The Degas Syndrome

The story goes that Degas once visited the home of a collector in Paris, saw a painting he had completed some years prior hanging on the wall, took it down and marched off with it, insisting that there were some things he needed to correct.

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas, Self-portrait (Degas au porte-fusain), 1855

All of us have felt this at some time or other: “But I would make it so much better now.”

My advice?

Leave it.

It is the nature of the creative process and all of Creation, really, to continually evolve.
Your mind, your thoughts, your skills, your interests are all moving perpetually forward. So it can be embarrassing or even painful to look back on what you have created in the past.

It can make you wince.

The urge to remake it or fix it can be strong.

But it would be as absurd as the notion of trying to go back to your high school with all the knowledge, experience and confidence you have gained as an adult to “Do it right this time.”

Why repeat high school?

What would be the point?

Leave the past behind and use all that you gained from experience to play better at the NOW game.

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Butcher Tray Palette

During my trip up to the Pacific Northwest, the question I got over and over again at almost every single group I spoke to was about proper disposal and clean up of acrylic paint.

Here’s a video I made showing precisely that:

My favorite part is watching the paint pucker up and peel up in a sheet. Watch for my tip at the end for how to dispose of all those palette scrapings in a way that won’t hurt the environment OR your plumbing.

Any thoughts of your own? Questions? Please leave them in the comments section directly below the video so everyone can benefit!

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Meander Time

The other day in the studio I was reminded of how important it is for me to have what I like to call “meander time”.

Meander time is that unstructured, unproductive, unhurried envelope in which there are no goals, no urgency towards completion, only a free and easy flow of listening to and following our quiet inclinations.

When I work in my studio, I generally jump in where I left off the day before. I settle easily into a humming rhythm of focus and productivity. But this time, something didn’t feel right. The process felt forced.

I paused and found a comfy place, got quiet, closed my eyes and went inward. It became clear to me that I hadn’t been allowing time recently in the studio for exploration, for browsing in books, for lying and looking at the ceiling, for staring out the window or just being.

This is pure right brain territory.

This is when we are in a receptive state.

This when fresh, new ideas are able to flow in.

Most of us were told when young and apt to daydream that we were “wasting” time. Wasting time is frowned upon severely in a society full of people who feel so busy and strapped for time. We feel more virtuous when we are productive.

Some of my most rich and fruitful ideas come from meander time. Sometimes this means getting outside the studio – going on a walk or just sitting and being in nature. Sometimes it involves going on the studio with no particular plan and allowing myself to rest, nap, stare at the works in progress, peruse art books or leaf through boxes of old drawings or supplies. It’s really about letting go of a particular objective and following what feels right in the moment.

There’s a delicate balance we artists ride between doing and being.

Too much “being” can be a disguised form of avoidance. Too much “doing” and our creative well dries up because it is never replenished.

What about you? Have you noticed this rhythm within yourself? When have you opened up to meandering and allowed new ideas to flow in?

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The hybrid artist

I just found out about Karen Atkinson an artist who has taught the business of being an artist at CalArts in Southern California for over 22 years. She also founded a company called GYST that creates business software for artists and offers other business related services for artists.

What I really appreciate about this talk is how she emphasizes that there are multiple ways to approach a career as an artist. She outlines two different models of an artist’s career – the vertical artist climbing a hierarchical ladder and the horizontal career or creating a hybrid of the two.

It’s important to remember though our contributions may not shimmer glamorously, our role is vital to our communities. Atkinson put it this way:

If you are an artist that is not interested in that vertical career and you’re not the next hot thing, then you’re sort of, like, not as important. If you don’t make a lot of money you’re not considered a very important artist.

But, I think those artists who have been pludging [sic] along, doing very interesting things either in their communities, their businesses or their daily life have much more effect on the general culture than those who work only in a vertical trajectory.

Karen Atkinson

What ways can you see that your work as an artist either in the studio or in the greater world have contributed to those around you, even in small ways?

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How to keep going over a long haul…

Laura Paulini, Black Beauty
acrylic on panel, 40” x 40” x 2” ©2010
photo: Sibila Savage

Sometimes artworks are executed quickly. We get to experience the sweet satisfaction of completion in short order. But what about those projects that that develop over months or even years? (I’m working on one myself right now.)

How do we keep going when the project takes longer than expected?

How do we keep working when the end is not clearly in sight?

Can we enjoy the process for its own sake?

I was particularly inspired by artist Laura Paulini’s shining example of perseverance recently and am eager to share it with you.

Laura builds her acrylic and egg tempera paintings by applying the paint in rows and patterns of dots, each dot of paint painstakingly applied with the end of a chopstick.

Each 40 x 40″ panel takes months to complete, row by row, dot by dot.

Nine months ago, she decided to undertake a slightly larger piece. For this 60″ x 60″ panel she also chose to create a base layer of stripes over which she will add the dots.

It took her seven months, working about four days a week to paint all the stripes for the first layer. That’s approximately 8,150 stripes each month for a total of 57,000!

I asked Laura how she kept going during a process that takes such meticulous care, attention and time.

When I started in July, I had hoped to be done by Thanksgiving. When that didn’t happen, I thought maybe by Christmas. After that, I stopped thinking too much about an expected end date and surrendered even more deeply to the process knowing I would, indeed, some day actually finish and that I just needed to keep going.

What were some of the hardest periods?

One hard period was around the holidays when time in the studio was getting compromised by outside responsibilities and distractions. I felt great concern about getting too far away from the piece and loosing momentum. Luckily, I was able to get to the studio often enough and keep the piece going.

What were some of the phases of your process that you went through during this time?

The period from October until January (the dreaded “middle”) was difficult because the density of the stripes hadn’t yet achieved that “critical mass” when the colors dance off one another and create a blend that moves the viewers eye across the piece. I felt like I could work for eight hours and then stand back and not really see any change. Once the density of the stripes was closer to final (near the end of January), each day in the studio felt very satisfying and I could make rather large “shifts” in the rhythm of the piece, getting it to work the way I had hoped. The last few weeks were really a pleasure and I found I had ambivalent feelings about finishing.

How did you carry on when you didn’t feel like working on it?

I simply tried to honor my commitment to my studio practice and show up. Once there, I quickly changed in to my work clothes, started mixing my colors, and got to work. I tried to let negative thoughts and doubts dissipate as quickly as possible and respond to them with humor. In the evenings, I would try and look at books or films that inspire and guide me. My husband and my friends have also been incredibly supportive and their enthusiasm and excitement about the piece is also very encouraging to me.

Were you tempted to take a break and work on other things?

Not really. I feel privileged to have been able to focus solely on this piece and to give myself the space and time to do it. I really never saw myself as being able to give much to another piece while this one is in process – and didn’t really want to. I’m just now being able to actually think about what might come next.

Were you tempted to give up?

Sure. It’s very easy to think of all the reasons why, too! So far I haven’t given up on this piece – or on my desire to make a contribution to the discipline of painting. I hope I can say that a year from now, two years from now, five years from now. We’ll see…

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In Just 15 minutes a day…

If you’re reading this, chances are art is a big part of your life. It’s something that you look forward to doing and that brings you a lot of joy and satisfaction.

But what happens when life gets in the way?

You have a big project due for work, family comes to visit, a loved one is ill. I’ve noticed for most people I work with that the art time is the very first thing to go.

I’ll get to that later when I have more time – when my mother’s illness clears up, after my trip, after I get that closet cleaned up, when the kids are settled in school, when the remodel is complete, when I retire, etc.

At first, when you pass by your work area, you feel that pang of longing and regret. Eventually you learn to close off those feelings and suppress that longing to be creative again.

I’d like to propose that, as artists, the basis of a well-composed life be laid upon a foundation of the following non-negotiable items:

1. Eating well

2. Getting adequate rest and exercise

3. Consistent and regular creative time

I used to think I had to spend long days in my studio to get “enough” art time in. But strangely, I never felt like there was quite enough time for my art. It felt like a battle between my art time and all the other responsibilities in my life.

From the start, I had a disciplined and regular studio schedule, yet my creative time often felt like feast or famine. Some days were reserved for teaching and others for the studio. On my studio days, even after being there for many hours, I couldn’t tear myself away. I would stay way too late and leave feeling over-tired and over-hungry.

That changed dramatically when I was invited to be in an exhibition in which I had to complete a work of art each day for five weeks.

So I set aside time each morning to create. Sometimes 20 minutes, sometimes 90 minutes.

I was amazed at how connected I felt to my art with such a minimal commitment. Once I got in a groove, I found myself thinking about my pieces all day long. I was working on them in my head even when I wasn’t in my studio.

Although my regular studio practice involves working 4 days a week for longer periods of time, there are intervals in my life when I am on the road teaching or have consuming non-art projects at hand. For these times, I created what I call 15 minutes a day.

I found that even devoting just 15 minutes each day to making art, I am able to make startling progress on an idea or project.

I set a timer for 15 minutes and when that timer goes off, I am free to get up. I don’t worry because I know tomorrow I can pick up where I left off.

I’ve found this 15 minutes a day works best first thing in the morning before life’s demands begin pressing in.

I’ve shared this practice with the artists in my Artist Mentorship Program and it’s been awesome to watch a dedicated studio practice bloom where previously there had been none.

By setting aside even a small amount of time daily to be creative, you will find yourself with more energy, a greater sense of contentment and a capacity to give generously of yourself to others having tended to your deepest needs first. Your creative energy will gather steam and ideas will flow more freely. You’ll be more at ease with the process, allowing for greater experimentation and more accepting of the inevitable “failures” or mistakes”.

Most importantly, you will start the day with the satisfaction that you have made time for that which matters most – that connection to your deeper self – that creative Source within.

All from just 15 minutes a day.

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