Have you already done your best work? Have you taken your best image or painted your best picture, or sculpted your best piece? In other words, have you peaked and it’s all down hill from here? What a frightening idea.
Yet I believe this is a great fear of many artists. Me, too. You love what you have already created. How can you ever top it?
You have to believe in yourself and in your process.
Your body of work
Does your portfolio define you? Many of us believe it does. I think it would better to look at it as saying your portfolio represents the best of what you have done up to now. You will change and move on and do different things with time. Your portfolio doesn’t define you, it reflects you. Who you were up to today.
If you destroyed your whole library you should be able to go on from here and build a new, better one. Of course, none of us would want to do that. We have done a lot of great work in the past. We have many impossible to recreate scenes. Our library or portfolio represents a huge investment of both time and creative energy. We should embrace that and celebrate it.
But the creator is much more important than the creation. If I go to the Louvre or Orsay (back in the good old days) or another great museum I see people lined up admiring some of the important and enduring works of history. But the focus is on the art. This is only appropriate at these museums because the artist is dead. It is much more interesting to study and appreciate the people who created these pieces. They are the genius. The art is just a reflection of their vision. These famous works came out of their minds and through their skills. What was it about them that allowed them to create and overcome?
In the same way, you are the one who makes images. If you have made great images in the past you almost definitely will in the future unless something changed to take away your skill. This can happen, through life-altering events like a wreck or a stroke. But barring something like that, it should be true that your creativity grows and persists. Very few of us can use this excuse.
A great image is just an idea you had at a particular time. You will have more. It is your ideas and your vision that creates. Ansel Adams famously said “The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it!“. In other words, images are made in your head, not in a camera.
The “muse” or our creativity has ups and downs. Sometimes it seems like you are empty. You fear you will never do great work again. Be patient. Keep working at whatever you find while you wait for the spark to return. It will. Always.
Don’t be limited by fear of trying something new. Even if you are famous for one look or style, at some point it limits and boxes you in and you start to become stale. Then it is time to re-invent yourself. Don’t be afraid to make a sharp 90 degree turn and do something completely different. If that is what your creativity is calling you to do, follow. Better to follow it into uncharted territory than to have it leave you behind.
And sometimes we look at the work we have done and think “Wow, I can never do better than that”. This creates fear of failure. We become afraid of creating anything because it might not be as good as what we have already done.
This is because we are trying to do something like a work we did in the past. Don’t worry about trying to recreate an old look. Go with where you are now. It probably won’t be the same as what you did before, but it is you. It represents where you are now in your life. If you are growing as a person and an artist, it will be better.
Always be pushing yourself. You are the only standard of measure that matters to you. Learn, grow, experiment, be open to new thoughts and ideas.
When you don’t feel creative, work anyway. Just doing the work is refreshing and therapeutic. It is like “putting in the reps” that is required to learn and master almost anything. Keep pushing and when the creativity floods back, you have improved and can do even better work. You will be better equipped to keep up with the inspiration.
Keep moving. Don’t ever just sit and feel sorry for yourself. Get out and do something. Don’t try to recreate your best works, do new things that are better.