[Publisher’s Note: This week’s post is penned by Lori Woodward. She is a terrific artist and writer. She also is a good friend to me and the fine art community. See her bio at the bottom of this post.]

I’m a procrastinator, and sometimes I require external motivation (a deadline) to finally get a task done. While that approach works, it’s rather painful. Why do I choose to work in panic-mode when I could work a little every day in a state of bliss by working a little at a time and loving every minute of it?

I’ve been reading Motivation for Creative People: How to Stay Creative While Gaining Money, Fame, and Reputation by Mark McGuinness. It’s been a real life-changer, or I should say, work-changer, in that the book has taught me how to get things done while in a state FLOW… a pleasurable experience that feels similar to being in love.

Now, stay with me here… I’m a realistic painter and believe in academic training and self-discipline. I’m not talking about lack of effort or knowledge, but am talking about how to get to your “genius” work, which combines training with intuition and experimentation.

Getting in the Zone

Some call this state of mind, The Zone, but whatever you call it, I’m willing to bet you’ve experienced it. Flow takes hold when you are so engrossed in a project, that time passes without noticing, the space and people around you no longer exist (to you), and you enter a type of euphoria or dream-state.

Again, it feels akin to being in love, and while that idea may seem ludicrous to academics, feelings of love release Oxytocin, and it’s impossible to release Oxytocin and feel fear at the same time. (yes, there are studies; no I’m not going to look them up right now).

Back to Mark McGuinness’ book. His premise is that there are two types of motivation: Intrinsic and Extrinsic. His book is divided into two parts – the first delves into how creatives are initially motivated intrinsically (love and passion for their craft), while the second half of the book deals with extrinsic motivation (rewards, affirmation, marketing, income).

Creativity and Criticism

The first chapter cites a study where two groups of children are given drawing materials. The first group may draw anything they want, and the second group is told that their drawings will be judged by a panel of adults. Those who do well in the second group will be rewarded. The first group is not informed about any reward at all.

As you might have guessed, the first group (no rules) had the more engaging and imaginative drawings. The study was repeated several times with the same results. Now, I’m sure some of you are thinking the study was flawed, and all studies are somewhat flawed, but the point I gained is that fear of criticism sometimes paralyzes artists.

When we work with fear of judgment, our brains are lack intuition. Worry shuts off the hormone Oxytocin – a chemical that gets released when we feel unconditional love and compassion towards ourselves or others.

Turning Off the Head Chatter

McGuinness, the author of the book, advises creatives to avoid thinking about sales, competition, or marketing during your creative time. I can hear you thinking, “But wait, don’t we need to make a living at this?”

Absolutely! That’s covered in the second half of the book: Extrinsic Motivation. Because rewards, selling our work, and even money to pay the bills motivates us too! That said, extrinsic motivation rarely contributes to us doing our best art.

McGuinness suggests that we separate the two types of motivation by time and space. When you’re in artist-mode, resist thinking about marketing, and when you’re marketing, don’t worry about whether your work is good enough. Rather, focus on how to get the work to market and sold.

I recently saw a quote by Chuck Close on Facebook. I wondered if he really did say it, but then I watched a panel discussion online where Chuck reiterated the quote almost word for word. He basically said, “Amateurs wait for inspiration. Professionals just get to work.” He went on to say that creative solutions appear only in the midst of doing the work.

He repeats the quote in this CBS Sunday Morning “Notes to Younger Self” series. He follows it with this one:

chuck close motivation

I’m reminded of a mentor who once told me, “It’s hard to steer a car if you don’t have your foot on the gas pedal.”

Cognitive theory scientists are at a loss to explain exactly how creativity comes about. They know the right hemisphere lights up when an idea occurs, but they are not sure exactly the brain arrives at an idea. It’s almost as if it’s magic.

MRI scans have shown that left and right brain hemispheres never light up at the same time. Sure, these hemispheres can switch sides at great speeds, but never at the same time. Language turns off the intuitive right brain function.

There is certainly a time for training and practice for athletes and artists, but there should also be a time where the artist, after having practiced and experimented, can just perform, or “Go With The FLOW”.

Painters, who have had years of training and experience, can do amazing things while in the zone/flow. Just like the figure skater, who practices daily, can just “go for it” during a competition without much apparent effort. “She makes it look so easy”…



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  • “Creative people live in their own made up worlds; non-creative people live in worlds that others make up for them.”

  • I loved this post! I hate to work under pressure! I am so much better when I can work on a project at my speed, knowing I have enough time to get it done for a deadline down the road.
    Procrastinators say…”I can do it tomorrow.”
    I say…”If I do it today, I can do something else tomorrow.”

    • That’s a great way to look at it… doing something today so that I have time for something more tomorrow. Thanks!

  • Judy McFee says:

    Point taken. Thanks for sharing!

  • Great blog! I am a painter and photographer and for the last 6 months I have made the commitment to make art everyday. Working on new watercolor techniques and photo editing. My creativity as well as my skill level has increased dramatically. It does make a difference. Now to incorporate better marketing. I have been looking for an easier website setup. Your website was inspiring and the hosting service also looks like a great fit for me. Now for the transition! Your desert landscapes are wonderful too. I thank you for all the inspiration today !

    • I really enjoy my website because I can update it anytime and control the colors and templates. It took me a bit of time to learn the features, which are being added constantly. My hubby is a software engineer and used to update my website, but after going with FASO in 2007, I’ve never looked back, (or nagged my husband).

    • Hi Lori, the pleasure is all mine. Your post resonated with me. I know there are times when I’m writing and the words just FLOW. It is a stream of consciousness that definitely is biological. I’m sure endorphins are running wild when it happens. 😉

  • This post nailed it!
    Exactly my feeling in words!
    Always been amazed that my best work seems to be when I’m not under pressure and have nothing to lose-just “going with the flow”-sometimes almost miraculous!


  • I have just taken a weeks ( stay at home but out of my studio ) holiday , enforced by myself because I have been slogging away this last lear at creating art for shows and exhibitions , I knew something was wrong, I became more and more unhappy and disillusioned and did not finish one single painting even though I worked ( pretty much ) everyday , all that would happen was that I would ruin what could have been promising work . Thankyou so much for this article, I am considering giving up on myself as an artist because of the mire that I have been stuck in. Im going to look at how I can change the way I work so that I can enjoy it again

  • Commission work is great bcs u make money but not always you do what you want on it, in my experience is the customer will, not mine, and that discorage me.
    In the other had, so much of commission, just lock my inner creativity and the flow.
    I’m able to create in my mind, but no time to make it happen…at the end.
    I should be happy, one way or another, i’m making some money…but I’m tge reality not too happy. I’m continue with my way of thinking:
    “I will happen…, from nd the time, just keep trying”

  • (previous comment corrections)
    Commission work is great because you make money, but not always you do what you want on it.
    In my experience is the customer will, not mine, and that discorage me.
    In the other had, so much of commission, just lock my inner creativity and the flow.
    I’m able to create in my mind, but no time to make it happen.
    I should be happy, one way or another, I’m making some money…but The reality is that I’m not too happy.
    I continue with my way of thinking:
    “I’t will happen…, is at matter off time, just keep trying”

    • Hi Fanny, I did portrait commissions for a number of years. I enjoyed the process because I enjoy meeting people, but I no longer do them because the pressure weighs on me.

  • Very interesting. I was just trying to convey this whole pattern to someone who inquired yesterday. I haven’t called it, “love” but tried to equate it to a spiritual thing like communing with God or, “prayer.” Not everyone will relate to that possibly.

    Chuck is so very right. It happens when you are working so keep working. Nothing else matters more. Your skills decline if you don’t keep working/practicing. Ideas come, inspirations come. All of it while working.

    Selling is what you do afterward. I have the same stigma with commissions which seem more like commercial art than inspired creations. Just using already acquired skills not innovating new ones. I believe one can overcome that issue but I have not as yet. We have to believe in ourselves and the power of being in the, “zone.” Is this not much of why we paint?

    • Yes David, you’re right about why we paint. Sometimes, at least for me, it’s easy to forget why I started painting in the first place.

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