The need to produce our creative work under pressure from deadlines and other expectations is a common situation for artists. This basic idea can seem so wrong—shouldn’t our art be created in our own time, free from outside influence? There are many challenges and pitfalls involved, and we may resent the entire situation. Yet for anyone pursuing art as a serious endeavor, avoiding pressure is simply unrealistic. Today we'll talk about some practical solutions to coping with deadlines and expectations.
I’ve been thinking about this ideal world in which we don’t have deadlines and expectations hovering around us and about the fact that probably this has never in all of art history existed for artists. There have always been pressures and demands on us from society at large--economic, personal, even spiritual.
Why do we even have the idea that outside expectations are impositions on our creativity?
We accept them from ourselves --yet even these are influenced by the outside world as we try to position ourselves (in terms of galleries, exposure, or whatever form success takes for us.)
Topic important to right now= I have solo exhibit opening at Addington Gallery in Chicago in about 5 weeks-- need to produce a lot of work in a relatively short time.
I said yes to a solo show knowing I would come back from Greece and be in crunch time.
Moments of panic but overall, I find it an exciting challenge. Not always this way—it comes with confidence, with knowing my strengths and weaknesses in the studio, having certain strategies. But it wasn’t always something I was comfortable with. It’s a skill that takes practice, like any other.
So let’s start from the position that these expectations and pressures are the way it is.
How to approach them to stay balanced and on track?
Challenges of Deadlines/Expectations
Lots of well-known guidelines for dealing with deadlines for business tasks etc. online, BUT harder to apply them to your painting or other creative work.
You cannot delegate most tasks
Often advised to break the project down into small steps, but that may not apply (other than maybe working on a number of paintings at once.)
You can set mini-goals within the project but creative process may not be linear enough for that to work.
Your end goal may not as clear as it would be in other businesses. Basically you are doing something to advance your work whether an exhibit, commission, publicity event, etc. but specific end result may need to evolve.
So we have to look at some different strategies that work for creative processes:
What are the challenges specific to working creatively under outside or inner expectations?
Give yourself extra time—imagine the deadline is actually sooner than it is. May seem counter intuitive=more pressure—but it’s just a mental adjustment that can give you some wiggle room and more time to evaluate the final work when it’s done.
You’re not just rushing to a finish line, you want time to evaluate what you have done.
Timeline: Use a rough timeline that allows the project to be done in time BUT honor the creative process—it is seldom straightforward
Allow the scope of the idea to change—you may want to edit out some work for a show, or have a smaller selection when applying for a gallery for example. Giving yourself some flexibility is relaxing.
Be flexible if deadlines are ones you set for yourself. These are personal goals and that’s important but if it is really not working out it’s not worth the stress.
Consider if your life situation has changed since you set the expectation. A friend who was clinging to a self-imposed expectation for her work even though she had been through a major traumatic period in her life. It was simply adding more stress to a difficult time.
Be clear about studio time, make sure others respect it, limit distractions,
Push a little harder each day than you normally would at the beginning to gain momentum. Work that is underway is easier to engage with than blank panels.
Use ways to enhance drying time of oil paintings such as fans, dehumidifiers, alkyd paints
Work on multiple pieces at once so there is always something to do
If possible engage help for more mechanical aspects of the task—prepping, gessoing, putting on hardware.
Pace yourself :
If a particular painting is esp. hard, set it aside rather than obsessing over it/spending too much time on it
Recognize burnout/exhaustion—accept that you will need some down time--keep up some social life and family time
Periodically look at the overall project, sit and look, see the progress you’re making
Be open to working a little differently to meet the demands of the deadline—for example using small studies as references rather than working with a completely intuitive/searching approach, working with a theme to provide focus
Gain confidence from your own history of meeting expectations:
Personal story--Pivotal situation about 5 years ago—potential came up for a large commission for MD Anderson Cancer Center—5 big paintings to be based on specific smaller past works of mine. Very tight schedule at the time but knew it was a huge opportunity.
Strategized—ordered the panels before knowing if I would get final approval; put down initial layers in a time when I was home. In between a teaching gig and a residency in Ireland I had about 2 weeks in which I painted like crazy. I was nervous but very focused. When I got back from Ireland there were just a few minor tweaks and they were done by the deadline.
I learned that I could do that, I could pull it off. Everybody was happy with the results. Ever since I remember that time when I feel nervous.
Do you have a successful story to reassure yourself? Doesn’t have to be art-related. Times when you had to juggle a lot of things as a parent or at work?
Wrap-Up: rather than resist or resent the idea of deadlines and expectations, accept that they will always be part of your world if art is a serious pursuit. Dealing with them gets much easier with experience so if you’re avoiding opportunities out of fears and resistance it may be time to jump in and hopefully these ideas will help make it a positive experience.