It happens to all artists, indeed, to all creative people, be they sculptors, writers, artists, musicians. Every once in a while the creative “flow” the ability to create seems to dry up and evaporate. We try to produce what we are normally able to do with little effort and we seem unable to. Our Muse has abandoned us.
The Muse is a concept that comes to us from Greek mythology. The Muses are the goddesses of the inspiration of literature, science and the arts. They were considered the source of the knowledge that was contained in poetic lyrics and myths. They were the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (who was memory personified).
It’s happened to me several times throughout my career. It’s nothing remarkable. As I said, all creative people experience it at one time or another. It happened again recently, but this time it got me thinking about about inspiration and discouragement and what that means for artists.
I am a fantasy and science fiction artist. When I was younger I would look to other fantasy and science fiction artists for inspiration. I bought books of artwork by Frank Frazetta, Boris, Michael Whelan, Michael Kaluta… any fantasy artist who put out a book of paintings, sketches… anything… I would snap up and pour over. Looking at these artists’ work inspired me to try to do the same thing. They were far and away more talented than I could ever hope to be, but I kept trying, kept examining their work, the minutest details, to try to tease out the secrets of their genius.
This was, of course, before the internet… before I could open up my web browser and see samples of art from any artist alive or dead around the globe.
You see, I knew that the artists who put out these books were professionals. I knew, also that if I worked hard and kept at it that I could be a professional as well. I could be one of that number. I would have arrived.
I was young. What can I say.
Well, I did become a professional, but along the way I discovered that there are different levels when it comes to being simply a paid artist. I also discovered that there is no such thing as “arriving” as an artist. You aren’t accepted into a secret society, there is no pin or badge or secret handshake to learn. As an artist (or indeed, as a writer, sculptor, musician, etc) there is no one moment when you can say: I’ve done it! I’ve become an artist!
What I found instead was that you are always chasing that ideal. When you produce a work there are always thousands of ways that it disappoints you. You can see mistakes. You can see the ways that what you produced falls far short of your original vision — the original inspiration.
The Muse teases you with an ideal that you can never fully reach. Sometimes you come closer than others and, ideally, you get closer to it each time you try.
And sometimes your Muse abandons you.
I’m fifty years old now. I still have all those books of art from the great masters, but I also have an internet connection. There is a lot of fantasy art out there. There are a lot of fantasy artists posting work. Not just professional artists, but artists at all stages of development post their work. Some of it is amazing. At times, as with recently, I notice, very clearly, in super sharp focus, just how much better it all is when stood next to my paltry few offerings. My entire body of work seems like a few drops of water compared with the ocean of fantasy and science fiction artwork that threatens to wash me away like an electronic tsunami.
I looked to my Muse to inspire me, but she’s not there. Maybe she got freaked out by the tsunami and jumped on a bus while I wasn’t looking. I don’t know.
So what does an artist do in situations like that? Well, in my case it was a simple post to Facebook addressed to my fellow artists. I asked if they ever felt like just hanging it up because their art seemed so paltry compared to the work of others. Of those who answered, half agreed. They often get discouraged and think of giving up and, like me, at the time they think that they are the only one who feels that way. The other half said that that seeing better work only inspired them to up their game.
Both responses were helpful. Their experiences encouraged me to continue.
And you know what? My Muse, that inconstant inspiration, came slinking back. I hope she feels bad for abandoning me — but not too bad. While she was gone a commission came in. I have work to do.