Know your why: 14 powerful art making motivators

The “why’s” of art making, and what keeps us going.

Viewfinder Vol 1, Issue 8See all issuesSubscribe to Viewfinder

It’s almost assuredly incorrect to say that apocryphally-apple-loving Sir Isaac Newton was talking about art making and other creative endeavors when he created his Laws of Motion. Since he was a mathematician, physicist, astronomer and all that, evidence suggests his interests leaned towards the hard sciences. After all, Newton helped kick off the Scientific Revolution–he was very much a S.T.E.M. guy. Art making? Probably not so much.

Regardless, good ole Sir Issac gets us started today.

Newton’s Law of (art making) Motion

Newton’s first Law of Motion has two parts: 1) “an object at rest stays at rest” and 2) “an object in motion stays in motion… unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.” The first part is talking about inertia of course, the invisible force that keeps all the bits of the universe from moving around willy-nilly.

In a previous issue of Viewfinder, we discussed strategies for overcoming inertia and getting your art making practice moving. Starting small. Making a time and place for your art. Getting excited about materials and tools. Setting goals. Getting curious. The aim is to do something today so that tomorrow, instead of starting with a blank page, you’re building atop work-in-progress.

But then the second part of Newton’s law gets us. “An object stays in motion… unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.” Take your foot off the gas and your car will roll to a stop as wind resistance and rolling friction turn all of your forward momentum into heat and noise. Without a source of energy to keep things moving, unbalanced forces eventually return the object to rest.

Unbalanced forces work against art making

Forces are unbalanced against art making, too. In small ways and large, all artists know that powerful forces will eat away at their momentum. Unless counterbalanced with an equally powerful force, the regular frictions (obligations, distractions, work, etc.) of life will bring your art making practice to a standstill.

In other words, after you start, you have to continue.

How do you do that? You need a source of energy to propel your art making practice forward, powerful enough to at least equal all that resistance, so that you’re not slowed, so that you keep moving. Your battery needs juice, your creativity needs fuel, your art practice needs power.

To continue, you need a source of energy. That source of energy is “your why”.

“Why’s” for your art making

What drives you make art? What is your source of energy? In the first issue of Viewfinder, we named one: “the need to fill the void”, the urge to address the feeling that something’s missing in your life. This drive is a good one, but not the only one, maybe not your reason why.

Any of the list below might work for you. You’ll know your “why” when you see it. It’s that endlessly powerful generator that lights you up with the energy you need to continue.

Note: not all of these are necessarily healthy–some are like renewable sources of energy and others are akin to burning coal. Some connect you to the world and others are more internally focused. Some will become exhausted and in time, you’ll need to find a replacement… your “why” of today may not be the same tomorrow.

A partial list of possible “why’s”

  1. Art making fills your void.
    Everyone–every single one of us–has a fundamental need to create. There’s an art-sized hole in your life, and making art makes you feel whole.
  2. Art making as your identity.
    If you don’t make art, can you really call yourself an artist? Making art today keeps the imposter syndrome away (at least, until tomorrow).
  3. Art making makes you a better person.
    What is art if not an exercise in seeing, thinking, and experiencing? And how better to improve yourself than by doing these things? Artfulness is mindfulness.
  4. Art making as a ticket to fortune (or at least, sustainable living).
    Art is your profession and you treat it as such. Everything you put out into the world could become a source of income. Or a way to ‘be discovered’. Making art = making money or opportunities.
  5. Art making is how you contribute.
    Making your art is an act of generosity. Sharing your voice helps others feel better or think differently. It promotes sonder. The world is a better / more beautiful / more interesting place with your art in it.
  6. Art making… everybody’s doing it.
    You’ve managed to surround yourself with other artists and creative folks, and they’re all knocking out great work, and so must you. Social pressure can be a powerful motivator to keep you moving.
  7. Art making as a response to the existential truth of the nihilistic abyss.
    There’s literally no purpose to existence, but you do exist, so you might as well make amazing art, right? It’s way, way better than nothing.
  8. Art making as an expression of curiosity.
    Art gives you a reason to explore, to think about, to discover, to learn about new things. Your art making is about experimentation and the result of those experiments.
  9. Art making as a source of prestige.
    Art is a way to garner external validation; accolades and praise, or likes and followers, or ratings and reviews. Your art is a way to be chosen and be recognized.
  10. Art making as revenge.
    No one has the right to say that you can’t make art, that you’re not good enough, that your art is a waste of time. You make art to prove them wrong.
  11. Art making is the practice of getting better.
    You know your art isn’t good enough yet. The only way for it to get better is by making it, pushing yourself, doing the work. Discontentment drives you. Growth feels good. Continual improvement is what matters.
  12. Art making builds connections.
    Art is a way for you to connect with others, either directly (through community) or indirectly (through the subject of your art). It is your voice.
  13. Art making can solve problems.
    You know that art has the power to change the world; great art can affect great change. And even modest art still has the potential to make things a little bit better.
  14. Art making as exercising capability.
    You’ve spent a long time perfecting your craft, maintaining an art making practice, doing the work. When you make art, you flex those muscles. Flexing feels good.
Color photograph of a bumpersticker with the text, "I'd rather be here now".
12-12-2023-2 (Self-portrait, I’d rather be here now) ©2023 Ron Johnson

Why ‘your why’ matters

More than providing the energy so you can overcome resistance and continue, your particular ‘why’ is massively important, as it affects other aspects of your art making practice. This is worth repeating: your “why” shapes the “how” and “what” of your art, and sometimes even then “when” and “where”.

For example, if your why is #6 (everybody’s doing it), you are motivated to create so as to not be left behind, to justify your place among your peers. Everyone in the group is working and so must you. You are driven by an external source of accountability which can be undeniable… as long as it persists. Your peers can challenge you and push you and your work out of the comfort zone and into exciting new places… or you may find yourself making art for the wrong reasons (reasons that don’t suit you).

Your “why” determines the questions you ask, the urgency of the search, the answers you find and what you decide to do with them. It helps you justify the expense of art, both in time and money. It’s what keeps you coming back when art making gets hard, which it always does at some point.Your “why” points you in the right direction, gets you moving, and helps you continue until you get there.

👋 Over to you

By now, hopefully you’ve identified your “why” or are thinking about it. Maybe it’s on the list above, or something completely different.

Figure it out. Write it down.
Does it feel / look right?

Say it aloud.
Does it ring true?


Put it somewhere where you’ll see it frequently. Make it your computer’s background, put it on your phone, or stick it to the bathroom mirror.

When you feel resistance, remind yourself of your “why” and give yourself a reason to continue.

After a while, if your “why” no longer feels true, or maybe-kinda-but-not-exactly true, it’s time to update it. After all, you’re not the same person you were yesterday. Your “why” will also change in time.

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Putting the “why” in “wise guy”,

P.S. Twice while finishing this, I was forced to edit the title as I thought of other “why’s”. And I’m sure there are many more. What did I miss? Tell me:

P.P.S. In case you missed it, I share my “why” in: Gratitude and joy: Everything* I love about making art.

P.P.P.S. Artist and writer Austin Kleon wrote a book called ‘Keep Going–10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad’. I’m a fan of Kleon and he’s a bit of a role model for me. Whereas this article talks about “why”, this book focuses in “how”. It’s a good book and a quick read–you can finish it in a sitting–but the real pleasure of it are the illustrations interspersed throughout. 

Cover image: 12-12-2023-5. ©2023 Ron Johnson.