Updated: Oct 16, 2019
It can be hard to force creativity – to feel creative at a set time. However, sometimes life requires this gymnastics feat of the artist. Luckily there are things that we can do to cultivate the creative state. I find simply providing yourself with the space and tools to succeed – what I call studio hygiene - can help the process along. There are a number of factors that contribute to good studio hygiene: proper space and light, consistent routine, and, the one I want to talk about here - state of mind.
One reason it is hard to be creative on demand is because, often, the creative process happens on a different level of consciousness than our “normal” level – the one required to order a latte or to check our email.
You may have heard other artists talk about “the zone” – that elusive state of mind that allows a person to sit, alone, making tiny dots on paper for hours - or even days - on end. This state of mind is similar to the zone that runners can get into: A combination of focus and thoughtlessness that disconnects your mind – allowing your subconscious to take over. It may seem like this state of mind only happens unexpectedly at 3 AM, and is completely out of your control. But I’ve found that there are ways to purposefully create this state of mind. Some of the same tools that you would use to get yourself ready to run also work to get yourself ready to art.
I want to share with you a tool that I've found works for me - something I’ve picked up from running. Running for 6 or 10 miles can be a painful process – not just physically, but mentally. This is where the runner’s zone can help. If you’re thinking about how much longer you have to go, or how every step makes your ankle hurt – even one mile can feel like a marathon. For a better description of the runners’ zone – or flow – check out this article:
Your body, however, is capable of doing amazing things – running long distances, creating beautiful art - if you can just get your controlling, judging, conscious mind engaged in other work – if you can tap into a different level of consciousness.
One way I achieve this is by association. On all of my long runs I listen to the same playlist - on repeat. This may sound boring, but remember, the goal is to get your brain out of the level of thinking – out of noticing that you’ve already heard that song – out of the level of being bored. Over time, by listening to the same set of songs every time I set out on a long run, my body has become conditioned - I actually feel ready to run - whenever I hear Brandi Carlile sing.
Music works the same way for me in the studio. In order for music to help me jumpstart the creative zone, however, I have to be very intentional about my music listening choices.
1: Obviously, it has to be something I enjoy. While I often use this period of extreme listening to experience a new album by an old favorite, I’ve found that this is not the best time to try something completely new. You may find a new love, but, just as likely, you’ll spend your entire allotted studio time auditioning and firing a whole slew of artists.
2: Because I choose to give each drawing or painting its own song, or list of songs, for the entirety of the creative process, it often helps if the mood of the music matches the mood of the piece. A word of warning here: it’s important to pay attention to the mood of the music. I personally find it hard to not absorb the mood of whatever I’m listening to with that frequency. (I’ve currently been listening to what I consider my “happy music” for about a month now in an effort to counteract a wayward week of deepening depression caused by an unfortunate music choice).
3: Finally, and most importantly - it has to be something that I know well (by the end of the drawing, painting, etc., I know it really well) but, to start, I have to know it well enough that it’s not new to my brain. That way, my mind is not actively engaging with the music – there are no surprises. Unexpected or new songs can be jarring and can break the zone bubble, causing thoughts like: “Oh, what is this song?” or: “I don’t like this artist.” Along these same lines, it helps to have a setlist of similar songs. That’s why I use one artist or album on repeat. An upbeat song breaking into a long line of more mellow music can have the same bubble-bursting effect.
Not only do I credit the art of music in helping me to slip into the creative zone, but it’s also a welcome and constant companion in the often isolating studio. I can look back at pieces completed years ago and remember what I was listening to at the time, and the same feelings that I had while creating it come rushing back like an old friend.
I’d like to leave you with the song that starts my studio time – every single time. Adrienne Lenker and her band, Big Thief, are two of my go-to playlists. Her music is sweet and poetic – but it has teeth – which I resonate with. This particular version of her song – Masterpiece, is, to me, just about the perfect song. Happy listening.