’t let myself off the hook, so I don’t have to make excuses for the quality of my work. I believe that one good 8x10 is more valuable than a middling 36x48.
This definition of success isn’t about selling paintings or being represented by a big-name gallery. I can't totally control those things. This definition of success is about doing my best.
One reason I like this unglamorous approach to art making is that it opens the door to anyone who has the time and the desire. It’s not about having a mystical gift. It’s not about wearing a beret and smoking cigarettes. It’s not about being surly. It’s just about work. And where would we be without that?