Trusting Intuition: Painting Loose and Easy

da VInci quote

For quite awhile now my intuition has been poking at me, telling me to “loosen up” and let the paint flow. It keeps whispering “Let go and let the watercolours play. Stop trying to make something happen”.

These ‘messages’, nudges and hints arrive from different places so this week I accepted the challenge. There is an edge I need to push beyond. (Plus I believe when something keeps coming up, I need to act before the Universe hits me with a two by four to get my attention.)

What’s ironic is that I practice this “trusting intuition” in everyday life. Through some tough lessons, I know it pays to listen to my heart. My brain will hold me back from anything it perceives as different to keep me safe but that’s not always what makes me happy. In fact, playing it safe stunts growth and opportunities get missed.

Trusting intuition is actually how we ended up in Nova Scotia. When it came time to move, someone mentioned Nova Scotia and we both had a visceral response. This was where needed to be.

Nowadays, we ask ourselves how we feel about a decision, not what we think. While thinking helps us make plans to achieve something, feeling helps us reach the decision right for us. In fact, the one time we went with our brains during the move, we ran into problems.

Nova Scotia is the best choice we ever made. We got here by trusting intuition. It’s our life habit now.

Except in my studio. In that space, I analysed and planned how to make a thing look real. When a painting didn’t look like what was in my head, I felt I’d somehow failed. I wasn’t letting intuition guide my hand and overthinking things.

When I (finally) woke up to what I was doing, it was a forehead slap moment. No wonder the longing for “loose”, to “let go” kept creeping over me . It was everywhere except in the one place I really needed it – my art.

Recently, a creative friend recently came for a weekend visit and play time in the studio. She brought with her copies of a magazine called UpperCase. In the first one, I found an article titled “Thoughts on Creative Flow From a Watercolour Artist”.

Naturally, I dove in and it felt like the author was simply dictating my thoughts.

My brain has a lot to say, and it’s a challenge to turn off the voices that govern most of my waking hours – the voices that make to-do lists and urge me to be a good human…My heart’s voice is much quieter.

Angela Fehr, Uppercase Magazine

Imagine my surprise when I finished the article and discovered it was written by Angela Fehr, an artist I’ve been following for over a year on Instagram and Youtube because I love her work.

The next day, I tried a bit of flow with the idea of combining it with a redwing blackbird I sketched a while back. But the brain jumped on board before I could stop it and the next thing I knew, I overworked the painting.

So I turned it over and began again. And again. I played with washes of water and colour. I wanted more white space and less detailI. It took a few tries but gradually I got closer to what I want.

Here’s where I am so far. I stopped here because my brain was fighting to get in the game. I’m happy with what’s happening but when I began to focus on getting the detail right, I stepped away. I’ll come back to it soon.

Blackbird Sings

Then I decided to simply play with colour because colour is what attracts me first about anything – in art or in life. At first I was a little ‘dabby’ with the brush – even thought it was a big brush. (Brain: “Be careful. You don’t want to make a mistake.“)

And then I thought “The heck with it” and took a big curvy swipe with the brush.

Soon I was flicking colour onto the paper.

Fun

This was fun!

Next, the acrylic paints may came out so I can see what’s possible with them. We went for a drive on Monday and stopped at a favourite restaurant. On the wall was a painting that looked like it was done with pallette knives. This week I laid down a background for an idea I have.

Playing with Acrylics

Even if I don’t go any further with this, I LOVE the colours.

Finally I picked up some alcohol inks to mess about with. (I should show you my fingers….)

The Alcohol Ink Experiments

I had a lot of fun playing with different mediums and styles in the studio this week. I suspect I will always come back to watercolour because I love their luminosity and how they can surprise when allowed to play.

I also know this isn’t a “one-time and all is changed” moment in my studio practice. My brain won’t surrender that easily.

Each time I enter my studio I will set an intention to play with colour and trust intuition. I’ll ask my brain to wait outside if I have to. With practice, working with intuition will become my default way of being in the studio. I know that’s true because it happened just that way in everyday life.

And my brain is pretty happy with where we live these days.

Positive Change

Exterior of my studio

Change is inevitable, as they say. Little did we know change would come in the form of a global pandemic. I’m sure none of us were expecting that curve ball.

As my husband and I watched the world change around us, we made the decision not to reopen the BnB because it’s also our home. We weren’t comfortable with the idea of people coming and going. Heaven knows it’s enough work without the extra cleaning the virus required. We loved our experience as hosts but it was clear we needed something different.

Our move to Nova Scotia, taught us the power of trusting that the right answers will show up, rather than trying to force a plan. These days, when faced with a challenge, we stay alert for solutions rather than trying to force something to happen.

Our answer usually arrives in the guise of something we dismissed or simply wouldn’t have thought of. I know it sounds a bit ‘woo-woo’ but trust me, we are two very practical people. As project managers our training was all about planning and working that plan. What we learned from life, however, is the power of being open to possibility.

The secret of Change

Long story short, we found a wonderful long-term tenant who now occupies the second floor apartment and we moved into our former BnB on the first floor. It was amazing how it all fell into place and if you’d like to drop by for a cup of tea, I’d be happy to share. Or I’ll tell the tale in another post because this blog is really about my studio and new creative paths.

Closing the BnB permanently activated LUC – the Law of Unintended Consequences. We had to downsize – a lot. I made up my mind that if something didn’t have a purpose or a place, it had to go. We sold a lot of things and donated or recycled a lot more. (I’m happy to say very little went to the landfill.)

With the house settled, there is more time to spend in the studio. I gave a lot of thought to how to best use that space. Like the home downsizing, I’ve learned to more selective about how I spend my time. In the studio, if it didn’t engage my creative spirit, I let it go or found a new home for it.

Inside the studio I set up three ‘zones’. An office zone with my computer and files, a sewing/fibre area and a place for painting. I also paint fabric so there’s lots of overlap. Once I get things settled a bit more, I’ll share some video of the revamped space.

I always want my studio to be a creative haven to play and experiment. A place for “oopsies” and “what-ifs?” and exciting discoveries. For this to happen, I realized the public workshops and gallery had to move out. Since there are lots of local halls and other spaces available, I’ll host classes offsite when it’s safe to gather again.

The gallery is online for now and I’ll be updating it with new work soon. Everything in the virtual gallery is for sale and I plan to add prints and cards, as well. I’ll also be posting work for sale on social media.

So, while COVID kickstarted a lot of personal change in my life, it hasn’t been all negative. I look forward to a lot more time in the studio, embracing change.

Finding Emily

Beyond the doorway, brilliant colour caught my eye and I headed there like a bee to a flower. The brushstrokes, the colours, the energy drew me in. If this had been the only painting I saw at the Art Gallery of Ontario, I would have been satisfied.

I had discovered Emily Carr.

It isn’t like I didn’t know who she was and the place she holds in Canadian culture before that moment. But this? This was something different. She got “inside”.

Emily Carr, Trees in the Sky
Trees in the Sky, Emily Carr, 1939

After returning home to Nova Scotia, I kept thinking about that painting and the woman who created it but life kept me busy. Then…I became ill. (I wonder now if it wasn’t God saying, “This is important. You need to stop and look at what I’m showing you!”)

For two weeks, about all I could do was lie in bed, sleep and read so I went looking for a book about Emily Carr, only to discover she was also a gifted writer. I could get to know her through her own words. And as I read, she began to teach me.

When someone’s name becomes a household word, we often forget the struggle and work they put in before their recognition by the world. Emily didn’t attain success until she was in her late 50’s. She even gave up painting for 15 years while she earned a living. Her autobiography “Growing Pains” introduced me to the journey she took.

However, it’s in her journal, “Hundreds and Thousands” that I really got to know her. Because she never meant her journals for publication, she wrote to herself and there’s an informal honesty in the words. Reading them felt like sitting at the kitchen table, sharing a coffee with her and chatting about creativity and what it took for her to make art.

For instance, she offers this advice:

I took always in my sketch-sack a little notebook. When I had discovered my subject, I sat before it for some while before I touched a brush, feeling my way into it, asking myself these questions, What attracted you to this particular subject? Why do you want to paint it? What is its core, the thing you are trying to express?

Now I find myself writing in my own journal more, becoming mindful of the subjects I choose. I ask myself bigger questions about things that catch my eye and look beyond the surface. I’ve already come up with some answers that have surprised and delighted me.

This next quote also jumped out at me. After reading it, I closed the book to let it sink in.

Inspiration is intention obeyed.

I can’t say exactly why that quote strikes me so deeply. Perhaps it’s because moving to Nova Scotia now feels like an inspired decision but it began as an intention to live simply and creatively. I’m still peeling back the layers of those words and I suspect there will be at least one more blog post about it.

Her work inspires me but not because I want to copy her style. Rather it was her search to find her own way I connect with. I want to put more of me into my work. Emily agrees.

Another’s thoughts are not ours and to copy them gives no growth. Be careful you do not write or paint anything that is not your own, that you don’t know in your own soul.

Like a great teacher, her words challenge me to ask myself, “What do I need to learn here?”

11 Inspirational Quotes for a Working Artist

Artists must express their lives

Inspiration comes and goes. Creativity is the result of practice.

Phil Cousineau

Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t bother to just be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.

William Faulkner

Have fun, even if it’s not the same kind of fun everyone else is having.

C.S. Lewis

The one thing you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can.

Neil Gaiman

Recognizing power in another does not diminish your own.

Joss Whedon

It’s not just about creativity. It’s about the person you’re becoming while you’re creating.

Charlie Peacock

Stay loyal to your creativity because it’s a gift.

Pharrell

Doubt is part of the creative process.

Danielle LaPorte

If you ask me what I came to to in this world, I, an artist, will answer you: I am here to live out loud.

Emile Zola

Things that excite you aren’t random. They are connected to your purpose. Follow them.

Unknown

I always get to where I am going by walking away from where I have been.

Winnie the Pooh

My Cure for Procrastination

Art is inevitable

Stop in the middle. Never stop working at the natural barriers. The next time you start working, the barrier will be the first thing you encounter, and you won’t have the momentum to overcome it. — Ernest Hemingway

Procrastination wasn’t a word I applied to myself. My husband would second that because if something needs doing, I can’t rest until it’s done. However, I did have a hard time getting on track again once I completed a painting. It wasn’t because I was putting it off but more because I didn’t know where to start.

Back when I taught creative writing I always mentioned Hemingway’s process to my students as sound advice to help them avoid the quicksand of creative procrastination. Knowing what you want to write next keeps the ‘juice’ flowing. I just never applied it to my painting process until now. Talk about tunnel vision!

Cure Procrastination. Have lots on the go

Up until a few weeks ago, I worked on one piece at a time. I called it “focus” but now I see it created a natural barrier to the next piece. When I finished a painting, it took me a few days to find my next subject and face the blank sheet of paper. Flailing about, trying to decide on “What next?” is my version of creative procrastination. It frustrated the heck out of me.

I don’t remember exactly what inspired me to start 3-4 pieces at the same time but I will be forever grateful to the Muse for that whisper in my ear.

Since that AHA moment, I look forward to getting to my studio each day. Knowing what I’m going to work on feels liberating. Spread across the two tables where I paint are pieces in different stages so I can always find a place to start. I also keep a list of ideas and reference photos tacked up over my table. Also, working in a series helps. As I finish a piece, I choose something, start the sketch and do my colour tests.

I’ve completed a number of pieces in the last few weeks because of my “new” habit. It’s also why I haven’t posted on the blog for awhile. I’ve been too busy in the studio!

Found a fix for your procrastination habit? Please, share it in the comments and spread the word.

Take Time To Enjoy the Gift

The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without work. – Emile Zola

Time away is a gift

This year, being away for a whole month was a first for both of us.

A month changes things, providing distance and perspective. It made me see I was in danger of filling my schedule with things that took me away from what I really wanted. Putting together a program to help artists find time was keeping me too busy to paint.

How’s that for irony?

So I took a deep breath, slowed down and asked,

2019 Planner“What do I really want in 2019?”

Easy. I want to prioritize my painting.

That means committing to a daily practice of drawing and painting, taking time to be a student and making my art a priority rather than an afterthought. Like practicing daily scales, I need to put in the work.

We all have our own ways of bringing our dreams to life, but what we do each day, at a ‘right here, right now’ level, will determine whether we get there.  — Tara Leaver, Artist

And, as we all know, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. When I say “Yes” to something then I must say “No” to something else.

“What is necessary and what is distraction?”

When I arrived back home I began making time for my dreams by looking at the “mental clutter” I had allowed into my life. Like physical clutter, it took up space, made it hard to navigate and gathered dust.

I don’t know about you, but I tend to subscribe to things as I’m browsing because they catch my eye or I want their ‘freebie’ or there’s a program I’m interested in. That means I end up on a lot of lists if I’m not careful.

Now I looked at each and every promotion and update that came through my inbox and held it up for scrutiny.

  1. Did I even sign up for this? Even with all the anti-spam laws, I still get added to lists without my permission. Those are an easy decision. Unsubscribe.
  2. Is this information pertinent to me anymore? More often than not the answer was No because my life has changed so much. Unsubscribe.
  3. When was the last time I read the information this sender provides? If I can’t even remember – unsubscribe.

Now I’ll admit that unsubscribing sometimes felt a little like breaking up. Often they ask “Why” and it’s tempting to write “It’s not you, it’s me”. Mostly though, I skip giving a reason unless the sender is a friend in the real world.

This is an ongoing process but the difference in less than a week was phenomenal. My inbox holds only those things I deem important to me personally or to my renewed focus on the painting.

the gift of mental decluttering
And speaking of distractions…

Where do I want to invest time on social platforms? Do I have a reason for being there?

For me, it boils down to Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest, which make sense to me as a visual artist. I deleted my profile on LinkedIn because I’m not in the corporate/business world any longer. The jury is still out about Twitter.

I left a number of Facebook groups because I wasn’t interacting or they belonged to a different phase of my life. My Creative Fire Café , of course, stays put. I love the community we created and what we learn from each other. The social aspect of Facebook is also a gift because it keeps me in touch with family and friends.

Gift of Changing “The way it’s always been”the gift of studio time

The “Yes” part means daily time in my studio, painting and learning. In the past, I held a belief that my creative time “had” to be in the morning. And yet, I easily slipped into an afternoon routine which feels natural.

By taking care of a few things each morning such as social media, my coaching practice and biz admin (and yes, household chores) I relax and totally focus on my art in the afternoons. Up to now, I hadn’t even recognized that feeling of “something’s not done” and the pressure it created to hurry through my painting time.

Now the parent part of my brain says “Right. Chores are done. Go play.”

I am here to do more than just complete a To Do list.  Click To Tweet

The gift of self care via a dog

Gift of Self-Care

At the end of my studio time, right on the dot of 4:00, Joey the Dog comes in, sits down and stares hard at me. He’s letting me know in no uncertain terms, it’s time for his walk. It’s like having my own personal trainer.

These days I find myself taking longer walks which means more fresh air and exercise. Because my other priorities now have their place, I am free to enjoy the moment plus the exercise loosens me up after sitting for so long. When I get back to the house, my husband and I have a cup of tea and spend some quiet time together.

Without even trying, I’m practicing better self-care and enjoying quality time with the spouse, a precious gift.

The Sum of the Equation

All of these small changes add up. Fast. I see positive growth in my art which translates into feeling relaxed and happy, knowing my dreams are getting daily attention. I even sleep better. My time is being spent on priorities, not busy work.

What strategies have worked for you when it comes to finding more time to focus on your priorities?

Don’t Compare

Don't Compare

I came across something this past week that reminded of an Aha I had while viewing the Matisse exhibit a few years back.

I can’t compare my rough drafts with someone else’s finished masterpiece.

Yet I fall victim to this all the time and people in my workshops often do the same thing. We’re too hard on ourselves. We forget we aren’t seeing the process and the experiments of the masters. We don’t ever see the bits and pieces lying in closets, sitting on a hard drive or consigned to the trash.

Our work is as unique as our signature and that comparison can be helpful. I never worry that my signature doesn’t look like someone else’s. It doesn’t even cross my mind. (Not to mention that would be illegal.)

That’s why we shouldn’t compare our efforts to the person sitting next to us in a workshop or even worse, hanging in a gallery. We are learning about tools and techniques, just like we did in school as we learned to sign our names. Be gentle with your inner artist.

There IS a lot to learn by studying the work of others who have mastered their craft. Just don’t try to BE them.

Let’s be ourselves

So next time my inner voice says “I wish I could paint like…” I’ll remind myself that it’s better if I let myself paint like me.

 

 

Focus on what works

Focus on where you want to go, not on what you fear.  — Anon

A radical shift

In our culture, shifting the focus to look for what’s strong in our creative work can be a radical idea because we’re taught early to find what’s wrong and fix it.

A few years ago I trained in the Amherst Artist and Writers Method with Pat Schneider. Pat changed the trajectory of many lives with her writing workshops. No less than Julia Cameron calls her a ‘fuse-lighter’. Taking that training with her was a highpoint for me.

One of the very wise things (among  many) I learned from Pat was to focus on what’s strong and successful in a new piece of writing. I’ve come to realize it’s good advice for any creative endeavour in its baby stages.

After training with Pat, I went on and facilitated my own writing workshops. As my students heard from the others in the group about what they liked and what touched them, the writer naturally repeated what worked as they developed their piece. The “other stuff’ fell away.

I witnessed the power of this shift over and over as I worked with my writers.

However, there was one student who felt irritated and uncomfortable when I wouldn’t tell her what to ‘fix’ after the group gave her glowing feedback. She dismissed what she did well – which was actually quite a bit. She was convinced we weren’t telling her the truth about her work.

I get it.

The marketing industry makes a lot of money convincing me I need to be fixed. They taught me to focus on flaws and ignore the good stuff. Like my dissatisfied student, it seems too simplistic to simply build on what works. It can also feel hard to let the other stuff go. The stuff that holds me back and clutters up my creative landscape.

For a long time I bought into the idea that it’s easier to fix something rather than to build on strength. Until I witnessed the power of the building approach in those writing workshops. These days I try to remember to look for what I like and more importantly, to ask for help finding it.

Talking to another artist awhile back, she showed me a watercolour she’d done and lamented that while she loved the lower part of the painting, she’d “ruined” the top. I suggested she tear off the top and keep the good bit. (I think I actually saw the lightbulb go off.)

She ripped that painting almost in half, framed the bit she liked and sold it not long after.

Most of us are terrible at judging these things for ourselves. I know I am because I see where I fell short of the original vision I had and my Inner Critic uses that as ammunition.

I simply can’t be an objective observer. None of us can. Sometimes we need help to see clearly.

Find and ask

First, find someone who can be objective – which usually rules out family and friends.

Second, whatever you do, don’t ask for feedback or constructive criticism.  Not when you’re work is in its early stages. Most of us are trained to default to the negative so be very deliberate in how you word your request.

“What works? What speaks to you? What attracts you here? How does it make you feel?”

All good questions.  If the person I’m asking starts to go to The Dark Side, I try to redirect them with another question. Whether it’s my art or writing, I need to know when/where the piece catches their attention.

This is valuable information.

Try it yourself sometime. You will probably be surprised at what others see in your work. Things you totally overlooked or dismissed. Things you can do more of.

Keep learning

None of this means we shouldn’t take risks, learn from others and practice our craft. We need mistakes – lots of them – to grow and constructive criticism of mature work can help us improve.

We must embrace our personal sparks of brilliance and fan them into flames. Our creative work becomes mediocre and vanilla if we ignore our gifts.

Ideas have ancestors

geneology of ideas

“Look at Shakespeare, who borrowed all of his plots. In ‘A Song of Ice and Fire,’ I take stuff from the Wars of the Roses and other fantasy things, and all these things work around in my head and somehow they jell into what I hope is uniquely my own.” George R.R. Martin

It’s all been done before…and that’s fantastic!

Ideas are the seeds of creativity. And yet, as artists and writers we often get discouraged thinking “It’s all been done before.”

That’s the good news. No, really. It IS good news because I’m not sure anyone is wholly original. We build on each other’s ideas. That’s why I say that ‘ideas have ancestors.’ We can trace their lineage.

Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet (and it sounds like he got his plot elsewhere.) Along came the creators of West Side Story who basically told the same story but changed it. George R.R. Martin took a story from history, amped it up and made it his own.

You’re probably thinking “But, Aprille, what about Leonardo da Vinci?” (Insert any creative hero here.)

They got their ideas from somewhere else, often the natural world around them. They saw what everyone else saw but  through the lens of curiosity.

Make it your own

What could you create today starting with the inspiration of something else? How would you change it to make it truly your own? I’m not advocating copying. That’s just plain bad karma.  But inspiration? That’s a good thing.

Inspiration always starts somewhere. Steve Jobs got his design idea for the Ipad on a Zen retreat. The designer of Velcro was a hunter who had to pick cockle-burs off his pants and wondered how they stuck there.

The geneology of an idea

Austin Kleon, in his brilliant book “Steal Like an Artist” talks about the ‘geneology of ideas’. I love this concept. So much in fact, that I did as he advised and spent time reading about an artist I greatly admire. From there I tracked down her influencers and saw how they inspired her.

From that I got a whole slew of creative ideas, all of them uniquely mine and yet…not. I can trace their family tree.

See what I mean? It’s not about being an original. It’s about seeing things in a new way by building on our creative ‘ancestors’. I’m not sure anyone starts from nothing. Ideas have family trees.

Gives a whole new meaning to recycling, doesn’t it?

Who are your creative heroes? How have they influenced you? Share in the comments. I’d love to hear from you!