creative goals

How to Set and Reach your Creative Goals

with help from David Elliott

First off, what do you mean by “creative goals”?

Well, a goal is a personal objective that you’ve spent the time to clearly define. It’s more than just “I’d like to draw better.” It’s a concrete end result.

There are several types of creative goals:

a. Skill oriented.
  • E.g. I want to learn to watercolor
  • or how to draw in perspective
  • or how to sketch feet.
b. Process oriented:
  • E.g. I want to draw every single day
  • or get up early to paint
  • or turn TV time into sketch hour
  • or join three Spark sessions every week this summer
c. Outcome oriented:
  • E.g. I want to complete a whole sketchbook
  • or publish a zine about Minnesota wildlife
  • or draw fun maps of my area
  • or print textile designs and set up an Etsy store. Or it could be as simple (and hard) as
    I want to look in the mirror and say “I am an artist” — and know it’s true.

Why do I need a goal?

Goals let you know where you’re going and keep you motivated to get there.

You’re not wandering aimlessly, derailed by any challenge, overwhelmed and lost. Instead you have sharp, clear milestones that you can measure and feel great about achieving.

As your goals get closer, you’ll want to keep pushing on towards them. Setbacks won’t defeat you because you can see that overall you are still moving ahead and you will get there; every step is a step closer to your goal, every sketch and doodle is another piece in the jigsaw, keep going and very soon you’ll see the picture.
As one of our instructors Ian Fennelly says, “Just keep working your way towards the back of the sketchbook.”
And remember, the sum is greater than the parts – in other words, one sketch is just one sketch, but 30 sketches is a body of work with a story, a narrative, a theme.

How do I start?

Open an empty page in your sketchbook and brainstorm with yourself.

Think about your creative goals and write down whatever comes to mind.

Why are you interested in making art — not when you were seven or seventeen — but today?
Ask yourself frankly, where are you with your art making? Are you making the sort of work you’d like to make? Are there skills you’d like to achieve? Techniques you want to master? Artists you’d like to learn from?
How does your art-making fit into your life? Are you spending too much or too little time on it?
Does making art make you feel good?
If you’re just doing it ”for fun,” what does fun mean to you? Will that sustain you or would you like to go further?

What have you always dreamt of doing? Imagine a movie of your life in which you finally achieve your creative goal. What happens and what does it feel like?

Ask yourself questions that will help pull your dreams into focus.
Would you like to put together a portfolio, a body of work, illustrate and publish a book, make some pieces to sell, maybe have an exhibition?
Is there a sort of piece you’d really like to make one day? What is it like? What would it take to get there? What skills would you need? How could you develop them?

Fill the spread.

Then start editing and refining your ideas. Get more and more granular and specific.

For instance, if you want to be a “better artist,” what does “better” really mean?
What type of artist?
What will that look like?
How will you know you’re “better”?
What steps do you need to take to get to that “better” place?
How long will that you take you?
How bad do you want it?

Keep sharpening and defining.

What makes a good goal?

Here’s a helpful way to think about defining your goals that will take you from generalities to concrete action steps.

See how your goals measure up to these criteria:

S – Specific
M – Measurable
A – Achievable
R – Realistic
T – Time-bound

“I want to get better at drawing people”


“I want to draw fifty (measurable) portraits of women I admire, in pen and ink (specific) over the next three months (time-limited). The drawings don’t all need to be brilliant (realistic) but I want to spend at least half hour after dinner (achievable) each week night on each one.”

Once you know where you’re going, you can get there. It may take some planning and some work but ultimately it’s a matter of breaking the journey down into steps, then tackling them one by one.

You may encounter obstacles to reaching your goals but, if you are thoughtful about it, you can break each of these problems into manageable chunks and figure out how to solve them, one by one.

What are the ‘obstacles’?


A common example: “I don’t think I can draw.” That’s not a birthright. It’s a current perception which can be changed. If “I want to draw” is your goal, then take the steps to get there. Take a course like How To Draw Without Talent, draw as much as you can, develop a creative habit and stick to it.

Self -criticism.

Setting goals means making change and there’s a monkey in your head that wants you to stay exactly how you are. It will mess with your mind. It’s powerful but it’s beatable. Set your goal, define a specific set of steps and adhere to them closely. Change will happen. Worst case, google “shut your monkey”


You’ve put off achieving your creative goals for a long time. You can probably come up with lots of reasons to keep doing so. Don’t take the first step today. Take the next tomorrow. Repeat.


This may seem scary but I know you have done braver, tougher things in your life. Maybe you quit a job or went to war or gave birth or ran a marathon. Maybe you didn’t. But all we’re talking about here is achieving your goals, goals that don’t hurt any one, goals that are just about putting a few pennies worth of ink on a few sheets of paper. You have nothing to fear but getting ink stains on your shirt.

The blank page.

If this scares you, here’s a simple solution. Draw something on the page and it won’t be blank anymore. Then draw on the next page. Keep going till you reach the back of the sketchbook. Repeat. Blank pages are just crisp white landscapes to travel.

Lack of confidence.

When we start to draw again, we all start out rusty, awkward, hesitant. Totally natural. Like learning to tie your shoes or write your name or drive a car or dance at your wedding or raise a child or any of the many brave new things you’ve done. It’s not that you can’t draw. It’s that you don’t. So make your first goal to draw more. Not better. More. That’s how you get confidence. And that’s how you draw better.

I gotta be brilliant — every time.

No one is. Picasso made over 50,000 works of art and you haven’t seen 99% of them because they weren’t all Picasso-level great. And PP was the greatest artist of our time. Why should you be any better? All artists make a lot of crap. It’s how we improve.

Common excuses — and the answers:

I don’t have enough space to make art.

All you need is a sketchbook and pen. You can keep both in your pocket.

I don’t have enough time to make art.

Turn off the TV, power down your phone.

I don’t have enough resources to make art.

Again, all you need is a 99-cent pen and a few sheets of copier paper.

I need to take a class.

Sure, but in the meantime, start making art. Van Gogh went to art school for 6 weeks and got kicked out. I’ve never taken an art class in my life.

I have to wait till I retire, till I have $X in the bank, till my kids move out, till my cat gets better…

sure, sure, you can continue to delay your dreams. But isn’t it your time already?

How do I tell if I’m getting anywhere?

You have to learn to critique your own work. It’s a process that hinges on a clear sense of your goals with the piece and how you succeeded and didn’t. It’s not a roast, a pity party or a funeral. It’s a great opportunity to learn and grow. Criticism can be crushing and shuts down creativity – a critique on the other hand, helps you look more objectively at your work, understand its strengths and what to do differently going forwards.

Be prepared to experiment – it’s how we learn and explore, it allows our creativity to flourish but it involves dead-ends, slips and trips – welcome them with open arms, because today’s quirk may become tomorrow’s crowning success.

And learn to love your mistakes. They’re the teachers that push you ahead. A mistake isn’t an indication that you’re a failure, “no good at art”, but that you’re growing into the next level.

If you don’t like something you’ve made, you have 3 options:

  1. Learn how to do it differently.
  2. Embrace it and make it a feature of your work.
  3. Draw something different altogether.

Of course, there’s also #4: curse, throw your pen, tear up your drawing, and give up in a storm of tears.

But you’re not seven years old and quitting won’t help you reach your creative goals.

What if I still don’t trust myself?

Get some feedback.

Write down your goals, paste them in the cover of your sketchbook, then share them with someone else who really gets it (which may not include your spouse, your mother or your Facebook friends).

Ask for actionable advice on reaching your goals and for strong support on your journey.

Artists don’t work alone in garrets. We support and encourage each other however we can.

You’re not in this alone. Ask for help.

Any parting advice?

Enjoy the journey.

This may be hard but it’s gonna be awesome. And so are you.

Once you’ve achieved a major goal, give yourself a pat on the back – then go back to your goal plan, and tweak it as you see fit.

Did you achieve that goal too easily? If so, make your next goals more challenging.

Or if the goal took too long to achieve, make your next goals a little more attainable.

The point is to keep moving towards the goal.

And once you get there, look to the next horizon.

Where else would you like to go?

If you don’t need this essay any more, congratulations! Now, please pass it on to someone who does.


7 mins

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