One Thing That’s Absolutely Vital to Being a Successful Artist

By Carrie Lewis in Art Business Advice > General Art Advice

I recently took a short writing class: three sessions in a little over a week. No pressure, right? The class was designed to help writers get unstuck with their writing.

Overall, it was quite helpful, but not because of the assignments. The most helpful thing was something the instructor said in the first class. Apparently it doesn’t take talent to write a book. Nor does it take passion or a lot of time to write a book.

What does it take?

“Ruthless focus.”

What? No talent? No passion? No time?

I know what you’re thinking. Probably the same thing I thought when I first heard that statement. It does take talent to write a book. It takes passion, too. Every writing instructor says so.

And time? I’ve been writing fiction and nonfiction long enough to know it takes an awful long time to write a book. I’ve been working on one story off and on (mostly off, I think) for twenty years or more! That’s a lot of time.

But then I got to thinking about it, and you know what? The instructor was right.

We’ve all read books written by people who didn’t seem to have much talent (or skill). Be honest. If you read at all, I know you’ve read “badly written stuff.”

I’ve heard of authors whose method of writing is to just sit down and start writing. They write with the same attitude a retail clerk might approach her job. Or a factory worker. It’s what they do and nothing more. Passion? Forget it!

And time. . . If I were to add up all the time I actually spent writing that story that’s been in the works for 20 years, how many hours would it all add up to?

Probably not that many.

What’s that got to do with art?

Everything I just said about writing can also be said about art.

Most of us tend to believe that talent, passion, or time (or all three) are the things that set a successful and prolific artist apart from other artists. Right?

But is that really true?

There are too many works of art that were just “ground out” by an artist who didn’t have white-hot passion for either the subject or the process. Talent doesn’t seem to be all that important in most artistic disciplines, either. Too many pieces of art sell well or are popular, yet appear to contradict the talent theory.

And as for time. . . I know from personal experience that it may take six to eight weeks to finish a large portrait in colored pencil, but only about 70 hours of work. Less than one full work week.

So what’s left?

Focus. Or according the writing class instructor, ruthless focus.

No one gets very far without focus. Writing a book has never been easy. There are just too many distractions; things that would be more fun or easier or take less time. Even when things are going well, there’s always something else tugging at the writer’s attention. When the going gets tough—as it always will—the distractions become more attractive

The same is true for art and artists.

Focus is what keeps you working on that painting, drawing, sculpture, or whatever when something else looks better, easier, faster, more exciting. So. The obvious question is, how do you develop this all-important quality?

How to develop focus

The first thing to realize is that it doesn’t come easy. If you’re looking for a quick fix, sorry. There isn’t one. And you won’t be able to make this decision once and be done with it. Nope.

You’ll have to decide to stay focused over and over and over again. Sometimes in the same day.

Which leads me to this: one important key to developing focus is the ability to say “no”.

• No to external influences.
• No to internal influences.
• No to the desire to quit.

Breaks are okay. In fact I highly recommend them, but to develop focus, you need to have the discipline to keep your breaks short and then go back to work when the break is over. No wandering to another activity that ends up taking you completely off course.

Things that help enhance focus

Due dates. We’re artists. We hate—or at least strongly dislike—deadlines. But they are necessary for a lot of us. Think of a deadline (I prefer the word due date) as the tape marking the finish line in a marathon. It’s the signal that you’ve reached the goal. You’re finished.

If you have a due date, you have something to aim at. When you have something as tangible as a target, it’s easier to say no to distractions. Especially as the due date draws ever closer.

A distraction-free zone. Make your studio strictly your studio. Even if it’s just a corner of the living room, do everything in your power to minimize distractions. If possible, isolate that area physically.

Things you can’t see—like the dishes stacked in the sink or the laundry waiting to be washed or the computer (and all that social media!)—are less likely to become distractions if they’re out of sight. Which means turn off your phone! No Facebook. No Twitter. No Pinterest.

Nothing but making art during the time you’re supposed to be making art.

Work in short sessions. If you’re like me, your peak concentration level is between 30 minutes and a couple of hours. Don’t push yourself beyond that length of time without taking a break.

I like to work in 20- or 30-minute segments because it’s a lot easier to set aside distractions and focus on work if I know in advance that I don’t have to work for a long time. You can get a lot more done in three or four short sessions every day than in one or two long sessions every week or so.

If you can work longer, great! Do it. But find your optimum creativity window and make use of it.

In the long run, I believe discipline and focus contributes a lot more to finishing art and to becoming a successful artist than talent (or time, or passion). If you have the discipline to practice your art no matter the costs, you will reach your goals.

It’s as simple as that.


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