By Joe Duffy Feb 3, 2009

I recently finished my latest painting, a portrait of a friend/client’s daughter, “Sarah.”  It’s been a struggle. I started over twice, it’s been regularly put on hold because of my “day job” — creating another kind of “art” and the picture has regularly enjoyed trips from our home in the city to our studio in the woods without collecting a single new brush stroke, due to my failure to “commit.”  The toughest part of any artistic endeavor is maintaining the necessary excitement in the process. Therein lies the reason for the many starts, stops and creative blocks in this, as well as every other painting I’ve done. Some come much easier than this one and are finished in far less time but they all present challenges that make me wonder why such a personally fulfilling and enjoyable pursuit doesn’t happen with a lot less frustration and feelings of futility.

With painting I can put it off for a while and come back to it with “fresh eyes.”  It also helps to have lots going on because one creative project informs the others in painting as well as design — I guess that’s also why I’m a creative director and work on all the design projects we have going rather than focusing on one thing at a time. Or, maybe it’s A.D.D. I seem to need to have lots of very different things going on for relatively short periods of time. Switching from painting to design and back again is really a nice way to work. On the one hand, it’s different and for that reason it recharges me. On the other hand, it’s the same so it’s a comfortable transition. I don’t know — I guess that’s why I lump it all together under “art.”

Over the past year we’ve been in the throws of more truly fulfilling design projects than I’ve ever been involved in. There are a lot of explanations for this but I think the main reason I feel this way is that I believe each and every one of them is  “art.” I consider the ongoing debate about art vs. design to be a valid one with legitimate arguments on both sides. However, I also know that in my life, design is art and art is design. I approach both in an almost identical way — the thought process, the mental preparation, the organization of reference imagery, the consideration of context as well as the audience and even my “tricks of the trade” are virtually the same. With painting, I also tend to be my own “worst client,” constantly second-guessing myself and wondering if the job could be done better. Most importantly, my level of satisfaction with either has the exact same criteria — am I proud of the finished product? Did it accomplish what I set out to accomplish both personally and professionally? It hasn’t always been that way.

In the business of design there seems to be various levels of compromise around every corner. Most of this has to do with money. Most are also fairly easy to avoid — so easy that it only took me about 35 years of creative pursuit to figure it out. The simple lesson goes something like this: only create for people who will allow you to do work that you’re proud of. Whether I’ve been commissioned to do a portrait or to design a new brand identity, a few simple questions directed at the client are all it takes to find out if that most important goal can be achieved. More on those in a future webpost but suffice it to say they’re founded in basic human nature rather than any keen business insights.

It’s been almost 5 years since our design company became independent. That independence has had much more to do with a state of mind than it has had to do with our corporate status. Any wounds from compromise in our former affiliations were self-inflicted and my personal responsibility. I’ve had the good fortune of having the “last word” on who we work for and how we work, ever since my name was first placed on the door. The difference between then and now is creating a business plan that has personal fulfillment ahead of making a buck. That requires discipline that I haven’t always been willing to enlist. I think a lot of it comes with age and finally figuring out what really matters in life.

Getting back into painting eight or nine years ago taught me a very important lesson about business and more importantly, about life — it’s important to wake up in the morning with a burning desire to get back to the easel, regardless of how challenging the current state of the “art” might be. If you know that compromise does not stand in the way of the end product, fighting through those challenges will be well worth the effort and oh so rewarding. I’m only restricted by my own limitations, not those imposed by an unreasonable client. If someone wants me to paint something that is not up to my standards, I have only myself to blame for taking on the project in the first place. To me, that’s the difference between art and commerce or what some people consider the divide between art and design. In my mind, today it’s possible to have it both ways and still make a more than comfortable living, not to mention achieving the biggest benefit of any  career – looking forward to going to “work.”

1. Sarah   2. Allison   3. AnaSanaFe

4. Bridget   5. David    6. Jose   7. Joe

8. Megan   9. Pat/Kevin   10. Tressa   

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