Gumption Traps for Artists (and What to Do About Them)

About a month ago, I wrote on Gumption Traps, those things that slow down one’s momentum and enthusiasm, as mentioned in the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. We all run into them, no matter what our area of work is. But artists are particularly prone to them, since we put so much of ourselves into what we do.

As a quick refresher on Gumption Traps, allow me to quote myself:

It’s important to remember that there are two primary sources of gumption traps: external, which are really setbacks, and internal, which are really your own hang-ups of some kind. Knowing where the source is helps you figure out the solution, whether it’s something outside of you, or something to do with your own approach to the problem that’s keeping you stuck.

I also mentioned how external setbacks come in a variety of forms, and there are a number of strategies for dealing with them, many of which are already available if you do a little research. External setbacks can be frustrating, but it’s the internal hangups that you really have to watch for. And since artists so often do self-defined work, most of the setbacks they experience are internal. That brings us to the three kinds of internal hangups:

  1. value traps
  2. truth traps
  3. muscle traps

Value Traps for Artists

Since value traps are the ones where your thinking is not as clear as it should be, it’s easy to see how the first one, value rigidity, comes into play whe we put the emphasis on wrong area in our work. Our focus may be too narrow or to broad. We may get all caught up in one particular thing that the rest of the artwork gets ignored or ends up halfway done. The solution is similar to that of truth traps: change your focus and shift it to something else. Another solution is to consciously avoid developing one area more than the rest of the piece, and develop it all at the same time.

If you’ve got a lot of anxiety about the piece you’re working on, you’ll see it in your fussiness, nervousness, and generally overdoing things. In this case, you’re probably expecting too much out of yourself. You have to relax and lower your expectations. Don’t put up with mediocrity, but don’t be hard on yourself if every piece you produce isn’t a blue-ribbon winner.

Along the same lines, you might be really overwhelmed by the magnitude of your project, no matter how awesome you know it is. when this happens, try breaking it down into more manageable pieces.

Truth Traps for Artists

When you’re thinking of things in terms of either/or answers, try thinking of a third option. As I’ve said before, it might be that the “question” you’re trying to ask is too small, or just plain irrelevant. Try changing your angle. You might be coming at your piece too directly or too obliquely. Try doing just the opposite of what you’re doing.

Muscle Traps for Artists

Like I said before, muscle traps deal with your physical capabilities and available tools. Sometimes the equipment you have is not adequate and hinders you from getting the job done. Low-quality brushes, paints, canvas, pencils, clay, paper, scissors, computer hardware and software, etc. will do you in and frustrate you more. Invest in the best tools you can afford.You’ll be glad you did.

Another muscle trap for artists is a lack of strength or knowing how far to push your materials. Mechanic’s feel is a great analogue for this. This problem crops up with throwing pottery on a wheel or stretching a canvas, or anything that requires a bit of physical strength. The trick here is to know how far your materials and tools can and should go. This comes with experience.

As I mentioned last month, your physical environment can affect you a lot, bordering on external setbacks. If you’re hot, you get frustrated and angry easily. If you’re cold, you get in a hurry and make mistakes. You become careless. Pay attention to ergonomics and comfort. Make sure you have adequate lighting and ventilation, especially when working with oil-based paints, clay, or airbrush/spray paint.

I’ve tried everything and I’m still stuck

I can think of two things here: you’ve got something else bothering you on a deep level and you haven’t taken care of it, or you just need to take a break. Know your own limits.