If I had to list my favourite books for artists and creative people, this delightful, inspiring little book, would be at the top
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Lost your motivation? Finding it hard to keep going? Make Good Art by Neil Gaiman is my number one book recommendation to inspire you to keep going when your creativity needs a bit of a boost. It’s also the perfect gift for difficult-to-buy for creative friends.
As good books often do, ‘Make Good Art’ made its way into my life at just the moment I needed it most. It wasn’t Christmas, but at a quiet moment during a Quiz Night a couple of years ago my friend Carl pushed a small flat package in Christmas wrapping over the table to me. I unwrapped it with curiosity. I couldn’t remember Carl ever giving me a present before. In recent months he had been helping me get my thoughts straight about the magazine I published at the time. So we had got to know each other in that special way friends do when they work on a common project together. Thus it was that I encountered ‘Make Good Art’ for the first time.
I have kept the book not far from my side ever since, like a sort of creative charm. Its central, insistent message is simple: make good art and continue to make it, no matter what life throws at you.
Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do. Make good art.
Published in hardcover, with design by Chip Kidd, the text is an unedited transcript of a 19 minute commencement address delivered by award-winning writer Neil Gaiman to graduating students at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts on 17 May 2012.
Although Gaiman himself is a writer (of ‘Neverwhere’, ‘Coraline’ and ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ fame), and it is his own creative journey he describes, both his journey and his fine advice could be applied to artists of any creative discipline.
Design by Chip Kidd
What elevates the book from inspiring speech to a piece of art in its own right is the artistry of renowned graphic designer Chip Kidd. Kidd’s inspiration delights on every page. It’s as if Gaiman has written a master lyric, and Chip Kidd has set it to typographical music. Employing a restricted palette of just three colours, scarlet, aqua and yellow, Kidd’s design teases out and amplifies every ounce of meaning in Gaiman’s timeless words.
And timeless they are. The speech was delivered to a group of graduating students in the arts, but it will sing to any person who has ever wondered about the merits of persuing a creative life. Or to anyone interested in how a fellow artist’s freelance life led to success and what he made of it. Or to any person needing motivation to push through in the face of obstacles.
Make Good Art: Neil Gaiman’s Six Pearls of Advice
There are six key pieces of advice neatly plotted into Gaiman’s account of his haphazard freelance journey to fame:
- When you start out in the arts you have no idea what you are doing. Which is as it should be and great for the work because you can break the rules, because you don’t know what they are
- If you have an idea of what you want to make, what you were were put here to do, follow that, even if it feels like you’re not getting there
- You will have to deal with failure and, hopefully, success. Both require you to be thick-skinned
- Make fantastic mistakes! If you’re making mistakes, you’re probably doing something right
- Only make the art that you alone can make, even when you’re at your most unsure
- Freelance people get work because of three things:
- their work is good
- they are easy to get along with
- they deliver their work on time.
Gaiman’s ‘secret knowledge’ is that two out of three is just fine…
Make Good Art and Make up Your Own Rules
When his pearls have been given, Gaiman goes on to expand his manual for the creatively-minded. It’s anti-conventional, pro-individual and not averse to encouraging us simply to pretend when we feel the fraud police at our shoulder (which he frequently does). He positively celebrates the new order that has been rung in by the advent of the internet (‘the old rules are crumbling and nobody knows what the new rules are. So make up your own rules’).
‘And now go’, Gaiman urges at last, ‘make interesting, amazing, glorious, fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here
It’s heady, heartening, empowering stuff, and we all need reminding of it, frequently.
A Creative Gift
My friend Carl gave Make Good Art to me when I needed some encouragement. I gave it to my friend Paul, an extraordinary designer, because he was very ill, and I thought it might help him to push through. Paul passed it on to Andy, who gave it to his niece who is just starting out in her creative career. And just the other day I gave it to my friend Peter, too, who is about to take his art seriously again after a long time.
Give this book to every creative person you know. To every writer, every artist, every graphic designer, digital artist, image-maker, young or old. To every person who has ever stood on the creative shore and wondered if they are able to stay standing.
First of all, though, give it to yourself. Keep it by your bed, topping the stack of other books there, as I do. Or carry it with you on your travels. Or prop it up as a shiny talisman on your desk.
It will serve as a constant encouragement to keep going. To keep making fantastic mistakes. To keep making good art.
Since my bigger purpose in writing this blog is to help as many people as possible to become their best creative selves, ‘Make Good Art’ by Neil Gaiman is one of my ‘12 Brilliant Books for Creative Minds‘. It’s a list of books for artists and creative people to inspire, encourage and motivate your creative journey.
A Note about Make Good Art by Neil Gaiman:
In the interests of those who find the combination of light colours and non-black text hard to read, you may find, sadly, that Chip Kidd’s design does not agree with you. But fear not! You can enjoy the speech anyway: watch Neil Gaiman give the Commencement address on YouTube.