We interrupt our purportedly regularly scheduled blog because it’s come to my attention that I might be burnt out.
Sometimes we’re aware of what’s going on—dimly, maybe, but still—but it never really comes home to you until somebody (often the last person you expect) spells it out for you in no uncertain terms.
Well, burnout happens. I have seen it happen to other people before; I guess I’m seeing it firsthand now, lol. Although I confess I didn’t think it would happen, to me or at least like this, or that things would come to such a pass.
Anyway for this ‘interruptablog’ (which I’m writing instead of the quick-start guide to acrylic like the one I did for oil which I’d thought I’d do since I’m acrylicking now), I’m going to go into ‘artist’s burnout’. Specifically, burnout in people who paint, sculpt…maybe musicians, poets, playwrights, thespians and makers of velvet flowers, too, I don’t know.
Which means we’ll be looking at why you shouldn’t paint (or do art in general) when you’re tired, and how you know you’re burnt out.
Running on Empty
This anime movie I’m really fond of, the one about the teenage witch? She started to lose her powers of flight and communication with animals because of um, shall we say, overuse. One English dub made her say something to the effect of how flying used to be fun until it became ‘just a job’, for her. So her bohemian artist friend told her she needed to take a break.
But that’s anime. In real life, I knew this artist who did six shows in two years—or was it three? Either way, that’s still more than one show a year, and from what I’ve seen, his technique involves very precise, very clean, almost machine-like, very fine detail. Each finished piece was about four or five feet (about 122 or 152cm) and was as flawless as can be.
As far as I know he hasn’t had a solo show since, or at least, not during the long time I was in contact with him. But who can blame him, right? One show in a year would drain anybody; what more would two or more? (I did do two in one year, once, and I almost did two in a year two years ago. Thank heavens my better judgment (if I even have that) won out at the time.)
Another famous artist who went to art school with me once told me that you shouldn’t paint when you’re tired because it might show in your work. I remember being told that when I preparing for my first ever show. Lol, I can’t seem to remember a time when I wasn’t running myself ragged for these things. Wow, it seems like several lifetimes ago (as indeed it has been).
I hadn’t recognised then, or at least, not as concretely as I do now, the import of that statement. I know I can tell when looking at my own work, and I’d say ‘okay, I was dead on my feet while I was working on that bit’. I’m just hoping nobody else can tell (they probably can but they’re too nice to say anything to me and I sure as heck don’t have the guts to ask).
Very recently, I’d been talking to this professional violinist (as in orchestras, operas) who also has a ‘real job’ at a drug abuse rehab facility. Apart from reminding me of that whole quality over quantity thing, he said that he didn’t think sleeping four hours a night and working my day job and the show for a total of 16 hours a day was sustainable.
He also said that was ‘probably’ why I was ‘feeling’ burnt out. Well, it’s only been about four months ^_^ All I’ve got to do is to just hang in there for another three, right? Because for the longest time, my, ‘concern’ has been—
How do you know you really are burnt out (and not just being lazy)?
Or procrastinating? Or getting your priorities mixed up or losing your focus like I said last month? Or something. I mean, you shouldn’t have to wait for your boss to tell you via a link to Channel News Asia or your latest trip to the infirmary right, lol.
I’m not sure how it is for other people but personally I can’t seem to tell if I really am tired or have hit my limit or I’m just being lazy and making excuses. Can I really not do any more today—or could I if I just chugged another can of ‘wakeup juice’? Should I even be drinking wakeup juice? I’m not going to go down that rabbit hole, here.
But as burnout was described in the CNA story and, as I’m sure, myriad other places online as a ‘normal human workplace phenomenon’, suffer me to attempt to define burnout symptoms specific to artists.
So if you’re going through any of the following, I’d say you may say with complete, guiltless confidence (meow), that you are, in fact, burnt out.
1. It feels like a job. It’s like you’re a painting factory (I don’t call it that for nothing, lol), or a sculpture factory or a poem factory or uh, a stage performance factory…Point being you’re just not enjoying it anymore, or enjoying it as much. It just isn’t as fun as it was. It’s just something you ‘have’ to do—and sometimes, not even for the money (if there is any).
2. You get so tired, you can’t move. Has this ever happened to you? I used to think (worry?) that was something that only happened to me, until other artist friends of mine had spoken about this. Two of them in particular come to mind at the moment.
One of them, I remember, said he’d lain down once (even the best of us have to rest some time) and he wanted to get back up to get back to work, but he couldn’t move.
This guy holds the record, last I heard, for having illustrated the most number of children’s books in that illustrators’ org I try (and fail) to be more active in. In any case, you can see he really is a hardworking guy (not even counting his ‘real job’ as an architect with his own firm).
The other one, one of the most brilliant artists and illustrators I know (if you ever tell him I said that I’d have to kill you, heh) once told me he did this super cheap energy drink. It’s six bucks a pop; used to drink it like water, myself (still would if I could find it, lol). He said he didn’t sleep for a week, and he got sooo much done during that one week. But he felt awful afterwards.
I admit when he’d told me that, I thought to myself, so what? Small price to pay for productivity. But now that I’m older and therefore less physically able to (as Sherlock puts it) ‘use myself up rather too freely’, maybe even just subscribing to this end-justifies-the-means type of thinking is a sign of burnout.
3. You’re not right in the head. Speaking of thinking—my sister was a psych major back in uni and I remember asking her once whether crazy people knew that they were crazy, and she said yes. That said, I think one would be able to tell that maybe they’re starting to think of things that are…not so ‘sane’ (and we will leave it at that).
I’m sure there’s no need for me go into further detail, but for sure, you catch yourself thinking like this more often and maybe it’s a sign, you know?
And though I did mean to go into what can be done about burnout (because it’s one thing to acknowledge and another to address an issue) next month, let me tell you now: If those thoughts get too creepy, please. Get the help you need. No matter how ‘sterner’ the stuff you’re made of, you don’t have to go it alone. (And chances are, you bloody well shouldn’t.)
4. It’s getting harder and harder to get a move on. Sometimes you finally get there—in front of your canvas (or your paper or your piano or your computer or whatever)—and you just sit there, staring at it. No, it’s not writer’s block or something like that because you know what you want to do, and are actually dying to do it.
Because a block is when you just can’t think of something to write or paint or play, et cetera. Procrastination or loss of focus is when you decide to go play a video game or get a snack or chat or do anything but paint, et cetera.
I’m talking about sitting there, all raring to go, but you just can’t pick up the brush (or knife or put your hands on the keys, and so on) and do it. You just can’t. I realise this might be a psychological thing rather than a physiological thing but whatever it is, it’s freaking debilitating (not to mention a freaking waste of time).
In a way, this is probably worse than having a block—think constipation, lol. It’s there, but for heaven knows why, you just can’t get it out. And oh, how uncomfortable it is in the meantime. Not that I can speak from experience but it’s like having a baby (many of us refer to our work as our babies, n’est ce pas?)—when pushing doesn’t cut it, you have a C-section.
You still love what you’re doing, and you can’t imagine what your life would be like not doing it. The very thought of not doing it makes you miserable. So it’s not a question of ‘hanging up your brushes’ and entering a convent or changing careers or something.
It’s when you can’t seem to bring yourself to do it, no matter what. It’s a monumentally major undertaking to even get started, and it takes another herculean effort to even do just a very little. It’s often dismaying when you find you've spent X number of hours only to find you only got so much, or rather so little, done. If that isn’t burnout, I don’t know what is.
5. It’s like squeezing water out of a stone. Ordinarily (i.e. when you’re not burnt out) things just come to you—you don’t have to half try. The idea just comes and the thing practically paints (or writes, etc) itself.
But when you’re spent, the idea still comes, but—it takes a little coaxing…okay, maybe a lot of coaxing. Like the idea fairy’s on strike, and she requires a bribe (or a blood sacrifice). So you go for a little ‘creative downtime’—and a few drops of what non-creatives call ‘creative juice’ drip out of the tap, when normally the thing just gushes on demand without you having to turn it on.
Or, the idea still comes, but, somehow you just know it could’ve been better. Or, when it gets down to execution, you know it could’ve been better executed. So you might do it over a few times before it approximates what it might’ve been had you done it when you were better rested, maybe. And the thing ends up taking, oh, thrice, maybe, as long, to get done.
So say you’re burnt out. What of it?
To me, ‘burnout’ is one of those very expressive, spot-on words—not too far removed from the expression, ‘burning the candle at both ends’. I’m thinking most people are able to prevent or avoid this situation, like if they know they’ll get burnt out doing something, they’ll find another way to do it or simply do something else.
Thing is, for some reason, some hardheaded people (//points to self) will do it just the same. Kind of like people who well know deep fried fatty things are a heart attack on a plate, but they keep coming back for their weekly chow-down at the all-you-can-eat buffet, anyway.
But see, here’s the other thing. I’ve sometimes seen the fire in burning things—like maybe a piece of wood or coal—seem to go out. But the thing blazes up again if you fan it, blow it or put some more fuel on it. So I’m thinking maybe it is possible to recover from burnout and get your second wind. Actually I don’t think—I know getting over ABS can be done.
Don’t worry, it doesn’t involve taking your shirt off or anything (it could, but that’s entirely up to you). Knowing what’s coming next on the jillablog, I guess that quick-start guide to acrylic will just have to wait another month or so. In the meantime, if you find that misery could do with some company, you might find some sympathetic commiseration, here.
I don't purport to know everything. Yet if the little I do know can be of any help, you are more than welcome to it.