Finding Hope in a Frightening Pandemic by Making Art

April 27th, 2020

This pandemic is an odd combination of boredom and terror. It’s frightening, and we are all looking to find some hope in the middle of all this bad news. Thankfully I’m finding hope by making art.

If you’re lucky enough to still have a job, you’re frantically working on your laptop all day during the workweek, keeping one eye on the news. Weekends are depressing because you can’t go anywhere. You’re confined to your house. No going to the movies, no meeting friends for dinner or drinks. You don’t have the energy to read a book, and you’ve watched everything on Netflix. You finally found the mythical end of Instagram, and you just spent five hours watching crazy TikTok dances.

So you scroll Facebook, bored.

Pink and orange abstract painting created during COVID-19 lockdown

In that boredom amidst the memes and political arguments is an artist trying to calm himself down by putting paint on canvas.

I am that artist. Like you, I’m bored and scared, too.

That’s why I’m trying to brighten things up by inviting you into the studio for a while. Not to forget our cares, but to honor them, and to come to a sense of peace about what’s going on in the world.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, I was sad, anxious, and scared.

Like a lot of people, I initially made a mental list of projects to work on, books to read, and so forth. My wife and I figured if we were going to be at home for two weeks (ha – it’ll be 6 weeks tomorrow!) we might as well tackle some of those projects we’ve been putting off for ages (nope, still haven’t done them), so we went to the hardware store to stock up on supplies.

The week before the lockdown was Spring Break, and since we didn’t have vacation plans, we had already stocked up on books for the kids to read. And the week before that, Nashville was hit by a severe tornado.

So everything was upside-down.

But after a few days of trying to adjust to the “new normal” of all five of us being at home 24/7, we got into a rhythm. We had our workspaces set up. We ordered new Kindles for the kids. We exercised every morning. We tried to deal with the weirdness of the whole experience by quickly setting some normal patterns.

Then my part-time graphic design job had to let me go since the economy tanked in a matter of weeks.

I was not prepared for the trauma that would come with all this.

I allowed myself to grieve.

But I numbed myself a bit by staying up too late watching Netflix and then sleeping in. My sleep cycle got messed up. (It is still messed up.)

I found my anxiety growing. When I get anxious, I work myself in to a frenzy and do lots of things without getting anything finished. Lots of puttering around and wondering what I actually did that day. I found myself getting depressed.

Finally, I got in the studio. I had been making a little bit of an effort to paint more, but I’ve now fallen into a rhythm of getting in the studio at least once a week. Saturday night seems to be when most people are online. They are bored, sad, and anxious.

Making art regularly helps me slow down and breathe.

When I paint, I tend to be frenetic, but I get the best results when I slow down. There’s a certain effect I like to achieve when I use the palette knife (or painting knife – I use the terms interchangeably) but it doesn’t work unless I slow down.

So when I drag paint onto the canvas with the knife, I stop and take a deep breath. As I exhale, I slowly drag the knife across the canvas. The paint rewards me by going on exactly how I want it to.

My audience calms down, too.

I suppose my mood is contagious. It makes sense: if I appear on screen all jacked up, it will spread to my audience and I’ll stress them out. If I’m calm, and bring a message of hope, whether through my words or my painting, it’ll calm down my audience, too.

I’m not Bob Ross, but as I paint live, I find myself coming around to some of the same hopeful themes he expressed on his show.

Nine times out of ten, the things I say are the things I need to hear, myself:

  • “You can’t appreciate the bright spots without the dark spots. The dark areas make the bright areas stand out more. Paint the bright areas on top of the dark areas and it’s more dramatic, more rewarding.”
  • “Slow down and breathe. Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.”
  • “Colors don’t exist in isolation. Every color is affected by the colors around it. Everything is affected by everything else.”
  • “I have to work all the way around the canvas, instead of only on one thing. I can’t get too focused on one spot and overdevelop it.”

In the process, I find hope.

Sometimes that hope gets buried. But it’s been in me all along. Often, I can’t see it, but it’s there. I just have to look for it. Sometimes I’ll go after it directly, or I take a lateral drift approach to find it. Hope always shows up. It’s there. Hope may be loud, or it may be quiet. But when I find it, it’s my job to share it. A sacred duty, as it were.

Staying Productive in a Crisis with a Morning Ritual

April 14th, 2020

The month of March has been bonkers. A month ago, Nashville was hit by a tornado that got up to class EF-4 and ran for 50-plus miles. A week later, the stay-at-home order came, and we went into self-quarantine.

Video: Staying Productive in a Crisis

Initially, I thought I might get some stuff done during quarantine: projects around the house, read some books, start some paintings, get the kids to do some research projects, that sort of thing.

But I haven’t been as “productive” as I expected. I was a little disappointed for a minute. I realized this situation is more emotionally taxing than just “staying home.” You might have discovered the same. It’s hard to stay productive in quarantine.

I’ve found that if I brush my teeth and wash my face and make sure my kids have done the same, we’re doing ok.

Our family has a helpful morning routine that keeps us feeling at least somewhat productive during this strange season. I talk about it in this video:

Stay well, stay home, stop the spread. Go easy on yourself.

3 Surprisingly Powerful Factors That Make Up Contemporary Art

October 1st, 2019

I’ve found that contemporary art is dominated by 3 factors: place, politics, and personality. This really is not new. They’ve been part of art for hundreds of years. But I’ve seen a lot more of them in the past 20 years or so as contemporary art (art since 1970) has evolved.

The art movements of the early-to-mid-20th Century still have a lot to teach us. To be sure, the wider culture’s visual language has evolved since then, and contemporary art embraces the conceptual over all else these days, even if it is highly rendered (realistic). It’s less about style and more about social consciousness.

Brad Blackman, Hope, 2018. acrylic and gold leaf on canvas. 30 x 24 inches

Brad Blackman, “Hope,” 2018. acrylic and gold leaf on canvas. 30 x 24 inches

Most of the art I see today features three P’s: Place, Politics, and Personality.

“Place” in Contemporary Art

Graffiti art has exploded the past few years, especially in Nashville (where I live.) What used to be a sign of gang activity is now a sign of commerce (and on the downside, gentrification). Bachelorettes line up to get their photo taken in front of giant wings. And it’s not just “graffiti.” Toronto has a famous “TORONTO” sculpture that tourists love to get on their instagram feeds. Incidentally, the “3D Toronto Sign” was a temporary installation, but it got so much attention on social media that it is now a semi-permanent feature of City Hall. (I believe there are plans to make a permanent version of the sculpture.)

Contemporary art and place: 3D Toronto sign

By { pranav } from Hyderabad, India – Toronto sign, CC BY 2.0

Politics in Contemporary Art

Art has long had ties to politics, either in the service of or in opposition to the prevailing ruler. It can be propaganda, or it can state a specific view that may or may not be popular or “safe.” Brian Rutenberg argues that all art is political — even his abstract landscapes of South Carolina swamps.

The Cult of Personality in Contemporary Art

KAWS is an example of personality in contemporary art

Again, this is nothing new, and perhaps less outsize than in the past, but in recent years I’ve seen artists exploit their strong personal brands on social media with the likes of Ashley Longshore, Joyce Pensato, KAWS, and more. Warhol and Dali set a precedent for this decades ago. “Personality” might better be thought of as a “personal brand” these days.


While my own art doesn’t blatantly possess these characteristics, I agree with Brian Rutenberg that all art is political by default since when a viewer looks at it, they are seeing from your eyes, even if for a moment. What I try to show is that the world, for all its brokenness, is a beautiful and hopeful place.

“I laugh when painters claim to make political painting because all painting is political. The very act of making a work of art is a political act. Whenever you see a play, or read a poem, or look at a picture in a gallery, you are submitting to and and investing in the entire political belief system of that artist. Art can only be political because the artist is subverting and undermining the way the viewer sees the world for a moment. So I think it’s kind of sad when younger painters are led to believe that painting has no real value in and of itself, that it’s only a delivery system for some other message, which sounds to me like propaganda, There’s a lot of clever, witty work being done out there, but we must never let semiotic wit replace dreaming.”

Brian Rutenberg, Studio Visit 58

Advice for My 30-Year-Old Self

September 3rd, 2019

If your 20s are a time of working hard and discovering yourself, your 30s are a time of building good habits for the rest of your life. Here’s my advice to my 30-year-old self.

Now that I’m 40, there are a few things I’d like to say to myself 10 years ago.

So now your 20s are behind you. You worked hard, but I think you could have worked harder. You’re 30, still pretty new to being married, and you’re a brand new daddy. There’s whole new set of challenges ahead of you in this new decade. Unfortunately time travel is not possible, so you didn’t get the message I tried to send you when you were 20 and you won’t get this one, either. But if I could tell you something, here’s what I want you to do in your 30s, building on my last message to 20-year-old me.

  1. Keep your marriage healthy and go out on dates as often as possible. Visit your marriage and family therapist as a couple as regularly as possible. Talk about child-rearing techniques. (Spoiler alert: in 10 years you’ll discover you’re both right. You just have to make it work, and keep each other in check.)
  2. Learn about autism. You’ll have a son on the autism spectrum and you need to understand what it is. Read all the books. Go to all the lectures. Understand him. Be patient.
  3. If you must get a credit card, pay it off as quickly as possible. Better yet, don’t get a credit card. Here’s where you regret not saving that 10% when you were in your 20s. And in 10 years you’ll wish you had saved for 20 years!
  4. When work slows down at your job, it’s time start looking elsewhere. It’s usually a sign the company is having trouble filling the pipeline and your job is in jeopardy.
  5. So build that side-hustle like it’s your job. Because it will sustain you when things grind to a halt at the day job and they have to let you go.
  6. If a job feels like a bad match, it probably is. Trust your gut.
  7. Upgrade to the best gear possible as soon as possible. I mentioned this to my 20-year-old self, and he wanted to hold on to his money. The point isn’t to get stuff because it’s new and shiny, but to stay ahead of the game. It’s not about the tool in itself, but having the most effective tool for the job. It’s worth the investment. Keep the software and hardware current, buy paints, brushes, canvas, cameras.
  8. Upgrade your hearing aids sooner. Don’t wait until they are so old they can’t be repaired anymore.
  9. Ignore Sunk Costs. It’s scary to walk away from what you’ve spent years on but resist moving on from, such as a house or a job, but it will hurt more if you don’t.
  10. Get an iPhone as quickly as possible. They’re expensive and aren’t on your network yet (Verizon), but you’ll need it at least as soon as Instagram comes out, so you can start sharing your work there. Besides, you’ll need to test mobile websites.
  11. Price is positioning. You want people to take your work seriously. Price your art high enough to pay for itself and to buy more supplies. Make the work pay for itself and then make it pay you.
  12. Fix up your house as much as you can afford it, as soon as you can. It’ll make selling easier and you’ll enjoy the house more. Nobody wants to live in a dump!
  13. Listen to the voice telling you to make art. God put that craving in your heart for a reason. Make art and share it. Get in the studio daily even if the work isn’t great. Share the art and build that email list!
  14. Take a vacation once in a while. Don’t wait 8 or 9 years to go to the beach.
  15. Make some friends. This is really hard in your 30s. I’m 40 now and don’t really have close friends, and I wish I did. I have lots of acquaintances, though.

I sure hope 30-year-old Brad would take this to heart more than 20-year-old Brad.

If you’re in your 40s or 50s or older, what would you say to yourself at 30 or even 40?

Advice for My 20-Year-Old Self

April 11th, 2019

When you’re 20 years old, you’re a less-awkward version of a teenager who thinks he’s an adult. You don’t know it, but you’re on the verge of discovering so much about yourself. There’s so much advice I would give my 20-year-old self.

First Time at Piazza Michelangelo on the outskirts of Florence. L-R: Me, Patrick, Chris. Behind us you can see the famous Duomo, Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore.
Our first Time at Piazza Michelangelo on the outskirts of Florence. Left-to-Right: Me, Patrick, Chris. Behind us you can see the famous Duomo, Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore.

By the way, if you would rather not read this whole thing, just jump down to the bottom of the page where you’ll find a video version of this post that highlights four main pieces of advice I’d give myself.

It all started with a Facebook discussion about Teflon in cookware.

A friend shared an article about the harmful effects of Teflon in cookware, and I lamented that I would love to go back about 12 years to when my wife and I made our wedding registry and tell myself to get something different. We are gradually replacing the Teflon-coated cookware with stainless, piece by piece.

But, I wondered, what else I would tell myself if I could go back in time?

I’m forty now. What if I went back twenty years to when I was twenty years old?

Like everybody else, I had to get a shot of myself pretending to push the leaning tower of Pisa. Yes, we all did some variation of this.

In the spring of 1999, I spent a semester in Italy. I had the time of my life, and I can’t wait to go back — and take my family with me.

I realize if I were to visit myself 20 years ago, I probably wouldn’t listen to somebody twice my age! At 20, you still have something of a teenage mindset and think everyone over the age of 30 is uncool and out of touch.

That said, if I could go back 20 years to talk to 20-year-old Brad, here’s what I’d tell him, and I hope that he would listen.

Take care of your physical health now!

When you’re 20 years old you think you’re going to live forever. But trust me, start an exercise regimen now. You’re about to spend most of your waking hours sitting at a computer and it’ll mess up your back. In 20 years you’ll be doing yoga to help everything stay limber.

Eat low salt, low fat, and low sugar. That’s kind of hard to do when you’re in Italy, and you get enough exercise walking everywhere that it doesn’t matter right now. But when you get back home, you might even try eating vegetarian for a while. In a couple of years they’re going to merge Palm Pilots and cellphones into something called a smartphone, and we will have fancy watches that talk to our smartphones and we’ll be able to track what we eat and how many steps we take. Yes, it’s weird. We will probably look back and laugh at how we would try to get the last 500 of our 10,000 steps for the day before midnight by pacing in our living rooms. But it’s surprisingly effective.

Take care of your ears. Don’t go swimming in a red tide. The telltale sign is dead stuff washed up on the beach. You’ll regret that.

I lived with about 50 other people. Spot me in the bottom right corner.

A strong body is no good without mental and emotional well-being.

You’re having the time of your life there in Italy right now, but I know how incredibly lonely you are. Right now this doesn’t make any sense. How can you feel alone while hanging out with 50 other people in this amazing 500-year-old villa situated outside Florence, Italy?

You’re what’s called an introvert. Being an introvert means you recharge by getting alone time. Get a gelato or a cappuccino and sit in a piazza by yourself and journal or draw, not with the intention of impressing anybody. Just get it out. Then, find a friend you can trust, and “hey man, I need a pick-me-up right now.” It took me years to understand how important it is to be vulnerable.

When you get back to the states, you’ll fall back into the trap of looking at porn online. It’s going to get even easier to get to. Get help for that now. It will escalate and won’t go away on its own. Don’t let it fester for the next 10-15 years. It’ll hurt your marriage down the road. Just trust me on this. This is something I wish I had tackled sooner. 

See a therapist. You probably have OCD, SAD, bipolar disorder, mild depression, mild anxiety, or some combination of those. This is something else I should have addressed 10-15 years ago. The stigma of seeing a therapist is about to go away.

Stop stressing about girls, but don’t waste time with the wrong ones.

You’ll date a lot. You’ll be convinced that one girl in particular is “The One.” She’s great, but her parents rub you the wrong way, to put it mildly, so eventually you break it off. It is painful. But after that, you’ll find your wife. The saying about marrying your in-laws is true. So if you don’t like a girl’s parents, don’t date her. Thankfully you’ll figure this out on your own, before making a big mistake like marrying into the wrong family. I’m happy to report that will like your in-laws.

But don’t get married in December. My wife and I both wish we had gotten married at a different time of year. We had a Christmas wedding. Christmas weddings are pretty, but December will be mega-busy for the rest of your life now and it is hard to find a chance to celebrate your anniversary the week of Christmas. When you skip the family Christmas get-together it pisses people off. Fortunately, you’re not a people-pleaser.

So don’t worry about pissing people off. You’ll be miserable if you try to make everybody happy.

Learn how to manage your money

Find out who Dave Ramsey is. Dad listens to him on the radio. You’ve heard of him, but you don’t know anything about him. Basically, this is what he says: make a budget, avoid debt, start tithing, start saving. Tithe and save 10% of what you make. Yes, you end up with 80% your income, but it is worth it in the long run.

This is boring adult stuff. But if you don’t start doing this now, you’ll find yourself at the end of the month wondering where your money went. The good news is, you figure most of this out by about 30. If you must take on debt other than a mortgage, pay it off as quickly as you can. At 40 I’m wishing I had saved a lot more.

Remember the cheat code to get 99 lives on Contra? Well, here are the cheat codes to your career.

Up, up, down, down, left, right, B, A. I wish it was that easy! But it’s not as hard as you think.

1. Start an email list. Start with a dozen friends and quickly build it to 100.

That dorky, flimsy Rolodex is about to be replaced by the address book in Palm Pilots and computers. Your contacts are your most valuable asset. Start an email list by collecting your friends’ addresses. Say, “I’m going to send out a weekly email about art and design, can I send it to you, too?” Collect 100 addresses as quickly as you can, and honor your promise to email something once a week. Once email distribution services become available, sign up. Write about your art, your design processes, your philosophy.

2. Weblogs are the future.

Right now, in 1999, weblogs are mostly used for logging daily research items at colleges or for people to collect links to cool stuff they find on the web. In a few years, they will be called “blogs.” It’ll be the next big buzzword. You’ve seen them, but you don’t know it has a name. Basically, it’s a website that gets updated regularly.

Blogs will revolutionize pretty much everything, and it’ll be super easy to launch one and get your message out to the world. 20 years later, it’s hard to take seriously any business that doesn’t have a blog.

Your website should be a blog. There will always be other sites you can have a presence on, but your blog is your home base. The same kind of content should go on your blog as your email newsletter: your art process, what art means to you, the results you get for your design clients. Focus on the people who hire you and buy your work, not your peers. Unless, of course, you want to provide services to people like you. Chances are, you don’t.

(Until you build a business and then make a business out of telling other people how to do what you did. That’s lucrative, but it takes time to get there.)

Don’t agonize over each update – publish as often as possible. Publish every day for a year, and people will start to notice. You’ll get better at expressing yourself. After a year or two, start to think like a magazine and create an editorial calendar. You’ll build a small media empire this way.

In 2003, something called WordPress will come out. Learn WordPress right away. It’ll be rough around the edges in the beginning, but it’ll become the platform most websites are built on in 10-20 years. It’s a great blogging software and in 10 years it will be a defacto content management system, or CMS. It’ll be dry and geeky and boring at first, but if you learn WordPress, you’ll have a skillset other people don’t have, plus a killer website for sharing your work.

The search engine Google launched a couple of years ago. Learn Search Engine Optimization (SEO). (By the way, buy stock in Google, Apple, and Amazon as soon as possible.) Learn the basics of SEO, and you can apply that to websites, podcasts, social media, marketing products, you name it. Good SEO is good business: be relevant to your audience. Build connections with people by producing something that resonates with them, whether it is writing, video, or audio. Yes, you’ll create all of those things.

3. Read all the business and marketing books you can find, and make a plan.

Buy books, check them out at the library, whatever you need to do. Find out who Seth Godin is and read everything he writes. Learn about art businesses and make a plan. How did Andy Warhol make money? Salvador Dali? Read up as much as you can, and make a plan.

Here’s a simple plan that works: design something cool every day, publish it, and send it to your list. Make art every day and publish it online. (Are you noticing a pattern yet?) Show up every day, even if it isn’t perfect. It’s that simple. Just publish something. This still works in 2019. Start there. Then you can find out who your people are, who likes your work, and talk to them and understand them.

Don’t think of your audience as an audience. Think of them as your tribe, your people. Once you demonstrate that you understand them, they’ll see you as a friend and start buying your work. Build up a body of work, and talk to galleries. It’s scary, but it’s worth it.

Make sure your parents know you have a plan, and follow-through. Let them see you working to get your art out there.

3. If a job sounds like it’ll suck, don’t take it. 

What might be cushy job for good money will likely crush your soul.

4. Get involved with non-profits. 

Not everything is about making money. It’s about making connections and doing good.

5. The wealthy have a several income streams.

Here’s how you can build multiple income streams as an artist and graphic designer:

  1. Launch a website/blog to share your work. Show your process. Offer freelance services to start an income stream apart from your day job.
  2. After a hundred articles or so, offer to write for other websites, for free. Eventually you can do this for money. That’s another income stream.
  3. Sell original art directly online via eBay. Sign up for PayPal and take payments that way. That’s another income stream.
  4. Offer prints online. That’s yet another income stream.
  5. Sell consulting services and open up group masterminds or create a course to share what you’ve learned. That’s a few more income streams. I know several people who have done quite well this way.

You’ll be independently wealthy by the time you’re 35 if you do this. If one area doesn’t do so well for some reason, you have others to make up for it.

Your 20s are for working your ass off. In your 30s and 40s, you’ll want to spend time with your wife and kids. Make something, find out what works, change it up when it doesn’t work, and try again. This is the “ready-fire-aim” approach to business that will absolutely work in the 2000s, 2010s and beyond.

Don’t neglect your spiritual health.

You’ll figure this out on your own, but let me just say this: Don’t waste time on churches that don’t make you feel welcome. Church should be a safe place that motivates you to do ministry. Find your own faith. Question denominational thinking.

Don’t ignore the voice telling you to make art.

Make a daily art habit. 

The results will surprise you. You’ll improve really quickly. You’ll discover what you do and don’t like to paint. Try to finish something every day, or at the very least, paint at the same time every day. For completing a painting every day, I suggest picking a small scale, like 5 inches, or a little bigger if you find yourself getting too tight. Stay loose. I’ve found painting after dinner works best for me. Not 4 a.m. You’ll try for years to become a morning person, but it doesn’t work too well. 

Upgrade to the best possible gear as soon as possible. 

Computers, cameras, paints, brushes, canvas, software. Stay ahead of the curve. Build it into your budget.

Inventory your art. 

Track who buys it and for how much. Make a spreadsheet, buy software that does it, whatever. Track this and look for patterns. (This is something I need to do now, actually.) Paint more of what people like, but don’t confine yourself to that. Make sure it lines up with what you value. For example, I know you can paint florals really well, but you don’t enjoy it so much. 

Experiment with different mediums and techniques. 

Try acrylic and metallic paint. Trust me. The metallic paint seems tacky at first but it winds up pretty awesome.

Don’t waste time watching TV. 

When you get your first apartment, you’ll do nothing but watch TV. Four-hour blocks of reruns of Stargate SG-1 on Sci-Fi channel, plus nostalgic comedies on Nick-at-Nite, and membership at a video rental store down the street will have you watching an entire season of a show in a couple of days. “Binge-watching” will be a thing. Serialized TV will be reinvented, and in 15 years, broadband will be everywhere, and we’ll be able to watch TV on the internet.

Make art instead of watching TV. If you run out of money for canvas, draw stuff and post it on your blog. You’ll run out of money at some point and take photos of stuff and throw it together in Photoshop. Keep doing that. Do it every day. Then when you have money again, buy canvas and post what you paint on your blog regularly.

Make a schedule and stick to it. 

Try doing different tasks on different days. For example, make new art on Monday. Write about it on Tuesday. Edit your writing on Wednesday. Publish it on Thursday and email your list when your post goes live. Plan the next thing on Friday. Use the weekend to read and absorb new information and restock the well of thoughts and experiences from which you draw creative inspiration. Repeat.

Your education goes beyond your classes in school.

Consider changing your major.

You will wish you had graduated a few years later and majored in interactive design, design for the internet/web. That wasn’t an option in 1999. Instead, maybe major in marketing, with minors in graphic design and painting, although you will wish you had majored in painting.

There’s so much stuff you can learn online or at the library.

In 2019, colleges and universities are losing their status quickly. If you really want to learn something, you can learn it online for free or for cheap. I’m not pushing my kids to go to college, and I come from a long line of college graduates! Who knows what 2029 will look like?

The best way to learn is to get to know people.

Listen to smart people. Read voraciously. Buy coffee for the smartest people you know and listen to what they have to say. Follow their instructions and report back to them.

I know you’re tired of all this, but I have a few last things to mention.

  1. Upgrade your hearing aids sooner. They are expensive, but worth it.
  2. Take care of your car. Keep the oil changed, the tires rotated, the tires fresh, keep it clean.
  3. The next few years are going to be hard. In 2001, you’ll see some tragic events unfold. The job market will be tough. You’ll persevere. 2009 will be difficult too, as the country experiences another market slump and you lose a job you like. Buckle up, Dorothy.



Do you think 20-year-old Brad would listen to that, or tune it out?

Knowing myself, I’d probably ignore a lot of it. But if 50-year-old me came to me today and told me what to do, I’d listen.

What would you tell yourself if you could go back to age 20?

Behind the Scenes: How I Got Started As An Artist

September 20th, 2018

Being an artist is like breathing to me. I can’t imagine not making art. I never had a lightning bolt moment where I realized I was an artist. There was no sign from heaven or anything like that.

It’s something that has always been a part of my life by default. But I wasn’t born with a sketchpad in hand. Being an artist is something that has taken me years — decades, even — to realize.

Starting the Gold Swoop Painting

The Beginning

See, I was born early. I was a premie and got sick a day or two after I was born. The medicine they used to treat my infection saved my life — for that I am thankful. But it did extensive damage to my auditory and olfactory nerves. I have 80-90% hearing loss. I can’t smell very well, either. (I’m always asking my wife if my shirts smell okay enough to get one more wear out of them before washing!)

Since my hearing was damaged, my visual sense makes up for it. I learned how to draw to accommodate my hearing loss. This isn’t unusual for other deaf people. Many other deaf people I know are more finely attuned to visuals than the rest of the population. Since I couldn’t hear or speak well, I expressed myself visually. It wasn’t until I was two-years-old or so that my grandfather on my dad’s side — Papa Stan — figured out that I wasn’t hearing. So we had my hearing tested at Bill Wilkerson in Nashville. We lived in Kentucky at the time so it was a little bit of a drive.

I remember the waiting room at Bill Wilkerson. It had couches and chairs and those childrens’ toys with the wooden shapes on the wire that you push back and forth. When we went to have me fitted for hearing aids, we sat in the waiting room for some time, and someone gave me a sheet of paper and some drawing utensil. So I drew the toy fish in front of me. Of course, I don’t remember any of this. But apparently I drew such a remarkable expression on the fish that my family took notice. From then on, my drawing was encouraged.

Drawing Was My Life

My parents encouraged me to explore whatever I wanted. I did all sorts of things, from swim lessons to art lessons (which actually bored me) to Cub Scouts to running track and cross-country. I even took piano lessons. But the thing that was most consistent was I was always drawing. I drew constantly the first 18 or so years of my life. 

In elementary school, I dreamed of becoming an animator for Disney. I was fascinated with the artists at Disney-MGM Studios in Orlando. I thought it was cool that they studied real bears for Brother Bear. Even if the character they were drawing was a talking animal, they would make the same expression in the mirror and draw themselves as that animal. I was particularly fascinated with matching mouth shapes to sounds. I would film myself with the family VHS deck so I could study the shapes my mouth made and practice drawing them.

In middle school, I discovered comics via Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I found a graphic novel adaptation of the 1990 movie, and it was drawn in the same style as the original comic books from 1984, not the rounded cartoony style used in the animated TV show. From there I got into other comic books such as Spider-Man and Wolverine and Batman. I got really good at drawing superheroes and drew a few issues of my own comic book, which featured my two best friends and me. We were time travelers who transformed from skinny kids into muscle-bound heroes. I had a lot of fun drawing comics and it was my dream to work for Marvel Comics or Image Comics.

In high school, my aspirations grew a little more practical. I was on the yearbook staff, and learned how to lay out pages and spec type. I actually did layouts on grid paper and cropped photos with a wax pencil. Midway through the first year, we got a computer with Aldus PageMaker on it, and I learned how to do layouts that would have been impossible to specify on the grid paper. I learned this was called graphic art. Hey, I could do this for a living. And in the real world, it wasn’t called graphic art anymore. It’s graphic design. So when it came time for college, I majored in graphic design and got a BFA.

A flat brush will apply a long, smooth line.

Then I Fell in Love

In the Fall of my sophomore year of college, I took Painting I as it was required for my major. I was in love.

It was magic to feel the paint run across the canvas under the brush. To feel the give and take between me and the canvas. The buttery feel of oil paint between the thumb and forefinger. To do more than just draw something, to create a world with color and brushstrokes. It got even better once I took color theory!

I fell in love with painting and I never looked back. It still took a while for me to realize this was what I was supposed to do.

One More Story from the Family Lore…

My grandfather on my mom’s side — “Granddaddy”  — dabbled in art and loved painting in watercolor. He would bring me along to his watercolor classes at the Centennial Arts Center in Centennial Park (check out the Parthenon if you are ever in Nashville). When I was about 8 or 9 years old, I was at one of these classes with him. I was working away on whatever it was I was doing in watercolors, and the instructor, Hazel King, came by and looked at what I was doing and said, “Well Brad, you’re going to be an artist someday!”

I looked up at her and said, “I am an artist!”

Of course it might have sounded rude or disrespectful but everyone laughed and my family told that story for years. Looking back, I realized: I already was an artist. Nobody had to tell me. I knew. I wasn’t trying to be an artist. It was just what I did. You don’t have to tell a child he/she is an artist. The kid already knows. The kid just is an artist without even trying to be. I was right all along. It just took me 25-30 years to realize this.

Brad Blackman "McGavock" 2003. Oil on canvas, 40 x 20 inches

I Am An Artist

That’s why I never “got started” as an artist. Being an artist has always been a part of me. But that doesn’t mean I don’t make an effort at it. Believe me, it’s easier to just binge something on Netflix than make a new painting. Being an artist is a daily commitment. I have to listen to that call that is within me. To not listen to it is to avoid that which I was put on earth to do.

Another thing I’ve realized is that an artist is never truly “there.” You’ve never “arrived.” You’re always striving toward something. Maybe it’s a way of using color, or a texture, or a composition, or a poetic form, or a new instrument or some other thing. Again, it’s a daily commitment to the craft, a lifestyle of making art.

So how about you?

What is it you’re called to do? What were you put on this earth to do? I believe we are all here for a reason.

Sometimes we just have to dig for that reason, and we realize we had it all along.

What is the purpose of art today?

December 16th, 2014

What is the role of the artist today? What purpose do the arts serve nowadays?

Over the centuries, artists have had a lot of different roles. While the roles have all been different, the one constant is to transform. To create change.

The artist has been a…


This is the original role of the artist, to make functional things that improve the quality of life. In a way it overlaps with engineering. Photo Credit: Let Ideas Compete via Compfight cc


A lot of people think of art as just decoration or simple creative expression. By extension that makes art an indulgence on behalf of the artist or the collector/consumer. I don’t completely agree with this, but I’ll allow it since it is not a “necessity” for “survival.” (I’ll touch on that at a later date since I believe art is more necessary than you’d think.) Photo via Compfight cc


Art has always been used to promote political figures and leaders as well as the wealthy. You can use art to make certain people more appealing in the public eye. Photo Credit: x-ray delta one viaCompfight cc


This is an offshoot of propaganda. Art produced to sell something is propaganda for a company. Under most circumstances it is harmless as everyone has to make a living somehow, but it can easily be twisted to be disingenuous. Photo Credit: kevin dooley viaCompfight cc


There is something sacred about creating art and looking at art, since it comes from a place that isn’t ruled by science alone. In a very real sense I think artists are shamans who see more than meets the eye and try to reveal things that plain science cannot. Photo Credit: Crysco Photography via Compfight cc


It should be no surprise that many artists are politically active or have causes they wholeheartedly support. If art can be used as propaganda, it can certainly be used to promote personal causes or seek out justice. Photo Credit: ★ spunkinator via Compfight cc

All along, the role of the artist has been to create change and transformation.

Art makes life better, sells things, and influences the way people think about something or another person.

Seth Godin would say we are all liars.

Now, I’ve said it before: even art that comes from a place of beauty still aims to transform you: it changes your mood by eliciting feelings of awe, inspiration, and being uplifted.

Photo Credit: beautifulcataya via Compfight cc

But what is the role of the artist today?

What is the artist trying to transform right now, in the early 21st century? This is something I grapple with. Why does art exist today? Is art there to serve a documentary purpose?


Art serves as marker of cultural achievement. It’s an indicator of society. So it should stand to reason that in many ways it is a mirror of society.

The major function of art is to show society for what it really is, even if it is unflattering. (Tweet that)

And it often is.

I’ve come to believe that the role of the arts today is to be a mirror and show society what it is. We have so much propaganda already. So many artists make a living making propaganda after all as designers and advertisers. Plenty of artists are decorators as well. Craftsmanship has its place but has largely been relegated to machines or artisans in quaint shops.

So what I see happening is the “fine” arts serving as a mirror to society.

What artists create on their own is very often a personal record of who they are and where they’ve been.

But if you extrapolate that to a societal level, or if the artist chooses to go beyond himself, you end up with social commentary. And often it is pretty discouraging.

Personally, what I want to create right now, is art that creates peace because we live in such a noisy world.

We live in a world that is so busy and distracted by cool apps. We keep score on Instagram and Facebook. We live in a world where everybody is obsessed with being right. Spend five minutes on Facebook and watch people hurl insults against each other because somebody is for or against (leader).

So maybe the purpose of art in this day and age is to be a mirror.

But I could be wrong. What do you think it is?

What Taylor Swift Taught Me About Scarcity, Abundance, and Tribes

October 14th, 2014

A few weeks ago I wrote about how artists have to pay attention to their tribe, because their tribe, as it were, has changed over the last couple hundred years. We don’t have a gallery system like we did fifty years ago. You can’t just hope to “get discovered.” You can’t wait on an agent to do all the legwork for you, putting your art out in front of potential buyers.

You Have to Build Your Own Audience

I think of Taylor Swift. Sure, she has an army. She has professionals working for her. But there is so stinking much she does herself. She got where she is the hard way, by working hard. Say what you will about her and her music, but she works hard and she takes care of her fans. She was criticized recently for her op-ed in the Wall Street Journal where she talked about the future of the music industry.

While I won’t go into detail about her article, I will say that T-Swizzle knows her audience. She knows her fans, and she knows how to treat them. She knows her tribe, and she speaks with an attitude of abundance, not scarcity. She is confident they will be there, and they will, because she is good at what she does.

Listen to Your Tribe and They Will Take Care of You

And that’s what I want to get at. Not only do you have to understand your tribe, you have to have faith in them. I touched on this briefly when I was on the Dispatch podcast, about how you really have to listen to your tribe.
“You can observe a lot just by watching.” — Yogi Berra
Let me give you an example. In a recent edition of my newsletter I wrote about an artist friend of mine who listened to her tribe.My friend Mandy asked on Facebook, “Why am I writing thank you notes on notecards with somebody else’s stock photos?” Somebody chimed in and said, “If you put your art on postcards, I’ll totally buy them!” Sure enough, she went and added some new postcards to her Etsy page.

And when my mom saw this in my newsletter, she told me, “you need to do that, too!” And she’s right. There’s an opportunity that I should jump on.

That’s an example of listening to your tribe. There are a lot of opportunities there that you’ll miss if you’re not by paying attention. You learn a lot that way.

You’re One in a Million and That’s a Good Thing

My friend Jeff Goins put out a video recently advertising his online course Tribe Writers. He says, “you know how your mom always told you  that you’re one in a million? If that’s true, and there are 7 billion people in the world then that means there are 7,000 other people just like you.”

If you’re “one in a million”, and the world is full of seven billion people, that means there are seven thousand people just like you.

And that’s not a bad thing, because if you get your message in the right place, it will totally jive with 7,000 people.That’s a pretty good-sized army right there. If you can get half of those 7,000 people, you’ve got more than your 1,000 True Fans.

1,000 True Fans is an idea that says that you really need a tribe of 1,000 people who will support your work and keep you financially viable. If you are a musician, they will go to all your shows, buy all your CDs and t-shirts. The number isn’t the point. The point is you need a relatively small tribe. You don’t need to sell millions of copies to make it. 1,000 people is only 0.000014285714 percent of the world’s population. You don’t have to be a household name to be a success. Only about 1-2% of the population even watch the most popular shows on television.

You know how Andy Warhol said that in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes? Sometime back in the early 2000s, I heard somebody say that because of the Internet, everybody is now famous to 15 people.

Except there are plenty of people out there to be famous to.

However, we live in a society whose economy is built on scarcity.

Our whole culture is built around scarcity. Now, scarcity is a real thing. Resources are finite, dollars are finite, and in reality there really are only so many potential customers. I’m not trying to get into a discussion of economics and government models, but the truth is that scarcity is a fundamental part of how we operate as humans.

But. There is enough to go around.


And I know this will sound kind of “woo-woo,” but if you approach life with an attitude of abundance instead of scarcity, it will open up so many new avenues, not just for business, but for friendship and your life!

Be Generous

If you approach life with the attitude that life has a lot to offer, you will become increasingly generous, and people will be generous back.

It’s one of those things that once you start doing it, it can’t help but spread.

Jesus said, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10)

That gives me a lot of hope.

I’m not saying you have to give everything away in the hope that someone will buy something, but be generous because it is the right thing to do.

Abundance = Faith

If you live life from a point of abundance rather than scarcity, it will allow you to have so much more faith that God will take care of you. That’s really what it’s about. Having faith and believing that God will provide for you.

And you know what? God is the source of it all. Who’s to say he can’t provide everything? And he will!

My logic says that if you have a scarcity mindset, you’re not having enough faith in God. I’m not trying to belittle anybody, but that’s what it really comes down to!

I have to admit that it’s very easy for me to give in to the scarcity mindset. I have to intentionally practice abundance. I have to listen. What about you? What are some things you can do to get around this mindset?

(Here are some tips Michael Hyatt has shared on this very topic: Perceived Scarcity in a World of Outrageous Abundance)

Photo Credits: Sky Lanterns: Jirka Matousek via Compfight cc Gallery scene: Dom Dada via Compfight cc Andy Warhol: MEDIODESCOCIDO via Compfight cc

The Purpose of Art is to Transform

September 23rd, 2014

For hundreds of years, for many people, the purpose of art has been to be beautiful.

The 20th century changed all that. We saw a lot of upheaval. Art became ugly.

It became clear that the purpose of art is not so much to be beautiful or convey a sense of beauty or have an “uplifting-ness” (if that’s a word) but to move people.

But maybe that’s not quite it. Maybe it’s more than just moving people.

For a long time I thought the purpose of art was to move people, but now I think that the purpose is even greater and deeper: to transform.

Maybe the purpose of art is to transform the viewer.

Perhaps that transformation evokes a sense of beauty in the viewer. Or perhaps it evokes anger and confusion.

Either way, the viewer is not only moved, but transformed, because this is something they weren’t experiencing before viewing the art.

There’s a lot more than just simple movement. Good art will always leave a mark. Its viewers will be changed, different from before they saw it.

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Why Fog Keeps Coming Up in My Art

September 16th, 2014

This time of year in Nashville we have a lot of foggy mornings. The sky is gray, and it feels like the sky is just a few feet away from you. In a sense, it is.

The world seems to disappear and reappear right before your eyes. Landmarks and skylines disappears.

My drive into Nashville looked like this one morning recently.

It was pretty and quiet.

I think fog has been such a powerful metaphor for how I’ve felt the past 10 years.

I’ve fallen in and out of love. Moved in and out of my parents’ house several times. Dated a bunch. Finally met someone I thought would be perfect for me. Married her and a year later I became a dad. Six months later, the economy took a “downturn,” I lost my job, and we moved in with my parents for a year. I got a job I couldn’t stand, we bought a foreclosure, and then we had another baby. Eventually I quit the job I didn’t like and tried my hand at freelancing full-time. Then we found out we were having a third baby, nearly lost the house more than once, finally landed at another job.


During it all, everything has been up in the air, unclear. I’ve felt like I was on the road, headed… somewhere. At full speed.

And even now, though things aren’t that bad, there’s still uncertainty in the air, and I don’t really know where I am going just yet. You probably don’t, either.

While things grow more stable (wait until the kids are teenagers!) nothing is completely clear, but that’s okay.

I know it is just fog. There are solid objects out there that I have to watch out for, so I use caution.

I just keep my headlights on to help everyone else out.

Be a light in the fog.

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August 12th, 2014

Taste, along with talent, is what usually gets you into art in the first place. You probably have a knack for what looks good, what doesn’t, what sounds good, what flavors go together and so forth.

A hunch?

You have a knack for pairing things, really, based on hunches but sometimes theory understood intuitively. Other people may not come up with it on their own, but they are pleasantly surprised when you do it.

Then of course there is the problem of “bad” taste. Combinations that disappoint. And sometimes what looks bad now might look great tomorrow, dated next week, yet beautiful and timeless a hundred years from now.

The definition is slippery, but taste is a real thing for sure.

While I’m certain taste starts with liking things (or disliking them, even), it goes beyond that.

I think good taste can always quantify and explain itself given certain principles that have been proven time and again. What we have to be careful of is that we don’t confuse taste for personal preference.

In short, it’s a sort of pursuit of excellence.

Ira Glass and the Gap

Ira Glass (the guy who hosts This American Life on NPR) has talked about the gap between a beginner and his taste. In short, you have good taste, but your skills don’t always match up. And that’s frustrating.

Video: THE GAP by Ira Glass from Daniel (aka frohlocke) on Vimeo.

Also, don’t miss the Zen Pencils comic-strip version of Ira Glass’ talk.

What’s been your experience with taste and the struggle in getting your skills up to the same level as your taste? Or do you even worry about it at all?

Photo Credit: visualpanic via Compfight cc

I Like It.

July 15th, 2014

All too often this is what I hear from people regarding art or design. They have an either/or response: they like it or they dislike it.

I suppose this is natural and a fundamental part of our humanity. If something makes us uncomfortable or unpleasant, it’s probably a good idea to stop doing whatever that thing is.

Yet what makes art “good” isn’t necessarily what makes it pleasant or even likable.

Nowadays the creative process or the theory behind it is what makes art compelling.

Not what it looks like or even how beautiful it is. While beautiful art is making something of a comeback, there’s still a lot of 20th century art sitting around that isn’t necessarily fun to look at, but it has some strong concepts and processes driving it.

But back to liking or disliking something: when you say this, it sounds like you haven’t given it further thought. Sure, you may be going on your instincts, and your gut is often right, but simply liking something makes it sound as if you haven’t critically observed whatever it is you’re looking at.

I want to hear more people qualify what they are liking or disliking. Picasso’s Guernica (1937) isn’t pretty, but it is important, because it makes some pretty bold statements about how ugly total war is.

It is both personal and impersonal: the impersonal war obliterated a town not far from the place Picasso grew up. There’s nothing pretty about it and there isn’t supposed to be. It’s brutal.

The painting moves you because it tells you how terrible war is. Everywhere Picasso turned, the newspapers were full of death and destruction of people, animals, property. He was overwhelmed and outraged and it shows.

And you want to say whether you like or dislike “Guernica”?

That’s about as dumb as saying whether you like or dislike the war that prompted it.

Look deeper.

Not just at art, but the world around you.

We’ve become so dumbed down by a simple thumbs-up. Life is far more complex than that. Develop a vocabulary to talk about it.

What’s In Your Library?

May 27th, 2014

Recently, I asked my newsletter readers: “What are you reading these days? What are you listening to?”

I think these things are important, because they make you who you are. The things you read, watch, and listen to have a huge impact on what you become, just like the friends you keep.

Make it a goal to surround yourself with good people both in person and in the media you consume, whether actively or passively. That morning-drive radio DJ’s dumb jokes will slowly influence your sense of humor just like intentionally listening to Beethoven will slowly increase your attention to a variety of things (though listening Mozart may or may not actually make you smarter).

“He that walketh with wise men shall be wise: but a companion of fools shall be destroyed.” — Proverbs 13:20, King James Version (KJV)
What’s on your nightstand? Your iPod playlist? Your Netflix queue? Pay attention to it. Be careful who you’re surrounding yourself with.

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Library for the Faculty of Philology at the Free University Berlin, Germany: svenwerk via Compfight cc Colorful bookcase: missha via Compfight cc

The Secret to a More Creative Life: Choosing the Right Influences

May 20th, 2014

Living a creative life is one of those things that is easy and hard at the same time.

Being creative is relatively easy. We do it by default as children. Watch how children play. For a child, anything can be something fun. A straw can be a spaceship, a sword, or a magic wand.

That is our default mode. But it gets trained out of us as we grow up. This is what makes it hard. Because being creative makes us different. It’s scary. It’s outside of this “box” that we talk about, that we say we have to think outside of but we are terrified to do so. It’s outside our comfort zone. Our nature desires a certain level of safety and comfort, so being creative takes us outside that. It scares us. It’s classic Lizard Brain stuff.

Creativity is a Choice

I think what it really boils down to is intention. If you want to live a creative life, you have to be very intentional about it. You have to do it on purpose. A creative life doesn’t happen by accident. You might stumble into some things that are fun and stimulate your creativity, but to see real long-term results, you have to choose to embrace it. Seek out creative opportunities instead of just letting them fall into your lap. You’ll find more that way.

Part of this requires that you take a hard look at what is holding you back from living a creative life. What isn’t working? Don’t be afraid to eliminate what doesn’t really help you out.

Watch Who You Hang Out With

This is important but it’s scary. It makes you feel selfish and wrong. But at some point you have to decide to stop spending time with negative people who can’t or won’t support you. People who criticize or belittle you and/or your ambitions. People who are fearful of your creative efforts because it terrifies them. Unfortunately they have to find out for themselves just how stuck the Lizard Brain has gotten them.

It’s hard to let go of some “friends” because you want to be nice. Instead, you feel like a jerk, flat-out rejecting someone. You feel selfish. You’re not hanging around Joe Smith because he doesn’t think you should pursue ballet? The truth is, you can’t hold yourself back like that. Think of it this way: you’re getting rid of weeds to make room to plant something new.

Keep in mind that I’m not advocating that you only hang out with people with the same views as you. That leads to extremely insular, naive and narrow-minded thinking. Be open to a wide range of perspectives and attitudes, but don’t hang around jerks who drag you down.

Watch Your Inputs

What is your mental diet? The things you watch, read, and listen to. The things you put in your mind on a daily basis. What magazines do you have lying around the house? What podcasts do you listen to? What TV shows are on in the background while you work? What books do you read? Pay careful attention to these.

Balance the “snacks” with the solid stuff carefully. Constant snacking is bad for your appetite and your body. Mental snacking is just as bad. How often are you hitting refresh on Facebook? Maybe it’s time to #unplug. I’ll be honest, I’m talking to myself here. It’s easy to allow yourself to be distracted by useless things that don’t get you anywhere. Again, this is a Lizard Brain thing keeping you from what scares it the most. Avoid things that derail a positive mindset, such as constant negative news.

You can be sure this topic will come up again on this blog!

Does Any of This Sound Familiar?

At its core, this is not much different from other lifestyle changes. If you’ve successfully quit smoking or drinking, chances are you no longer hang around other smokers or drinkers. And if you got fit, you probably found a workout buddy or a friend who is already into fitness to inspire you. If you have learned to cope with depression, you probably quit listening to songs by Rage Against the Machine. Maybe you sought out a mentor. The bottom line is it requires intention and a commitment to living a certain way and being a certain way.

If you want to live a life of creativity and creative effort you have to really try, and have a dedicated dissatisfaction with the status quo. Meeting the status quo won’t get you where you want to go.

What are you doing to create a more creative life?

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Photo Credit: Sergiu Bacioiu via Compfight cc

Honest Art?

May 6th, 2014
“Art is a lie that tells the truth.” — Pablo Picasso

Art on one level is inherently false. Images that seek to express in two dimensions what exists in three dimensions is a lie: this flat surface creates the illusion of three-dimensional space. It’s not really three-dimensional, but it looks like it. That makes it false by definition.

Rene Magritte, The treachery of images (This is not a pipe) (La Trahison des images [Ceci n’est pas une pipe]). Oil on canvas, 25 in × 37 in. 1948.

Rene Magritte’s The Treachery of Images (This is not a pipe) underscores this: it is a painting that depicts like a picture of a pipe. But it isn’t a pipe. It makes the true statement that it is not a pipe. It’s just a flat representation of a pipe.

Bad art posing as serious art

There is another kind of art that is rather dishonest. It pretends to be serious art, but is in fact a mockery. Thomas Kinkade is the first that comes to mind. Sure, he was technically good, but there’s a point where he ceased to be good and just did whatever the market wanted.

To me that is dishonest. I’ve read that Kinkade wanted to do other art, art that was more expressive, but what he wound up making was essentially bad copies of what made him famous.

It would be like Elvis trying to sing like Elvis. Which I don’t think he ever did. As Elvis got older, his voice got deeper, and he put on really big shows in Vegas. Singing “Can’t Help Falling In Love” in a deep, rich baritone, wearing a glittery, sequined jumpsuit with big hair and flashy sunglasses. Contrast that with when he was getting started: a young white guy in a work shirt playing a guitar, singing with a Negro voice but giving it that edge that made him popular with white kids.

People make jokes about “Fat Elvis” but I think he accepted that he wasn’t young anymore, and he wasn’t capable of doing the same thing he had done 20 years before. He probably wasn’t interested in it, either.

The point is, how honest is your art? Are you making your art solely to fit the whims of the marketplace, or are you being true to who you are as an artist?

Leave room for reinvention

That’s not to say you can’t adapt your art to the situation in order to make a living. For example, Metallica have successfully reinvented themselves many times, when the popular music landscape changed, and when they decided selling their music online wasn’t such a terrible thing after all. They’ve had members come and go, all been in and out of rehab, and their style has changed somewhat, but they’re still the same Metallica.

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The Case of Too Many Inputs

April 1st, 2014

I often have way too many inputs. I think I need to put myself on a mental diet with the constant barrage of information online, mostly coming from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, RSS feeds, email, email, email.

Too. Much. Noise.

I can’t hear myself think. And it’s not just the kids running around in circles breakdancing around the house. (Yes, I made the mistake of introducing that term to them. Now it’s all they want to do. “Daddy, we’re going to breakdance in the kitchen.”)

On the flip side, there are so many great resources out there. So much to learn. I don’t want to miss out on any of it. I know I need to get better at listening, and there are so many ways to listen nowadays. We live in the age of Big Data. It’s a blessing and a curse. The information is overwhelming, and so is the information about the information (which makes it metadata).

Of course, we all know that iron sharpens iron. We learn best from interacting with other people. From listening to them. You can’t listen only to your own thoughts. My own thoughts get old after a while like a broken record.

You can’t operate only on your own.

If you never listen to anyone, your ideas get stale after a while. You have to test them, share them, grow them by rubbing them up against other ideas. Watch what happens. Maybe there will be an amazing chemical reaction. Or it will fizzle and die. Maybe your idea isn’t as good as you thought. Or you are stuck with an idea and it isn’t going anywhere. Or too precious with your ideas, unwilling to share.

It’s the old existential question: if an idea is never shared, did it ever exist in the first place? It applies to art, and it applies to ideas as well. After all, art is just another way of expressing an idea.

So get out of your own head and talk to people! Two are better than one, for sure.

Back to the problem with too many inputs.

Your brain needs a bouncer.

In this day and age there is such a glut of information, so much noise. Total silence isn’t good, either. So what do you do?

You have to be very selective about what inputs you let into your life. Listen to anything and everything with discernment. The internet is a veritable buffet line. You can sample from just about everything there is to learn.

The key is to take stock and get rid of anything that is unhelpful. Be picky about who and what you let stay with you. Your brain needs a bouncer. Is this information really getting you where you want to go? (Do you know where you want to go?)

See, I find “Family Guy” entertaining, but I don’t need to keep watching it. It’s crude, juvenile, and degrading.

And I probably subscribe to too many RSS feeds and email newsletters. It’s not that many, compared to some people I know. But it’s overwhelming to me. I’ve lost interest in so many. Maybe you need to unsubscribe to mine. It won’t hurt my feelings if you do (yes it will but I’ll get over it.) It’s okay to delete what is just slowing you down, what has become just another thing to do, an item on a checklist. Or maybe some input is a negative influence. A few years ago I used to enjoy listening to Rage Against the Machine. Great music, but it always made me angry and start kicking things. So I had to quit that. Honestly, I haven’t missed it.

What inputs have you had to get rid of over the years? Or what inputs do you need to get rid of now?

Photo Credits:

How Becoming Boring Made Me a Happier Person

March 11th, 2014

Toward the end of last year, I began thinking of the three words that would rule over the year to come: Intentional, Boring, and Listen.

I’ve talked about how being intentional is important for the artist.

And right now I’m right smack in the middle of learning to be boring. It’s not very much fun, to be honest. But I know it is going to have a long-lasting positive effect on my family.

As a family we have eliminated a lot of “extras” — smart phones and an expensive data plan, Starbucks runs whenever we feel like it, and cable TV. As a result, we more intentional about how we spend our money and time.

And it’s a little bit boring, too. We’re not constantly distracted by smart phones every five minutes. We can’t run to Starbucks on a whim.

It’s actually pretty refreshing.

In fact, there are only two iPhone apps my wife and I miss at all. I miss Instagram and she misses Twist. (Okay, I miss the camera and the photo apps I like to edit photos with. I’ll just use Instagram as an umbrella term.)

We miss Starbucks a little, but it hasn’t been that bad.

But that’s it.

By becoming “boring,” I’m spending more time with my kids, playing with them and reading with them. Having actual conversations with my wife. If I’m up late, it’s because I’m reading a book, not watching dumb stuff on Netflix. It’s more work on my eyes to read a book than watch a movie, so I’m more likely to turn out sooner and get more sleep.

Staying on top of our budget is not much fun, either. Every night we try to remember to report to each other how much we’ve spent that day. It’s brought us closer and more accountable to each other. It’s more fun to not think about it, but that is irresponsible and foolish.

But you know what? It’s all okay.

I’m at a stage, a season, if you will, where it’s okay to be boring. I’m a dad in my mid-30s. And I’m living a very different kind of adventure than I would have ten, fifteen years ago. I have three little kids at home to take care of, so I’m not doing anything crazy like skydiving or bungee jumping.

Now my adventures consist of marveling at a five-year-old’s wisdom. A three-year-old’s imagination. An almost-two-year-old’s immense love for his brother and sister. And a wife who does so much for our little family. Trips across town to take the kids to see their grandparents. A quiet night at home reading books and drinking hot chocolate.

I don’t have to do wild or expensive things to enjoy life. I can live a “boring” life and be just fine.

And it makes me happy.

Throwback Thursday: Split Motorcycle

November 7th, 2013

On the social web, Thursdays are special. For about ten years now, Throwback Thursday has been a thing, in which one posts pictures of things that are vintage or classic, but in 2011, it took off as a hashtag on Instagram, where people posted pictures of themselves some time ago. I’ve dug up a few old photos at my parents’ house, like this one from when we went to Europe when I turned eighteen.

Rather than post old pictures of myself here on my blog (that’s what Instagram is for, right?) I’ll post pictures of my old art. I don’t know how long this will last or if I’ll keep it up, but it might be fun to see where my art has been and how it got to where it is today. Know yourself, and all that. Plus, while I showed you older works in the context of what influenced me, I thought it would be fun to look at things I’ve done just in the sense of what I painted or drew in the past. Throwback Thursday. Because nostalgia is fun.

So without further ado…

Throwback Thursday: College Edition, #1: The Classic-Romantic Split

Yup, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance made quite an impression on me in college. So I painted it. I’ve blogged about the ideas several times, most recently here.

I painted this in 1999 or 2000, while I was in college. With the motorcycle as a metaphor (as in the book), I split it in two, showing the left side as an abstracted blueprint and the right side painted colorfully and expressively with a split-complementary color scheme. I’m pretty sure I was listening to jazz when I painted the right-brained side. I know for a fact that the tight line art took several days to complete, but the loose palette-knife work took me about 45 minutes.

When I showed it to a friend who was an engineering major, he got it immediately even though he hadn’t read the book. He knew he was the left side, and he preferred it over the right.

The Classic/Romantic Split

September 10th, 2013

Back in college, a girl I dated recommended Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. So, over Christmas break that year, I bought the paperback version with the Pepto-Bismol pink cover. I devoured it. Though it was written in the 70s, the book’s ideas made quite an impression on me.

Robert Pirsig lays out a story of a father and son taking a motorcycle trip across the country. This trip becomes a parallel for the intellectual journey into philosophy. The motorcycle they ride is a metaphor for the Self. The underlying theme is the notion of Quality and the two modes of looking at it as exemplified by the Classic/Romantic Split.


The “Classic mode” is distinguished by rational, analytic thought. It is typical of Enlightenment thinking and embraces technology.


On the other hand, the “Romantic mode” refers to an intuitive way of thinking, characterized by inspiration and creativity. I’ve come to understand this to be a somewhat inaccurate definition of Romanticism. I knew it in my gut when I read it all those years ago, but it was cleared up recently when I read Saving Leonardo by Nancy Pearcy. But for Pirsig’s purposes, it works since the point of ZMM is to learn to think of Quality beyond those two modes, as a thing just beyond consciousness that we strive for.

What this means for art

In regards to Art — the implications for this split are pretty huge. It underscores a large division in the world for two main types of people you are likely to encounter. Rationalist and Romantic thinkers. Or, put another way, technophiles and technophobes. It also points to two directions in art. The Classical mode is rooted in rationalism either based on what can literally be seen or in an abstract sense based on numbers such as De Stijl or Constructivism.

The Romantic line of thinking manifests itself in art that is rooted in myth and imagination. The best example I can think of is the art of William Blake and the Surrealists.

In the end, I don’t think the split is as clean as Pirsig wants it to be since most of us fall somewhere on a continuum between reason and intuition (or technology-loving and technology-fearing) but again it provides a rudimentary framework for understanding two ways of thinking.

Image Credit:

Split, Kenneth Noland, 1959. Acrylic on canvas, 94 x 94 1/4 in. (237.8 x 238.5 cm.) Smithsonian American Art Museum

What’s your story?

June 18th, 2013

All of us have a story for our lives, but I think all too often, we coast along without some grand vision for what our story should ultimately be.

Sometimes a direct approach is the wrong path to take, so we take a lateral drift, coasting along until we figure out what to do next.

It’s okay for a while, but if you do it too long, you’ll end up completely swayed by whatever is around you. You’ll end up spineless and without any sort of conviction, blown by whatever is popular at the moment.

On the other hand, we can get so caught up in the moment that we fail to look at the bigger picture of our lives.

Angry birds of distraction

We get distracted by every day things like school, jobs, maintaining the car, the rent, the dog food, the bills, keeping kids clothed and fed, all the things that turn into a daily to-do list that we dutifully fulfill every day.When that’s done, we’re exhausted, so we plop in front of the TV for a few hours before bed. Right?

If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself in an existential tight spot, realizing you could’ve taken more advantage of those hours you frittered away playing Angry Birds instead of being more intentional with your time.

And then one day you find ten years have got behind you. No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun. “Time” – Pink Floyd, 1973
I’m not trying to get all Cognitive Surplus here (though that’s not a bad idea at all) but I do have a couple of quick suggestions.

Don Miller at the Bat

A few days ago Don Miller wrote a thoughtful blog post about how he sees himself as a baseball player at bat, and all these balls are being lobbed at him every day. Not just a few, but thousands, in the form of emails, phone calls, text messages, and more. He feels like his job is to only hit three or five of them really well, and knock them out of the park. Just those few. Because he is busy with his next book, an upcoming conference he is organizing, and a business he is running, among a couple of other things. So he winds up with a lot of unanswered emails, but he’s okay with that.

Blaine Hogan’s Wallpaper

Then I got an email from Blaine Hogan where he shared this cool wallpaper the other day that asks two questions:

  1. What story do you want to tell?
  2. How do you want to tell it?
Blaine admits that for a long time he put the HOW before the WHAT or WHY. He wanted to make movies that told great stories, put on killer productions that moved people, that sort of thing. He realized that’s backwards. The story comes first. The why is more important than the how. Once he changed his thinking, it started clicking better for him.

What about you?

What’s your story? Your big picture, what does that look like? And how are you going to make that happen?

Image credit: Desert Island sketch: Brad Blackman. Rollerball on copy paper, colored in Photoshop. Nothing fancy.