Every so often in artistic circles I come across a debate over which is more important: inspiration or perspiration (otherwise known as effort).
Artists generally side with one of these two phrases:
“I only paint when I’m inspired.”
“I paint whether I feel like it or not.”
While it’s my firm belief that both are necessary to make great art, I believe there is another aspect of the artistic life that is more important than both: Persistence.
Why persistence is so important
Some time ago, I wrote an article called 5 Traits of the Successful Artist. In that article, I wrote the following:
“Persistence is the quality that allows someone to continue doing something or trying to do something even though it is difficult or opposed by other people. You don’t need a more comprehensive definition to see how persistence applies to being an artist.”
Persistence is the opposite of giving up, and it’s necessary to the artist on so many levels. You must have persistence when learning new skills or a new medium. . . because if you give up too soon, you’ll only have half an understanding of the medium and how to use it well.
Persistence is vital when building an art-related business. If success (or sales) don’t happen quickly enough and you give up, you will never be successful.
You also need to be persistent in building a body of quality work, which will take more than two or three pieces. Six is usually considered the minimum and it’s unlikely the first six you do will be your best work. So you need to persist through making as many pieces as it takes to get there! Every great artist throughout history did this: Michelangelo pushed himself to greater and greater heights, Picasso persevered until Cubism was famous, Dali didn’t stop with his first famous Surrealist painting—they all kept on creating in their own style!
And of course, you must persist in creating each piece, because very few pieces come together without difficulty. Some of the best are also some of the most challenging, and persistence is absolutely essential to working through the difficulties and finishing those challenging pieces.
Persistence vs inspiration or natural talent
I absolutely believe that persistence is more important than inspiration. As important as inspiration is, if you lack the persistence to put brush to canvas, pencil to paper, or chisel to stone, you’re left with little more than an idea.
Natural talent is also not as important as persistence. Some of the most talented people in the world end up doing nothing with their talent because they lack the persistence to do the every-day work of creating. Or if they do create, they give up too soon—they fail to push through to the completion of every piece or create in a haphazard manner that prevents the kind of steady improvement necessary to produce success.
That doesn’t mean their art has no value. If all they want to do is paint when they feel like it, that’s perfectly fine. That’s called a hobby, and a lot of people are quite satisfied with art as a hobby.
But if your goal is art as a business, and artwork that generates regular (maybe even steady) income, then you need to be persistent.
5 tips for developing persistence
Since persistence is so important, how do you get it?
I can tell you from personal experience that it’s not the easiest thing in the world to get or maintain. After years as an artist, I still sometimes find myself wallowing in the very strong desire to give up.
The good news is that there are ways to develop persistence. Not all of them will work for every artist, but you should find at least one idea to get you started on the road to becoming a more persistent artist.
1. Establish a routine
Simply put, make a schedule and stick to it.
The best way to do this is to determine when you’re the most creative, then set that time aside for creating. There will be times when you have to forego painting during that time, but for the most part, schedule your studio time, then keep to your schedule just as though you were going to a traditional job.
After all, if you want to be a professional artist, creating IS your job.
2. Set goals
Goals are as important to accomplishment as a destination is to travel. Yes, you can create art—even good art—without setting goals, but you’ll accomplish more and improve faster if you set goals. If nothing else, a goal gives you a target to aim at, and having a target to aim at is just about the best motivator I know of.
3. Have a “learning” attitude
Never tire of learning new things. Whether you learn new skills and methods with your favorite medium or learn a new medium, you need to continue learning. Even learning something outside the world of art is beneficial in keeping your mind active and alert, eager to move forward.
That eagerness will help you take the next step when you want to give up instead.
4. Get outside your comfort zone
You don’t have to give up your favorite medium or subject. Just do something outside your comfort zone once in a while. Trying something new helps you see the familiar in different ways.
Successfully completing a different type of subject (or medium) boosts morale in a way nothing else can. It’s a great antidote for wanting to give up.
You can then take that motivation back to your favorite medium or subject, and apply new lessons to improve your work even more. It’s a lot easier to be persistent when you’re doing well and learning new things.
My favorite subjects are landscapes, so it was a challenge to create this Christmas ornament piece below. But looking back on it, I can see how the persistence I learned there helped me finish another piece that was even more difficult later.
5. Never give up
I include this in almost every piece of advice I give because it’s so important. You can’t give up on things and still be persistent.
That doesn’t mean that you have to finish every single piece you start, but the more of them you finish, the better.
And remember—being persistent is never wasted effort. Even if a piece doesn’t turn out, you’ll always learn something. You’ll always take a step forward. And that ability to persist is what will propel your art forward over the long haul.
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