Advice to young artists from an old teacher

The first day of school is here, and it is the first day I’ve missed in 16 years. And it will be the first of many, I suppose.

Here are the most important things I can teach. Coincidently, these are the most important things I’ve got to learn in my new life. In this respect, my dear students, we are always together learning.

Begin Immediately.

You get an idea, you get an assignment, you’re given a project. Before you do ANYTHING else, like get a snack or lay out your brushes or (god forbid) make a plan, start. Make a quick sketch. Write down the first bunch of lines. Strum some chords. Improvise the monologue or the scene.

Doing something immediately will make it a lot harder for procrastination to settle in, and it will lodge the project in your mind so your subconscious can begin working on it. Take that initial moment and make a start. Begin immediately.

Don’t work in your head.

Don’t visualize the painting in your head and then try to paint it. Start painting it, or make 30 thumbnails of it. If you have to write something then get writing. Don’t ponder and then write, just write. Working on a theatre or dance piece? Throw out the table reads, don’t waste precious creativity and time talking about it. Put the damn thing on its feet and get it going.

Inside your head

Nothing outside of your head will ever measure up to what is inside your head. Inside your head is always richer because thinking is unhindered by time, space, budget or ability.
You can only think of what you can think off. It is virtually impossible to have a thought you’ve never had before in the lonely space of your head.
Thinking can’t make mistakes. In your head, if you think of a tree you get the image of a tree, or the word “tree,” or a snippet of a poem by Robert Frost, or who knows.
Outside your head are happy accidents and innovation

Outside of your head, someone says, “tree” and you can miss-hear it as “three,” and that might be interesting. That might change things.
In the dance studio you can try to do a step and then topple over, and the choreographer can see it and shout: “COOL! Do that again!”
In your head there are no interesting drips of paint. On your easel there can be thousands of them.
Outside of your head you can bump into things that make you change your course of action. Friends and mentors can spot things and say things that re-orient you to new possibilities.

Outside of your head is the only place where you can have a happy accident. And happy accidents are what you want. But REMEMBER, you can’t plan to have an accident, you can only go into an unsafe environment that has all sorts of sharp things to threaten, to stumble over. Go out into that environment. It isn’t in your head. It’s in the studio.

You’re rewarded by risks, so take them.

This isn’t an invitation to be an idiot. “Surfing” by standing on the roof of a friend’s car driving through neighborhood is a stupid risk, with no positive payout, and people who do this sort of dumb stuff deserve to fall on their heads.

This is what I mean: There is an audition coming up, and you don’t think you’re ready. You should do the audition. You are tempted by buy a huge canvas and start a painting, even though you’ve never worked bigger than 18"x24". You should buy the canvas and get out your brushes and get painting. You want to try writing songs but are sure you have no musical talent. You should start writing songs. There’s a beautiful person you’re crazy about, and you want to ask them to the prom. You should ask them to the prom.

Most of the time — like 90% of the time, when you risk it works out in your favor. You will usually gain. Try it and see.

And if you risk and 10% of the time it doesn’t work out, so?

You do the audition, you don’t get the part. So? There will be another audition. You buy the huge canvas and make an awful painting. So? Paint it over and start again. You try writing a song. What is the worst that can happen? Another bad song to add to all the other crap already on the radio?

Can’t decide if you should do something or not? Answer these simple questions:

Can failure result in brain damage?
Will my family get shot?
Can the result lead to people being physically injured?
Could jail time be involved?
Could this screw up going to college?
All no? Then go! Go do it!

The worst that can happen is embarrassment. The best that can happen is you find love.

Bold Optimism.

I put this in the middle because it is the most important thing and everything else revolves around it.

Life is hard. Art is hard. But you can do it. You can make a painting, write a song, work as an actor. You’ve done harder things already. You’ve already sucked at million things, so what is one more thing to suck at?

Approach creative challenges with a sense of, “I think I can do this.” Approach all challenges that way. Be light, be positive, move forward with a firm step and a smile on your face.

Read a lot, watch movies, go to museums, have experiences.

Art comes from inside you, so you need to have the parts and material for making it inside you. It’s like LEGO. You need a lot of bricks. And you need a lot of different bricks. Interesting bricks.

You get this from reading books and looking at pictures of other people’s work, watching moves and plays, visiting museums and neighborhoods, eating weird food at unknown restaurants, making new friends, meeting interesting people, and in general having adventures.

All those ideas and experiences are what you’ll eventually assemble into your work. Fill up your library with new and interesting things. Do this the rest of your life. You’ll have fun, you’ll be more interesting to talk to, and your work will be better.

If all you have in the fridge are bananas, then all you’re going to be eating is bananas. Put cool stuff in your fridge. Make interesting stuff with it.

You’re not original, so give that up and take a number with the rest of us.

The main reason you will hate your work is that you think it isn’t original. This never goes away. I do this still at 56. I chase the unreachable brass ring of originality. Stupid me.

Originality is like perfectionism. If it happens it is an accident or luck. You sure can’t plan “originality,” can you? Every element of the plan will be something already known and, therefore, unoriginal.

But where does all this interesting, supposedly original art and music come from? Bjork isn’t original? Guillermo Del Toro — isn’t he original? Egon Schiele? Marlene Dumas? Not original? They sure do seem original, but they weren’t trying. That was’t their goal. They assembled interesting pieces and ideas and then worked their butts off. You can do the exact same thing.

Originality as a goal (or a lurking stealth yardstick) results in tremendous self-judgement, and it will stop your work cold. It’s the number one reason to quit. Quitting, by the way, is hardly original — it is what most of the world does. You want to be original? Then finish stuff.


If you combine having an interesting library full of stuff with forgetting about being original, then it is clear that you should be stealing ideas.

Pro tip: don’t steal the whole thing. Just steal the important bits.

Doing is doing. Don’t confuse thinking about doing with actual doing.

Planning and research are somewhat necessary. You do need to know how to do the technical things involved in your work. But planning and research are also seductive. It is very easy to make lists and flow charts, and assemble mood boards and cut things out and read one more article etcetera etceter etcetera… and not work on the actual work.

You really have to watch this one. It is a lovely thing to pat yourself on the back after spending two hours on the internet gathering inspiration and ideas. Don’t you feel good about yourself? You worked!

But where is the painting? The play? The movie? The poem? Did you spend anytime actually making it?

Plans and research are like the focus group that talks about the car but never gets around to building the car. The car is built by designers and engineers and people who get their hands dirty. You need to get your hands dirty doing your work.

So, plan and research a tiny bit if you must, but then get working. The library isn’t the studio. The museum isn’t the studio. Wikipedia isn’t the studio. You need to spend most of your time in the studio.

Now, if you love the research and that, then go into dramaturgy, or curation, or editing or criticism. The art world needs these things, too.

Find a tribe.

You need to have a bunch of artsie friends who know you, know your work, and can help you.

They help you with encouragement and useful criticism. They present you with new ideas and opportunities. They listen to you, and you listen to them. They push you to do your work, and they don’t do your work for you. Nor do they say things like, “If I were you, I’d…”

They know they’re not you and you’re not them, and they’re glad of the differences and the distance.

They can be people you see everyday, or they can exist online. They can be any age. They love you like a dog. Get a good tribe around.

Your work will suck, so keep making art.

Your quality will be up and down. You’ll do or make some things you like, but you’ll probably hate most of it. You’ll have ideas beyond the scope of your ability. You will doubt your talent. You’ll see other’s work in class and think it is better than yours. You’ll be embarrassed to show your work.

Part of you will howl like a wounded cat, “Please stop! Please stop this torture! Stop making art.”

All of this will happen to you, and there is nothing you can do about it. There is only one solution to the problem, which is to keep making your art anyway. There is no other way to get better at it. Doing nothing doesn’t invite the talent fairies. You won’t wake up one morning after several months of doing nothing and magically know how to draw or to write.

The only way to make good artwork is to do art work good (should be “well,” but you know what I mean). So, regardless of the quality, please make your art. Please.

Now, it is a new year. Go do your work with my full faith in you.