On making shit.

A recent turdlette.

It’s so easy to despair. You sit down, uncap your pen, start drawing and then realize you have drawn a large, stinking turd. It’s inescapable and it’s bad. So bad that the stench drives you from your sketchbook for days.

Congratulations, you are on your way. The fact is, crap is the inevitable byproduct of the creative process. It’s supposed to be. And it happens to us all.

(And now you know why the background of my blog is brown).

Let’s get some perspective. I recently took a huge book out of the library that contained all 2,137 known works by Vincent van Gogh. It almost broke the rear axle of my truck. Now, bear in mind that those are the 2,137 pieces that have actually survived for 125 years. You just know that there were several times as many that Vinnie or his brother or some skeptical landlord trashed, burnt or flushed long ago. So, maybe van Gogh made five or ten thousand drawings and paintings over his ten years of art making. Three a day. Sounds reasonable considering the tear he was on.

How many are great? Ten? Twenty? Let’s go crazy and say, a hundred — that still means his hit rate was, generously, 1%.

I love the movie Amadeus. But let’s face it, it’s fiction. The idea that Mozart just sharpened a fresh quill and wrote down the Requiem or the Jupiter or Don Giovanni or any of his other 623 works of varying quality as fast as he could take dictation from God is just nonsense. He  squeezed out turds every day, just like the rest of us.

Picasso left behind 50,000 works. On some days, he made five paintings. The Cahiers d’Art, the complete catalog of his works, takes up 33 volumes and costs $20,000! Did Pablo think all 50,00 were genius? Did his gallery owner? I doubt it. So, these are some of the greatest geniuses of all time and even they didn’t hit home runs every time at bat. That’s why they worked on paper — because it can be crumpled up and hurled against the wall in frustration.

We have good reason to be afraid of failure.  Even if we actually are great.

In our commercially rapacious world, we don’t allow for crap (although there’s certainly plenty of it). The minute we set someone up on a pedestal, we start working to pull them down. If you write a great book, have a great show, make a great record, expectations will be immediately ratcheted up. But your initial success will probably be followed by something that isn’t quite as good. Overnight, you’re the Knack or the Stone Roses or Terence Trent D’arby. Or Skeet Ulrich. Or Lindsay Lohan. And once you stumble, you’re dead Meatloaf. There is little tolerance for failure.

Better to just be Harper Lee and quit while you’re ahead.

You are different. Because you are learning (hopefully for the rest of your life).To succeed in the creative process, you need a long-term view. Thick hide. And you need to keep working. You can’t get hung up with self-doubt and give up at the gate. You can’t mistake a failed drawing for a failed you. You aren’t your turds. You just aren’t.

And stop insisting on perfection as the price of moving on. Even Tiger Woods isn’t Tiger Woods. You have to swing at lots of balls, before you slowly inch your way from van Gogh’s brown potato paintings to Sunflowers and Irises. It’s a battle of inches. Slowly but surely, your turds will smell sweeter.

Learn from your mistakes. Otherwise all the pain you endured from making that bad art was just a pricey ticket you never got punched.

Bottom line: If you’re going through a period of making bad art, you must go on. You can take a break, but eventually, soon, you must go on. Because otherwise what you’re running away from isn’t the way you put pen on paper. It’s fear of who you are. And you’ll never escape who you are. Instead learn to accept and to love it. Flaws and all. And then to go on. Trust me, you are more together and less smelly than Vincent van Gogh.

Don’t be tripped up by a few bad drawings.  Keep them and learn from them and let them improve your future art and your future self.

People who never produce turds die of constipation.

49 thoughts on “On making shit.”

  1. Thank you Danny for this post! It’s something I needed to hear. After over 20 years as a designer I’ve swung about to follow my passion to be an artist and two of my biggest issues aside from the procrastination monkey is being good and producing… so if you don’t mind I’ve got some turds to produce if I can make that damned monkey go away! LOL! cheers!


  2. I always wondered about your choice of background colors. But seriously, looking at what some artists call their own “crap” work is too often amazing and wonderful stuff to me; I rarely see it the way they do – your-mistakes-are-my-treasure kind of thing. And I’ve found that when I create something I consider crap of my own, inevitably someone will look at it and make some praising comment (and I truly believe they are sincere rather than just trying to be nice), even when I apologize for its lameness, embarrassed and ashamed. Maybe I just can’t accurately evaluate bad vs. good? … But I agree with you in that the gems are a small fraction of the giant pile of sand. Or crap, as it were. Thanks always for such beautiful insight and encouragement.


  3. Lol this made me laugh and I imagined a p-d off paperclip with eyes giving the turd a nasty look and walking away 😀 I have done this many times too with my art. You are right, many artists have this happen a lot of the time and we produce great works at times and other times not.


  4. Great post – can thoroughly relate to this at the moment, EXCEPT that I’m too SCARED to make ANY art at the moment! I have some sort of stage fright or constipation brought on by weeks of doing NOTHING! What is the artistic equivalent of a laxative? Perhaps perusing the The Cahiers d’Art would get things moving…


  5. The exact words I needed to hear TODAY. The last sentence is now printed out in big letters and on the wall of my studio! Thanks, Danny.


    1. You beat me to it! Thank you! I ❤ this blogsite and all the comments.
      My mantra is "Art is crap." and I'm proud of it. You choose what you take in, you process it uniquely, and what comes out the other end is fodder for new growth – what can be better?


  6. Wonderful post, this can’t be said enough. I always like to refer to the contact sheets that photographers use. Well, in analogue photography anyway, but I suppose even in the digital age the concept is the same: hundreds of pictures get taken and only a couple (if you’re lucky) go into actual production or a show. The rest gets quickly discarded or is just ‘meh’. You have to take a lot of lousy shots to get to a good one and sometimes you don’t even know what the really good ones are until you lay them side by side. The same goes for art. You have to keep ‘shooting’ and every now and then it will ‘work’. And if you keep practicing you’re technique will get better, your skills will improve and maybe you will take better shots more often. But always always there will be crap too. There’s no way around that. 😉


  7. Thank you !! for this … I am very new to art but from old school!! where post war bullying was as much from the teachers as our so called ‘mates’ so I have bags of crap!! so I will have a look at it again!! 😉


  8. You have arrived as a teacher Danny. Just look at posts commenting on this entry. You are into everyone’s head. You are lurking behind our sketchbooks. You know what we are thinking and you know what we need to hear. All of us out there thinking–“these words are just what I need.” And now we are all looking over our shoulders sure that you standing there, experiencing what we are experiencing. Congratulations teacher!!


  9. This is just what I needed today. I recently re-commited to doing one drawing a day and I’ve been tempted to stop again because I’ve done so many bad drawings. I will keep going. Thank you, Danny.


  10. Bravo Danny! Thanks for this reality check. Your metaphors are something we can all relate to. Time for a laxative – get out the pen, paper and paint and ‘just do it’.


  11. “It’s so easy to despair. You sit down, uncap your pen, start drawing and then realize you have drawn a large, stinking turd. It’s inescapable and it’s bad. So bad that the stench drives you from your sketchbook for days.”………………..omg !!! ………………Danny, are you a mind reader – specialized in “visual art clients” …:0o …? I’m reading your post right now …


  12. Was listening to an old interview by Anne Patchett with Anne Lamott on Youtube. Although Lamott speaks to writers her mantras apply to me as an artist.

    I was reminded to take it all “bird by bird” and to “[draw] shitty first drafts” and to “stop not doing it” even when it’s pretty poopy. To adapt a famous line of Woody Allen one might say, “Eighty percent of success is _pooping_ up.” Putting it all together, that’s a lot of creative bird guano.

    😉 Poop on Danny.


  13. Let me add, “It takes a genius to recognize a genius.” The main reason why geniuses are always ahead of their times. Later on when people catch up with their ideas, only then they recognize the value or worth of the genius. .


  14. This post really cheered me up. Thank you! For my part, It’s because I’m so new to drawing anything, that I constantly feel like everything I do just sucks. And then i feel sad all day because of that feeling. But this really made me feel better. This isn’t the first post I’ve read about being motivated despite a lot of artistic defeats. But it helps to be reminded from time to time not to be so defeated. 😀 So Thank you!


  15. Excellent post. It should really hit home for many of us. I had the same problem, always hoping that what I was drawing wasn’t a waste of time, that it was worthy. Guess how many finished sketches and drawings I produced? It was only when I decided to take the attitude of “I don’t care”, drawing just to enjoy the process that it started to coming together. I now go crazy with the ink, throw my color on and am the happiest I’ve been n years producing sketches and drawings. I enjoy sharing my work on my blog and enjoy the comments but ultimately they don’t sway me. This is my personal work.

    I enjoy your blog and work, Danny. Enjoy reading your books as well. Keep lighting the way.


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