Identifying THE Most Important Thing To Do

In the previous post, I asked the question: What is your most important creative work? And I suggested an activity—answering two questions—to help identify the most important thing you can do in your life. The questions were:

  1. If there is only one thing you can work on now, what would it be?
  2. If there is only one direction you can take your work in for the next three years, what would it be?

If you’re like most people, you feel challenged to identify one project to focus on for three years. Lots of things feel important. Lots of things will also go unrealized—never amounting to more than a day dream, because it’s hard to imagine the logistics of accomplishing the goal/project, or imagine how one more THING(s) could be squeezed into a life that’s already full to the brim and can’t hold one even more thing.

After some thought about what I would have to give up to work on just one project, I realized more than decided that the answer to question 1 is:  ME. I’ll work on me. I don’t have to give up anything that’s important to me at this time, not unless I want to.

That brings me to my answer to question 2. I want to feel HAPPINESS more consistently. Happiness is an elusive emotion, coming and going like the tides, and when it’s out, little feels good. So it makes sense to me to focus steadily toward feeling happy. Whole books have been written about happiness and how to find it.

Happiness isn’t Hiding Under a Rock

I know that happiness is a state of mind and the reason it seems elusive is because we have a tendency to look to things and people to bring it. That’s what makes happiness elusive. Nothing and no one can really make me (or you) happy. I have to decide, and that’s where the work and the rewards come in.

If I stay out of my own way, this one decision—to be happy—will help me make decisions about any projects I have going on now or that may come up in the future.

Decide What is Most Important to You

If you’re having trouble deciding on what’s most important to you, I submit for your consideration that your most important work is essential to YOU and how you feel about yourself.

What isn’t Your Important Work

It’s not checking your email or text messages. It’s not worrying about things, writing to-do lists, cleaning and sorting things to keep or throw away. There are lots of things we do that are not essential. When you decide:

  • Write in one sentence what you think is most important for you to do for you.

Spend at least 20 minutes every day doing something that will help you realize your intention. That’s your most important work of the day—every day.

 

 

 

Fields and Clouds

Don’t try to paint good landscapes. Try to paint canvases that will show how interesting landscapes look to you — your pleasure in the thing.
~ Robert Henri in The Art Spirit

When I passed by this Wisconsin farmstead on a summer day in 2015, I had to stop the car and just take it in. The cumulus clouds floating above a field of ripening grain was, as they used to say, “A Kodak moment.”

The small 6×6-inch oil painting was done on a birch board in 2015. I leaned into this painting, using a palatte knife to paint the field. I say “leaned in” because I’d only started painting again after setting aside my paints and brushes for 30-plus years. But something about this landscape gave me the courage to try. I gifted the painting to a friend, and it remains one of my favorites.

I’m painting the landscape again. This time on a 9×12-inch linen panel. The house is hidden, protected behind the windrow of trees. The small barn and silo, once so common in rural areas, are an anomaly in today’s world. Many of the older barns and silos have fallen into disrepair, or they’ve been replaced by sheet-metal barns and shiny aluminum silos. My motive for painting this little landscape (which still needs a little tweaking) is reason I stopped my car and took the photo — it was a beautiful summer day for watching clouds sweep past, high above the field.

There’s an easier way to be

To be, or not to be, that is the question.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is contemplating death and the unfairness of life when he says that. He goes on to say:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
the heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks
that Flesh is heir to?

Hamlet is thinking about his father’s murder and the expectation that he will seek revenge, but he hesitates. For far less dramatic reasons than Hamlet’s, we have to make decisions every day about “being” in this world. We experience heartache and shocks to our being—who we are—because we live, and like Hamlet, we often wonder if it’s worth it to “take up arms against a sea of troubles.”

I told my parents I wanted to be an artist when I was in my early teens. My mom was silent on the subject, but my dad let me know what he thought. He was against the notion because, he said, “You can’t earn a living as an artist.”

It was easier then, as it is now, to earn a living wage by working for someone else. Some part of me abandoned the artist who lived inside and got on the merry-go-round that’s life. I went to college and then went on to earn a master’s degree in education. The question that fueled my desire to learn was: When most people hate what they do and often dislike who they work for, why do they tolerate a system that requires them to do what they’re told to do, what is expected, every day of their working lives? I paid $35,000 for the answer. But why do you think we learn to be other than we are? Because _________ (fill in the blank).

It often seems easier to do what is expected of us, to ride the merry-go-round, but is it? What did, or do, you want to create? Is there time in your life for you to do whatever it is that you need to do? Who do you think you are? Does the last question irritate you? Why?

What does fear of failing prevent you from doing?

7-100 Nod to Kahn

An essential aspect of creativity is not being afraid to fail.  ∼Edwin Land

I painted in my twenties and thirties. Then I put my paint box on a shelf in the basement and went on with life. The “idea” of painting sometime in the future never left me, but as time passed, fear set in and I began to believe painting—an activity that I loved—would remain shelved, like the supplies I’d left in the basement.

Three decades passed. I felt the urge to paint a couple of years before I actually picked up a brush and mixed paint on a palette or applied it to a canvas. But by the time I acknowledged to myself that I wanted to be the artist my younger self had believed in, I was too afraid to paint. So instead of painting, I got interested in polymer clay.

I didn’t want to use the clay to make jewelry or cute animals. I wanted to paint with clay. I searched the internet for examples and artists who used clay the way I wanted to use it and found few who had tried. In the meantime, I learned about the tools clay artists use and I started making small landscape clay paintings. The one above is 4×4 inches. I developed some skills with the medium, and then I hit a wall. I couldn’t make the clay comply with my vision. Clay, like every medium, has its limitations.

Working with the clay had shown me that I wanted to paint landscapes. I also knew I couldn’t realize my vision using polymer clay. I needed to use paint. So I put aside the fear of failing and began again to paint. My “clay period” showed me some things about myself. It was an important and necessary step to take. But I’m so glad I decided to move past the fear, because that decision opened doors to new communities of people, new experiences, new confidence in myself, and it reconnected me to my joy, which is painting.

What brings you joy? What do you want to try doing? Don’t let the fear of failure stop you from trying.

Daily Practice is Fun!

Day 2

I joined artist Mary Glikerson’s 5-day challenge last week, and finished five quick studies (see here) for the challenge. The challenge was to paint for a set amount of time—20 to 40 minutes—and to stop when time was up. The intention: start a daily practice. All my studies took 40 minutes, but I plan to keep trying to get closer to 20 minutes.

It was a fun challenge, and it caused me to remember things I’d learned before and discover new things, combine objects in different ways to solve problems, test my skills with mixing and placement of color, and so much more. The work strengthened my creativity muscles, too.

It’s a New Year

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“Hope” 8×6″ oil on linen panel.

Updated January 10, 2018. Last year began well, but health problems surfaced in April that caused me to put painting and many other things on the back burner for the rest of the year. I’m just now starting to engage in many things I had to set aside during those months.

The painting “Hope” (above) was part of a personal challenge I started on January 1, 2017. I planned to finish 30 small plein air (painting on location) paintings in 30 days. The temperature that day was 35 degrees and it was sunny. But the highs in the near-future forecast were closer to 5 degrees. Burr! I started anyway, because I had set a goal and I felt hopeful about the future. I did adjust my plan a bit (because of cold weather) and worked on some paintings in my studio.

I might not have finished the challenge without a strategy that included asking my friend Karen, who is a personal coach, to help me be accountable. I arranged to send her a photo of each day’s painting, and I agreed that unless I broke a leg (or something equally awful happened), I would schedule a coaching session to talk about “why I was slacking off” if I missed more than two days in a row. Having that accountability helped me finish the challenge.

Think about what you want to accomplish this year. Then create a plan that includes a strategy for how you will be accountable, because these two things will help you reach you goals.

Paintings I completed for the January 2017 challenge can be seen here.

 

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.

Peeling Away the Layers with Practice

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Red Onion study on 8 x 6 inch linen panel.

This little study happened because I needed to get my daily practice done and it was already dark outside. Instead of looking for an interesting tree to paint, I looked through the cupboard and found a lovely red onion and a faded green dish rag. I haven’t tried a still life painting in a while, so I had to think about different things — how to paint a sphere and folds in a cloth and the texture of the basket. Changing things up a bit can be fun (or not). This was a fun study to do.

Painting every day is both hard and easy. It’s hard because there are days I don’t want to go out, or my schedule is tight and adding more to it feels like more work. It’s easy because I paint without any expectation for how a piece should turn out and I can quit when the time (60 minutes) is up. Sometimes, if a piece is going well, I’ll stick with it for a few more minutes, adding the tree branches or touching up a shadow or adding a highlight. Overall, though, I take whatever I have at the end of practice and call it good. I could, for example, go back in and touch up the “too dark” spot by the onion stem, but so far I’ve left it alone.

We need a strategy if we have goals, and I do have goals. The strategy is the road map that provides direction and milestones. I set a goal to paint 50 studies in 50 days. I did #23 yesterday. I’ll be honest, I hear lots of excuses in my thoughts throughout the day and I feel resistant to going outdoors under a very gray skies. Yesterday was one of those days. But my beautiful onion ended up on the cutting board over the weekend and the yam I do have wasn’t that interesting, so I got my practice in between rainstorms.

When I set this goal, I foresaw that I would have days when I didn’t want to paint, so I asked a friend if she would provide accountability for me. I send her a photo of whatever I’ve painted every day. If I miss 2 days in a row, I will pay her for a coaching session (she’s also a life coach). She’s ready to be my “repair shop” if I lose momentum and need a tune up.

Then yesterday, I had a different thought of a more serious nature. I thought that I should quit painting. I was surprised when that idea popped up, because painting is what I want to do. It’s a goal. It’s connected to other important goals, and quitting has not been one of my options — until yesterday. Maybe what I felt was like a Check Engine light that I need to pay attention to. I need to think more about what all this practice has uncovered.

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.

 

On Finding Personal Style

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8 x 6-inch oil on linen panel pochade study.

This wet (yes, those are rain drops) pochade study is #2/50 that I’ve committed to doing. My intention and reason for doing 50 out-of-door studies is two-fold. I want to improve my technical skills and I want to better understand my personal style. Austin Kleon wrote, “You can’t find your voice if you don’t use it.” I want to know my voice.

I do one timed study a day. When the chimes sound on my iPhone after 75 minutes, I have to stop painting and then I have to resist the temptation to finish the study that I always feel. The goal isn’t to produce finished artworks; it’s to improve my art. And it’s been proven that making 50 starts—and applying deliberate practices that are tied to a goal—will help me reach my goals faster.

Why show work that isn’t finished? There a several good reasons.

  • To document the process and to share with readers any discoveries that occur along the way. We humans have a tendency to forget what it’s like to be a beginner at things. That’s why experts have a difficult time speaking to or writing for the average person. They often know so much that they’ve forgotten all that they once didn’t know and, therefore, are unconscious of their own expectations.
  • To inform. Many people wrongly think artists who “make it” do so because they’re talented. More often, artists who are “making it” have worked really hard to build skills and understand their art, and to know their place in their chosen field.
  • To encourage others to share their work. It’s easy to adopt the mindset of hiding until we’re good enough to share what we do with the public. That is a self-defeating, self-perpetuated mindset. How can you know if you’re good enough at what you want to do if you don’t try, and then share your work?

 

 

 

 

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.