Gratitude and joy: Everything* I love about making art

(*an incomplete list, 2023 edition)

Viewfinder Vol 1, Issue 5See all issuesSubscribe to Viewfinder

Previously, we talked extensively about the “work” of artwork. We talked about “finding your work” and “putting in the work”. Showing up, making art again and again, maybe for the rest of your life.

This all sounds like so much… work. Isn’t life already filled up with work? Why would you want more of it? Because there’s work, and then there’s your ✨WORK! ✨.

Workohol addiction

The Oxford dictionary defines work (noun), among other things as, “… something a person… has to do.” Yep, pretty much how I feel about it too. Thanks, editors at Oxford. You get it.

I’ll admit that (like many people, maybe you?) I have a pretty complicated relationship with work; the idea of work, the value of work, what work means to me, what it says about me. While I would never call myself a true workaholic, I have struggled with unhealthy dependencies, unrealistic expectations, and unmet needs about what work is, and what it’s for. It’s caused me to misprioritize aspects of my life, putting lowercase-w work ahead of things more worthy of focus. 

We (modern people) have completely missed the boat for what work could be for us, could mean to us. Things (aka, “society”) are set up now so that most people’s work is lowercase-w work. Like our friends at the Oxford dictionary said… work is something a person has to do.

But with your artwork, your WORK!can be all caps, exclamation marked, underlined, bolded, sparkled, and italicized. Your artwork is what you get to do, not what you have to do, and you get to do it the way you want. Making art is a way to reclaim some of the potential of capital-W WORK! that we don’t get from our day jobs.

Making ART! = it’s natural 🤘punk rock

If you let it, making art is one of the most stick-it-to-the-man, not-at-all-about-commerce things you can do with your time. It’s punk rock; not about filling a market need, producing inventory, or seeking a return on investment. It’s specifically about making without doing these things. 

Because art making–the doing, not the end result–is NOT about making a product, you’re free to be unconcerned about whether it will sell, or get likes on social media, or whatever forms of external validation that might otherwise compromise your decision making. That thing you make that you ultimately call your art is free from these concerns. Or at least it should be. 

One of the truest, most sublimely magical, most f’ing-ineffable things about art is that you, the artist, are not accountable to anyone or anything about your work.

What your art is. What it’s about. How you make it. When you make it. The infinite possibilities of what it could be, considered and shaped and distilled down by you and your choices, resulting in the thing that only you could make, right here, right now. It’s only for you.

Black and white photograph of a log and border mostly submerged in the water of a freshwater lake.
11-05-2023-24. ©2023 Ron Johnson.

Making ART! = self-care

Just to get it out of the way, self-care is not self-indulgence or being selfish. Self-care is taking steps to tend to your needs, promoting your physical and emotional health. Taking care of one’s self fosters self-esteem and helps you live a happier, fuller life. Practicing self-care is a critical skill of adulting, a thing I’m still working on (but getting better!).

One of the best ways to self-care is to give yourself permission to create your art without expectations or judgment. When you make your work in full self-acceptance of your choices, when you relish the process, the act of creating, and are unconcerned (or at least, less-concerned) about the end result, something amazing is produced along with your art.

[Spoilers… it’s joy.]

Making ART! = gratitude and joy

Below is an (incomplete) list of all the things about making art that bring me joy. Creating this list was almost like an exercise in gratitude: grateful for what art making gives me, what I give myself by choosing to make art part of my life. Not coincidentally, many of these are the same sources of joy that propel me in my professional life.

My “Things about making art that give me joy” list, 2023 edition:

1. Surprise and delight.

I am delighted by moments of genuine surprise while making art. Ansel Adams and Minor White promoted the importance of visualization and previsualization, which basically meant looking at the scene in your mind’s eye, deciding how you’ll choose to represent it, and working out about how to resolve your vision in the final print. It’s determining how the end result will look before pressing the shutter button… doesn’t leave a lot of opportunity for surprise.

[I think Adams made a big deal about this as a way to legitimize photography as an art form, emphasizing the role of the artist in the creative act and deemphasizing the material (mechanical/chemical) aspects of photography. The mid-20th century was a different time… but I digress.]

I seek out surprise and delight, despite working with intention. For me, surprise comes from not just accepting, but encouraging “mistakes”. It’s introducing chance and welcoming unexpected outcomes in my artwork. Surprise comes from discovery through making. It comes from photographing unseeable things and from allowing for unanticipated editing decisions. It’s working without (excessive) judgment.

It’s a feeling of “whoa!” that’s all too rare but wonderful nonetheless.

2. Satisfaction of doing.

Starting. Overcoming inertia. Getting things made. Deep down, I still believe in the fundamental value of work (especially ✨WORK! ✨) as an inherently good activity.

And yet, it’s so easy to not do the work, to not make art. There are new episodes of Slow Horses to watch, amazing posts on Substack to read, boardgames to play, lots of necessary things to do around the house. These things are all fine, but they don’t provide a sense of accomplishment the way art making does. ‘Doing’ puts a thing into my hands that didn’t exist at the start of the day. ‘Doing’ means I overcame resistance and made a mark, even if only a little one. And if you stick with it, all those marks add up.

3. Exercising capability.

Employing a skill helps to remind me that I have that skill. It shows where I need to improve. It keeps the skill fresh. I’ve been at this long enough to have forgotten many things that used to be top of mind. Exercising capability shakes the dust off of skills / ideas / concepts that I haven’t touched for a while.

4. Trying something new.

Opposite of the last one, trying something new is like… exercising incapability. It lowers the stakes… it invites play. It’s adopting the beginner’s mind, doing something I’ve never done before, picking up new tools or trying new processes, going to new places, making different choices. Trying something new welcomes experimentation without expectation. It allows me to think, “I’ve never done this before, so sucking at it is not only OK but expected.”

5. Going deep.

I love falling into tangents, exploring weird subjects, learning all the things. The part of my professional life that’s most satisfying is ‘product discovery’, which is ‘developing a deep understanding of customers and their needs, then using that knowledge to build the right products’. I indulge this same urge everywhere in my life–I let myself get lost in Wikipedia, seek out the origin of that word, and want to understand the how’s and why’s of things. The world is endlessly fascinating.

My art practice encourages me to dive deep about photography. I’ve built weird cameras and have used weird things as lenses (and sometimes not used lenses at all). Learned about photochemistry and mixed my own developer. Printed with platinum. Made Polaroid transfers. Shot in infrared. Painted with light. Was an early HDR adopter. Cross-processed film. Worked with photocollage and negative manipulation and focus stacking and a hundred other things. I want to know and do all the things.

👋 Over to you

So, now that I’ve shared things about art making that bring me joy, what does your version of this list look like?

You’ll have different motivations, I’m sure, with different expectations and different objectives–it’s your list after all. Recognize those things (about art making) that fill your heart with joy… acknowledge them, encourage them, give them time and attention and support. Seek them out. Make them part of your day-to-day.

Don’t have a list? Jot down some ideas this week. It’s worth the effort, even if your list is incomplete (like mine). Maybe tell me what’s on your list?!

Joyfully yours,

P.S. Let us know, what about art making brings you joy?

Cover image: 11-07-2023-5 (Love, color version). ©2023 Ron Johnson.