In Praise of Deadlines

In my fantasies, I imagine being the sort of artist who is motivated solely by the pleasure of being in the studio every day, who is incredibly focused and productive all the time. I imagine working at my own steady and unhurried pace, without the pressure of a deadline, or the stress of scrambling to finish a project in time. In my fantasies, I imagine this is the way a real artist works, and that someday I will achieve this.

I am increasingly convinced that so-called “real” artist — with her flawless work ethic and lack of deadlines or stress — is herself a fantasy.

The truth, of course, is that I tend to be discouraged and stalled when there is no looming deadline or upcoming prospect. I putter around the studio, making messes that I have no interest in cleaning up, because there is no upcoming project that demands a clean work space. I flirt idly with various new projects that I might begin, but find none of them compelling enough to wrestle through to completion. My old work stares down at these pathetic new attempts, taunting and condemning my lack of creative energy. When that goes on for any length of time, I begin to question my abilities, my artistic calling, even the ultimate purpose of art.

By contrast, an upcoming exhibit or deadline creates the perfect catalyst for artistic growth and productivity. I don’t always enjoy the pressure, but it consistently leads me to take new artistic and creative risks. In the wild scramble to finish a last-minute project or fix an unexpected problem, I’m willing to try things I wouldn’t even consider at other times. Not only does that often lead to creative and innovative developments in my current project, but it also provides a direction for ongoing artistic growth.

It has taken me quite a while to learn this about myself — and longer yet to accept that I probably will never possess the steady and unhurried working rhythm of that fantasy artist. Sometimes I still find myself stalled out in the discouragement of trying to work with no clear goal or deadline. But I am learning to seek out opportunities and projects for myself, and to trust that my own creative spirit will crawl out of hiding and respond to the presence of a new challenge and the pressure of a new deadline.

I’d love to hear about the experiences of other artists, too. Are deadlines an important part of your creative process? What conditions inspire you to take new risks in your work?

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About Sarah Jane

Working artist, university professor, community educator. Currently living in community at the Grunewald Guild, Leavenworth, WA.

4 responses to “In Praise of Deadlines”

  1. d.c.jensen says :

    Great observations…. I have similar experiences. I was in advertising design for a couple of decades and found that because of that, there was no greater motivation than the deadline. I found that I developed a habit of promising more than I was (or thought I was) able to accomplish in order to get myself into “high-gear.” I found that by doing this, I had no choice but to learn new techniques or employ unconventional techniques just to finish what I had promised. Now, I find that I have to recreate that same sort of tension in order to get the creative juices flowing. Otherwise, I just tend to just rearrange the furniture endlessly…

  2. artistspromenade says :

    I really enjoyed reading about your creative process. I too attempt to convince myself to work slow and steady at a project. Inevitably time passes on with me fretting and producing very little work. Suddenly, the deadline is looming and that is usually my catalyst for getting my butt in gear. Most of the time it turns out just fine but there are other times when I wonder, even if it’s a small voice in the back of my mind, what would I have created if I actually worked instead of procrastinating.
    Still without fail, I will press on.

  3. Sarah Jane says :

    Welcome, d.c.jensen! I absolutely love (and fear!) your tactic of promising more than you are already capable of delivering. While I’ve never done that specifically, I have definitely planned projects based around skills I would like to acquire or processes that I want to incorporate into future work.

    I think one of the most difficult things about the transition from being a student-artist to being an independent artist is figuring out how to create the structures and circumstances that will push you to keep learning new skills and developing your work. Hmmmm… maybe that’s a good topic for a future post. 😉

  4. Sarah Jane says :

    Hey, thanks for the comment, artistspromenade! I agree that it’s a fine balance of figuring out how much pressure will be beneficial to your work. Many of my students have discovered that the hard way, either by not leaving enough time to complete the project at all, or only leaving time to complete it in a shoddy and unsatisfactory way. Perhaps part of becoming mature as an artist is learning exactly where that line is for you.

    I do find that mid-process “deadlines” can be really helpful in keeping me motivated, so I like to invite friends over for studio visits in advance of an upcoming project. Some galleries will even send a representative out to check on their artists’ progress prior to a major show — now that’s pressure!

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