how to stay motivated as an artist

"How do artists stay motivated to consistently produce new work??!"

 That's a question that seems to pop up once a week on digital art forums and facebook groups. Usually it's from self taught artists trying to get their foot in the door, or art school students struggling to sit down and get to work on their next portfolio piece. 
And they are not really wrong to ask, I think almost everyone on earth can struggle with a lack of motivation at times. I know I have for extended periods throughout my life. So if you are feeling down in the dumps, know it is a common feeling and you are not alone in your efforts to get your ass in gear.
 I hope some of the tools and tactics I’m going to lay out for you below can help you re-frame your problem and give you some key mindset shifts that really helped me in my journey from a broke-ass basement artist struggling to get my first game job, to an industry professional with 10+ years of experience under my belt. As always, if you get something out of this please let me know in the comments, your feedback directly influences the type of content I put out! And more importantly, if you know someone who's struggling to increase their output or attack their goals, share it with them!
“I just gotta play a few video games to get inspired and motivated” - The Procrastinator
“I’m gonna watch Blade Runner again for the 10th time and get motivated to work on my cyberpunk scene I’ve been planning for the last 3 months, it’s gonna be awesome!” - The Planner
“If I could just get a chance, I'm sure I would crush it at a studio job, I would thrive in that environment making art all day! I just hate working on my portfolio alone at home” - The Daydreamer 
“I sat my ass in a chair and made art for 4-8 hours a day for two years straight and got my portfolio up to industry quality. I actually wanted to cry at times” - The Successfully Employed
Which one are you??

1. Relying on motivation is BULLSH*T

That was the original title idea for this article, and a statement I stand behind 1000%. I think the number one mistake amateur or struggling artists make is to think that if they can just get motivated, they will suddenly become an amazing artist and finish up their portfolio in no time! But in reality all they do is spend hours researching and reading, consuming content and tutorials but never actually take action in producing anything themselves. If they could only flip their consumption/production ratio, they would be well on their way to that dream job.
The biggest difference between a professional and a hobbyist in almost anything is that a professional will consistently get to work outputting results even on days, weeks or months when they don't feel motivated to do so. If there is one takeaway you get from this please let this be it: 


"An amateur waits for inspiration to strike, a professional just gets to work"

It’s not  a difference in raw talent (that only takes you so far, there are plenty of talented losers out there doing nothing), it’s not that they have found some secret fountain of motivation no one else knows about, they are probably not smarter than you, or any other of the thousand excuses people love to come up with to justify their lack of action and output. They simply work even when they are "not feeling it" and push through that mental resistance. That’s it. 
Maybe they have honed a couple of the tools that many successful people focus on developing, but at the end of the day it comes down to putting in the work.  Here's the good news: anyone can develop these skills with a bit of patience, effort and hard work. How badly you want it will dramatically determine your time frame to success. Everyone has their own pace, use a little self awareness to determine just how badly you want it and a realistic cruising speed that will help you hit your goals. There is a HUGE difference between saying you want something badly to your friends and family and how much you actually want it deep down inside. It's the internal gauge that actually matters, because that will be what drives your actions. And your actions are the only thing that will deliver your results.
Ahhh the top secret magical fountain of motivation!

2. Self Discipline

This one is huge, and usually the first term people throw out as the alternative to motivation. I would tend to agree, forcing yourself to put down the ps4 controller and open up 3ds max is a definite step in the right direction. 
Self discipline is like a muscle, the more you force yourself to use it, the stronger you become at actually getting on track with what you should be doing instead of what you feel like doing. Trying to go from zero to hero isn’t a good solution, take small steps that you can realistically take action against; You will feel a sense of accomplishment and that will boost your self confidence over time. 
Instead of trying to go from zero to 100 mph right off the bat, start by keeping the small promise to yourself of sitting down and doing art for 30 minutes. After that initial time commitment, if you are feeling it keep going! If not, go do something else guilt free because you have already accomplished your initial goal of 30 mins of art. Over time, increase the time frame to an hour or more after you have pumped up your self discipline muscle from the initial starting point. With enough consistency you will be rockin' out 4 hour+ art sessions in no time. I have lost count of the times I have sat down to just fiddle with the lighting for 10 mins or fix that material, only to find myself in a flow state rockin out to tunes and suddenly hours have past and I'm still working on a scene. Sitting down to start is often the hardest part. So get those self discipline muscles pumpin'.
artist self discipline meme
This silly seal aint makin' no gains....

3. Build Good Habits

If you are struggling to build out a portfolio, chances are your habits are playing a big role in the process. Good habits can help carry you to the finish line, while bad ones will actively work against you to sabotage your progress. 
If self discipline is what gets the initial momentum started, then having a good set of habits around producing art is going to help put your journey on autopilot and carry you to the finish line. They say it takes at least 30 days to develop a habit, so get started! If you can set yourself up so that when you get home from work you immediately sit down at your computer, and start working for an hour before dinner, chances are a month later you might catch yourself working away on your project without actively having to push yourself as hard to get started.
Set yourself up for success: leave your software open and running with your project loaded at all times on your computer, so when you sit down there is no long, drawn out process of waiting for stuff to load while you get distracted surfing the web or social media. Better yet, use software to block out access to social or other time waster sites while you work. Schedule dedicated blocks of time at the same time every day to work. This helps create mental triggers so that when you sit down at your computer it is clearly work time and you know what you are doing. A lot of runners leave their workout clothes and shoes next to the bed so when they wake up, they put them on and going for a run is a lot easier. Remove obstacles that you use to procrastinate or make excuses for yourself.
If you have a bad habit of coming home from work, sitting on the couch and watching tv or playing games for an hour or two before dinner, try to do whatever you can to be aware of it and do something productive instead, at least in the short term while you hammer on that 'folio. If you feel the need to browse Artstation for inspiration for 30 mins before attempting to get to work, fawning over others finished work is not going to help you get yours done. If you are serious about getting a career as an artist, then you might have to actively work to get rid of habits that are out of alignment from your long term goals. Short term pain, for long term gain. Instant gratification feels good in the but it rarely gets you where you need to go.

4. Start small and finish your projects...

One of the quickest ways to destroy your self confidence and motivation is to never finish what you start. I would go so far as to say that by constantly abandoning projects halfway through due to a "lack of motivation" you are building one of the worst habits that will surely keep you from your goal of getting your portfolio industry ready.
Two huge mistakes I usually see junior artists making is biting off more than they can chew, and then abandoning the project after they see the mountain of work that lies ahead. It is not uncommon for a first year art student to drop a super fired up project post on the "what are you working on" section of Polycount, showing how they are going to re-imagine an entire level of a classic game, or build a massive open world RPG town. This is usually accompanied by a bunch of cool mood boards and prop reference sheets, or a piece of concept art color coded to show modular assets...and then....tumbleweeds. The thread dies a quick death as the artist realized the thousands of hours required to actually accomplish their task. Then, you see that same artist create another overly ambitious project thread a week later because they felt "inspired" by the latest ArtStation concept art dump to hit their feed.
Creating mood boards and prop breakout sheets is good and shows planning, but if the scope of your project is too grand, it can amount to action faking, not action taking.  Don't get stuck in the planning phase, without actual execution you are just spinning your wheels in the mud. 
Don't worry, it happens to all of us
Every time you actually finish something you get a huge dopamine rush and your self confidence goes way up. You gain positive momentum and suddenly approaching the next task at hand is a hell of a lot easier. Vice versa, every time you don't follow through with a promise or goal you made to yourself, it actually chips away at that self confidence bank, which can lead to a huge negative spiral for some people.
When you are a beginner artist you need to start small. Your self discipline and self confidence and self discipline muscles when it comes to tackling art on a consistent basis are not swoll enough yet to go the distance. Starting small with a prop or something like a single building taken to completion gives you a manageable task that can still be impressive and work as a portfolio piece. You can actually have a hope of finishing it rather than another epic layout greybox abandoned and gathering dust on your hard drive. Every project usually has a point where you fall out of love with it, Seth Godin calls it "The Dip" and he wrote a short but sweet book on it, I would highly recommend it as essential reading for most creatives.
So start small, and finish your projects! I would go so far as to say if you have a backlog of half finished work you haven't touched in 6+ months sitting on your hard drive, delete it! The mental noise and guilt of having those abandoned projects sitting there staring at you whenever you open your art folder is only going to discourage you. Having half finished work that you abandoned only gives you more avenues for distraction and takes focus away from whatever project you should be working on. what are you going to do? Open those old files, stare at it for 30 mins trying to figure out where you left off before finally closing the program in frustration and retiring to the couch yet again?! Don't let yourself get spread thin mentally. I recently did this exercise of deleting all my abandoned work and it freed up a lot of mental hard drive space as well.
Most importantly, building up the habit of finishing what you start is essential if you actually want to be taken seriously as a professional artist. I can promise you there will always be a point in a game production cycle where you won't be "feeling it". It could last a day, a week or even a couple months, but I can tell you from personal experience most professional artists get out of the motivation zone once in a while. Again, a professional artist still works even when they don't feel 100% inspired. If you are going to work in a studio environment you don't really have the option of abandoning whatever you are working on halfway through if you lose motivation, so work like  a pro even if you are not hired yet. I can guarantee it will help you get there a lot faster both in terms of the quantity/quality of art you are putting up on your ArtStation page and the mental fortitude required to pump out art on a daily basis once you get hired and really start doing this 8 hours a day.

5. Realize it's a marathon, not a sprint.

It can be extremely discouraging to spend 2-4 years in art school producing what you think is your "final portfolio" and then receive zero replies when you start applying to jobs. Or worse yet, post your portfolio (which NEEDS to be on Artstation) for critiques and have industry artists tell you to throw away all your student work and start fresh with all the new skills you have acquired. Ouch.
Every artist has their own pace and path into the industry of their choice, be it games, vfx, digital media etc. I could point to some artists that are self taught and got their work to AAA quality in under 2 years of hard work, while some others go to school for a couple years then need to spend another 2-3 years working on their skills. Everyone advances at their own pace, and there is no set in stone method or path for breaking in. That's why some students who just got their degree think that piece of paper entitles them to a job, and can't understand why they are being passed over for for someone who didn't even go to school. That's a whole other topic for another day.

Just be aware that your journey into becoming a paid, professional artist is probably going to be at least a 2-5 year process if you are just starting out. Nothing happens in a 6 month zero to hero time frame. The quicker you can put things in perspective, the sooner you can get to work for the long term.

6. Stop letting your emotions drive your actions

There is a phenomenal section in the book No Excuses: The Power of Self-Discipline by Brian Tracy where he talks about how most people let their emotions govern their actions and that's a huge part of the reason why they will never achieve their goals. 

He says the average person's daily though process runs something like this: 

Feelings>Thoughts>Actions = Your results

Example A - Peter Procrastinator "I feel down today, I don't really have the energy or inspiration to get to work right now so I'm just going to watch an episode of Friends before bed and work on my portfolio tomorrow when I'm fresh. Getting into the industry is so hard, maybe I'm just not cut out for it..."  
In that case you can see how some people start in a negative mindset which cripples their ability to actually take action, and the lack of movement towards their goals or passions in life loops them back around into another negative, self defeating attitude to end the day. What do you think Peter's next day is going to look like?! Probably a Friends marathon while eating chips on the couch with a extra serving of extended ArtStation browsing sessions to re-affirm his limiting belief that those artists are just born with more natural talent than him. Somebody call whine-one-one, Peter needs a whaaambulance dispatched to his location ASAP.
People who excel in their field and high performers in general have the order of those feelings, thoughts and actions in a different order. Those who tend to be "crushing it" at whatever they attempt in life go about things like this: 

Thoughts>Actions>Feelings = Your Results.

Example B - Action Amanda " I know getting into the industry can be competitive and takes time, but if thousands of others have done it before, there is no reason I can't do the same. I Just have to put in the work!" *An evening of work later* "Awesome! Another step towards my goal, I feel f*cking pumped! Can't wait to finish this up tomorrow and post it up on ArtStation!"
In the example above you can see how the persons positive mindset drives their actions which in turn reward them with good feelings. Happiness is a byproduct of taking action towards something you want to achieve not a default state that then allows you to take action. Action comes first, then the good fuzzy feelings as a reward. 
I can personally attest to this, as I've fallen into the trap of letting feelings drive my actions and still do, but now at least I have the ability to recognize that self sabotaging behavior and pull out of a nose dive before smashing into the jagged rocks of reality and exploding in a fireball of existential self doubt. If you are having a problem with mindset and developing self discipline, this book is a must read, it was pretty game changing for me. In fact, it might be time for another read through.
no excuses book
Please read this...

7. Use the power of engaging in the community

It can be easy to feel like you are all alone when you are putting in the long hours of work alone in your apartment, parents basement or wherever you crank out art. I know I felt that way when I was working on my first game art portfolio. I thought if I could just work in a team environment I would be happier and more motivated in my day to day work. 

Once I started engaging with the CG community on forums and facebook groups, having that social experience did quite a lot to put the wind back in my sails. You don't even have to join a team project, just contributing to a community can do wonders to motivate you and lift that depression a lot of artists can struggle with. 

Suddenly there is a group of like minded people who you can be accountable to, share ideas with and get feedback from industry professionals in your work. That can really help turbo charge your productivity. Join ArtStation challenges with concrete deadlines if you feel you are struggling to complete a project. Seeing others charging towards the goal post in unison could throw some gas on the fire and drive you to do the same. It literally costs you nothing and the ROI on your efforts can fantastic. The relationships you form can help you down the line.

An important caveat I can't stress enough is this: notice the word engage I used above. This means don't go into communities looking to take or focused on what YOU can get out of it. Look at what you can give, be it documenting your workflow for other artists to learn from, offering feedback and critiques, find ways to bring value to others and your own results will be supercharged as a result. Not only will you be able to look back a year from now and see how far you have come, but you will also understand your own process and workflows so much more by documenting them. It's win/win for minimal extra effort.

Joining a community and instantly dropping a link selling your gumroad product or trying to get people to give you a job right away is cringe inducing. Almost always those posts get zero replies or engagement because the community has no frame of reference or context for that person other than the fact they are just looking to take for themselves. Give value first, over and over again, over the course of a year or more AT LEAST, and then when you make your ask you might be pleasantly surprised with the results. People who have seen your track record of effort and output will be actively cheering for you to succeed. Imagine that 😉

Here are some great communities you can post your work for feedback, and join in the conversation about the CG industry:

8. Don't let money be your motivation

My final point that ties into the marathon mindset mentioned above would be to try to fall in love with the actual process of producing art instead of just the end result. There are points in every workflow people tend to hate, UVs, texturing, lighting etc. Usually these are peoples weak points and they want to rush through them to get the final presentation done and over with. If you only love showing off the end result, chances are you might not actually like spending 2-3 years building art for a game no one sees until launch, if you don't enjoy the actual process of making that art day to day.
And if you are doing it because you think it's an easy way to make would probably be better off with a different career choice.  Senior artists can make "good" money, $100k+ a year but compared to other industries the overall salaries are quite low and eventually you will hit a cap. You can potentially make way more streaming on Twitch or YouTube (one of the top Fortnite streamers was recently quoted making $500k A MONTH). This is where a little self awareness comes in. Do you actually like making games, or do you prefer to spend your time playing them? 
I find a lot of artists starting out think they want to become a gamedev but actually spend most of their free time playing video games rather than making art for them. In that case, maybe spending those same 2-5 years building an audience on Twitch or YouTube might be a better use of your time. That's something more game art students need to ask themselves, because now days playing video games for other people to watch and enjoy is actually a viable career path if you put in the time and effort to learn how to build an audience and marketing skills. It's 2018, you can find a way to monetize pretty much anything you enjoy doing and are good at, so get that figured out first! 
If you are truly passionate about becoming a professional games or VFX artist, then sitting down to spend a few hours a night pumping out new art shouldn't really be THAT hard. If it still is after using all the tips I have laid out above, then maybe it could be time to have a serious conversation with yourself about what you really enjoy doing instead and go do that! There is no shame in pivoting to do something you have discovered you enjoy more even after investing plenty of time and dollars into your initial goal. I know plenty of 3d artists who transitioned into concept art because they enjoyed it more, or others who left the industry all together because they wanted something different. 

Wrapping it all up

I don't want you to come away from this article thinking that motivation and inspiration can't be useful, but more to help put the ratio into perspective. They are really only 2-5% of the equation, while all the other things listed above make up the rest. If success was a cake, then they would be the icing...adding some nice flavor into the mix, but who wants to eat a cake made only of icing?!
They can be the little spark that gets you excited and in the mood, but to rely on them to carry you throughout the long nights of polygon pushing and pixel mashing is a mistake most beginners make. Develop your mindset over time and use that to crush your goals. I hope this article gave you a bit of a re-frame for the motivation question if you have been struggling. If it did, leave a comment below or share it with a friend, your feedback on my other articles has been fantastic so far! For even more I've embedded a pretty good podcast from the Flipped Normals channel on YouTube that expands on the subject!

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