Freedom vs. Self Discipline: The Professional Artist’s Struggle

By Lori Woodward Simons in Art Business Advice > Motivation

Last March, I wrote down in my journal with all caps—"EACH DAY I MUST DO SOMETHING, NO MATTER HOW SMALL, TO MOVE AHEAD WITH MY ART."

But as many of you surely know, even an open-ended goal like that can be difficult to follow through with on a daily basis.

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Why is it, I wonder, that I don’t have to put any effort into establishing bad habits, but gearing up for good habits takes every ounce of self-control I can muster up?

Being self-employed is a test of self-discipline too.

As an artist, I have maximum freedom and flexibility with when and how I work, and this is one of the things that makes being a professional artist a joy. At the same time, this freedom creates a war within me. . . because the daily struggle to choose the right thing to do for the advancement of my artwork is VERY REAL.

When I worked for someone else, I didn’t need much self-discipline because they were arranging my schedule and tasks. I either did what I was supposed to do or I’d be fired.

In contrast, as an artist, I’ve mistakenly believed the lie that I can goof off and still succeed. But nothing is further from the truth, and although wasting time doesn’t seem to cause any immediate pain, it’s a sure recipe for disaster. (And in my situation, because I have a spouse who makes the bulk of the household income, there isn’t even a monetary incentive to feed myself or pay bills.)

I’ve slowly come to realize that if I am to succeed and produce lots of incredible artwork—thereby making a living at it—I’m going to need to develop a great deal of self-discipline in order to overcome my natural inclination to treat my life as a vacation.

But if self-discipline is lacking, fear works just as well.

In order to establish good working habits, the reality of failure needs to be extremely real and imminent. I need to scare myself into a regimented schedule—just as though I were working for someone else.

Early in my work career, I supervised a group of 8 software testers, and my ability to get serious with them surprised me—as I intensely dislike conflict. Today, I am again using that pushy person inside of me to pressure myself into superb performance.

Here’s what I do—it’s simple, but I think it will work for me: I make a list of all the bad things that will happen in the near future if I fail to practice good work habits.

The first and most obvious item on my list is that I will lose self-confidence in my own artistic ability the longer I delay working at the easel. This is a totally bad situation.

Secondly, if I shirk my daily schedule I will never have paintings ready for the opportunities that crop up—and they do crop up when I least expect it!

Thirdly, and most importantly, by not painting I waste my abilities and fail to touch others through my art. Potential works I could have made will never exist for anyone to enjoy—and that goal, above all others I must not lose sight of.

My reason for making beautiful artwork is to contribute to moments of beauty and joy for myself and others. I know that not all artists will have this as their goal, but that’s the goal for my work.

Folks who are not artists may think it’s an easy life; but because we have so much freedom, it can actually be a difficult life to manage. Even so, I would not chose any other career. . . it truly can be a labor of love, and will become that for me as I establish better working habits for myself.

To read more articles by Lori Woodward Simons, please visit her art blog.

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