Your parents or teachers probably told you this when you were growing up. Generally it’s good advice, but I am going to take it to a different context. In our work as artists, we must be careful to not become complacent and stop trying new things. Don’t repeat yourself artistically.
Stuck in a rut
We’ve all been there, haven’t we. Going over the same ground all the time. Playing it safe, Not trying anything new. It is the easy path. Or, it seems like it for a while.
Sometimes we feel trapped by success. Gallerists are quick to label us as something to make it easier to know who to sell to a client. So we may become known as that flower photographer, or a street photographer, or the guy who does abstract composites.
Whatever our label is, it often serves as a limit on our freedom. If our success is measured in sales then we become reluctant to do anything to jeopardize our supposed success.
Let me use Thomas Kincade as an example. I’m not criticizing him, and besides, he is dead. If you say his name you immediately know what one of his pictures looks like. He was a factory. I never talked to him, but I wonder if he ever wanted to paint something other than the cute little English cottages with dramatic lighting. Some of his work was interesting to me until it became monotonous.
I can’t be critical of you, either. I don’t know your motivation. Perhaps you love a certain subject so much that that is all you want to do. Great. But still look for ways to bring freshness to what you do. Don’t just do the same thing over and over. That is crippling and repetitious.
Who are you competing with? Isn’t it yourself? You may have a favorite artist you would like to be like, but you can’t. They are them and you are you. You have your own set of talents and values and perceptions. No one else will see the world quite like you do.
If that is so, then you are your own standard and critic. I better be doing work that matches my standards and interests. I am the one I have to please.
It is apparent to me from my history that without new challenges to excite me I become stale, bored. Once I have done a subject or a theme enough to feel I “got it”, whatever that may mean, I don’t want to do it anymore. I’m done with that. I need continued challenge to keep me fresh.
Some of my students are surprised when they learn that I am still experimenting and trying new things (for instance, I have started only recently to use focus stacking with regularity). They assume that my creativity has fully matured because I am somewhat established (old). But when we experiment — testing not only our tools’ limitations but also our creative sensibilities — we help ourselves to grow creatively and our work to remain fresh.Chuck Kimmerle in Nature Vision Magazine, #1
Going back over the same ground too many times makes me complacent. No new challenges remain. I have nothing fresh to say about it. And it doesn’t hold any terror for me.
It should be scary
Terror??! Yes. Maybe that is too dramatic, but trying something new is scary. There is a strong fear of failure. The old “imposter syndrome” kicks in big time and makes us doubt our capability.
But for us, the fear is overwhelmed by the knowledge that I have new ideas that I have to try it. It could be a complete failure, but I won’t know unless I try. And I have to try, because it could be the next step in my development as an artist. Without trying this new thing I am cheating myself and letting myself believe I’m not good enough or creative enough to do it.
The fear of the unknown becomes less than the pressure within us to try it. Holding back is the beginning of a death spiral. Fear and inertia sets is and it becomes harder and harder to move on to new experiences.
Doing something new is scary. You are not sure you can do it, you won’t be good at it at first, you are not sure it even works for you. but you won’t know unless you do it. An artist has this drive in him that compels him to push on to new things. To shove aside some of the limits that are around him now and let his creativity flow in a new direction. The challenge of creativity makes the obstacles seem small.
I don’t know if it has occurred to you or not, but the line where we move into the challenge area is a moving target. That is, as we confront our fears and push into new areas and become proficient, now we need further challenges. You may, at first, see this as a problem, but actually it is a good thing.
It is a good thing because we will never get stale. There are always new challenges to confront. Your art should excite you. To excite you, you will have to keep it fresh and alive. We can find new limits to push against. So we have a lifelong learning and growth opportunity. It is up to us. It is like a fractal figure. No matter how far we push into it, there is always new shape to discover. Will we accept the challenge to grow or stay in our comfort zone and eventually stagnate?
What limits you?
What limits you? It is easy to blame external things: those judges didn’t appreciate my work, those galleries can’t see what I am trying to do, I can’t “break into the club”. Don’t waste your energy on blaming those things. They are just there, like taxes. Keep trying, but realize you can’t control them.
And remind yourself that the only judge and critic of your work that matters is you. Are you happy with your work? Don’t be complacent. Set your standards high, higher than is reasonable. Exciting work doesn’t come from low goals. They are your standards. This is the bar you have to try to clear. Not something someone else sets for you.
I started with the idea of not repeating yourself. I hope you see it in a higher context of pushing yourself to new levels of vision and technical achievement. It is your art, it is your life. Be the best you can be. If you are happy with your art, that is the audience that counts most.
Don’t repeat yourself means be always growing and finding new ways to express yourself.