3 Artists’ Rituals & Routines

Self-help books and personal development podcasts all tout the importance of having a morning routine.  But what— exactly— is the ideal way to start the day?  Many experts argue you should begin with your most important task and avoid checking email and social media first thing in the morning.  Others contend you should make your bed every single day.  Such a simple act is a symbolic gesture: by establishing order in your physical environment, you establish order in your psyche.  Still others recommend journaling, meditating and exercising.

Despite our cultural fascination with the most productive way to divide our days, a quick perusal of Mason Currey’s charming Daily Rituals will reveal there’s no one perfect routine.  An extensively researched collection of over 160 artists, writers, painters and poets, Daily Rituals suggests there’s no single path to a Pulitzer or literary fame: the only thing that matters is sitting your butt in a chair, no excuses, day after day after day.  Whether you work for at least 8 hours like phenomenally productive Joyce Carol Oates or can’t write for more than 2 hours like Southern gothic novelist Flannery O’ Connor, you can write a novel or compose a poem so long as you consistently stick to some sort of routine.  Below are how 3 groundbreaking artists structured their days:

1. Pablo Picasso

Picasso

Pablo Picasso was many different things to many different people: to some, he was a genius, a god; to others, a devil.  At times, he could be charming and convivial, at others, callous and cruel.  His daughter Paloma compared him to the center of our solar system: “If you get too close to the sun, it burns you.”

Picasso was notorious for his moodiness and bad temper.  When he finished working for the day, he’d join his girlfriend Fernande for dinner.  “He rarely spoke during meals; sometimes he would not utter a word from beginning to end,” she recalled.  The painter was more companionable when they had guests over but remained ambivalent about entertaining: though he liked to take breaks between periods of intense productivity, he quickly tired of too much frivolous socializing.

Painting, on the other hand, never bored him.  Like many artists, he was most content when he was in front of a canvas.  For 12 hours a day, Picasso would withdraw to his studio on boulevard de Clichy in Montparnasse.  More a night owl than a lark, he’d begin his work day at 2pm, work until 10, have a late dinner until 11, then continue painting until 3 am, long after most of us have gone to bed.  The result?  Picasso was incredibly prolific, producing over 13,500 paintings, 100,000 prints, 300 sculptures, and 34,000 illustrations.

2. Andy Warhol

andy warhol

Andy Warhol is one of the 21st century’s most accomplished artists.  Besides leading the pop art movement, he managed the Velvet Underground, popularized the expression “15 minutes of fame,” and founded The Factory, a hip gathering place for artists, intellectuals, models, musicians, drug users, and drag queens which came to epitomize the nonconformist spirit of the 1960s.  Warhol, much like great artists Van Gogh and Chardin, found beauty in the most mundane things.  In the same way that Duchamp shocked the world when he submitted a urinal to the Society of Independent Artists in 1917, Warhol broke the barrier between the elevated and everyday.  For him, art wasn’t only bowls of fruit and breathtaking landscapes; it could be Coca Cola bottles and Campbell Soup cans, Brillo soap pads and iconic portraits of celebrities.

Though he was notorious for his eccentricities, Warhol deeply valued routine.  According to his collaborator and longtime friend Pat Hackett, “keeping to his beloved ‘rut’ was so important to Andy” that he veered from it only when absolutely necessary.  Every weekday morning from 1976 until his death in 1987, Warhol— who was obsessed with documenting his day a whole half century before social media— called Hackett and recounted the events of the last 24 hours: the things he’d done, the people he’d seen.  Hackett then transcribed and collected these events in The Andy Warhol Diaries.

After his daily call with Hackett, Warhol showered, got dressed and had breakfast.  Then he’d go shopping for a few hours, usually along Madison Avenue, then in antique shops, auction houses, and the jewelry district.  Between 1 and 3, he’d get to the office.  Before doing any real work, he’d check his appointment book, take a few calls, and open the mail, looking for letters, invitations, photographs and magazines for his Time Capsules.  A snapshot of both his personal life and the zeitgeist of his age, the Time Capsules were an extensive collection of mementos Warhol kept in hundreds of 10×18×14 inch cardboard boxes from 1974 to 1987.  “Less than one percent of all items that he was constantly being sent or given did he keep for himself or give away,” Currey writes, “All the rest were ‘for the box’: things he considered ‘interesting,’ which to Andy, who was interested in everything, meant literally everything.”

After finding material for his Time Capsules, Warhol chatted with people in the reception area and then moved to the sunny window ledge to read the newspaper and leaf through magazines.  Eventually, he would go to the back part of the loft near the freight elevator and settle in to do some real work.  A socialite who loved a glamorous party, Warhol reserved evenings for socializing.  Never the stereotypical reclusive artist, he believed life was a vital part of his art— not an enemy of it.  Indeed, Warhol often used his real life for inspiration.  An obsessive chronicler of the commonplace, he never left the house without film in his instant camera and often taped conversations.  Whether he was hanging with Rolling Stones front man Mick Jagger or model Edie Sedgwick, Warhol thought a bit of captured conversation might later supply the dialogue for a play or movie script.

3. Henri Matisse

henri matisse

A French artist known for his expert craftsmanship, bright, expressive colors, and strong shapes, Henri Matisse is considered— along with Picasso— to be one of the most important artists of the 20th century.  The father of Fauvism, an artistic movement that emphasized vivid and unnatural use of color, Matisse had a great influence on expressionism and continues to inspire artists today.

Basically, I enjoy everything; I’m never bored.  Do you understand why I am never bored?  For over fifty years, I have not stopped working,” Matisse told a visitor to his studio in 1941.  This was no exaggeration: over the course of his career, he worked 7 days a week.  Though his paintings give the impression that they were created with effortless ease, Matisse confessed he had to labor painstakingly to achieve such seeming simplicity.  However, he loved the challenge of capturing his vision in painting.  “From the moment I held the box of colors in my hands, I knew this was my life,” he once said, “I threw myself into it like a beast.”

Matisse’s day began at at dawn when he’d head to Club Nautique, where he’d oar in the harbor.  After he returned home, he’d practice the violin for a few hours.  From 9 till noon, he’d sit to work only to briefly take a break for a nap and lunch.  Around 2, he’d pick up his brushes again and paint until dusk.

The French painter followed this rigorous routine even on Sundays.  “On Sundays I have to tell all sorts of tales to the models,” he admitted, “I promise them it will be the last time I will ever beg them to come and pose that day.  Naturally I pay them double.  Finally, when I sense that they are not convinced I promise them a day off during the week.  ‘But Monsieur Matisse,’ one of them answered me, ‘this has been going on for months and I have never had one afternoon off.’  Poor things!  They don’t understand.  Nevertheless, I can’t sacrifice my Sundays for them merely because they have boyfriends.”

The Routines & Rituals of 3 Famous Authors

What is the secret to success?  The answer— many of us contend— lies in the rituals and routines of great men.  By studying the biographies of billionaires and business men and adopting their habits, we believe we can attain similar success.  If we read a book a week like Bill Gates, we think, we’ll found a multi-billion dollar company and be just as wealthy as him.  Though this idea is obviously preposterous, something about the routines of the rich and famous still captures our imagination.  One look at the most listened to podcasts on Spotify reveals our fascination with the mysterious workings of the creative process.  We long to know how Beethoven prepared his morning coffee, when Picasso began his work day, when Einstein went to bed.

If— like me— you find such trivia endlessly entertaining, you’ll love Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration and Get to WorkA charming compendium of more than a 160 artists, writers, painters, poets and philosophers, Daily Rituals illuminates the many ways remarkable people throughout history have structured their days.  Though there are some commonalities among those featured, no one routine is universal.  Some worked for long stretches of time; others could only manage to work for an hour.  Some were early birds; others were night owls.  Some followed a strict schedule (Hemingway, for example, rose every morning at dawn no matter how much he drank the night before) while others were less regimented with their schedules (later in his life, man of the Jazz Age F. Scott Fitzgerald struggled to maintain a regular writing ritual).  In the end, the habits of these remarkable minds are as distinctive as the people.  Full of amusing anecdotes, interesting oddities and little-known facts, Daily Rituals will delight you— and perhaps reassure you that there’s no one “right” way to work.  Below are 3 of my favorite authors profiled:

1. Haruki Murakami

murakami

For Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, writing is just as much a physical challenge as a mental one.  “Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity,” he told the Paris Review in 2004.  To stay in peak physical condition when he’s writing, he rarely drinks, eats mostly vegetables and fish and runs (his memoir What We Talk About When We Talk About Running, of course a nod to the classic Raymond Carver story, is one of my favorite books on either writing or running).  Because Murakami is a serious athlete (he began running 25 years ago and has been running daily ever since), he understands writing is a sport that requires focus and endurance.  Murakami follows a strict writing schedule in much the same way he trains for marathons: he wakes up before dawn (4 am) and works for 5-6 hours.  He is unwavering in his commitment.  No matter how enticing the cocktail hour or glamorous the party, Murakami often declines social invitations.  For him, writing is his number one priority.  Lesson?  Though your friends might get mad when you yet again say “no” to a night out, it’s more important to say yes to your novel and yourself.

2. Joyce Carol Oates

oates

Is there any writer who’s as productive as Mrs. Joyce Carol Oates?  One can only look upon her more than 50 novels, 36 short story collections, and countless essays and poems and gasp in wonderment.  How can a mere mortal observe so much of the world and craft art from her every experience?  What’s her secret?

Though Oates’s output seems impressive, it isn’t a surprise considering how many hours she spends at her desk.  America’s foremost woman of letters writes every day from 8:00 to 1:00, takes a brief respite for lunch, then writes until dinner.  “I write and write and write, and rewrite, and even if I retain only a single page from a full day’s work, it is a single page and these pages add up,” Oates told one interviewer.  Never one to fall for the myth of mood, Oates writes no matter what; she doesn’t wait for the mercurial muse.  Lesson?  If you want to write, be willing to work.

3. Stephen King

Master of horror Stephen King is yet another phenomenally prolific writer.  The macabre mind behind such bone-chilling books as It and The Shining has written over 62 novels and 200 short stories.  His books have been adapted for the silver screen, translated into over 50 languages and sold upwards of 350 million copies.  His body of work is— to say the least— intimidating.

So how has the sinister scribe managed to write so much over the course of his nearly 50 year career?  First off, he writes every single day of the year.  That’s right: every single day.  It doesn’t matter if it’s Christmas or his son’s birthday: he sits at his desk and writes until he reaches his self-imposed quota of two thousand words.  Like many in Daily Rituals, King begins writing first thing in the morning— 8:00 or 8:30— and works until he meets his goal.  Some days that might be until 11:30, other days it might be until 1:00.  Though he writes diligently every day, King isn’t a humorless workhorse.  His schedule allows for plenty of unstructured time for rest and renewal.  Once he writes two thousand words, he has the rest of the day to himself: to read, to write letters, to spend time with loved ones.

Alain de Botton on How to Preserve the Beauty You Behold Abroad

Why should we write or draw?  Wilde thought we should make art for joy alone whereas Van Gogh believed art was a grand gesture of generosity, a means of sharing something he loved with the world, whether it was a surreal St. Remy sky or a red poppy field.  Kurt Vonnegut, on the other hand, believed we should make art because it teaches us about ourselves and makes our soul grow

British philosopher Alain de Botton adds one more reason to the list of why we should write and draw.  In his infinitely insightful The Art of Travel, Botton argues making art can aid us in better appreciating our travels.  In one of my favorite chapters, Botton suggests artist and art critic John Ruskin can teach us to preserve beauty.  In normal life, if we encounter a thing of particular beauty— a pristine blue sky, a field of golden poppies, a quiet suburban street dappled in spring sunlight— we might note that the scene is rather lovely but never become fully conscious of its many aesthetically-pleasing qualities.  The result?  We only ever experience beauty fleetingly.

If we want a more enduring experience of beauty, we should take out a pen and paper and get drawing.  Ruskin, who wrote several instructive books on the craft and taught drawing between 1856-1860, argues art is just as essential as languages and arithmetic.  “The art of drawing,” he writes, is of “more real importance to the human race than that of writing and should be taught to every child just as writing is.”

Why is Ruskin so passionate about art?  What is the point of learning to sketch?  Do you really need to understand the principles of color, line and composition?  Certainly painting isn’t as important as knowing the alphabet or basic math.

For Ruskin, art is invaluable because it rouses us from our usual stupor of inattention.  By requiring us to stop and study our subject, art sharpens our powers of observation.  If we look closely at a cherry blossom tree, for instance, we start to see it more clearly: its petals— which were once just a blur of pink— become more defined.  They’re not just a plain pink, we realize, they’re a delicate pink and their edges fade to white.

When we travel somewhere, we should therefore make an attempt to draw our surroundings.  Even if our “art” is as unsophisticated as a kindergartner’s crayon sketch of stick figures and trees, the exercise will be enlightening.  In trying to capture the gothic grandeur of St Mark’s Basilica, we will be able to see— truly see— its gold mosaics and breathtaking architecture.  On the other hand, if we rush past to feed pigeons on the plaza, we won’t appreciate its beauty as profoundly.

Not only did Ruskin recommend we draw pictures of our travels, he suggested we record them in a diary.  As dedicated diarist and fashion icon Anais Nin once said, “We write to taste life twice: in the moment and in retrospect.”  By attempting to capture what we see and hear and smell in writing, we a) feel these sensations more strongly and b) cement our impressions in our memory.

When we document our observations, we should be as precise as possible.  As Botton writes, “We can see beauty well enough just by opening our eyes, but how long this beauty survives in memory depends on how intentionally we have apprehended it.”  Rather than simply describe the weather in Rome as “pleasant” and the sightseeing as “wonderful,” we want to paint a picture.  Inexact, catch-all adjectives like “pleasant” and “wonderful” offer a value judgement without providing any real, concrete sensory details.  What— exactly— was so “pleasant” about the weather in Rome?  Was the autumn air warm without being sweltering like it is in summer?  Did a balmy breeze blow every morning through our window?  Or were our romantic evenings strolling through Piazza Navona inviting and invigorating, slightly chilly without being uncomfortably cold?  Ultimately, our experience of beauty is directly proportional to the precision of our description: the deeper our descriptions, the deeper our experience.  To fossilize our impressions of a place in the sediment of memory, Botton— and Ruskin— advise we ask ourselves questions and strive for specificity:

“We were all, Ruskin argued, able to turn out adequate word-paintings.  A failure was only the result of not asking ourselves enough questions, of not being more precise in analyzing what we had seen and felt.  Rather than rest with the idea that a lake was pretty, we were to ask ourselves more vigorously, ‘What in particular is attractive about this stretch of water?  What are its associations?  What is a better word for it than big?’  The finished product might not then be marked by genius, but at least it would have been motivated by a search for authentic representation of an experience.” 

Want more travel tips from The Art of Travel?  Read how to overcome the boredom of sightseeing and how traveling to new places can inspire new thoughts.