The Most Important Thing For Artists

Nancy Hillis
May 9, 2018 · 3 min read
One thing important thing for artists
One thing important thing for artists

I was recently on a call with an author in Scotland and we got to talking about creating art. An interesting discussion ensued that I’d like to share with you.

We explored a premise for my upcoming book Bold Strokes about the inner journey of creating art:

What if the most important thing you must do to fulfill your destiny as an artist is to first conquer yourself?

And I’m not posing this question just because I’m an existential psychiatrist.

Let this question sink in for a moment.

Perhaps a crucial part of being an artist is grappling with the struggles that creating brings up.

Facing the dark night of the soul of self doubt in the middle of the painting is something you experience ad infinitum and yet you continue your journey into the terra incognito, the unknown territory of your creations.

Meanwhile, you could be seduced by the call of the Sirens beseeching you to paint what’s worked before, what’s sold or what the gallerists want from you. And you could settle for the slippery slope of repeating yourself in your art…

But you know that the moment you become complacent, the moment you give up the fight, is the moment you’re no longer seeking your deepest truth, your most authentic expression in your art.

Said another way, to give up the fight is to settle for no longer searching to express you in your art, but rather settling for the easy, low hanging fruit of the tried and true.

In art, one way this shows up is creating formulaic paintings and repeating yourself. You wager on achieving a “successful” painting by lowering your risk of an “ugly” one emerging, but in so doing you increase your odds of boring yourself with predictable art.

A Thought Experiment

Albert Einstein popularized the notion of thought experiments when he explored hypothetically riding in a train at the speed of light.

Thought experiments are hypotheses posed in your mind to explore the potential consequences of the principle in question. In philosophy, they’ve been around since classical antiquity, pre-dating Socrates.

Here’s a thought experiment for you:

On your death bed, which scenario will bring a smile to your face? The safe paintings or the audacious, risky ones?

Do you want to bite into life? Bite into your art?

Or do you want to be gummed to death?

Better to sink your teeth into your paintings, wrestle them down to the ground and leave some of them raw and “unfinished”.

The Lessons

Great literature teaches us these lessons. In the Bible, Jacob was constantly wrestling with the angel by the river. In The Odyssey, Odysseus’ men lashed him to the mast so he wouldn’t mindlessly succumb to the seductions of the Sirens. In The Divine Comedy, Dante journeyed the depths of hell in search of himself, God and love.

I feel that Dante was ultimately asking the question: Who am I?

I feel that as artists we’re asking this existential question too.

And here’s what I believe:

The transformation of creating your deepest art lives at the edge of your struggle

So the question is:

Will you allow yourself to experiment?

Or will you play it safe and stay on the surface?

Feel the tension between playing it safe versus letting loose with bold strokes or unfamiliar moves.

Notice the feelings that arise when you take risks with your painting, feelings such as uneasiness, frustration or impatience.

Do you quickly retreat to familiar territory (the usual compositions, colors, marks) when this happens?

Do you echo paintings that have gained approval but no longer excite you?

As artists, remember this:

Playing it safe means keeping yourself small and staying on the surface in order to be “acceptable”. Doing this, you unwittingly rob yourself of what’s inside, of the chance to go deeper in your art.

Will you allow yourself to make the invisible visible? To bring forth and express the wondrous, ineffable mystery that lives inside you?

Will you create your deepest, most meaningful work?

Comment below and let me know.

​Much love from my studio to yours,


P.S. These are the kinds of questions we explore in Studio Journey. Go HERE to learn more.

Originally published at Nancy Hillis.