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How do you become a prolific artist? 8 secrets no one says outloud

Last month I attempted my first plein air painting in Montrose Park in Washington, DC. I was very nervous and had a lot of doubt: “I’m supposed to be an artist! I have a degree in art! I work as an art director and I’m a good painter. Why is this scary?!”

Whenever we’re doing something new, it’s still a test of wills. The same lessons come back to us every time. No one tells you it’ll be easy, yet they don’t exactly proclaim to you how hard being an artist can be. Here’s the final painting which is no masterpiece and at the same time I learned a ton and felt proud about it:

First time trying plein air! Learned a ton while doing it!

A photo posted by – Brian E. Young (@sketcheeguy) on

1. It’s okay to procrastinate

Prolific artists procrastinate. Procrastinating is a form of thinking. You’re doing one thing like watching tv or playing video games, and you’re distracted thinking you could be painting or drawing. It is okay to procrastinate. You’re still thinking about your art. Use whatever you’re doing to find inspiration. Write down any thoughts you might have.

I thought about plein air painting for years. Even had planned to last fall at a plein air painting event. It started to become a big deal in my head. I thought I needed the right supplies, the absolutely right event, the right motivation, and the right place. It turns out all I needed to do was go outside.

Try this: Write down your goals and ideas. While you’re procrastinating, while you’re in the super market, while you’re at work just stop for a split second and jot down the note such as “I want to paint trees.” “I want to sketch people.” You can use a cellphone app or tweet it or text it to all of your friends. Next time you’re finding yourself free and tempted to reach for your television remote, you’ll be more likely to know that you really would rather sketch and paint.

Read this: Awesome Secrets to Super Inspired Procrastination

“You can’t just turn on creativity like a faucet. You have to be in the right mood. What mood is that? Last-minute panic.” Bill Watterson

2. It’s okay to be be messy

Prolific artists make messy sketches and thumbnails. I use stick figures in my thumbnails to quickly get ideas down. Stick figures are a cute and fun way to draw out an idea and not care if it’s a masterpiece. Even though I’m a trained artist with a degree in art and a job in art, I still use stick figures. These poses can be further developed into bigger and better drawings later. Once I see an idea as a concrete thumbnail, it really helps me to get excited about it.

When I worked on my first plein air painting, I quickly was disheartened by the composition I chose. I didn’t really think about it much. I didn’t do any planning. I just looked in a direction and started making marks with paint. That’s okay! I learned something from that! Next time, it would have been smart to take 60-seconds to scribble down a few different compositions. There is no mistake if we can’t learn from it.

Try this: Take 60 seconds to create 3 thumbnails before making anything “real”. You’ve heard this and yet you still don’t do it. I preach this for years and I still didn’t do it. Practice it, make it routine. It’s just a fun way to break the ice. Don’t look at it as a must, an obligation, or as pressure. This is the fun part where you get to be a child and not care about the result. Make them and ignore them. Make them and learn from them.

Read this: Acrylic Painting Tutorial: How to use thumbnails for inspiration

“We all have 10,000 bad drawings in us. The sooner we get them out the better.” Walt Stanchfield

3. It’s okay to fail

Prolific artists are persistent when facing failure. It’s only a failure if you give up without learning anything. Don’t give into your fear and doubt. Be persistent and decide on the next step. Be nicer to yourself.

After a night of painting, I often will feel discouraged. The painting didn’t look exactly how I imagined it could. The next morning, in the light of day I will look at it and say wow that actually looks pretty cool. It’s different yet something about it works. I’m ready to take last nights failure and make the adjustments needed to get the painting finished.

There is a lot I didn’t like about my first plein air painting. The composition is centered and uninteresting, the colors are brighter than I wanted, and I wish it had more depth. How do I know this? I know it because I tried. I tried and now have something physical to look at. Through those experiences, I’ll have a better idea when I try this again. And I will try it again.

Try this: Fail at something you’re afraid of. If you’re afraid to paint, then paint. I used to be afraid of asking for help at the grocery store. I know it’s silly, there are people there to help you and they’re friendly. Still I was afraid of it. Then I just learned to ask anyway. Whenever you’re afraid and you have all of the reasons that failure is possible, just do it anyway.

Listen to this: Face The Fear of Failure in 6 Steps: The Uncanny Creativity Podcast, Episode 31

“First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.” Octavia E. Butler

4. It’s okay to take breaks

Prolific artists take breaks and then just pick up where they left off. We retain information better when we have space away from it. Ever have trouble remembering something? The best thing to do is to stop focusing on that thought and return to it. What happens is that we focus on the idea that we can’t remember so much that we can’t actually process the memory. We often find things when we aren’t looking for them.

When we’re focused on the thought “I forgot”, “I feel guilty for forgetting”, or some variation, it just makes it that much harder to remember and reinforces our “I have a bad memory” persona. Let go of that! You walk away from that guy at the gym who’s name you forgot, then remember it that night while doing dishes. Yes, this has happened to me.

When I was painting outside in the beautiful park in Washington, DC, it turned out to be insanely helpful to just say to myself “Wow, this is a beautiful day and I’m lucky to be here.” See all that was around me and know that I’m inspired by it all. The memory of that is a good one. Practicing a bit of gratitude can help fix any situation or problem. There’s always a lot to be thankful for, don’t miss it!

Try this: Focus on one task for a block of time. Then take a break. One study shows the best in their field only practice for 90-minute blocks (PDF link). If you are going to return to the task after the break, try to take at least 20 minutes focused on anything else. Do your best to focus on your new task. If your mind wanders back to work, be nice to yourself and bring your attention back to what you’re doing now. If you’re taking your lunch break, you might just focus on the taste, sound, and look of your meal. If your break is another type of work, try to give it your full attention.

Listen to this: Picking Up Where You Left Off: The Uncanny Creativity Podcast, Episode 30

“Every person needs to take one day away.  A day in which one consciously separates the past from the future.  Jobs, family, employers, and friends can exist one day without any one of us, and if our egos permit us to confess, they could exist eternally in our absence.  Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for.  Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us.” Maya Angelou

5. It’s okay to have hope

Prolific artists are positive. Optimism boosts creativity. One of the easiest ways to find a silver lining is to understand what we are grateful for. Yeah somethings in life suck and you’re okay for feeling that way. At the same time, those bad things don’t have to outweigh the good things. A realistic approach is ultimately healthy and positive. Reaching an understanding on how to balance the good and bad thoughts you might have will put you into a better place to make decisions and not cave under pressure.

Now I have a better understanding of how my thoughts and feelings play out when I’m painting in a more public situation. I’m used to painting at home, by myself. The only critic I deal with there is me. Now I understand that the critic even when there are others in the park asking about my work is still just me. Only I give their words any meaning. Most onlookers in a park are probably wishing they were bold enough to be there. By painting, I’m already brave enough to do something that many people never tried. By even reading this article, you’re contemplating ideas that many people would be too afraid to even consider.

Try this: Learn something new. Look at a situation or experience you found challenging and use this as a chance to learn something new. Next time you’re in a similar situation, what will you do differently? The past can’t be changed and the future can.

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Read this: You’re not an innovator and you never will be: 7 Reasons

“Only those who attempt the absurd can achieve the impossible.” – Albert Einstein

6. It’s okay to have bad ideas

Prolific artists create first and judge second. Put an idea down, try it out, see what happens. It’s okay to be average. Your first idea is rarely your best. This is why we sketch (see number 2) so that we can work out the best idea. Even if your best idea was your first one, creating a few bad concepts can solidify your choice and help you feel stronger about your final drawing.

Try this: Brainstorm without judgement. Write down all of your thoughts as a quick list before starting on an intimidating or time-consuming task. The thoughts might be completely related or really stupid. Make a point to include the ones that usually feel very uncomfortable. Facing that discomfort and writing it down is part of the fun. It’s now just words on paper without any meaning.

Read this: 5 Steps to Having More Creative Ideas

“The way to get good ideas is to get lots of ideas and throw the bad ones away.” Linus Pauling (Nobel Peace Prize winner)

7. It’s okay to improvise

Prolific artists make it up as they go along. We give up the idea of how we once thought it “should” be and move on to how to make things work. Every brush stroke is a fresh start.

I painted my trees, even as I realized the composition didn’t work. I could have left or just started over. Those would have been great ways to improvise too. I just chose to continue and that made all the difference.

Try this: Finish what you start. No matter how you are feeling about a project, rather than give up find a way to complete it. It might be as simple as signing your name and calling it done. Your usual next step doesn’t have to be the next step you take. Do something that isn’t obvious.

Read this: Can Improv Teach Us About Graphic Design?

“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” Charles Darwin

8. It’s okay to ask for help

Prolific artists are part of a team. You have a support system, friends, family, coworkers, and a professional network who you can rely on. They may not even be part of your art, they just may help you be a whole person. The people in our lives help us by inspiring us, by helping us with conversations, by showing us love and affection. Having confidence in more parts of life helps us realize our abilities. Be prepared to not get the help you want and still be happy that there is someone who will listen to the question. Ask for exactly what you want and need.

By now you’re probably tired of hearing about how I created that painting. I didn’t do it alone, I am lucky enough to have someone in my life who enjoys painting as much as I do. We went to the park together and created very different work. It’s really nice to just spend time with the people you care about. At the end of the day, it wasn’t about painting at all. That day was about a new experience. Create experiences, not just things and not just images.

Try this: Reach out to someone you love. Provide help, a listening ear, or a fun night out and give them everything they might need. You’ll see how much others love your help and create friendships that will be there when you’re in need too. The idea of reciprocity isn’t to just trade, it’s to give. Create a generous experience together with those you care about. When you’re genuinely interested in others, there is a beautiful impact on those around you.

Read this: 6 DOs and DON’Ts for Killer Creative Teams: Confession of a bad team player

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?”  Martin Luther King Jr.

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Brian E. Young

I'm a graphic designer (portfolio), classical pianist and artist in Baltimore, MD. I host the Uncanny Creativity Podcast helping to demystify the creative process and creator of Funlooksfun.com, an online shop for apparel and games. Twitter: @sketchee

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