When I first started making art professionally I thought it was the commission process that was causing me to dread creating. While I loved and desperately needed the support I got from friends and family during that time, the hours of tedious labor I spent on projects made me dread success.
Once I had closed commissions and started making my own projects, I thought it was the self-training that was causing me to literally hate making art. I had an extensive self-imposed curriculum of drawing exercises, art books, and assignments that I felt I needed to complete in order to call myself a professional. I thought if I wasn’t going to take requests from others, I needed to bring value in skill in order to be worthy of payment.
Then, somewhere between the waves of self-improvement and self-flagellation, I made a personal project that was meant for no one but me. I painted a mural on my apartment wall, it was a fun experience and a cool idea so I casually posted it to TikTok and boom - 2.8 million views.
Don’t misunderstand, I am so grateful for the momentum that attention gave me. It pushed me to open a website, start selling stencils, and take social media more seriously as a way to connect with people. It was repeating that success that would prove to be tricky.
I needed more products, a brand, a mission statement, and most importantly: another hit idea. I started time blocking, assigning myself performance quotas and impossible deadlines. The pressure to pretend I was more than I am, an artist just getting started, was suffocating me.
Rediscovering the spark.
So to my surprise, it was one afternoon while hanging with friends that I slipped effortlessly into the flow state as I doodled half-mindedly in my sketchbook. I bought a new set of pens and I wanted to test them out, so I clicked and unclicked random caps and scribbled nonsense. It was then I felt something I had not in a long while, simply having fun playing with art supplies, a unanimous joy amongst artists.
So days later, as I sat in front of a big blank sheet of paper, I flipped open my sketchbook to find that silly little doodle, but now it meant something to me. It symbolized the carefree joy of making something that looks cool without it needing to be more than it was. It reminded me of why I wanted to do this in the first place: because it was fun.
Adults need more playtime.
I’m a big Brené Brown fan, and her research on the importance of play in The Power of Vulnerability resonated with me. Especially once I reconnected with play after college as a young adult, and felt the effects of play on my mental health. Brown's research supports that regular rest and play strengthen connections in relationships, boost creativity, help reduce stress, and encourage mindfulness. Adults who engage in regular play are more satisfied and fulfilled, leading to joyful well-being.
For an artist, creating art is often our first and most familiar form of play, which is why monetizing our art poses a risk to our mental health. When playtime becomes a talent, becomes a hobby, then a skill, the next step is to capitalize on it. This is where I fumbled as a professional artist, and this is what I am desperately trying to warn you against: don’t turn your playtime into a job, make it your job to play more.
You need to protect the core reason for making your art and allow yourself to enjoy it. Be able to lose yourself in the process, get into that flow state and have fun. I personally believe this is also where artists derive their true voice, as you are able to create from a place of instinct and communicate self-expression honestly.
I denied myself fun until I found self-worth.
I have the ability to recreate an image very accurately through drawing or painting. I have a strong grasp on proportions, shading, form, etc. but mainly I have the devastating power to see how my art looks wrong. For example, I can spend 2 hours perfectly sketching a hand only to take a step back, see my proportions were off, and be compelled to restart.
I may have impressed a client when I successfully recreated their pup as a painting; but it wasn’t without hours of self-criticism, correction, and eventual defeat after I concede that I will never be as accurate as the reference photo. (Seriously, If you’ve bought from me in the past, I have unfinished copies of your commission that weren’t good enough.)
I forced my work toward styles that I admired in other artists I follow on social media. I resentfully built my art stroke by stroke, taking me 5 times longer and always turning out less than my expectations. I was so frustrated by this, I asked myself “How could this be profitable for anyone? How could this be enjoyable when it takes me 30 hours to make one painting and it doesn’t even look good?”
Finally, I realized I’m taking 30 hours not to make my art, but to bastardize someone else's artistic style into my work. The problem I had with my early paintings was not that they looked bad, it’s that they didn’t look like the original creator I was trying to replicate made them.
Well then, what does my art look like?
What I began to ask of myself and my work was not to try so hard to be good, but to try to be true to myself. I need to be open to the art that comes through me when I’m getting lost in it. I need to accept that maybe my voice, my style, doesn’t look like the work that comes from my favorite artist, and that’s the point.
Every person has a unique experience of reality to share, and bringing something authentic and new to the table is freeing but scary. My art will connect with some people the way I connect with the artists I admire. The problem I’ve butted against is that the work I make when I’m having fun doesn’t impress me. I don’t think it’s worthy of admiration, and therein lies the root of my problem: self-worth.
It’s hard to admire something that you’re constantly trying to improve, that you take for granted, that you see every day and live in. Similar to admiring the beauty and power in your own body, admiring and finding value in your own art is hard.
Maybe my style looks like scribbly doodles in bright colors. Maybe my figures are disproportionate and expressive, or maybe I only paint male genitalia … but I need to start appreciating my work as an act of self-love. It took thirty years of being and creating to get me to this point, even if it has no purpose other than “to look cool” anything I make has value.
How I got back into the fun zone and how I stay in it:
It takes practice, similar to meditation, to keep yourself in the “fun zone” of making art. The flow state can’t really be forced but here are some ways I encourage myself toward it.
My first tip is to stop making art that you care about. I still think it’s ridiculous that I learned this lesson originally by making TikTok videos. I caught myself having fun spending hours filming these little transition videos of my paintings and posting them with music. I had no followers at the time and didn’t really care about how the videos looked because it was really only going to be seen by me and a few friends anyway.
Even though that has since changed, making those videos shook me out of the mindset I had toward making art and the pressure I put on myself. Now I do other things like decorate rooms in virtual reality, play my steel drum to make bad music, write short stories that are not meant to be finished, etc. Carefree creating helps me be authentic on the projects that I really do care about and helps me loosen up and get into the flow state.
My second tip is to make a lot of art as quickly as possible. This is a more intentional exercise for when I’m feeling frustrated. I’ll grab a big stack of cheap printer paper and a fun set of tools, like inexpensive felt markers, and set a timer to make one new sketch every 5-10 minutes for an hour. The purpose is to get into a creative flow state, not to brainstorm, not to save the sketches for anything later on, but simply doodle without purpose. Now if one of those sketches actually is pretty sick... I mean who's to say we don’t save one… ;)
The third tip is the most intense but I like to do a screen cleanse. Meaning I'll pick an afternoon, or a weekend if I’m feeling frisky, and disconnect from technology. This means no computer, unplugging the TV, and limiting my phone usage to audio-only. Try to spend a day drawing or painting without a reference photo, without the TV on in the background, without the ability to double-tap-undo on the iPad, and with no plans but to listen to music and paint – add in a glass of whiskey and honey you’re making ART.
Balance, Maintenance, Reminders, and Goals.
Trying to make a career out of making art is the most challenging thing I’ve attempted thus far. The more I explore this career path the more I learn about balance in my life and business.
I try to do things on the business side to support the artist's role and have created a barrier around that role to protect it from the brutal side of capitalism.
Maintaining joy in my work is ultimately what keeps me motivated to continue. If I can remember to be authentic and trust that what I make won't connect with everyone, but the ones I do connect with will be cherished knowing that it was my voice they heard and responded to.
In the wake of these revelations, I created Don’t Forget to Have Fun as a reminder to myself and a celebration of what’s to come. I hope to write more reflections on my process for those other artists out there or curious readers who might be enduring similar struggles in their creative journey.