I have been spending the last 4 or 5 Fridays in a row catching up on my portfolio review backlog, and it means I’ve been having the same 3 conversations over and over again. Believe it or not, I really only have minor variations on roughly 3 conversations. And they’re kind of sorted by experience level. (The list should probably be a series of posts here. Maybe it will be.) For now, I’m going to talk about the most frequent conversation I had come up in portfolio reviews this year so far. It’s a problem of success, to a degree, but it can hit folks at any level of experience who have a job where you get paid to make art.

They way the topic comes up varies:
—When can I find time to work on my portfolio?
— I can never find time to draw for myself.
—How do I heal burnout?
—I miss making personal work.
—I think I want to quit my job.
—Whenever I try to make work for myself I end up staring at the wall.
—I want to make art when I get done with work but I just veg out in front of the TV.

But the question at the root of all of these is: How do you cope with the world when you make your coping mechanism your job?

People create as a way of processing the world. Most artists started making art as a way to self-soothe. As a way to make sense of the world. A way to heal hurt and disappointment. A way to deal with things we couldn’t name and didn’t understand when we were very small. And we take that into adulthood. Somewhere along the line we are praised for our skills. We are known for being “The Artist” in our families, in our schools, among our friends. And “Artist” becomes part of our identities. So it makes sense, when we are asked what we want to be when we grow up, we say a professional artist. Some of us went to art school. Some of us couldn’t or wouldn’t, and we came back to art later.

Being a “Real Artist” (a term I hate, but is commonly thought of as “An Artist Who Pays Their Bills Making Art”) means that you have commodified your skills. You have taken something you did to feel lighter and free, and weighed it down with expectations and responsibility. And while that’s a success that’s worthy of celebrating, it’s also a burden in a lot of ways. It’s a lot of pressure, for one thing. But it also means that you no longer have access to your coping mechanism of making art because you wanted to, and needed to for yourself — now you have to make art for other reasons, often for other people. And without your way of coping with the world, burnout starts adding up.

The first time most folks deal with this is about a year into their first art job, or after their first year of full-time freelancing. But then if you muscle your way through it, it comes back for you later on. Burnout can hit anyone at any stage of any career. Burnout happens when you drain your creative tank more than you refill it.

And how do you refill it? The only cure for Drain is Delight.

You have to find a new way back to Delight in your work, because the way you used it to heal yourself is now all wrapped up in responsibility.

Now as Artists we have multiple tanks we have to fill. There’s an inspiration tank too. That’s not what I’m talking about here. That’s a tank you fill with a soup of inspiration, and it ferments into awesome new ideas and you ALSO have to fill that tank more than you drain it, but that’s an expected and better understood concept. I am talking about your energy tank. Or maybe more accurately your excitement tank. The tank that is full of the desire to make. When that tank is empty everything feels like a grind, like you’re forcing it. When it’s full you’re dying to get back to that drawing board.

That tank needs to be filled by things that are NOT YOUR JOB. But you’re still a human being who has taught itself to process the world by making art. So how do you get around this when making art is your job?

Some artists create in a different medium entirely — that’s incredibly common. For some of us it’s enough to switch from paint to sewing, or sculpture, or even just working in a different medium like graphite or watercolor. Some of us need to go a bit further afield — we pick up musical instruments or baking recipes.

It doesn’t really matter what you do, so long as it is for the sheer enjoyment of doing it. Process over product is key here. It’s not really about the medium, but that’s a way to trick your brain in to switching into an entirely new mode. That’s a trick Art Therapists have learned to use when Artists show up in their practice. The first move is to give them a medium they’ve never tried before.

I honestly don’t think it matters what you do, so long as you find delight in doing it. And sometimes figuring out what delights us is actually pretty hard. But I challenge you to try. It’s never too late for New Years Resolutions. Make time for delight in your life, in your art practice, and it will fuel not only that medium, but refill your tank for all your creative work as well.