How to kick monkey butt.

I’ve written a lot about the nature of the inner critic that confounds our creativity. And so far, I’ve urged you to fight it by just getting to work. That may not be as easy as all that, so let me be more specific with some ways you can push past that hectoring little voice in your head.

Just start. Do one small drawing on one small piece of paper. A Post-It. Or draw a loose grid on your sketchbook page and fill in one single square with a line drawing of your foot. Whistle while you do it. If the monkey starts to grumble, hum louder. Push off that inner criticism for 120 seconds until you can get something down on the page.

Creating something, anything, can break the logjam. And it can give you something to look back at hours later, to get excited about. Initially, the monkey may sneer about your tiny attempt but go back at it and look at it again. Find something to love in it. It’s in there.

Don’t talk about it. If you are having block, don’t endlessly discuss it and seek solace from others. The more you do, naming it and broadcasting it, The more you solidify the block, the more of  a living entity it becomes. Give it a name and you give it power. Stress over it and you become twisted and jailed.

My words here are a double-edged sword. I want you to be able to see that your problem is a common one, that you don’t suck any more than the rest of us. But the more we dwell on this discussion, the more attention the monkey gets, and the less time we are spending making something.

Give him a banana.  Try holding out some sort of reward to yourself. A bribe to get it done. Say, “if I do three drawings today, I can buy a new fountain pen. ” “Or I can watch TV for an hour if I draw during three of the commercial breaks”. Or “I can eat that donut, if I draw it first .”

Use this tool judiciously. You don’t want to end up obese, broke, or in jail.


Get your lazy ass up. If the monkey tells you are a hopeless slug, agree with him. Tell him you want to improve and so you are going to set the alarm a little earlier and start the day right. Sit down and draw before your first cup of coffee. Fifteen minutes of drawing the reflections in the toaster as the coffee perks. Monkeys are lazy bastards too and they can’t get it together so early. I find I do my best work before I start reading email and talking to people and dealing with the day. Then for the rest of the day, I glow with that knowledge that I have already made art today and the rest is gravy. By knocking out a few drawings with the dawn, you will lubricate the wheels of habit while the monkey turns over and keep on snoring.

Do something you definitely suck at. Buy a medium that’s absolutely new to you. Draw on your iPad for the first time. Paint with ketchup on the kitchen counter. Play the digeridoo. By doing something you have never done before, you have the perfect excuse for sucking. If the monkey pops up, you can say, yes, yes, I know but this is my first time. Have fun. You’re making something. Sure, it’s no good. But keep going. Keep making. Keep exploring.

The great ape debates. If you can’t screen out your monkey, tune him in. Really put his critiques to the test. Ask the monkey to take the stand. Grill him.  But this time bring your inner lawyer to dissect his arguments.

Give the primate the benefit of the doubt. Take his arguments at face value and see if they hold any water. Maybe you do have room for improvement — none of us is perfect. You can learn and grow from self-examination. The thing we must avoid is self-destruction and abuse.

So, write down his complaints about you and come up with strong rational responses.  Write these down too. Next time the monkey levels these same criticisms at you, just tell him, “I’ve heard you and responded to the charges. What else you got?”

Stock your own arsenal. Sit down, like I’m doing, and come up with a bunch of ideas to trick yourself into sitting down and coming up with a bunch of ideas. If you want, start by critiquing my suggestions and then making up better ones that will work for you. Hate the idea of getting up at dawn? Fine, then draw at lunch, draw in the train, draw on the toilet. Come on, plus my ideas. What works for you?

28 thoughts on “How to kick monkey butt.”

  1. Yes, Danny! Controlling that darn monkey is a full time job. Yesterday I found myself totally free. So I bribed the monkey with chocolate and stupid tv, and painted like a maniac all afternoon and into the night. Glorious messy messes. This morning I looked at what I’d done and actually didn’t hate it. Today I’m setting myself up on the kitchen counter in front of the ac and locking Ms. Monkey in the refrigerator. The heck with bribes. Mind over monkey. Mess redux.


  2. I guess I don’t have a monkey. Instead I have a habit of drawing people where ever I happen to be. People are everywhere. Doing everything. But I especially like them eating, as they sit pretty still then. But this past week I was on vacation and I drew them playing music, talking to others, taking care of children, children listening to music, they are all so accommodating, except the one gal who got up and left just after I drew her hair and eyes … I had to leave her that way between two finished folks. It added to the story of my picture. Keeping a blog and getting feedback from others is a good way to keep going, to keep drawing.
    I did just recently start drawing on my iPad. Thanks for the idea of drawing on the toilet. I love trying new things! Happy drawing!


  3. This is great advice Danny. I believe everyone has a monkey of some kind. My monkey sits on my back and tells me how bad my drawing is from the moment I set pen to paper. Then he tells me I should start over because it’s all wrong. But that’s the thing. If I start over, he’ll just laugh at me. If I push through that barrier, the drawing almost always starts to look good and the monkey goes away. Perseverance rules the day.


  4. How about “drawing the monkey!” — Love your motivational talk. So far I haven’t had to worry about the “monkey” … I just sit down and do it! Since I am taking an on-line course currently that is motivation enough and when I am done with my lessons I have cards to make, journal pages to create, a pooch to sketch, and time to look at all the wonderful journal pages and other art entries on line, watch a tutorial or otherwise research various topics! Yahoo!


  5. Great advice! I make a lot of drawings in the late afternoon while I’m organizing and cooking dinner. I can usually steal five or ten minutes here and there while I’m waiting for something to steam, or roast in the oven, etc. I keep a sketchbook and a pen handy so that I don’t have to go find them.

    Subject matter can be as diverse as part of the meal I’m cooking to something interesting I noticed during my travels that day. My husband had learned not to remove weird things that show up on our coffee table until I have had a chance to draw them.


  6. I have definately enjoyed and Needed your monkey mind essays lately. Going through a bit of funk myself…then I start to get really nervous that I’ll never paint or write again, then the monkey starts laughing and round and round we go. One simple thing I do is buy a coloring book and crayola crayons (no off brand crayons for this) and I color. Oh yes, you have to smell the pages of the book and the crayons. They still smell like when you were 8 years old. I also love your post it note drawing idea. Going to take post its to work with me today. Thanks Danny.


  7. Usually I draw everyday, just a quick sketch or a more elaborate one. It is a good way of keeping the monkey under control. But when the monkey attacks, I watch this video. Yes, really I do. Maybe be the music or the quick change of scenes but it inspires to me a lot.


  8. Great advice! I’m going to bookmark this so I can reread it when the monkey strikes. I usually draw on my lunch hour but I like the idea of starting my day sketching.


  9. Danny, my monkey is often grumbling, because he thinks that I’m not enough engaged in my another profession “landscape gardener” ( he means “acquisition” 😦 ).
    This is my trick:
    I’m sitting on my “balcony-garden” (many flowerpots,…sunflowers, dephinium, herbs, lavender, many mixed “summer flowers” etc. – I cultivate it all by myself…) and I’m thinking of garden and “landscape-gardener” and I’m whistling and drawing this beautiful flowers.
    Painting my own flowers – like CLAUDE MONET 🙂 – on the balcony…it’s like heaven and “summer hollyday for free” …
    Later this “painted flowers” are seen on my blog and the monkey shut’s up!!! 🙂
    – Matthias


  10. I find it amazing listening to how critical everyone is about their drawing ability. It really shows how much they care. There would be no monkey if their wasn’t great personal value attached to it.

    I used to desperately want to draw and paint well at art school but my drawing really fell apart along with my confidence. It all sort of tightened up and was like I was drawing in the third person.

    I stopped drawing completely for years and never gave it another thought. I lost touch with the art crowd and never visited a gallery again – it was all like it didn’t happen. Then I was asked to supply something for a friend’s magazine. I had to write something and there was a space that had to be filled with something. Anything. So I drew a funny illustration. I didn’t give a monkey’s, as they say. It went down well all the same. I still didn’t really care in the way I used to.

    I still don’t. I like drawing and appreciate others who draw and paint well but I know that I’ll never care enough to tighten up again or sweat it about doing a bad drawing.

    It reminds me of one particular game I was playing for our school football team (soccer). I was tripped in the box and about to take the penalty kick when another player ran up and took the kick, skying it way over the bar and completely out of the school and into nearby gardens. Did he cringe? No, he laughed. He knew there would always be a next time. I wasn’t annoyed at all by the theft; I was in awe. I realized for the first time that the real winners are the ones who aren’t afraid to lose. This kid scored lots of goals because he missed more than anyone else.

    He really didn’t care. Have you ever noticed how great comedians – really funny people – are the ones who genuinely don’t seem to care about falling on their face?

    My drawings still stink and I am of course still an idiot should my monkey from yesteryear be listening. But I’ll continue to sky them over the bar and laugh about it.


  11. My monkey is saying: what is the use of all this?

    I say: it is all so very beautiful. amazing. If i am not drawing it, I am taking a mental picture. Right now it is raining and the sun is setting behind a wall of purple clouds. above me are orange clouds against blue sky. It is raining on my laptop.

    Maybe I will let” my inner critic – monkey – draw a picture for me. “What will YOU draw, Monkey?”.

    Great idea to do art in secret – for me. or in public, anonymously.


  12. So, first I let the monkey paint a picture for me. It was a shelter of sorts with bars around it with a flower inside. I think the monkey was telling me he is trying to protect me from craziness out there. Then I did a painting for the monkey. It is all straight lines, straight arrows, dots (putting a fine point on everything). The monkey want perfection. The monkey does not like the unknown, does not like chaos. So, I did a painting that wouldn’t scare him too much.


  13. Fantastic advice here. To get started and keep trying, keep exploring. I wonder if the monkey on my back will ever leave, with him telling me things that I could be doing other than drawing and writing. And then criticizing what I’ve created. But making friends with him is better than always letting him have his say. I really liked what you said about self examination. Bring out your inner lawyer and grill the monkey back, see what he’s right about when he criticizes my work. Learning and keep going. Thanks for all this.


  14. Thanks for the push. i too, like the others, love the video and buy supplies but don’t put pen to paper for art (i journal but use mostly stamps and such) but this morning you pushed just enough and i drew my breakfast. no cool music in the background but it doesn’t suck and looks like what was in front of me. now to wait tip the paints come so i can fill in some shadows….


  15. I so enjoy your blog, there is always something that rings true with me and often makes me both think and laugh.

    Today it was your words about drawing in ketchup on the kitchen counter. It reminded me of a time when I wrote ‘Happy Birthday’ on the top of a cake using ketchup in a squeeze bottle. It was such a freeing moment that my monkey was stunned into silence (along with most of the rest of the party I was attending) and the writing turned out beautiful, flowing and expressive. What’s even more wonderful though is that, a few years later, I ended up running my own cake decorating business that made enough money to keep my monkey quiet for quite some time.


  16. Your honor, I show you the defendant, Mr. James Cadwalader Monkey. James, what do you have to say to the charges that you have prevented artists from doing what they are truly meant to do? “Eee eee eee, oooka oooka, ak ak ak!” Thank you, James, that will be all. Your honor, the prosecution rests. Mr. Monkey is clearly insane and a permanent restraining order must be issued preventing him from all contact with our gentle artist. Thank you. (Stop tugging my sleeve! Here’s a banana…)


  17. Dear ol’ Danny G done it again! (Ok, just wanted to try a new voice, I don’t really talk like that…as to trick the monkey that it ain’t me talkin’! Yup, still doin’ it ;)) Thanks, Mister G. For the drawing and the life tips.


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