Showing Up Matters Most

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A blank canvas IS uncertainty. I feel it every time I set up to paint. But the only way to move from uncertainty to less uncertainty is to try (and maybe fail). And that’s the beauty of deliberate practice—it’s intentional practice. There is no expectation to complete work, only to practice.

We can work with a coach or teacher, who will assign things to practice doing. Or we can design our own deliberate practice. Each session is an opportunity to practice doing what is difficult and finding answers to overcome limitations.

Doing What Matters

A man I know has spent his entire adult life becoming exceptional. He is a world-renowned astrologer and a couple of years ago he began sharing his knowledge on Facebook for free. Now in his seventies, he wants to give back to those who have supported and sustained him and his work. In one of his very early astrological posts, he shared that he felt concern about what he was doing because not many people were clicking on “Like.”

Using the Like button on Facebook is one way we  express our approval.

So when we post something, such a photo of our artwork, we tend to keep track of the number of Likes the post gets. Lots of Likes means lots of love—and approval. Seeking approval is in our nature; it might even be tied to our basic need to survive and thrive. But seeking approval can also make us feel vulnerable and to question whether or not what we have to offer is good enough to be valued by others. When my astrologer friend mentioned his concern about not getting a lot of likes, he was questioning the value of his work.

It’s common for writers to avoid writing, because someone else has already written the same kind of story and gotten it published. The insecure writer will say to him or her self, “why bother.” Fear of rejection (the opposite of approval) and the feeling of not being good enough are always behind the “why bother” attitude.

We want to matter to people, to be “liked.” And we want what we create to matter, as well. While wanting to matter may be human nature, it also contains danger. Maslov’s hierarchy of needs is a theory Abraham Maslov proposed in 1943. He had observed that people exist on five basic psychological levels. The most basic need is the physiological need to survive (food, clothing, and shelter). After basic survival is the need to feel safe, which is followed by the need to belong and feel loved. When these needs are met, we feel good about ourselves in the context of our lives—we feel valued in the world. The danger that I mentioned exists when we depend on others to determine our value, which may be one of the best reasons to heed the advice: Make your art and let it go. Detach from the outcome.

At the top of Maslov’s hierarchy of needs is self-actualization. According to Maslov, “What a man [or woman] can be, he [she] must be.” I agree, and I think that’s what the urge to create is all about. Emotions are fickle though. Some days we feel awesome. Other days not so great. We want and seek approval from others. The strategy that leads to personal success, I believe, involves recognizing and valuing ourselves and what we do for as many hours of the day as possible.

 

A Painting is the Sum of a Lot of Decisions

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Unfinished pochade study, #14 in series of 50, oil on 8 x 6-in linen panel.

The artwork an artist produces is the result of long series of decisions. Choosing colors or brushes or the type of surface to paint on are among the decisions we make, but those decisions only come after many others have been made. For example, it was chilly and windy last week, and I do most of my work plein air — on location. I didn’t want to stand in the wind so I had to think about locations that afforded some shelter and a view of something to paint. I decided to go to a nature preserve near my home, because I knew I could probably find some protection from the wind. I ended up standing in front of a big old barn, which kept the wind off me.

When we make a decision, often what happens is that decision informs other decisions. Sometimes, we end up going in a direction that may, or may not, serve us well. When we look up at what’s ahead if we keep going in the direction we’re going, it may be decision time again. This is what happened to me recently.

I started painting again last year after being away from it for more than thirty years. I’d forgotten much of what I’d once known about painting. Even using a paint brush to move the paint around on the surface the way I wanted was a struggle. When I started painting again, I decided to do plein air painting, because I love landscapes and being outdoors. It’s been a good fit for me. But what I didn’t know about plein air work is that its REALLY different from studio work. Studio work can take months or even years to finish. Plein air work is done in mere hours. Studio work, depending on the artist and style, is often refined. I think of it as deliberate. Plein air on the other hand often looks “rough,” like it’s  practice for bigger and better things, which sometimes it is. Some plein air artists will reproduce their small studies to create larger works of art in their studios. Plein air painting is also deliberate, but in a different way.

After I’d been painting plein air for awhile, I decided I needed lessons so I could learn how to paint better and faster in the field. I’m fortunate to live in an area where some REALLY GOOD plein air artists also live and teach. I’ve spent a lot of time and money learning how to paint in the past year. After a recent 3-day workshop, I was feeling kinda low about my work and the direction I seemed to be going in, which was also, by the way, the direction that I felt I had a growing commitment to continuing along. But a little voice in my head said, “You painted better a year ago than you do today.” I thought about that for awhile and finally rationalized that things often get harder before they get easier. I told myself I was learning and that everything would work itself out if I just kept doing the work.

What I was becoming aware of ever so slowly is what the differences between plein air and studio work really mean for me as an artist. One of my teachers is an excellent draftsman. He does detailed, delicate, beautiful drawings with paint and then proceeds to paint the picture. Joe’s style and technique are beautiful and his paintings sell in the $15,000 to $20,000 range. Mary, who taught the 3-day workshop, was trained in a classical style and she is skilled enough to paint highly realistic, incredible work. But the work she does today is more “expressive.” It’s still deliberate (realistic and accurate), which conveys her training, but her paintings have an energy.  She calls it “soul.” Her works also sell in the $15,000 range. I had put myself at a crossroad, and I’ve been deciding what to do now; which direction I should go.

We tell ourselves all kinds of things. We are easily mesmerized by beauty. Truth be told — I can’t be like either of these highly successful artists. I can’t follow Joe. Nor can I follow Mary. I can and have learned from them, but I believe that the whisper I heard (maybe from my creative muse) was telling me to remember who I am and to be that person when I stand in front of my easel.

The small 6 x 8-inch pochade studies I’ve been working on have been enormously helpful. I will do 50, and finished #18 yesterday. I titled it “Autumn Joy,” which is also the name of the sedum that grows in my backyard and which is the subject of the painting.

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“Autumn Joy” #18 in series of 50 pochade studies, oil on 8 x 6-in linen panel.

 

Notes to Myself

If I had only …
forgotten future greatness
and looked at green things and the buildings
and reached out to those around me
and smelled the air
and ignored the forms and the self-styled obligations
and heard the rain on the roof
and put my arms around …
…it’s not too late
…it’s morning. I have been given
another day. Another day to hear and read
and smell and walk and love and glory
I am alive for another day.
Today, I don’t want to live for,

I want to live.

Anxiety is the realization that I might not reach the
rung on the opinion-ladder which I have
just set for myself. I fear death most
when I am about to exceed what others
expect of me; then death threatens to
cut me off from myself, because
“myself” is not yet.

Meaning does not exist in the future
and neither do I …

Hugh Prather wrote Notes to Myself in 1970.

In the forty years since I bought Notes to Myself in 1976, my life has “happened.” It’s easy  to took back and feel regret for what was abandoned or never realized, and to want time back so different decisions could be made. Regret, a by-product of living and of aging, is useful, though, in small doses. It reminds us that all we can really do is live in the present and with right intention. Prather’s words remind me to do that, and to use all the skill and experience I have to create now.

Field Geometry

Field Geometry, a 6×6-inch oil on gessoed panel, was painted from a photo I took near New Prague, Minnesota, last spring.

 

It’s Never too Late to Begin Again

There is an underlying, indwelling creative force infusing all of life—including ourselves.
~Julia Cameron in It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again

Julia would probably say I responded to a creative force when I started this blog. And she would be right. I was riding a new wave of creative energy that I had (metaphorically speaking) caught in late 2014. That creative force also brought me back to oil painting—a practice I have not enjoyed since leaving school in the 1980s.

In the thirty or so years between packing away my paints and brushes and finding my way back to painting, I completed a bachelor and a master degree, worked in two career fields, and raised three children. I’ve learned from many of my new artist friends that my experience of turning away from creative pursuits to do other things is a very common one. Lots of people do it.

The urge to create—write for a blog, crochet scarves, grow tomatoes, photograph flowers, paint landscapes (which I do), up-cycle flea market finds, or any of a thousand other activities, including raising a family or working—is in every person, not only artists.

Julia also says that when we open our creative channel, many gentle but powerful changes are to be expected. I agree and believe its the urge to create that keeps us interested and engaged with living. It’s also what makes us interesting, what attracts new friends, and what opens the doors to new experiences.

Before you move on to do or read something else, take a few minutes to think about where you are and what your relationship is to your creative self.

Imagine a large map—perhaps your map includes the places where you’ve gone to school, worked, and raised your family. Add to your map any places that have inspired you and fed your soul. Where were those places? When were you there? What were you doing? Try drawing your map if that will help you better visualize your journey, but keep it simple.

Now, imagine yourself moving across this map (your life). Think about the many crossroads you’ve come to. At each crossroad, in what direction did you decide to go? What did you leave behind? Where are you now? Do you feel the urge to change course again? to revisit something? Describe for yourself what you’re being urged to move toward. What do you see? What do you want to do?

It is never too late to begin again to paint or plant or do any of the things that can and will help connect you with your creative self and make you feel good about being alive.

Playbook Strategy # 1 for Creatives: Don’t Confuse Can’t with Won’t

I attended a workshop yesterday to learn how to prepare a business plan for my art business. What happened there was very unexpected.

I thought of a completely different and exciting way to grow my business. At least, I felt excited about the idea when came to me.

This morning, not 24 hours later, I’m feeling doubtful and even a little afraid of what could happen if I follow through on the idea.

What happens next is perhaps the most important decision I will make today, because that decision can impact my future.

If I say yes to the idea and continue to develop the business plan to support the new business activity, lots of things—some good, some not so good—could happen.

If I let the idea go, because I don’t think I can do it, it’s still likely my art business will grow, but at a slower rate. At least, that’s what I think will happen.

Notice all the “thinking” about what could happen? Fortunately, I recognized a pattern of thinking that has been responsible, in the past, for derailing me even before I’ve left the station.

This, I’ve discovered, is when it helps to have a strategy—a plan—for how to move forward.

Strategies are especially useful when situations feel overwhelming. What causes overwhelm? Any new situation that takes us out of our comfort zones and challenges us to learn new things has the potential to create feelings of being overwhelmed. What happens when we feel overwhelmed? We often say I can’t do IT. And we quickly think of reasons to support our decision to quit, or perhaps, to never start.

It’s important to remember that feeling overwhelmed, while scary, is temporary. The feeling recedes and is replaced by confidence as new knowledge and experience are gained.

Back to the business plan and what to do next.

Having reminded myself about what can happen when feeling overwhelmed by possibilities, I won’t tell myself No before I take time to explore the idea—flesh it out. I also won’t tell myself that I can’t do IT just because I don’t know what will happen if I do move forward with the idea. And I won’t confuse my fear (that makes me feel as though I can’t) with a refusal to try (saying I won’t).

Having a business plan is one part of my creative strategy and I’ll write more about that in a different post.

 

 

 

 

 

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