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Forget inspiration. Get on with the work

Thomas Edison famously claimed that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, but do we act like it might be true?
We’re sold a romantic idea that artists – I’m writing about painters, sculptors, poets and so on, but feel free to extrapolate this in any direction – are special and won’t (or can’t) work unless they’re inspired. I have absolutely no idea what that means. It’s nonsense.
I’ll let you in on a secret: Art, like anything of value, comes mostly from work. Put some hours in and you’ll see results. I started writing this piece on a train with a quote from an inventor, not because I was inspired but because I needed to start somewhere. In drawing terms, I had to make a mark. As I write these lines, I don’t know exactly how it’s going to unfold. (I originally thought the inspiration/perspiration quote was by a golfer, too, but checked online and had to change it. By making something, I had to learn something). What’s exciting is that the resulting piece won’t be the result I was expecting.
Quantity doesn’t guarantee quality, but lack of quantity guarantees a lack of quality.
There are loads of Picasso museums. Visit any of them and you’ll see evidence that the man spent hours trying things out, pushing ideas around on paper, finding out how lines worked and interacted and so on. Look at any collection of his sketchbooks and you’ll see that he tried and forgot more than we’ll ever know.
Another example: Chas Chandler, Jimi Hendrix’s manager, said that Hendrix wore a guitar round his neck all day. He made breakfast with it on, took it to parties, went to the toilet with it on (for the echo), and so on. You don’t, he pointed out, get that good by accident.
So how does this translate to OCA student work? No need for translation; it’s exactly the same. You might not be Picasso or Hendrix (or Thomas Edison), but you should be trying things out and pushing yourself into areas that it’s possible you hadn’t heard of a year ago. Working as often as possible, even when you don’t feel like it, makes a huge difference.
Yet another example: Michelangelo can’t have been inspired the whole time he was painting the Sistine Chapel. Mostly he was getting on with the job in hand: drawing, painting, solving problems and so on. Sure, there’s an extraordinary talent at work, but on a cold Tuesday morning I bet he climbed up the rickety scaffold, looked across at the vast expanse of unpainted ceiling, sighed, and got on with it. People don’t travel to Rome to see his idea, they go to see (the result of) his work.
This blog entry, therefore, is simply a plea for labour. It’s not necessarily like processing invoices, or making presentations, but it does require application. When you think six preparatory sketches are enough to establish a viewpoint, do six more and something new will start to happen. Make portrait sketches of every single person in your entire family, not just of your partner. Take a simple idea and stretch it to breaking point. Don’t worry about originality or making art as that’s beyond your control.
What is to be done?
Artist Ed Ruscha produced a book in 1966 called Every Building on the Sunset Strip. It contained of a photograph of every, well, you can guess the rest. It would have had no value if he’d sloped off half way moaning about feeling uninspired. It’s the thing he made by accumulating lots of small acts that mattered, and he never looked back.
So, set yourself a task and complete it and you’ll always have something to do. No need for inspiration now and you’ll have made a yardstick by which to measure your progress. (Of course, it’s crucial to reflect on what you’re doing, too.)
For example, place three differently shaped vases in a row and draw them, taking care to get the negative space right. Now do the same with every possible permutation of those three things. That’s six drawings right there. Make it five objects and suddenly you’ve got 120 drawings. Giorgio Morandi did something akin to this for the better part of his working life. Your final drawing will, I guarantee, not look like the first one. You’ll have learned something but it’s impossible for me, or you, to predict what.
Marcel Duchamp called this discrepancy between what you think you’re making and what you end up with as ‘the art coefficient’. It works something like this: an artist sets out to make a piece of work. Due to difficulty, clumsiness, budgets, lack of time, budget restrictions etc., it doesn’t quite come out quite as planned. That gap, between what was planned and what happened, is where the art coefficient works, which is another way of saying that it’s there that art happens. The point to take from this isn’t that the artist gives up control, but that the artist must be working for anything to happen.
Picasso would have agreed, saying said that he believed in inspiration, but that it ‘had to find you working’.

Posted by author: Bryan
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29 thoughts on “Forget inspiration. Get on with the work

  • Nice little morale booster – thank you! I find the Picasso quote particularly memorable, as well as the reference to Morandi whose work I have always been very keen on. Since I am still on the war path with my sketchbook on and off, this blog entry has just come at the right time.

  • All that is said is true …. but there comes a point when you have to decide the **** thing is finished, no more tweaking – its done, complete and one needs to move on….

    • But I’m arguing for lots of work spread across lots of works, not all poured into one thing. I’ve never really understood the discussions around ‘how do you know it’s finished?’. It seems straight forward: when it works.

  • Thanks for reading it. I hope it’s clear that I don’t want to overlook the possibility if inspiration, but rather that I’m asserting how important all the ground work is. Research is a word used a lot in contemporary art circles these days, and it places enquiry and reflection front and centre, as it were.
    I know that we have all met people who we might call ‘gifted’ or ‘talented’ but often their ease or fluency masks a lot hard work. Concert pianists do practice their scales. By considering oneself as an artist (however tenuously), one ought to have too much to do. not much of it is related to some fairy story about inspiration.

  • Thank you for breaking that wretched spell! I waste so much time thinking ideas,plans+works through in my head without ever putting pencil to paper sometimes,like its some kind of acedemic or philosophical process,and it is just not. I expend so much energy working it through in my head,trying to find what it is I’m learning,what it is I’m looking for. No wonder I get nowhere. The learning is in the act,not in the thought of the act. Thank you Bryan.

    • I’m currently researching a practice-led PhD and there;s a string case for understanding engaged, intelligent doing as a kind of thinking.
      If you can get hold of it, it’s worth reading David Pye’s ‘Nature abnd Art of Workmanship’. Pye was a lecturer in Furniture Design in the late sixties and wrote a couple of books about how important material engagement was and – I’m paraphrasing for my own purposes – that it’s by negotiating with the material that we learn. He’s talking about working with wood (carving and carpentry), but the lesson stands for anything really. We don’t learn to drive in theory. We don’t learn to swim in theory. Whole rafts of knowledge are enoded in activity.

  • Good article for all of us. We have some Photography Tutors who regularly recite this mantra to us: ‘Get out there and take some photos’. So, will have to do as you say!

  • This is a brilliantly apt article, thank you for writing this Bryan. I am exactly the same as Rachel, above, my learning style is that I prefer to think and reflect rather than feel or do which leads to hundreds of ideas, lots of wasted energy and not much to show for it! It’s interesting that when I do actually make a start and put pen or brush to paper things never turn out how I anticipated. This serves as a great reminder and prompt that I need to stop thinking so much and just get on and start doing! Thanks for the great advice!

  • Often, when you start working on the easy bits you gradually warm up and become inspired! It’s about putting yourself in the right zone to be receptive. It’s also a little bit about making a mark on that blank sheet of paper …
    Coming from a craft background I consider art like an apprenticeship – it would be 7 years of 35 hour days before you would become a master. Your skills will evolve, and as the basics become automatic, you will be able to explore further.

    • I know some of is work really hard but 35hrs/day :). This ties in with the rule that you need to spend about 10 000 hours to become an expert. i.e 35hrs/week for 7 years. Not too encouraging for those of us that are ‘over the hill’, we may never become experts. Of course we can all enjoy the journey.

  • I’m going to print multiple copies of this and put one in every sketchbook and several in strategic places around the house and workshop as a reminder. When I’m sitting there looking at yet another bowl of carefully arranged, “sketchworthy” apples in despair (friends on FB will know my thoughts on apples!) I shall try to look at them in a new (more positive) light! Thanks for a great article 🙂

    • Debbie. I’m flattered. On a slightly different tack, it’s important – really important – to notice the world as it is and to not spend ages arranging apples. Look around and draw what’s already there, rather than something that isn’t. How about this: Draw ‘close-ups’ of every corner of the room you’re in now. Some will be dull (the ones by the ceiling, perhaps), some will be inaccessible (behind a desk), but draw them anyway. Negotiate with the page and your materials to find a solution. In the room I’m in as I type this, that would make fourteen drawings, counting the window.
      I have a blog where I post a daily drawing of an over-looked part of an art gallery (it might be a corner or a seat or light switch, etc.), you might be interested in.
      I wrote about it in an earlier blog. I’ll be shows all 365 drawings in the New Year at Bank Street Arts in Sheffield and it’s possible that there’ll be an OCA trip organised to see it.

      • Interesting – my reaction is that you have inspired many people with your comments! I myself have also been inspired and am going to draw a ‘close-up’ each day of a different corner of my main room which is kitchen/diner/lounge and has too many corners to count! I did a similar thing in my hall as part of Drawing1 but not close-ups. This is much more interesting – can’t wait to get going!!

  • Hi Bryan
    Your article has come at just the right moment. My 15 year old son has just started his final GCSE year. He has chosen several creative options and often finds reason after reason for not focusing on the work he has to do (too boring, not inspiring, not relevant to him/real life, etc. etc.). This has caused much strife in our household. Your witty (Michelangelo heaving a sigh), eloquent, short and to the point, use of ‘cool’ people (Hendrix and Duchamp)as well as varied examples have struck a chord with him and finally I think the idea of ‘just getting on with it and see what happens’ has got through to him. It was a revelation to him that Hendrix was not born with the ability to play the guitar but actually had to do ‘homework’. It was also poignant that you brought to the forfront the fact that you too had to write the article and start somewhere and show that my making something you learn something (in reference to your original quote). I have never blogged before (if that is what I am doing) but just had to thank you for this article which will hopefully create more harmony in our house as well as more creative output!

    • I am delighted. You’ve made my day. There’s a lot of nonsense talked by amateur artists about the supposed importance of inspiration (and don’t get me started on ‘creativity’) over a work ethic. All the professional artists I meet – and I meet a lot – are busy and the work comes from the work. It feeds itself. And never trust anyone who talks about their work as being ‘their art’. Ever. It’s not their call and even if it were, art is simply a descriptor, like the word ‘food’. It doesn’t confer value. Gruel is food, but it’s bad food. There’s bad art, too.

  • For you newbie artists, Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way” and sequels are a very effective way to develop a work habit, I have given 8 copies away!

  • In the main, I agree with what you say but, just to put the spanner in the works, i also believe there is inspiration- but, how to recognise it can be a problem. There is no point in working just for the sake of working. Often that can lead to repetitious dullness and an enforcing of habits. I think of inspiration as something that comes unexpectedly- sometimes through working and sometimes at a completely different time. How do you grasp this and go with it? If you are too busy doing dozens of drawings you may not notice it or push it aside. It’s how you work that matters. I’m sure you would agree but just express it differently.

  • Thanks I really enjoyed the article. I am in the very fortunate position of being able to spend more time on my art and even though its the same old me, the quality has improved with the habit. On similar lines, the quote I have in my sketchbook is ” No child ever learned to talk by keeping its mouth shut”

  • I work in collaboration with another artist (Michele Whiting) and we have just returned from a 5 week residency in the USA. Before going we had created a plan of work, a list of things we wanted to achieve, but as we worked, unexpected difficulties affected our plan and we found ourselves at times despondent and confused as to why the work didnt excite us, but we struggled on, allowing other things to enter and disrupt our ideas, working hard through the fog of uncertainty and doubt, and what emerged was more powerful because of the strange combination of persistence and lack of control, simply changing an element through frustration brought about a revelation, an unexpected effect that would send us off in another more exciting direction. This is where inspiration comes in – it is unexpected and when it comes it tells you what to do and when to stop, I think the key is to remain alert to the possibility of its coming, but not dependent on it.

  • Gaston Petit and Amadio Arboleda, in their book on contemporary (as they were then) Japanese printmakers tell a nice story about turning up at Yamaguchi Gen’s place, expecting he would be ready to make a print for them, so they could take photos, include it in their book and so on. Yamaguchi just wasn’t in the mood and they all went down to the hot springs (onsen) to ‘chill off’ (so to speak) instead. The following day, Yamaguchi decided he felt in the mood for work, so he made an abstract print, from scratch and (as far as I can tell from P&A’s account) finished it in a day. He was in his late 70s by then. Now how could he be so insouciant about his work? Good question. Tell me the answer, someone.
    Another story. I’m just recalling one of RS Thomas’s poems. He stages two old men, Welsh poets, talking over a beer in a pub, lots of talk in the background. One argues strongly for practice practice practice; the secret of art lies in work. The other, possibly insouciant about it, argues equally strongly for leaving everything for the mood of the moment; the secret of art is in the inspired, visionary moment. RS, characteristically, doesn’t solve the riddle. Note the setting. And then note it again.
    No, don’t ask what I think. I’m just a lazy old man who can’t reach to the bookshelves behind him to check his stories… Paul

  • This is such a powerful article Bryan, thank you. It has changed my whole understanding and from what you have said I am beginning to realise that out of hard work comes creativity which cannot be forced or expected, it just happens and many times in the most unexpected places. Your ideas also suggest a surrendering to the ‘finished’ article, in other words the picturesque is not the goal, but the working out and the exploration is. That concept takes away my particular fear of success or failure, as there can be no fear in experimentation, because with experimentation there is only curiosity.

  • Exactly, Viv. Research through practice is just that. I was also thinking yesterday evening about the word ‘practice’. It’s almost like we keep practicing until something happens. By applying ourselves to the work we’re opening a door. It’s like being in a certain frame of mind. When in that frame of mind, stuff can happen. Being alert and aware of the possibilities and accidents is a whole other thing.
    Paul: That’s interesting. Of course, what I’ve written is deliberately polemical. I wouldn’t ever disallow the ‘lightning bolt’ moment that leads to something extraordinary. What’s interesting is how few and far between those moments are. I can only really think of Paul McCartney writing ‘Yesterday’ and Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’. We all know that the man fro mPorlock interrupted the latter, but that ‘Yesterday’ was known as ‘Scrambled Eggs’ for ages and required work to complete.
    Most of us aren’t Yamaguchi Gen* or visionary Welsh poets. We have to graft for our successes. The danger is that the romantic notion is peddled and people buy it.
    *and I bet this is more a story of not rushing the process rather than waiting for inspiration.

  • Bryan’s article makes me feel its possible that if I put the work in I will get there even though it does not seem like it at the moment.
    There is a theory out there not sure from whom, that it takes 10,000 hours to achieve a reasonable standard in anything.
    Sometimes the reason for not working is the blank page syndrome, when faced with a composition you think – this is impossible. In the last exercise – I went on line, found 6 great drawings of that subject, printed them out and kept looking at them to reassure myself that yes, it can be done, they are just marks on the page. Not ideal but at least it got me going after hours of drinking coffee and not making a mark.

  • I had some advice over the past year from my mentor when I was having an ‘artistic block’ which was really useful to me. She said and I quote ‘get the ideas out of your head, try things out, just do it’.

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