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!
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.
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,
“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.
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.
Is this information pertinent to me anymore? More often than not the answer was No because my life has changed so much. Unsubscribe.
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.
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 “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.”
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?
If you ask me what I came to do in this world, I, an artist, would answer you: I am here to live out loud. – Émile Zola
Last week, life demanded something new from me.
We left the house at sunrise, headed for my husband’s knee surgery. It was a day of firsts. First surgery ever for him. First time I was the one waiting. First time so far away from family support when life felt scary.
For the six months prior we kept busy, focused on finishing projects like the new BnB suite and my studio. The last 30 days were particularly intense. Toward the end of all our rushing about, we had to keep re-evaluating what we had time for and what could wait. Creative time fell off my list of priorities.
As we drove to Kentville, I took a deep breath and noticed the world around me again.
Mist in low-lying places. A pheasant pacing along the shoulder of the rural road. The silhouette of a lone hawk on the phone line, looking for her breakfast. Soft pink on the eastern horizon, gradually brightening to a sunny day. The spring green of fields and trees.
Now that the (successful) surgery is behind us, I’ve taken on the role of caretaker, which still devours a lot of hours in my day. My studio is waiting for me to return and I’m okay with that. This is what you do for someone you love.
What does this rather personal story have to do with art and creativity?
A lot actually. Art should happen while we are living very real, very human lives. If we aren’t connected to the people around us, how can our art communicate anything meaningful?
I’m sure you’ve read posts, watched videos and listened to other artists who advise “Just follow your passion”. The experts (and those clever memes) tell us, “If it was really important you’d find time.” The implication seems to be creative passion must take precedent over everything else or we’re not really serious about our art.
We nod our heads because it sounds like great advice and then beat ourselves up, wondering why we can’t find the time or energy to ‘just do it.’
I know if this is true for me, it’s also true for a lot you reading this.
Finding the balance in life
The truth is, this is one more example of those social media ‘echo chambers’ people are talking about. Hearing only one side of any story distorts our perception of what it takes to lead a meaningful life. Because those of us who are artists and writers often seek out creative experts focused on their chosen topic, we can miss the counterbalance of what it means to cope with real life.
It becomes a trap of ‘all or nothing’ thinking. And if I’ve learned nothing else, life is about balance. Ever tried to stand on one foot? In order to retain your balance, your leg and ankle are making constant small adjustments. Balance means adjusting, not rigidity.
We live in a world of contrasts. If our goal is peace of mind then we must let go of the judgments. Both light and shadow are necessary. Ask any artist. Without the shadow, how do you show light?
Filling the well
We fill our creative wells by living full lives and living sometimes demands a lot of us. When we embrace the ups and downs, we have something to say when we do get into our studios or back to our desks.
We must be about life’s business if we want our creative expression to touch other hearts. We must be real. There are times when that passion we’re following will mean taking care of personal needs or a loved one, time with a child or being an active part of our community. It all matters.
Meaningful art doesn’t happen in a bubble. And when life gets crazy busy, as mine did, we can try to fit some tiny snippets of creativity around the other priorities. They act as reminders that this too, is part of who you are.
I did a couple of small sketches and made notes in the little book I keep in my purse. I used my phone to take reference photos. I browsed Pinterest for inspiration and ideas for when my schedule has more space. I knit while I keep my husband company as he heals. I stayed connected to my Facebook group of creative folk.
Meanwhile my focus is on my husband. Underneath, the creative urge is building, like steam under pressure. When the time is right and I return to my studio, I’ll have lots to work with.
We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. T. S. Eliot
Choosing the head or the heart
I have to watch myself or I get too “heady” when I’m painting and I forget to tell a story. My background in designing computer systems may have something to do with that.
For that reason, I’m consciously painting “looser” these days. I try to avoid realism, not because it can’t be a story but for me, it becomes an exercise in skill, not story.
Loose, however, is not easy. My Inner Perfectionist wants it to look like a photo. (So does my husband, who just doesn’t ‘get’ anything else.)
To help break away, I’m experimenting with acrylics, bigger brushes, pouring and other mediums such as collage. I’m kicking myself because I gave away all my encaustic supplies before we moved. (Note to self: NEVER give away art supplies.)
As I play with these new (to me) materials, my inner dialog goes something like, ” What am I curious about? What do I feel? What do I want this to say…wait…that doesn’t look real…Oh, right. Back to story.”
Ask the right questions
The trick seems to be sticking with the right questions. The ones about heart, emotion, meaning and story. Doing a piece that is technically well-executed feels…well…satisfying and when I let it, the detailed work pulls me in. The problem is, it doesn’t share anything about me except that I know how to handle a brush and familiar medium.
Last week Nova Scotia experienced the fourth nor’easter in about two weeks. Watching the snow swirl and the waves crash on the shore below us reminded me of those stormy days I struggled into work in the city. I’d dream about staying home close to a warm fire, doing something I loved.
After three storms, it struck me I still hadn’t done anything about that dream.
What was I waiting for?
Decision made, I set up a small painting area near the fire and that’s where I spent my afternoon. Watching the storm out the windows to my left. Drinking tea. Making art. Living the dream.
That pocket of time was right under my nose and I almost missed it. Almost.
I turned off my autopilot, climbed into the pilot’s seat and took back control.
Take the time
You might not be gifted with a whole afternoon as I was but most of us can find fifteen minutes in almost every day. Keep a small sketchbook and pencil handy and be awake to those moments that come our way.
My comfort zone felt safe but it also kept me from growing.
Recently I tried something that wasn’t really new. Just something I left behind years ago – painting with acrylics but it definitely moved me beyond my current comfort zone.
Everything old is new again
I used to teach decorative painting using acrylics. You’ve seen stuff like it on Pinterest, I’m sure, decorating tables and other furniture using fluid brush strokes and simulating 3D. I loved it and still have a few of my pieces decorating my home.
The problem was I travelled (a lot) on business, which meant airplanes and luggage. I didn’t quite trust packing acrylic paints in with my business clothes so I switched to watercolours. They seemed less risky and cleaning my brushes in a hotel sink was easy.
This meant learning a whole new way of painting because, if you use both acrylics and watercolors, you know they require slightly different techniques. So I made the decision to focus on the watercolours and abandon the acrylics. I didn’t have time or budget to learn and practice both mediums.
I never worked with acrylics again – until recently.
Stretching the comfort zone
Frankly, I was a little concerned about trying them again, afraid I might find it confusing to switch back and forth. Plus I spent a lot of time and money bringing my watercolour skills up to snuff. Did I really want to start back at the beginning again?
(I think perfectionism might have been running that train of thought.)
But my comfort zone felt stale. I wanted something with a different energy and vibe and acrylics kept calling to me. So when I dropped off my paintings at Roundhill Studio for their Wee Art show, I noticed her flyer for an acrylic class. I threw caution to the wind and registered on the spot. (That way I wouldn’t change my mind.)
When I showed up for class, I was pleasantly surprised how my watercolour skills crossed over. The brush didn’t change, only the medium. (Duh.)
I felt so excited and pleased with the painting of sheep I created that day, I went back to my own studio and started pumping out acrylic paintings. I’ve done a number of them since that workshop a few weeks back. More importantly, I’m outside my comfort zone, having a lot of fun!
What I learned
I still paint with watercolour but in a completely different style. They tend to be much more detailed while the acrylic paint brings out my loose and playful side. I find it easy to move back and forth between both mediums and styles, which surprised and excites me.
All this time I’ve hesitated only to discover that each one informs and enriches the other. I might never have know this if I had continued to shy away.
Sometimes we just have to get out of our own way and leave the safety of the comfort zone. When stopped listening to that story holding me back, I learned a little more about what I was capable of.
What’s something new you’d like to try? Have you stretched your comfort zone lately? Share what you found there in the comments. I’d love to hear from you.
I have a personal philosophy in life: If somebody else can do something that I’m doing, they should do it. And what I want to do is find things that would represent a unique contribution to the world – the contribution that only I, and my portfolio of talents, can make happen. Those are my priorities in life. Neil deGrasse Tyson
This is something I believe but don’t always practice. Time after time, I have to bring myself back to the studio. Back to what I say is important to me. So much other stuff gets in the way and calls for my attention.
I justify it by telling myself it’s the responsible thing to do until I realize my priority has shifted again. But that’s okay.
The responsible thing is to show up with our gifts and talents and use them. They are ours for a reason.
Like meditation, bringing myself back to center is an ongoing and dynamic process. No need to beat myself up when I drift. Life happens.
The important thing is to pay attention, recover and get back to the studio.
As I look back on the early part of my adult life, it seems like I was always stuck, waiting for “permission”.
…be creative rather than “practical”.
…take time to do something about my dreams.
…create visions rather than set goals.
…be different and do things my way.
…explore many projects at once.
…start projects and not finish them.
I’m sure you have a few of your own you could add to my list.
It’s funny really, when you think about it. As kids we think being an adult means doing whatever we want. Then we become adults and we get stuck in a holding pattern, waiting for someone to tell us it’s okay to do the thing we long to do.
But who did I think would tell me to go ahead? I’m not sure I ever really thought that far. I just said things like “I could never…I can’t…Not right now…etc, etc.”
Until the day I asked myself, “Who’s making these rules?”
The problem is this – we aren’t creative in special pockets of time or space. Creativity doesn’t occur in isolation from our lives. We are creative all the time, wherever and whenever we are. Everything in our life is raw material. (Just ask the family of a writer.)
Or at least that’s how it used to be
Frankly, I’m worried about the richness of our creative lives these days because so many of us are just so, well…distracted. Those smart devices are training us to avoid boredom at any cost. We turn to them constantly and when we do, we miss the inspiration all around us. There are ideas floating through the air, waiting for our attention but fewer and fewer of us are paying attention.
What’s got your attention these days? Are you actively looking for the creative sparks and ideas that are all around you?
Or does your social media feed keep you distracted?
If your creative well is feeling a little dry, that may be a sign you need to take a vacation from technology and get back to real life. Everything feeds your creativity, if you are awake and aware. Everything.
Challenge yourself. Let yourself feel the boredom. It’s actually fertile ground, contrary to what you might think.
A lot of creative brilliance had its roots in boredom
Start with just an hour. Put down that smart device and pay attention to the world around you for that time.