While I was posing for a life drawing workshop, the instructor said something to the class that I thought was completely ridiculous: “Making art is easy.”
I was so shocked, I flinched and almost broke pose. I was not the only one with a strong reaction. A few students laughed, thinking it was a joke. But mostly there were derisive snorts and death glares around easels.
“No wait, let me finish,” he said, holding up his hands. “Making art is easy. Getting into the mindset of making art is hard.”
I’m still not sure how much I agree with the first half of his statement. Sometimes making art feels as easy as breathing, yes. And sometimes I go through three blog posts in as many days and they’re all broken beyond repair. But I did have to agree with the latter half of what he said. I’m constantly surprised at how much time I spend fretting, prewriting, and otherwise not making art before I actually get my butt in gear. It’s usually for longer than it takes to actually sit down and “make the thing”—be that thing modeling, music, or writing.
I like to joke that I’m a professional emotional manipulator. Because in a way, that’s the point of art: to touch off an emotional response in my audience, to make them think, see, and feel differently. I’m trying to provoke a reaction that goes beyond the intellectual, and deep into the realms of human connection.
But there’s another facet to it, which I didn’t think about until I heard his statement. In a way, part of the process of making art is emotionally manipulating yourself into the right frame of mind to work. And I think that’s something that we don’t talk about enough in our cultural perception of artists and creative people.
I’m honestly a little scared to write about this. I tried to explain it to a friend once, and she said I sounded cold and calculating. But I feel like it’s important to share. Maybe I’m not the only artist that does this. Maybe other creative people will find this useful.
I first learned to emotionally manipulate myself as a child, for piano competitions. I have always had terrible stage fright. I knew as a kid that music was supposed to move your audience, and that you did that by putting yourself into the music—then the audience would feel what you were feeling. But how are you supposed to do that when all you can feel is nerves? So instead of focusing on how what I was playing made me feel, I started thinking about the audience. How did what I was playing make them feel, regardless of me? It helped calm me down, and I swear it made for stronger performances.
I had to relearn this skill the hard way for modeling. Modeling requires the ability to express emotion and body language into an image. In a way, it’s kind of like acting or storytelling, except you only get one frame.
Unlike piano, I wasn’t having a problem with emoting. But I would come back from shoots overwhelmed and emotionally wrung out. Making art is often dark, and always moving. Combined with the physical labor of actually posing, it was almost too much to handle.
It all came to a head during a shoot where the photographer wanted to work on emotive portraits. Without anything but facial expressions, I was supposed to convey as many emotions as possible.
Oh no, I thought. I can’t do this. It’ll be too much.
And then I remembered what I used to do for piano recitals. Rather than trying to make myself feel every emotion in quick succession, I started thinking about what the camera would see, and how that image would make the viewer feel. The results were phenomenal. The photographer was impressed, and I ended up having a ton of fun doing it.
But I think there’s a cultural bias about artists needing to feel the same way as their audience about their work. I see it seep into people’s beliefs all the time. For example, I recently joined a writing critique group. When each writer introduced their story, they talked about how their story made them personally feel. I felt out of place, like I’d accidentally stumbled into someone’s therapy session. “What about how the reader feels?” I finally asked.
I was met with blank stares. “The reader will feel what you do,” one person finally said. I wasn’t so sure about that; I certainly wasn’t feeling what they were describing when I read their work.
Needless to say, I didn’t stick with that group very long. But it made me wonder: was I weird for being more concerned about how the audience felt than myself?
Here’s what I can say: despite some people’s claims that making art is easy, for me, it usually takes a lot of hard work. Sure, some moments are magical and inspired. Sometimes I create an image or craft a phrase that I can’t believe flowed as easily as it did.
But those moments are few and far between. After all, getting into the mindset of making art is hard. If I waited for inspiration—or only worked on art when my mood matched the piece—I’d never get any work done. Playing the piano proved to me that I can’t do so on command. Or I’d be constantly miserable trying to force myself into bad moods, like with my modeling. But you don’t have to be unhappy to be an artist.
So yes, getting into the mindset is hard. But maybe if I remember that the proper mindset is “butt in chair” rather than “how I feel,” making art can be just a little bit easier.