The importance of personal work for artists

This article was previously posted on my Substack.

When I scrolled back through my photos to look up when I last made a painting, I was a bit shocked. May 2023, what?!
Between writing a book, doing client work, and bettering my health, I had little time to indulge myself with painting just for fun. Or so I made myself believe.

Justifying joy

I hadn’t painted in so long because I couldn’t justify it—in my brain, I need to justify a lot of shit. I managed to justify previous paintings I did by promising people a series of paintings they could buy. I could allow myself time to do things I loved, but only when they were useful to others too. It’s quite a toxic relationship I have here.

As a freelance illustrator, I could easily justify client work. I used to take on job after job until my schedule was filled to the brim, so I wouldn’t even have to think about doing something for myself because I simply pointed to my schedule and said, ‘Look, no time!’. It’s easy to run away from things that are important to you if you create an excuse.

External and internal motivation

In therapy, I’m learning to do things for me. I’m learning that I’m allowed to do things that don’t result in products to sell or being useful to others. I’m rewiring my brain to make it understand that it’s okay to do things just because I enjoy doing them. The benefits include feeling better about myself and enjoying life more.

It’s not indulgent to take care of your needs; it’s actually mandatory to stay healthy. I understand feeding myself and sleeping (although sometimes that is lacking), but I didn’t give myself much more than that. Somewhere, deep within, is a voice that wants to make me feel guilty about doing things I enjoy. Through therapy, I’ve come to understand where this is coming from: a great lack of self-worth.


After a few months of therapy, I’m starting to see progress. This week I painted again, after nine months.
I promised no one a new series of paintings, and I’m even stepping away from the landscapes I know people love to see. I’m doing still-life paintings no one asked for, but I have longed to experiment with them for a long time. I’m overriding my own expectations and am reminding myself while I go that it doesn’t have to result in anything useful.

Instead of thinking, ‘How can I make something others will enjoy?’ (external motivation), I’m shifting towards ‘how can I make something I will enjoy?’ (internal motivation). Not relying on external motivation (or: validation) is important, because that way you can rely on yourself to gain self-worth.

What I’m working towards is incorporating personal work into my days alongside client work. Not leaving ‘things for me’ when I have time for it (I never have), but making it a ‘to do’ on a daily basis. Or at least on a weekly basis for now.

I love painting more than I can put into words. I noticed I have a smile on my face the whole time I’m painting. Before I go on about all the thoughts going through my head, I’ll show you what I made.

Painting #1

Monday evening, I sat in my big yellow arm chair (from Ikea, in case you’re wondering) and I started doodling on my iPad. For no apparent reason, I felt the urge to create a still life.

The next day, while I was waiting for feedback on an illustration project, I thought: “I’ll just paint for a bit while I wait.” Before I knew it, three hours had passed and I finished a small painting on a wood panel of 13 by 18 cm.

Painting #2

I liked the painting but I felt I wanted to make adjustments, like toning down the pinks, and it needed to be bigger. I got out a cradled panel from Jackson’s Art, of 8 by 9 inches and re-drew the same still life on the panel.

This time I chose not to do a whole pink under-layer, but a blue one, with bits in pink, to reduce the pinkness.

I fell immediately in love with my own brush strokes, if I am allowed to say that. Usually, I don’t re-do paintings because I get bored easily, but this showed me it’s absolutely worth it to do the same painting again.

I hope you can see the joy oozing from these paintings. But if you don’t, that’s fine. I honestly, genuinely, really made them for me.
By posting them I’m not looking for approval, but am sincerely sharing my joy with you. That’s already more progress than I could have dreamed of.

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