Tuesday, April 26, 2016

3 Things Every Artist Should Learn from Prince

And no, wearing ass-less pants is not one of them, unless you feel confident enough to pull that look off.

If you came into consciousness in the 80’s, under the thrall of MTV when it showed nothing but music videos, and had older sisters, then you too understand how Prince was always sort of there… either front and center being his esoteric self or on the periphery doing something odd but kind of endearing. Needless to say, I don’t remember a world without Prince.

And while I was always a Prince fan, Purple Rain was one of the ten CD’s I got for a penny for joining Columbia House, it wasn’t until Mandy discovered him during that epic, Super Bowl halftime show, that things around here got a touch more purple and paisley all the time. That’s also when I began to think of Prince in terms of what a great artist needs to be in order to survive this idiotic, commercially driven world.

When I lecture illustration and writing students… or anyone else who will listen to what I have to say about creativity and art, I tend to bring up the same artists time and again. Until recently, my three go to artists were: Woody Allen, Jack White and Prince. They are talented artists who consistently put out work, without care of the opinions of others. If the goal is to make the coolest work possible, you have to actually make things, and some of those things are going to suck and some of them are going to rock, but you never know what will work until you put in the time and effort and complete them. The more you work, the more consistently you work, the more you hone your craft, the better you are conveying the ideas you wish to convey… which is sort of the point of art.

When you look at the careers of Prince, Woody Allen and Jack White, you have to wonder how they get so much done? Without fail, there is a new album or movie almost every year, in spite of an industrial entertainment machine intent on controlling everything. Somehow, these guys get it done the way they want it done, so needless to say, there is something to be learned here.

So let’s go with Prince and point out the 3 keys to being just a tad like the Purple Yoda from Minnesota. And if this gets a tad rambly, keep in mind I'm talking in very general terms about facets of a creative personality... when in reality, this stuff all jumbles together into a complex mess...

1. Find Ur Thing and Commit to Ur Thing. 

This isn’t rocket science but it is a hard thing to do. We all know what we are interested in doing and how our talent works with the things we are passionate about. However one our 1st World problems is that we have the time and resources to explore as many passions as we can think of. That’s great if your passion is finding new passions, it’s the kiss of death if you really want to excel at something. Prince set out to be a fine musician and a kickass live performer. And so he played musical instruments and performed all the time. That’s the recipe for getting good at something. You figure out how to do it, then you do it. Until you die. 

The concept is simple, it’s the execution that trips people up. But as Prince shows, if you do your thing and are confident about your thing and are lucky as all get out, cool things will happen because people are seduced by secret to all good art: the expended effort to appear effortless. When we see someone bring their A Game to the stage, it all seems so effortless and perfect, like we could do it and, therefore, we revel in their glory. But most people are profoundly unaware of the tremendous effort it takes make anything appear effortless. 

Which gets us to point #2. 

2. Keep Working It, Day in, Day Out.

OK. So you find your thing and you commit to it. Pat yourself on the back if you do those two things. Then get ready for the real work because having found your thing and consciously decided to make it “yours”, difficult as that may be, is easy when compared to sitting down and doing it every single day. 

So, there’s Prince and there’s Prince’s Vault. What’s in the Vault? Al Capone’s car… full of candy and hundreds of unreleased songs, among other things. Probably. Yeah, this whole Vault concept sounds weird to most people but to me it makes perfect sense. Why? Because Prince didn’t have an off switch. He found his thing, music, committed to it, wholeheartedly, and then played and played and played until he couldn’t play anymore. And anytime something good came from all that playing, it went into the Vault. 

Again, everything is very simple. Once you start working your mad talent, all the time, you will find yourself knee-deep in good stuff. And then soon, waist-deep. Then it will be up to your eyeballs. So you too will need a Vault in which to store all the stuff you’re making. 

And I seriously am talking about working every single day. I don’t know what you’re into or how feasible that might be, but if you want to hit a Prince level of intensity, and I suggest that you aim for that, then you will be doing something productive every day. And it will add up quickly.

Perhaps that just means making small notes about what to do on days when you have more time on your hands. Perhaps that means setting aside an hour per day to chip away at a huge project. Perhaps that means doing something that you can knock out in a few seconds, but doing an enormous amount of it. Who knows. Your working method will be unique. But once you figure it out, you build the rest of your daily life around getting your work done. 

3. Artists Make Art, Businesses Make Money. 

There’s a reason why that little dude gave up his name, for god’s sake. And that reason was all about the conflict between art and commerce. And you need to be aware of the difference between art and commerce or else something will happen and you’ll end up all sad inside. 

Art is the thing you make. Commerce is the thing they sell. On a good day, those two things are the same thing. On a bad day, they are not. What I mean is that you, as a passionate artist, are intrinsically driven to do your thing and by working day in day out, you produce something. Being an optimist, I’m going to say it’s awesome and call it art. 

But just because you make art doesn’t mean that they will understand it or sell it. And that’s where things get prickly. You have a great idea, a stroke of genius, and you create something glorious. Unfortunately, your moment of brilliance may not, in fact it will most likely not, translate to a successful business deally. ‘Cause business is about making money, not about promoting art. 

If you are extremely lucky, you will make money off your work. If you are not, you should find a way to make your art anyway. And as Prince proves, you can be talented, beloved the world over and have massive commercial success behind you and the business world will still shaft you because your art is not the product that they imagine will generate cash pie. And like Prince, you should tell them to stick it and do your work the way you need to do it. 

Sometimes, everything will work out. Sometimes, nothing will work out. In either case, shut up and do your thing. 

And I guess that’s my weekly rant. A little more tough love than I’d intended, but Prince set the bar pretty high. A little tough love can’t hurt as we all strive to be that awesome. This game is not for the faint of heart. It’s a funky time. And if I've learned anything from Prince, getting funky means going big or going home.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

As My 1993 Yearbook Motto Said:

“Putting It Into Perspective”… of course, the ever clever, Adam McKay, went through my entire yearbook and put an “Sh” in front of “It” on every page “Putting It Into Perspective” could be found. At the time, his action was just really funny, but now I’m starting to think it was inspired brilliance. Like really, how is a mass produced book full of grainy, poorly exposed, poorly composed snapshots (keep in mind we’re talking pre-digital), taken by teenaged-hormone-crazy suburbanites barely in control of their collective sense of entitlement, printed in conjunction with the least interesting/offensive copy possible, put anything into perspective? And by definition, one needs time and/or distance to see perspective. The whole notion of perspective falls apart when you’re too close to something, as a high school senior clearly is to his or her high school experiences…

Where was I going with this?

Last week I prattled on about how it seemed that painting was the only thing I was good at making time for, despite having a bunch of other interests, projects and ideas which required my attention. As great as that is for my painting, it’s not much different than the years I spent devoted to all things pen and ink. Yes, I make some good paintings and a lot of terrible ones, but that doesn’t necessarily get me to where I need to be on other ventures of equal importance. Hence the need to put it into perspective. Oh sorry, Adam McKay, put shit into perspective.

Which strangely enough, is what I did over the weekend, though not that I planned on it, it sort of happened serendipitously. Which is just another way of saying my subconscious bitch-slapped my conscious into focus.

It all started with a list. I don’t really like lists and yet I find them very useful, so I tend to make them if only to delight in their orderly logic, then I go about doing whatever and however I want, the list goes in the trash. This particular list was a comparison of all of the media I tend to use, rating them in 8 categories on a 1-5 point scale. I told you my lists are logical and beautiful. And complicated, especially when you know this was all jotted down on a 2.5x2.5 inch Post-It. I put my thinking cap on and started quantifying things. When I was done, I looked at the data and made a strange realization, of all the things I do and for all the reasons that I do them, painting came in dead last in order of importance. And by a goodly margin as well.

Of course, this is counter-intuitive. Why would the one thing I do the most be the least important. But then it dawned on me, painting is the only thing I’ve ever done that hasn’t become a professional tool. The writing, the inking, the photography, the print making… hell, even my terrible, Off-Broadway debut a long time ago got more attention than my painting. Aside from likes on Twitter, which have the value of a Shrute Dollar, all this painting nonsense has been for me. No offense. So, the real question is why wouldn’t I do more of it? Especially when to do all that other stuff just leads to career issues, judgement, misunderstanding and, dare I say it, work? Whereas painting today, doesn’t feel all that much different than it did when I was young, optimistic, stupid as all get out and relatively happy all of the time.

But painting doesn’t get everything done that I need to get done. That’s not to say I’m throwing in the towel, good god no, but means I need to give more attention to other aspects of my life. And so, almost without difficulty, I began hammering into other things. Then a startling thing happened, I made progress on all those other projects. Substantial progress in very little time. It wasn’t that I had too many things to do and not enough time to do them. No, it was that typical issue, just getting started. Though, I have to say, getting started is a lot easier when you look out the window and the whole horizon is enveloped in a column of thick, black smoke. I was thinking, what, zomb-pocalypse? But then I remembered that I live in New Jersey. If you look closely at our state flag, you’ll see the words “Hey, Is Your State On Fire?” “What, You Think This Is Texas? Shut Your Mouth. Shut. Your. Mouth. Or I Will Punch You On The Seam.”

The Garden State, everybody. Don’t mess with us, we will break you, nothing personal. Anyway, back to getting things done… if I don’t have to evacuate. Stupid zombies. Who taught them how to make fire? What a terrible idea.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Ah, Process.

Between taxes and the new job search, I’ve spent a good many hours wondering just what the hell I’m doing these days. Which is actually pretty funny, because regardless of what I think I’m doing or tell people I’m doing or dreaming about doing, I pretty much end up knocking out a few paintings each day. So, I may complain about writing fine literature or rage against the dying of the publishing industry or kill time online trying to figure out how to build a dark room in four square feet of space, but I do all of it with acrylic paint stuck to my fingers.

For decades, I’ve been stealing Aristotle’s line “You are what you repeatedly do.” When people ask me for advice in their careers, I always make a point to figure out what it is they actually do, since to talk about farfetched dreams and untethered ambition is kind of fruitless. But discussing the stuff they actually do, the real and daily rituals that get things done, well, that’s always leads to something useful.

These days, for me, it’s the painting that happens without effort. Which surprises me, though it shouldn’t considering I’ve been dabbling away with acrylic paints for going on three years. Of course, I don’t recall all of that dabbling. My focus is on the finished products, what I can with them or how I can improve them. I don’t waste a lot of memory storing this wash of paint or that brushstroke. To me, it feels like I just started painting today after a very long hiatus. But the reality is, I’ve been hammering away at painting for decent amount of time. For instance, I’m nine months into my Monday through Friday paintings. That’s well over 200 paintings, just since last August. And that doesn’t include the work I’m doing as illustration and random paintings made as I experiment. Whether I like it or not, any unbiased observer of my life would probably call me a painter.

Compared to the days when I agonized for twelve months just to finish 40 ink drawings, this painting thing we’re talking about is a massive sea change. So much so that I barely grasp what is going on. Which is why even I have to sit down every once and a while to figure out what it is that I repeatedly do. Because sometimes the obvious is hard to see. I usually think I’m doing like a dozen things at once, but the reality is I tend to do one thing with serious gusto while giving cursory attention to those other passions. These days, painting rules the roost.

I figure I’m making about 400 paintings a year. Most of them are terrible and they vanish. Many are for particular projects and aren’t designed to stand alone, which means you haven’t seen them and won’t until I complete said projects. But that still leaves a lot of images to produce. Doing so requires a lot of ideas. For most artists, the process of generating ideas is called sketching.

In the past, I’ve said I’m not one of those artists who is always sketching. I know people like that, always drawing away with their nose in sketchbook… some I respect, others not so much, but that is just not how I work. I figure if I’m fascinated by something I see, you know while wondering from one place to another, I’ll just take a photo of it because it’s so much faster than sketching. Conversely, if I’m so motivated to capture something I come across, then I’ll put more effort into it than simply filling a page in a sketch book. Sketching has always felt like something people put too much effort into considering the basic purpose of a sketch. Which is why, when I do sketch something, it is truly a sketch.

Let me show you what I mean. Here we have two sketches I made while listening to a movie palace organ concert prior to watching a silent film with live organ accompaniment because my social life is freaking awesome. 

Yeah. You don’t look at these two sketches, made on a tablet from some hotel, and think “Ah yes, great art!” Neither do I. And as much as I would have loved to fire up the camera and steal some shots of hot, hot movie palace organ playing, that would’ve been rude to do in the middle of a concert. Instead, I did what I’m wont to do, simply jot down a glimpse of an idea, the barest fragment of thought and tucked it away for future use. Then I ate popcorn.

The funny thing is, if you take the drawings above as my average kind of sketch, then I must admit that it turns out that I sketch quite often and I’ve been horribly wrong when I deny being a sketcher. It’s just that I don’t make sketches you’d ever want to look at. They are tiny, barely decipherable scratches made almost in one breath with the saddest of materials at hand. Most of these sketches end up in the trash at the end of the day, terrible or lame ideas better forgotten than embellished. But a few, like four or five, find a spot on the corner of the desk or in a file or on a dusty shelf, where they will sit until such time as I come across them again, flip through them, attempt to understand what the hell I was trying to capture and then become the rough basis for something cool. Not unlike the two paintings below based on the previous images.

Anyway, while I continue to push my writing career in new directions and stumble along making Art, if I dare call it that, for the first time probably ever, it seems I’ll keep making these modest, quiet paintings from my unloved but strangely necessary sketches. I’m not sure what this work means, but I have a feeling that over time, as more paintings come into being, they will reveal something to me and perhaps to you.

And now, it’s time to get back to what I repeatedly do…