You have so many ideas. You’re full of creativity and ready to apply it to any material you come across.
You paint for the pleasure, you paint commissioned work, you make jewelry, you snap photos, and you teach. You know who you are. You’re going 90 miles an hour in every direction with your hair on fire.
People say you should focus – pick one thing and get on with it.
There’s that “s” word again: should. Beware of this word. I’ve been guilty of using it a lot myself, but I’m becoming increasingly aware of how dangerous it is.
The only thing you should do is to be in integrity with your goals, your purpose, and your vision. How this manifests itself in your life is a delicate negotiation between you and the Universe.
There is, however, a reasonable argument to be made for concentrating your creative energy in one area.
The Case for Focusing Your Art
When your work is moving in multiple directions simultaneously, at least four problems arise.
1. It’s harder to master any one thing.
Racking up those 10,000 hours of expertise takes much longer when you’re working on 10,000 hours in two or three separate areas.
2. You struggle with setting priorities.
How do you know what to work on each day?
Note that there is a difference between making art and marketing it. If you decide to focus in a specific area, it doesn’t mean you can’t make other art. It might mean that you don’t promote the other work.
3. You confuse your audience – or so they say.
Marketing wisdom says that a confused buyer doesn’t buy. So, if you’re all over the map, the buyer can’t grasp what you’re all about.
I can’t help but wonder about this in the age where we market art directly to consumers. Do they care that an artist isn’t slick and branded?
It’s certainly true that artists seeking galleries and museums need to appear focused, but is it as necessary for everyone else as we think? I’m still pondering this question.
4. It’s just plain exhausting.
When you dabble in numerous things, you multiply your effort.
Different styles/products = Different audiences = Different marketing
The people looking for wedding photography might not be too interested in your ceramic sculpture and vice versa. You have to market to them separately, which means double the work.
It should be noted that just because you use different media doesn’t mean you have different styles. Style has little to do with media. Picasso applied Cubism to paintings, collages, sculpture, and ceramics. We know a Picasso when we see one – regardless of what it’s made of.
Artists aren’t the only ones to struggle with this.
In the first decade of my business, I threw everything out there to see if it would stick. I produced e-books, teleseminars, online classes, private coaching, group coaching, live workshops, special reports, and hard books.
I’ve tried it all and, although my audience is pretty cohesive, I know from experience how tiring it is to juggle so many products. I also believe it added to the confusion of my site visitors.
If You’re Pooped From Going In Different Directions
While I laid out a case for focusing your art above, I don’t believe in advising that you have to pick one thing and get on with it. If I tell you what art to focus on, you might rebel. You’re going to have to figure this out on your own, which you undoubtedly know.
If you’re an artist who struggles with lack of focus, just keep working. Work through all of the tests, trials, and uglies. Make tons of art, teach tons of classes, or write tons of books and then decide.
If that sounds like too much effort, perhaps evaluate your predicament analytically rather than emotionally.
What are your values and what are your needs?
Do you prize recognition by the art world or your community above all else? Some art can be considered legacy art, while other art might be seen as more commercial.
There is nothing wrong with either, but you need to understand the difference in order to find clarity around your work.
Is money a motivator?
If finances are a concern, other considerations will come into play.
What has the best potential for a high financial payoff over time? You intuitively understand that selling $3,000 original pieces (when you can get that kind of money for your art) is going to be a better market to focus on than the market for $50 miniatures. In the latter, you’d have to produce and sell 60 pieces to equal one $3,000 sale.
What could bring the fastest payoff? Sometimes life circumstances dictate that you have to bring in money quickly. What could you make or are you making that is easiest to find buyers for?
Finally, the big questions: What do you want to be known for? What will be written on your tombstone? What will your legacy be?
Words of wisdom that I picked up from Britt Greenland, one of my Inner Circle members: Be careful of trying to be the artist that others think you should be – doing what you think is expected of you rather than what you want.
[Tweet “Careful trying to be the artist others think you should be”]
This is your one precious life to live as only you can.
23 thoughts on “The Case For Focusing Your Creative Energy and How To Do It”
Interesting fact regarding the word “should”: it’s been discovered through monitoring the body, that anxiety rises when we use “should.” It’s better to replace it with words like “want to” or “would like to.” That spoke to me since I used “should” a lot and ironically (or not) had a difficult time expressing what I wanted.
Thanks for that insight, Peggy.
What do you want to accomplish with your art? I was recently asked that question. Besides keeping my cats in cat litter and a roof over their heads, I had to really think about that question.I don’t have the answer because it’s multiple choice. The best way to figure out what to do with your art is to figure out where you want to go with it. Fame and fortune or an altruistic message? or something else?
Maybe it’s a dollar figure. ??
I have heard the warning before about not confusing one’s audience. And for a while it weighed heavily on me, thinking I would have to be branded in a way that was limiting. I think that as an artist you have to be immersed in your art and develop your skill and always look for ways to expand and nurture your talent. I suppose one might worry about one’s audience, but the general public will always want to peg you for one thing and will be shocked to discover that you can do something else just as well. Whose journey is it anyway?
I understand that if you are trying to build a following and get your foot in the door, you may have to promote yourself as one thing before you let the other thing out. Lady Gaga is a good example – she was a blues singer in small clubs before she invented the Lady Gaga character – developed a mega following – and then revealed the serious jazz singer – teaming up with Tony Bennet and moving into a totally different category of music. And then she sang like Julie Andrews. What if she saw the “don’t confuse your audience” as an unbreakable rule?
Maybe we should think of surprising our audience instead of confusing them.
On the other hand I totally get the advice to focus on your art and eliminate those things that might be distractions. I think that for me a distraction in another medium is probably connected with artistic development. I may not know what it is I am trying to work out, but I believe it is all part of the creative process.
Jim: I love “surprising our audience.” Good one!
Perhaps making art for one audience is a bit like being the wage slave employee and perhaps surprising your audience is being an independent artist?
I like what Jim Carpenter said. In my own artistic life I have found I have a huge boredom factor that comes into play when I work on one medium too long. I enjoy big pastels, work on them for awhile, then I get into my Norwegian roots and work on my Norwegian Rosemaling which has a huge nostalgia pull for me, and then I try something else just for fun.
I did quit doing a lot of other things I enjoyed, to focus a bit more, but I think a good artist is a well-rounded individual and I just enjoy life the best way I can, I’ve had too many friends and relatives die way too young so I concentrate on enjoying my artistic life!
Diane: I couldn’t agree more. And, as I said, there’s a big difference between making art and marketing it.
Thank you Jim. I especially like the “surprising our audience”. My comment is from a buyers point of view. There are two things I love to buy: horses and art. I approach both the same way. Many of my horse buying friends pick a breed (analogous to picking an artist based on their style or subject matter such as flowers, animals, etc) and then they look to see what is available. I do not set breed as a criteria. I do not set style, artist, or subject matter as a criteria. I look for the connection, the magic, the one that moves my heart and soul. Those purchases are ever rewarding and engaging.
Disclosure: I am not your typical buyer. This is insight into one persons approach.
I’m with you, Terry, as a collector. However – also as a collector – I don’t think I’d be attracted to an artist who wasn’t fully developed in their work yet.
thank you for this exceptional post Alyson. So much good advice and reminders. A keeper for sure.
Love Jim’s phrase, “Maybe we should think of surprising our audience instead of confusing them.”
I’ve experienced the frustration of being labeled a bookmaker b/c I’d been doing that to the near exclusion of all else for a few months. I struggle to impress upon my audience that I work across media and use whatever I need to in order to best convey the message. that said, I have been feeling the urge to pare down and focus a bit, so this post came just in time, as they usually do.
Wow, Kristen. You got the label only after making books for a few months?
I joke with a former student of mine who is a triple threat – an actor who also sings and dances – after playing a comic lead role in a musical her reputation was solid – then she did a drama and people said “I didn’t know you could act” – 4 months later a musical comedy role people said “I didn’t know you could sing and dance” – 6 months later a comedy role – “I didn’t know you could be funny” – then a lead in WSide Story – “I did’t know you could sing and dance!” Then a dramatic role “I didn’t know you could act”… and this was from people who knew her. Fast forward 30 years – she makes her mark singing in cabaret-type shows – gets labeled a singer – then she plays the lead in a comedy “I didn’t know you could be so funny!” – Seriously, people peg you, label you as a one pony show, and are surprised to discover that you can do more than one thing well.
My favorite experience of this was when after i left teaching where I was known as a person who did theatre, I would show people my paintings and I would hear over and over again “Who knew you were so talented?” LOL! I know it was a complement but the response was so consistent across the board I had to laugh at the implication that they never thought I had any talent in the first place!
Thank you so much for writing this article, touching on the question I asked. Excellent food for thought, and I agree that the thing that needs to be crystal clear is my vision and goals. From there, I can screen my activities to see if they match up, if not, I shouldn’t perhaps persue that avenue. I have many more thoughts, but I think I’m going to go and crystalize my vision and goals…..
Bev: So happy you saw this post. I was about to reach out and let you know it was live. Thanks for asking the question.
I love branding. It is just SO interesting. But I think we are at the point of really expanding the horizons of branding…
Artists would have a PERSONAL brand, not a business one. A business one often has to be focused, but a personal brand doesn’t HAVE to be AS focused. I’ve recently been thinking to myself, that despite being in my late 40’s, I really identify with the “millennial” aesthetic in business and branding. Maybe because they flout so many of the rules – and are successful at it. Just like Jim mentioned with Lady Gaga. But moreso, I am thinking of many millennial artists – like Flora Bowley and Alena Hennessey who are artists, but also teachers, authors, etc. People know they are artists, but do they get confused when they offer yoga with their workshops, or art business and conscious creation (Law of Attraction) workshops. I don’t think so.
Mind you, an artist who also does, say, auto repairs – and has them both on one website WOULD be confusing. So, I guess it’s a case of how broad or narrow your focus is.
Thanks for all your wisdom, Alyson. 🙂
Keena: You touch on the very question I posed above. Maybe it’s not so important anymore. Maybe being fully developed and making amazing work is more important than the branding.
And I’m so happy you distinguished between personal and business brand. I tend to believe they should be simpatico, but I’m willing to explore.
I love how you mentioned the distinction between producing art and marketing it. I think that’s exactly the wording I’ve been searching for as I work on adding more experimentation into my art. I’m a bit nervous to create things that are completely different from my current style, but I also feel stifled in my current style and long to break out and expand. That differentiation between marketing and creating is exactly what I’m trying to understand as I let myself loose a bit. Thanks!
Or perhaps our artist brand is increasingly more personal because audiences are increasingly looking for authenticity…and…as Keena suggests…perhaps if you teach yoga in your art workshops rather than confuse, that just helps your brand because everyone remembers you for that?
It’s not really new for artists to write as well as paint or make movies as well as sculpt. Perhaps the gallery system has been responsible for the myth that artists produce in one medium and style because that was easier for marketing?
My experience has been that the more I embrace the wholeness of who I am, the louder my unique creative voice speaks 🙂
You are pushing my lazy math brain with your tests!
At 73, after a lifetime as a visual artist, I suddenly find myself with a new title: author.
Pulled in several directions, I am trying to stay focused on my audience and how they need to see me.
Are they most interested in my novel, my sculptures or my hand-painted books? Has one thing led to the next and are they all really basically related? Is there a common thread? You have given me something to think about today.
Oh no, Alice. But I did the math for you. Yes?
I suggest freewriting to help you find the common thread. Or mind mapping. I’ll bet it’s there.
Work, read the post and the comments and I’ve got a lot into my head today. I’m an introvert and an all round artist; I draw, paint with any media, i sculpt, i sing and write songs, i do poetry, I’m an illustrator, i do product design and i have a passion for animation. I can do all these things and more.. I’m 25 years old and very much confused on what i should focus on especially for the money. I have long term goals ofcourse, but i need the money. So the post above has somewhat enabled me to differentiate between a personal brand and a business brand, to “surprise the audience and not to confuse”, i laugh at myself sometimes because its me who is confused and not my audience i guess. Well, my goal is to be able to do all these kinds of art as a business brand which might make me some sort of artist entrepreneur. So i think the focus “should” be to do what brings me the money and pray for superhero powers to enable me reach my goal.