The Need for Sustainable Creativity

November 29, 2009
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Recently, more and more research is coming to light that indicates talent is a matter of time spent practicing, not a matter of innate ability. The idea that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to master a skill is increasingly gaining mainstream acceptance. Personally, I’m a big fan of the idea because it gives hope to people who once believed talent to be a gift they had not been given.

Even though this radical idea has massive ramifications for artists, I don’t think it has properly made a debut in the dialogue about what it takes to become a great artist. We are still asking “How do you draw that?” when we should be asking “How do you get yourself to keep drawing for years and years and years?”

I believe making creativity a sustainable practice is one of the most important and difficult issues an artist deals with. My hope is that Doodle Alley becomes a platform where artists can share their insights about the long journey to mastery, and that my comics become good fuel for thought and discussion.

Thank you for being here!

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34 Responses to The Need for Sustainable Creativity

  1. Wes Molebash on November 29, 2012 at 6:16 pm

    Great discussion point.

    I agree with you and the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill. I consider myself to be a good cartoonist, but my ability isn’t – as you said – innate. It’s taken me years to get where I’m at now, and I plan to spend many more years honing my skills.

    The reason I want to keep practicing is because I have passion.

    I believe passion can be innate. I disagree when people tell me my drawing talent is God-given, but I have no problem believing that my passion for cartoons is God-given. I’ve loved the art of cartooning for as long as I can remember even though I couldn’t tell you what sparked that love. It’s just always been there.

    Regardless of whether or not passion is innate or God-given, I think we can all agree that it can be fostered as easily as it can be squelched. So perhaps the challenge is figuring out how to stoke the fires of your creative passion. Perhaps less time should be spent focusing on “how to draw” (or write or dance or compose, etc.) and more time should be spent focusing on stuff that inspires us.

    Afterall, “inspiration” is the creative fuel that keeps us creating for years and years and years, and it comes in many different flavors.

    • stephen on November 29, 2012 at 6:26 pm

      That’s a great point Wes– I’ve felt that passion as well from a really young age.

      It is really important to ask ourselves what we want. I think some people look at amazing artists, and see the fame and attention they are getting, and then say “I want to become an amazing artist.” But that’s not passion for art, that’s only passion for fame and attention.

      Perhaps part of sustainable creativity is knowing your passion. What drives you?

      • Kimberley Tam on June 16, 2013 at 5:49 am

        Regarding passion for fame and attention, I had been there myself. At first it started out as my ability to create. It had given me so much satisfication. As I was in AP Art class in high school, lower classmen look up to us. Other students would walk pass and give us their compliments. And that had felt so good. I started to upload things on the internet and received so many compliments. But alas, after a while, it began to flop. It seemed as if I had lost my mojo. I began to be so obsessed with perfection that I had begun to break down. Depression follows. As a result, I had fallen so far down that I skipped school so often and dropped out of AP art. I wasn’t able to graduate that year. And it took me another year to build myself up again. I am still trying to find that passion that I had for creating, not for fame or to dig for compliments.

        I am so glad that I found your blog here, where artists come together and share. You all are so honest with each other here. Do you know how hard it is to find people who are honest with their feelings nowadays?

        • stephen on June 17, 2013 at 4:07 pm

          I am glad you’re here Kimberly! Thanks for sharing that. I hope you are able to rebuild your passion! I am still learning to do just that.

    • Michael Regina on November 30, 2012 at 7:28 pm

      I am right there with you Wes. My bent towards certain subjects or ideas is what creates the things which I become good at, and others. Because for as long as I can remember, I have been obsessed with stories and monsters and suspense. Art has been a vechicle of expressing that. And developing that over my life is what has given me any skill. When I see that in me, I know that is the “voice” God has given me in the subject. That’s the passion he’s given me to bring something unique into the world.

  2. Wes Molebash on November 29, 2012 at 6:56 pm

    Lots of stuff drives me! That’s the beauty of inspiration!

    I’m driven by other cartoonists, movies, books, music, art. I’m driven by the small successes I’ve achieved and the feedback I’ve received. I’m driven by conversations I have with my friends and family and the quality-time spent with them.

    The list can go on and on, and it’s important to note that “inspiration” isn’t limited to just your area of creative practice.

    • Mikale on November 30, 2012 at 2:02 am

      Awesome comments Stephen and Wes. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Kat H. on November 29, 2012 at 7:15 pm

    I’ve always thought that what people like to call ‘talent’ is really more like an obsession or compulsion, though I guess those don’t sound as nice. I draw and create because I have to, to not do it would be akin to not eating. I might be able to avoid it for a bit but eventually the need for it is so strong it pushes everything else out of the way. I’ve been this way since I was a child.

    I think the drive to create has to come from inside at least partially, if it’s based solely on external sources it fizzles out. There is bound to be a way to cultivate that inner drive and make it a part of you if it isn’t already but I’m at a loss for how someone could go about that.

    • Sammi on November 29, 2012 at 7:30 pm

      That’s a great observation, Kat. There IS a way to cultivate inner drive as I had to do this to myself. I’ve drawn my entire life, but not much outside of doodles and the odd unfinished comic until I was 21. Before that I did more writing than drawing. When I realized that drawing would be an easier way to get my point across, I made it a goal to train myself to compulsively draw whenever I had the free time. It took a lot of discipline, but after about 3 years, it became a habit! It did wonders for my skills, too. I went from not being able to drawing hardly anything to the level I am now.

      When people tell me “I wish I could draw,” it saddens me because I never had any innate ability. I just got off my butt and did it. The 10,000 hours thing holds very true, imo. I can’t wait to see how much I can push myself in the years ahead!

      • Wes Molebash on November 29, 2012 at 7:34 pm

        Whenever someone says ,”I wish I could draw”, I tell them “You can! Go do it!”

        The person typically responds by looking at me like I’m weirdo, which just proves the point that the only thing that separates us “artists” from “non-artists” is passion (or the lack thereof). :)

        • Kat H. on December 3, 2012 at 7:07 pm

          Yes! Exactly!

          When I was very little I had an art teacher tell me (and my class) that one of the key differences between ‘artists’ and ‘non-artists’ was that artists were told they could draw/were encouraged and non-artists weren’t. Almost every kid pretty much loved drawing, its just some leave that feeling behind them.

      • Kat H. on December 3, 2012 at 7:08 pm

        That is very, very awesome and something to be very proud of! It can be hard to make something a habit but it really does amazing things for learning anything^^

  4. Matthew Sample II on December 2, 2012 at 3:34 am

    A friend from school really struggled to understand how to draw proportion and perspective. His art skills were really… primitive. Great guy, but just not an artist. However, he worked really hard one semester and completely turned that around. When he was done, he had one of the best art exhibits that I can remember.

    His struggle that year (and it was a struggle, and it was a year—few people I know have really worked that hard for that length of time) inspires me to this day. I admire people like that.

  5. ollwenjones on December 3, 2012 at 7:28 pm

    I had an art prof hold up a binder 18×24 paper and say, “How good an artist you are is directly proportional to how many of these you fill up.”

    There is a both-and relationship between talent and discipline though. A person with more natural gifting will see more results from the effort they put in to training, a better, “return on investment,” so to speak. Most people can improve their basketball game, but few make a living at it. Discover where passion and gifting overlap.

    I could be a case study of someone with talent that lacks discipline though. I got A’s in most of my college art classes, and now I daydream about making time to paint or work on a graphic novel, but almost never do. I finished the NaNoWriMo last year, but the experience left me tired out with a spouse tired of me using my time that way, and it certainly hasn’t kick-started a writing habit like I had hoped. My intensive college art classes usually left me burned out like that, so I think your question of “How do you get yourself to keep drawing for years and years and years?” is very pertinent indeed!

    • Kat H. on December 5, 2012 at 5:22 am

      I did NaNoWriMo for three years (this being my third and also the only one I didn’t finish/win) and while I enjoyed doing it I always found that it more or less just curbed any inclination I had to write. Writing like that burned me out and made being creative a lot harder the month or two after and it became really difficult to go back and start the editing processes on my work.

      If you want to jump-start a writing habit you’d probably do well to give yourself a certain amount of time each week dedicated to writing and maybe use something like ‘write or die’ to help use the time as efficiently as possible (and also keeping you from neglecting anything else)

      Passion needs to be nurtured and turned into a habit^^

      • ollwenjones on March 7, 2013 at 3:08 pm

        Wise words. :)

  6. Bumble Toes on January 18, 2013 at 4:38 am

    “Talent” is what ‘magic’ is to ‘science.’

    Magic doesn’t have to make sense. It’s magic.

    Science is the search for the truth. Even when science prove itself wrong it’s not a failure because it’s proving something not to be true.

    An art teacher told my mother I had a natural talent on parents night and I went the rest of the year hardly putting effort in because I had this egotistical belief that all my work will be magically brilliant and I was put off when I failed the rest of the year.

    “Talent” hindered me. I don’t want magic. I don’t want to be The Chosen One. I want to earn my brilliance and even if I fail, it’s not a fail as I am learning what not to do.

  7. Mike on February 23, 2013 at 12:48 am

    I think there’s a bit of throwing the baby out with the bathwater going on here. While I completely agree that every great artist had to practice to hone their skills, that doesn’t automatically mean that some people don’t have more natural acumen than others. If you take math or spelling or even sports as an example you will clearly see that some people have more latent ability than others. The one problem that I have seen happen to people with natural ability in any field is that they can get complacent, then the person who practices can pass them up.

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  11. Akia on November 8, 2013 at 5:13 am

    I happened to “stumbleupon” your blog and I love it. It speaks to my own struggle. My issue deals with my inner struggle with who I am and who I think other people want me to be. It can be paralyzing at times, causing me not to work for years out of simple fear that I’m not good enough. I even had a teacher tell me my art was “bad, in a good way” totally didn’t get that one. Yet I just can’t and won’t give up. I’m learning to find myself, which is a lot of what I’m focusing on now in my works in progress.

    • stephen on November 8, 2013 at 3:29 pm

      Welcome! I’m glad you’re here! Good luck to you on your journey. Figuring out the big questions of who you are and what you believe is truly important is key, not just for your art but your life! I’m still trying to piece things together myself.

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  13. Laura Klassen on November 23, 2013 at 2:45 am

    It is funny, I have this same argument with everyone who says ‘I wish I could draw like you’ or ‘You have so much talent!’ I say if you can write your name, you have the ability to do everything I do. All you need to add is 30 years of practice. No matter how I argue it never makes it across, they assume it is some talent gifted. It isn’t, it is years of hard work. I was ‘gifted’ with an obsession or compulsion (or just pure stubbornness) which drives me to keep at it. Reading this makes me believe I am not alone, and that is a huge comfort, some understanding. Thanks for the wonderful site!

    • stephen on November 25, 2013 at 5:14 pm

      I know what that’s like– it’s hard to explain to people.

  14. Irrevenant on December 11, 2013 at 2:52 am

    From far too much experience at becoming demotivated, I’ve come to the conclusion that pacing is really important.

    If you try to burn through those 10,000 hours as fast as possible the immensity of the task becomes overwhelming and you can easily burn out.

    Conversely, if you only practice rarely it’s easy to lose momentum.

    Also, ignoring motivation and looking purely at skill, it seems self-evident that someone practicing two hours per week for 100 years will not be as good an artist as someone who practices 3 hours per day for 10 years. (The same may or not apply to very rapid learning).

    I’m of two minds whether the “10,000 hours” simplification is a useful shorthand or dangerously misleading. I’d suggest that looking at an ideal rate of learning (allowing for individual variation) is probably more useful than a total amount of hours.

    • stephen on December 11, 2013 at 5:11 pm

      Yeah, it can be dangerous. I’ve caught myself to trying to hit time goals instead of learning goals– it’s not about the 10,000 hours– it’s about the 10,000 hours of learning!

  15. Michael on March 22, 2014 at 2:13 pm

    Amazing blog, amazing message, amazing inspiration.
    Thanks for putting this online Stephen. I come here every time I feel down as an artist and need a kick in the butt.

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