Are You Committing This Mistake With Your Creative Work?
The counterintuitive approach to producing your best work
During the holidays, whenever I’m in northern California, I visit Madronia Cemetery. My father and maternal grandparents are buried there, and I like to visit and pay my respects.
Madronia is a beautiful cemetery with trees, green lawns, squirrels, birds, and surrounding mountains. Here’s a short iPhone video I took on my last visit:
During one of my visits, strolling the cemetery grounds, I discovered the gravestone of the late painter, Thomas Kinkade.
Known as the “Painter of Light,” Thomas Kinkade made a fortune painting romanticized cottages and landscapes in garish colors. Kinkade produced quality prints of his paintings, many of which were highlighted with oil paint by hired assistants.
The prints were sold as investment collectibles, but buyers grew dissatisfied when more and more prints flooded the market.
Despite his financial success, Kinkade never won the admiration or respect of many professional artists. They found his work treacly and commercial.
Others knew his work was derivative. He admired Albert Bierstadt and Norman Rockwell, and borrowed heavily from Western painter G. Harvey.
Here is a painting by the late Thomas Kinkade:
For contrast, here’s a painting by G. Harvey:
Most artists are influenced by other artists. The trick is to keep developing until your original voice emerges. While Thomas Kinkade was an adept painter, his success had more to do with savvy marketing.
Before his death, Kinkade struggled with alcoholism, eventually passing away at 54 years old from an alcohol/valium overdose.
Some have speculated that Kinkade was hurt by the lack of respect from other professional artists and critics. Perhaps he became trapped in his stylized genre and his authentic, mature voice never arrived.
Kinkade’s art was a kind of romanticized kitsch that he produced for a growing market. It made him wealthy, but did he languish with a sense of artistic frustration? Was he led by the market rather than his creative heart?
Walking down the street naked
It’s difficult to dig deep, discover who you really are, and unapologetically share yourself with the world.
We often succumb to our insecurities, fall in line with the expectations of others, and fail to unleash our true selves. It’s easier to emulate others than risk sharing our own authenticity.
The problem is that we can’t lie to ourselves. Sooner or later, the person we want to be, and the work we want to create, yearns for release.
As an artist and writer, I’ve emulated others I admire. But aping your heroes only gets you so far. At some point, you have to develop your own voice. And that means having the courage to be vulnerable. The strength to share your authentic self and creative work with the world.
“If you’re going to write… you have to be willing to do the equivalent of walking down the street naked. You have to be able to show too much of yourself. You have to be just a little bit more honest than you’re comfortable with.” -Neil Gaiman
When I first started painting landscapes, I used to buy art magazines and study what other artists were doing. Out on location, I tried to produce work similar to what I saw in the magazines.
Over time, my work improved, but I was dissatisfied. My paintings looked like everyone else’s artwork. In fact, I began noticing that much of the artwork in the fine art magazines looked similar.
The most interesting artists, the ones who stood out to me, were unique and original. Their work was not only high quality but didn’t look like everyone else’s. Clearly, they found their authentic, creative voices.
While a lot of aspiring artists second guess the market and produce work they think will sell, authentic artists create work for themselves. By embracing their deepest creative visions, the work they produce is fresher and often cutting edge.
“It’s terribly dangerous for an artist to fulfill other peoples’ expectations. They produce their worst work when they do that.” — David Bowie
Go a little bit out of your depth
A good example of an artist who followed his own creative vision was the music icon, David Bowie.
The legendary rockstar vacillated between being a flamboyant glam and stereotypical masculine attributes. He mesmerized audiences with his alter ego, Ziggy Stardust. Beyond his talent for singing and dancing, he stood out because he followed his own heart.
“If you feel safe in the area that you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth, and when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.” — David Bowie
Here’s a short clip of David Bowie explaining why you should never play to the gallery.
The tyranny of other people’s expectations
Most kids grow up seeking the love and approval of their parents. They do as they are told and bask in their parents’ approval.
In youth, we rely on the direction of loved ones and teachers in order to grow and develop skills. We mimic our heroes and try to fit in. The need to be liked is particularly strong during the adolescent years.
Even in adulthood, insecurity, and our desire for inclusion often prevent us from exploring possibilities. We lean toward following expectations rather than stepping outside our comfort zones and trying new things.
One of the biggest mistakes you can make with your creative work is to worry about other people’s expectations.
The tyranny of other people’s expectations is that they prevent you from finding your authentic, creative voice.
An audience of one
Not long ago, I had the pleasure of appearing on the popular podcast the Unmistakable Creative. I was interviewed by the founder, Srinivas Rao, who wrote an excellent book titled, “An Audience of One- Reclaiming Creativity for Its Own Sake.”
A description of Rao’s book on Amazon notes:
“The creator of the Unmistakable Creative podcast makes a counterintuitive argument: By focusing your creative work on pleasing yourself, you can increase your productivity, happiness, and (eventually, paradoxically) the size of your audience.”
Rao’s book offers some of the following observations and concepts:
-How Oprah’s intentional focus on her own work rather than the opinions of everyone else catapulted her into one of the most popular talk shows of all time.
-How being process-driven can not only help you produce more work but can make you happier outside of your creative time.
-How to put together a creative “team of rivals” whose feedback can help you hone your craft and filter out useless feedback.
Focusing on the extrinsic (market trends, popularity, analytics) keeps you from achieving deep work with the intrinsic (authenticity, personal satisfaction, creative work).
Making time for deep work, where you’re not distracted by people and devices, is key to producing your best work. Each effort, over time, builds toward greater success.
As Rao notes in his book:
“Every day we make progress in really small ways, but we have a tendency to overlook minor accomplishments because we’re so obsessed with major ones.”
I do my thing and you do your thing
Teachers, mentors, and heroes will only take you so far. Trying to play to the market or please others won’t free you to produce the work that longs to be expressed.
“I do my thing and you do your thing.
I am not in this world to live up to your expectations,
And you are not in this world to live up to mine.
You are you, and I am I, and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.
If not, it can’t be helped.” — Frederick S. Perls
It’s unknown whether Thomas Kinkade was truly fulfilled with the romanticized paintings he produced. It’s interesting to note that, for about six years, he experimented with an alternative style under the brush name Robert Girrard.
Kinkade’s “Robert Girrard” paintings experimented with heavier brush strokes and broken color reminiscent of the French impressionists. I find these paintings looser and more appealing than his glowing cottages, which often slook like they’re on fire inside.
Had Kinkade pursued his artistic experimentation further, who knows where his work might have taken him. Perhaps he would have been happier?
In contrast, David Bowie fully embraced experimentation and followed his artistic impulses with little regard for commercial outcomes. As a result, his unique, one of a kind, originality made him a music icon.
If you’re frustrated with your own creative work, stop playing to the market or worrying about the expectations of others.
Work hard to develop serious skills, practice relentlessly, ignore outside expectations, reach deep inside yourself and listen to that authentic voice.
Who knows, you might become the next rock star in your creative field of work.
Before you go
I’m John P. Weiss. I draw cartoons, paint landscapes and write about life. Get my free newsletter here.