A few years ago I was thinking about my tendency toward jealousy and my occasional bursts of wrath. These are among my less appealing qualities but I insist on hanging onto them nonetheless.
As I thought about these shortcomings, I realized that they constituted two of the deadly sins described in Dante, and that in fact, if I was completely honest with myself, I was guilty of all seven: Envy, wrath, pride, greed, lust, gluttony and sloth. Not in my life in general, but specifically when it comes to creative matters.
I decided to write a series of blog posts in the subject which I enjoyed and met with muted response upon publication here. Nonetheless, that series remained very interesting to me and so I decided to revisit them in my new life as an internationally acclaimed podcast host.
This week’s podcast is a fresh version of the seven deadly sins as they apply to creative endeavors, retooled and updated for a new generation, and scored lightly with well-mixed Gregorian chants.
I’m not sure if the listening audience will be any more interested in them than the reading one was, but I enjoy hurling things at the wall and waiting to see what sticks.
If you don’t think the deadly sins apply to you, spend a half hour with me and your headphones and let me know if I convince you otherwise.
Episode transcript (but please listen to the podcast!)
Welcome to Art for all, the Sketchbook Skool podcast. I’m your host Danny Gregory.
Sketchbook Skool is an online art school. But it’s actually a lot more than that. For tens of thousands of creative people around the world, Sketchbook Skool is a chance to start being creative again. To learn to draw and paint, but also to overcome the blocks and obstacles that have held them back. Those are often the most important lessons we can share, what does it mean to be an artist and how to help you overcome the demons that prevent you from expressing your creativity.
Besides classes and workshops, Sketchbook Skool is also a huge community of creative people. People like you who want to be inspired and get back to the pure joy of creativity they once had as children. And who want to support and be supported by people like them. It’s a wonderful place and I am so lucky to be a part of it.
If you haven’t already, sign up for our monthly zine or one of our sample kourses or one of our ebooks. They’re a great way to start getting past your obstacles and achieving your creative dreams. And please join our online community, whether it’s in a kourse or on Facebook or Instagram. Being surrounded by friendly like-minded people will transform your creative life and get you to making stuff you’ll love.
In fact, why not use the time you are listening to this podcast to do a little drawing or a watercolor, or anything else that give you pleasure.
You have the right to be an artist. A right you give yourself.
This week, I want to get into sin. SIN. Sin.
Won’t you join me?
A lot of artists have thought about sin. Paul Cadmus, Brecht, Spenser, Brueghel, Chaucer and of course, Dante. Sins are fascinating because they are excessive and distorted versions of what makes us human and what makes us good. They get at who we are: flawed, weak, and kinda bad.
Are you a sinner? Probably. The Bible tells us we are all born sinners, so wadda ya gonna do?
Beg for salvation and hope you pass judgement at the pearly gates
But creative people have their own version of sin to struggle with. And thinking about the types of sin we are prey to can help us to be better and happier artists and people.
No judgement, just a little advice to follow.
Incidentally, and I say this with all due humility, the original list of seven deadly sins was written by Pope Gregory I. Probably no relation.
Greed. Creativity, like songbirds, can be bought and sold. But songs sound differently from behind the bars of a gilded cage, when sung for a supper.
Greed makes artists compromise. They follow trends rather than their hearts. They abandon any sense of authenticity in a scramble to fit their efforts to the taste of others. They measure success in sales rather than in the call of their souls. They agree to distort their work to fit corporate agendas and market demands. Greed turns originality into predictability into a worthless tin horn.
Ironically, greed rusts the very things that made an artist’s work valuable in the first place. Greed transforms artists into celebrities, hogging the limelight, addicted to fame, prisoners of their egos, and detached from the pure, original source of their creativity.
Greed distorts and cripples the true purpose of art, turning the fruits of personal expression into a mere commodity. An artist’s heart-felt response to the world shrivels into a rich man’s prized asset, garnering shekels at auction, then hidden away, another coveted diamond in a dragon’s jealously guarded hoard.
The opposite of greed is generosity.
Generosity with your ideas, your experience, your discoveries, your love. Generous artist collaborate. They posts instructional videos on YouTube. They paint murals in blighted neighbors. They teach. They mentor. And the spirit of generosity is a boomerang, opening you to new ideas and opportunities and relationships, turning your art into an invitation to the world which slowly opens its door.
Greed prevents artists from sharing their work with the world, afraid it will be poached. Rather than joining a creative community, inspiring others, collaborating, teaching, sharing their insights and lessons, greedy artists hide in their studios, squirreling away their work, waiting for the best offer. They refuse to support causes, to contribute their creativity, to reap the benefits of selflessness.
Greed clouds perspective, skews values, saps generosity.
Greed is a symptom of fear.
When you are afraid of being deprived, you hoard possessions against any possible future famine, no matter how remote. When you are afraid of being passed over and neglected, left to shrivel and die, you hoard attention. Afraid of competition, you crouch on your mountain of toys so no one else can play with them. Afraid of being taken advantage of, you refuse to open the door to others. Afraid of being vulnerable, you amass a pile of any stuff than could be a bulwark or a weapon. You bank your work rather than letting it see the light of day and of possible critique.
Greed blocks your way. Generosity and creativity open it wide.
Gluttony means consuming way more than you need. And it’s a great way for the inner critic, that monkey voice in your head, to distract you from your creative path.
Are you an art glutton? Walking through a museum and snapping a picture of each painting you pass, then hurrying onto the next, a treasure trove hoarded in your pocket. Signing up for creative classes, but then never bothering to show up and do the work. Why start that painting when you and your credit card could while away the afternoon at the art supply store? Easier to amass more drying tubes of paint, teetering piles of empty sketchbooks, basket-loads of supplies for crafts you doesn’t have the time to master — than bypass the monkey and get to work.
Gluttony means valuing quantity over quality. And we live in times of more, more, more, where there’s always a new distraction, a new treat popping up on our phones. Why do they call it a Facebook feed, d’ya think? Because it stuffs our troughs with trivia, 24/7. We consume bytes instead of being in the moment and appreciating the wonder and beauty around us already. We are gluttonous with our time and yet stingy with it too, wasting it rather than investing it in the self-improvement and habits that can bring us the things that will truly satisfy our hungers.
Gluttony is a sin of lost control. Like Lust, it drives us out of our minds, to places we don’t recognize in the mirror. We automatically grab for more entertainment, more stimulation, more consumption, faster, longer, all of which distract us from our purpose, our skills, our deepening experience as human beings. We are unable to ignore the buzz in our pockets, the dings on our night stands, we drool and reach and feast.
Creativity is about creating something new, adding to the world of beauty, not just taking and acquiring.
Gluttony stems from fear. We are afraid of exposing ourselves, standing naked as we are. Afraid of being vulnerable. We cloak ourselves in a thick protective layer of shopping bags from Abercrombie & Fitch, Marks & Spencers, or Winsor & Newton. We need distraction from our true selves, from loneliness, from inadequacy, from being who we are.
The solution is to make more, rather than take more. Pull your excess art supplies off the shelf and give them to your local public school. Turn off all electronics a day a week and fill your time with songbirds and wind. Unsubscribe from distraction and sign up for a healthy diet of starving artistry. It won’t kill you, it’ll fill your soul.
Pride. In the 21st century, it’s more difficult to see “pride” as a sin. We think of LGBT pride, Black pride, national pride, Bono singing “In the Name of Love.” Isn’t that song about Martin Luther King — surely he wasn’t a sinner?
Here’s a different take on pride. Actually let’s call it ‘hubris’ so no one gets confused.
Hubris is about insisting on your own greatness. In fact, that’s why Lucifer fell from heaven and ended up on the dark side. He insisted that he was greater than the rest of the crew. But, Kanye notwithstanding, most creative people seem to have a problem with low self-esteem, not grandiosity.
But whereas they would never say that they are better than others, they insist that their work be. They judge their art too harshly, dismissing what they produce with contempt.They demand a higher standard than is reasonable, possible, necessary. They are absolutely intolerant of anything but perfection. It’s hero or zero. Whatever misses the mark gets binned.
If you can’t accept your own normal human weakness, isn’t that hubris? If you are completely intolerant of your own mistakes, isn’t that vanity? Aren’t you saying you can and should be perfect? If it’s a sin to judge others that way, why doesn’t the same apply to how you look at yourself?
If you are unwilling to be vulnerable, you are limited by fear. Overwhelming fear of any form of weakness, of being irrelevant, of being rebuked by others, of falling even slightly below the mark, can prevent you from taking chances. If you are so wary of falling on your face that you won’t take risks, you will never achieve anything great, no matter how high your standards.
Do great work, please, and be proud of it. But don’t let perfectionist, monkey pride stop you from expressing your real, human self.
Envy. According to Dante’s Purgatorio, if you get sent to hell for the sin of envy, demons will sew your eyelids shut with wire. Ouchy. You get this iron mascara treatment because you spent your days on Earth getting a kick out of seeing others in pain. Now, you just get to look at total blackness and writhe around on a spit.
Envy isn’t just garden-variety, green with jealousy. It’s meaner. Envy means you don’t just resent someone else’s good fortune — you want to take it away from them. It’s not enough to wish you’d made that great painting. You have to rip it out of the frame and jump up and down on it. In other words, you need to become a critic.
Envy is another sin born of fear. It begins when you see someone else making something great. Instead of just enjoying it, you feel threatened by it. The monkey whispers in your ear: ‘You could never do that. Ever.’ So you get out your knives.
One response to this fear is to dismiss the accomplishment. The artist was obviously just lucky. Or some sort of con man. She was born into a talented family. He sucked up to the top gallery owners. She has a famous boyfriend. He will be forgotten in a year.
When you are envious, you set yourself back. Instead of learning from greatness, you run from it. You swaddle yourself in hostility. You withhold any kind of generosity or support. Your refuse to collaborate. You refuse to learn.
You don’t see how much work it takes to be successful. You don’t see how to acquire skills, connections, vision, happiness, all the things you really want. You are so afraid of losing, of failing, of falling behind, of being called out, that you lash out and destroy.
You sew your own eyes shut with wire.
And while the biggest victims of envy are the envious themselves, they can also cause loads of collateral damage along the way. Maybe you’ve been a victim of someone else’s envy. Try to see the critic for the scared, myopic monster he is and you’ll be able to understand what his critique really means and defuse its impact.
Lust. Ironically, the classic bio of my favorite painter, Vincent van Gogh is called Lust for Life. But lust is a sin that has sabotaged loads of great artists too. Lust is any intense sort of intense and uncontrolled desire — for sex, food, drugs, money, fame, power or freshly-poured, frosty lager. Society loves to depict the artist as a lusty, carnal creature — snorting, boozing, copulating, and then self-destructing at 27.
Uncontrolled. Undisciplined. Lust replaces thoughtfulness with raw impulse. You cave in to self-destructive abandon. Instead of doing the necessary work you are distracted. Instead of drawing the model, you drool on him.
Lust makes you myopic. It distorts your normal perspective and gives you tunnel vision, tuning out everything but the object of your desire. And what you see is not real. It’s a thickly veiled concoction of your fevered mind.
Perhaps you are slender and celibate and sugar-free and believe lust is a sin that doesn’t apply to you…
At the heart of sexual lust is a form of depersonalization. Instead of seeing people as human beings, they become sex symbols. Lust for money isn’t about acquiring the things you need. It’s about the symbolic value of wealth, the illusion that it will provide security and satisfy all your needs. You want gazillions you’d probably never spend. Lust for power makes you ruthless, disconnected from the effects of your actions, reduces people to symbols, to pawns on your board. Mwahahahah!
Lust turns reality into abstraction, turns people into symbols, replaces authentic needs with insatiable hunger. And an artist who can’t see or feel or connect is lost. An artist who only deals in symbols can’t find her way to truth.
Lust is obsessiveness. Lust is abstraction. Lust is infantile, sacrificing your higher goals to your basest weakness. Lust is lost in the future, a future of quelled desire that may never come, a future you cannot control.
But creativity requires control. Control over your skills, your materials, but most of all over your vision of the world you are creating.
Perhaps you are slender and celibate and sugar-free and believe lust is a sin that doesn’t apply to you. But look deep and honestly within and look for those impulses that cloud your objectivity, that distort your actions, and color your perceptions.
Really, what about you? Do you lust for perfection? For acknowledgement? For a Winsor & Newton Series 7 Kolinsky Sable Pointed Round #10 watercolor brush with a seamless, cupro-nickel ferrule (list $499.99)?
Sloth. I’ve been meaning to make this podcast for a whole but, (sigh) I’ve been tired, I’m sooo busy, I feel kinda run down, the US Open was on, it’s been raining a lot, I gotta listen to the back episodes of art for all…
The monkey loves a good excuse for not doing what you really oughta (and wanna) get done. Maybe your small reserve of creative energy is being used up making those excuses for doing nothing.
It’s easy to tell yourself that you just don’t have talent. But the people you admire didn’t get to where they are just through some God-given gift or amazing luck. They worked their butts off. They sweated over their sketchbooks, threw away draft after draft, built their networks, filled their wells of inspiration, and tried, failed, tried, failed, tried, failed until their humps were busted — and only then did they became overnight successes.
When the Beatles played in Hamburg, they did six 90-minute sets a night. John Lennon said: “Every song lasted twenty minutes and had twenty solos in it. That’s what improved the playing.”
Before Picasso sent Les Demoiselles D’Avignon to the framer, he made over 700 sketches and studies in preparation.
Gone With the Wind was rejected by 38 publishers. The 39th sold 20 million copies.
And Isaac Asimov wrote five hundred books. And had cool sideburns.
Sowwy. There’s no real shortcut to drawing, bestselling, Sgt. Peppering, or making a perfect soufflé. You gotta break eggs and you gotta scramble.
You have talent. Or maybe you don’t. Whatevs. But don’t let excuses and torpor and depression and sorrow and keep you from where you want to go. The world needs what you will dream up. Your contribution is anticipated and will be valued.
It could seem easier to stay on the couch with a glass of Chardonnay in one hand and a remote in the other — until you go to the john and catch sight of yourself in the mirror.
Failure may scare you into not trying. Sloth should scare you more.
Just do it.
Wrath. For the first half of my career in advertising, I would often have irrational feelings of anger during a creative briefing. I would resent being given the assignment. Then I would be pissed that I had to sit in a conference room with loads of other creative people while the strategists took us through the brief.
I simmered with impatience. I would ask critical, acerbic questions. I would strain against the deadline.
The monkey would tell me that the people briefing us were idiots, that their insights were lame or wrong, that I already knew more than they did about the subject, that it was wrong that we creatives had to compete for the assignment, the playing field wasn’t level, that the whole project was a waste of my time, blah blah and blah.
It was pretty crazy — and incomprehensible.
With time, I became sufficiently self-aware to identify this pattern and dampen it. But I can still feel the impulse when it comes time to get creative feedback or in the final days before a big presentation — a frothing resentment with no legitimate cause.
This reaction may be in the minority but it’s not unique to me, alas. I often hired great creative people who would have explosions of rage at the most inappropriate times.
What is the fear that drives it? Vulnerability at having to show one’s ideas where they might be rejected? Of being misunderstood? Of losing control somehow?
Recently, I read of a study in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology that examined the effects of anger on creativity — and found that it could actually be helpful to the creative process.
Anger provides two benefits: an energy boost in the form of an adrenaline rush which focuses the mind on the problem at hand. Secondly, anger makes your thinking irrational — which can jolt you out of traditional ways of thinking. In a paroxysm of rage, you may spit out some crazy truth that makes a wild and fruitful association.
Another study found that many creative people begin their days with negativity and then shift to positive feelings. By channeling the negative energy into their work, they find sharper focus and productivity. If you wake up on the wrong side of the bed, try channeling your bad mood into energy to solve a creative problem.
But proceed with caution — anger is still a sin. It s benefits dissipate fairly quickly. And once the red mists blow away, you may find you’ve alienated potential partners, wasted time and resources, derailed the process, and damaged your reputation. And if people dislike and fear you, they are a lot less likely to be objective about the merit of your ideas.
Being a genius doesn’t excuse being a jerk.
So, what is your sin of choice? Feel free to confess it to me with an email to firstname.lastname@example.org I will gladly absolve you and encourage you to get back to making good works.
Meanwhile, I hope you will consider signing up for one of the many great kourses at sketchbook dot school. And please grab one of our ebooks or a zine subscription under “Free stuff” . Oh and if you really want a heavenly time, got to sketchkon dot com and join the rest of us sinners in Pasadena California November 2-4th. Tickets are going fast and I’d love to see you there,
Thanks for joining me for another episode. I hope you did some great work while you listened and that I provoked a thought or two in your mind. If you enjoyed the program, please subscribe on iTunes or your favorite podcast app and leave a generous and benevolent review.
Until next, time, I’m your defrocked spiritual advisor Danny Gregory and this is art for all.