Welcome to my ideas on art and life...
A New/Old Way Of Seeing
For many of us, our day to day is a rush of managing the moving parts of our lives and trying to stay safe while doing it. The changes brought about in our collective response to the pandemic have the potential to impair our perception of just about everything.
In the pre pandemic age, people often talked about slowing down, smelling the flowers, getting back to a quieter time. A wealth of books, TED talks, and phone apps emerged to serve this particular approach to self care. A friend of mine once observed the “you can’t read your way to enlightenment. You have to actually do something!”. So what could you do to start moving?
Well, a great place to start would be to pay attention to what’s actually happening in front of us. Waiting for a special moment to capture our attention and trigger a sense of awe usually means we have missed appreciating most of the gifts life makes available to us.
As artists, we are particularly vulnerable to this trap. We spend an inordinate amount of time seeking inspiration, looking for that special subject or image to appear that drives us to the canvas. In the absence of the ‘wow’ moment, we creatives can get stuck, bored, disillusioned and frustrated – often all at the same time.
The reality is that there is beauty and inspiration everywhere, all the time. An artist friend once told me that everything around us is just shapes and colours.
My challenge for you is to start at your feet and look around for unique shapes and colours that are right in front of you. Once you start to see what is right in front of you, you will never run out of subjects for your work!
The painting to the left is my interpretation of some rose hips left on a bush near my home in late autumn.
The False Comfort Of Being Stuck
But if you never try you'll never know
Just what you're worth – from Fix You by Coldplay
A creative journey is a lot like life: ups, downs, a few trips to the ditch…and out again. As the expression says ‘it’s about the journey, not the destination’.
One of the common areas people often struggle on their journey is how to move past ‘stuck’. Stuck happens when we don’t have a way through something and no new tools to apply to the situation. The common answer is often ‘I don’t know how’.
As an artist, I can say for sure getting stuck happens frequently. I will often get to a point in a painting where I happy with the result so far but begin to worry that I’m on the verge of making a ‘mistake’...doing something that will 'ruin' everything I have in the piece.
What has happened is that I got focused on expectation and outcome and lost sight of process - the journey. The reality of painting is that the likelihood of doing permanent damage to the piece is remote. Instead, as the renowned art teacher Bob Ross would say, a 'happy accident' often occurs.
Artist and teacher Nancy Hillis talks about the ‘adjacent possible’. What she means is that each mark on a painting provides a reference from which to make the next mark, and the next, and so on. Instead of creative freefall, each mark provides a secure handhold from which to plan the next move.
The point here is that we grow as artists through action and response, not comparison to an expected outcome.
The painting to the left is an example. My energy had ground to a virtual halt and I had not idea what to do next. To kickstart the process, I grabbed some cadmium red, applied it a couple places and suddenly I had put energy back into the piece.
When stuck, get curious and try something bold. Keep it simple – just one thing, one mark, one splash of colour. It’s amazing how something apparently insignificant can release so much energy.
And, be kind to yourself. After all, what’s the worst thing that could happen?
Time Has Come Today - The Chambers Brothers
The current pandemic has destabilized virtually every aspect of our lives. One significant element that has come into focus is our relationship with time. We are obsessed with time and our language around the subject is so indicative of how we relate to it.
We often never have enough of it, feel guilty when we waste it, are judgmental of those who take too much, lust after good time, and allow a bad time to throw us into an emotional tailspin.
For many, there is now a glut of free time due to quarantining and people are struggling with how to respond. The chief concern appears to be ‘what will I do with the time I have?’ And, of course, having ample time to ‘do the things I love’ has a dark side because often what was once special has now become ordinary and even boring.
Artists are no different in this respect. The idea that one can take your sketchbook or camera and explore your surroundings in search of inspiration is great theory, but the reality is that you always could do this if it was important enough. Why then, do you beat yourself up because you seem to be following your traditional creative habits?
The answer is simple. Change of any kind, under most circumstances is way harder to implement that one imagines. How ironic it is that so many people express the desire to ‘do something when they get the time’.
Well...now you have substantially more unscheduled time and
you struggle more than ever to take advantage of it. Frustration!
One way to switch this situation is to change the conversation you have with yourself. In his book A Beautiful Anarchy, David duChemin challenges readers to reframe ‘this is too hard and probably won’t work anyway’ to ‘Let’s see what happens’. This sounds like an oversimplification but it actually works. You’ll never know until you give it an honest try!
The painting to the left, entitled ‘Allow Yourself To Be Surprised’ emerged from just such a conversation.
Just Enough And The Zen Universe
There is a Japanese term – oryoki – which refers to a style of bowls and translates roughly into ‘just enough’.
In life, we often struggle to find the balance that represents just enough. Too often, we find ourselves swinging between over doing something and running away from the same thing. Our behaviour at the dinner table typifies this behavior. The second piece of chocolate cake is often followed by a day of remorse and fasting.
In both cases, our behavior is governed by our struggle to manage choices. On one hand, we are blinded by something we ‘like’ and struggle to find the balance of restraint; on the other hand, we choose avoidance, out of fear of some unforeseen consequence, again over reacting.
It’s a tough place to be because neither way is sustainable, nourishing or fulfilling.
As an abstract artist, I run into this challenge regularly. On one hand, I find myself falling in love with a particular aspect of a creation and am tempted to do more of what I like on a particular piece. The result is almost always a piece that is overdone and over worked.
For me, I have learned to treat each step of each painting as a destination. This allows me an opportunity to reflect on what has been done and ask – myself and the painting – what else might be needed?
Practicing this in life will almost certainly bring more balance, less regret, and more self compassion.
The painting to the left, entitled ‘Can You Hear A Snowflake Fall?’ is an example of using ‘just enough’ to create a beautiful piece.
The Times They Are A Changin' - Bob Dylan
One of the realities of the current global pandemic is that virtually everything that defines our ‘normal’ lives has been destabilized. Our lives are so interconnected at so many levels and when one element changes, others may be impacted. The pandemic has created a domino effect on a global scale and getting our minds around what’s going on is virtually impossible. It’s exhausting and potentially terrifying.
The reality of this situation is that the times have been a changin' all the time. The older you get, the more you can relate to what it was like ‘back in the day’. The difference is that change happened in the past more slowly and the information available came in forms that a person could digest.
As artists, we are confronted with change continually. Everything connected to our creative lives is in play: members of our art tribe come and go, new techniques and materials become available, old methods fade, new styles emerge, teachers and influences leave and arrive. A committed creative lives evolution in real time.
Managing change is one of the most frightening and challenging elements a human must do. For me, the dynamic world of creativity provides a powerful and meaningful practice in keeping a fast changing world in perspective.
The painting on the right entitled Allow Yourself To Be Surprised is my interpretation of this perspective.
Live Without Warning - Billie Joe Armstrong
When the opportunity for change appears, most people switch from ‘doing’ to ‘planning’…and the more planning they engage in, the further they get from action.
Planning how to respond to opportunity often follows a circular pattern of: thinking, talking, thinking, reading, talking….thinking some more. The circle of research continues to expand, the amount of data piles up and yet, people can become increasingly stuck. The growing number of options available is guaranteed to increase the likelihood of nothing being done.
What’s going on?
Fear of making a mistake, or worse, making a mistake that someone else knows about. This reality is paralyzing.
As an artist, fear of making a mistake happens all the time. I have, however, learned an effective way to overcome it.
Teacher Nancy Hillis uses the concept of the ‘adjacent possible’, believing that once a step is taken, a mark is made, you now have something to respond to. A relationship with an action can be formed versus analysis and rejection of an idea that ‘may or may not work’. Mark making is an essential part of creation – whether in the studio or in your daily life.
The painting to the left is an example of this. I always like random mark making as part of my art but have grown very ‘safe’ in doing so. In this painting, I used a much more aggressive approach to mark making with – what I feel – are pleasing results. I feel a lot more confident in using bold marks and different tools. Not sure where it’s going, but at least I am now moving forward!
Aren't We Lucky?
A friend of mine recently lost his mother to cancer. As we spoke about his mother, one comment resonated clearly with me: regardless of what was going on in her life, his mother always brought herself back to reality by the affirming statement “Aren’t we lucky”.
His mother basically had a life like most people – many happy events, a wide variety of difficulties and challenges, mostly just ‘routine’ day to day. Through it all, however, she never lost the ability to find a reason to be grateful.
The lesson here, of course, is that gratitude doesn’t just happen. The reasons to be grateful are always present but, without the willingness to acknowledge them, they remain hidden by the constellation of negative thoughts that disrupt positivity and allow toxic energy into our lives.
Without gratitude, it is virtually impossible to tap into the creative energy that lies within each of us. As artists, we are vulnerable to self criticism, unmet expectations, and self imposed social pressure. In falling under the influence of these factors, it’s impossible to learn, grow, take chances, and, most importantly, recognize how truly lucky we are to even have the opportunity to be artists.
Next time you find yourself staring at your canvas and listing off all the things you wish were different about the situation, check yourself. Make sure you also include a recognition of how lucky you are just to be standing there with the freedom to create…and the realization that the only thing holding you back is your willingness to believe it!
The painting in this post is The Fire Within and will be part of an upcoming show at the Vernon Public Art Gallery focusing on living with ADHD.
Just Do It - any Nike commercial
Our world today is filled with a constellation of opportunities, most of which come with a compelling story…and the only things that stands in the way of accomplishment is the inability to choose and the willingness to take the first step
I had a client recently who was stuck…struggling to choose a new direction with her life. A creative, talented, intelligent person, she had the potential to go in one of a significant number of directions. Being stuck was the result of having too many choices, anyone of which could have been the 'right' one. In working through this opportunity, we came up with the phrase “You Can Do Anything…You Just Can’t Do Everything”.
We started by reviewing what was working in her life and what was providing resistance. Kind of an editing job. She created a ‘to don’t list’ which resulted in a significant amount of discretionary time.
Armed with the knowledge of what she wanted more of, she had a much simpler list to choose from. From this list, she answered the question ‘If you could choose one thing, what would it be? Without analysis and over thinking, she quickly landed on a starting place. From this she used the process to build a more balanced and meaningful life.
In art, the same process applies. Nicholas Wilton uses the term concision to describe the process of making your art more ‘concise’…removing what doesn’t work and allowing what does work to stand out. Your life…your art…same idea!
I painted the piece to the left the other day and have named it ‘Concision’ to honour this concept
The Trap Of Success
"If you want God to laugh, tell him your plan' - John Lennon
I recently had a nice run ‘artistic success’…of paintings that I really liked. My feelings were confirmed somewhat as three of them were accepted into different FCA shows.
I was, however, taught a powerful lesson from this so called ‘success’.
I started a canvas in a similar manner to my recent ‘successes’ but quickly ran into resistance. I was not at all happy with how this painting was coming along and the harder I tried, the more stuck I became. Over the course of a week, I tried just about everything I could think of to get what I wanted…to no avail!
Then it occurred to me. The operative phrase here is ‘think of’. I had tried to recreate art that was the result of free expression and exploration by turning the effort into following a script. I had an expectation of a specific outcome based on a past experience which automatically prevented me from using the skills I had used that resulted in the art I was happy with.
Light bulb moment!
I turned to an approach that has liberated me many times in the past and afforded me a ‘fresh start’ every time I used it. The result is not always what I like but then that’s the real world of an artist!
And, actually, that’s how life really is too. Try to script your life toward a specific outcome and see how that works.The painting to the right is the result of the approach I just described. I call it 'The Real Reason To Meditate'.
The Weather Report
You don’t need a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows – Bob Dylan
Talking about the weather is a universal social activity. Partly because we all share it; partly, I’m sure, because we all share a degree of powerlessness when it comes to doing anything about it. The weather person is the focal point of most news cast teams, a familiar face who brings a degree of certainty to our lives by sharing what the weather will be.
So much for the ‘external’ weather.
A more challenging meteorological situation is the weather between our ears…the storms created by our ever changing, ever wandering minds. Like the external weather, we experience the full spectrum from soft healing breezes to full on tornadoes…and everything in between! Unlike the external weather, we have much more control over how the internal weather impacts our lives.
The process is elegantly simple: actually paying attention to our thoughts. When storms arise, there are a range of gentle healing practices to soften what we are feeling; when we are at peace with life, there too are some wonderful practices to deepen an already positive experience. In fact, there are tools we can use for virtually any situation, to build resilience and adaptability and recharge our emotional bank account. As a start, check out this site for simple, practical, portable tools: https://ggia.berkeley.edu/.
I just finished the painting in this post: I call it The Light In The Storm, representing the reality that no matter how tough things may seem, there is always one step forward available to you. Just check your internal weather report!
I Don't Fear Red As Much...Any More
As an aspiring artist, I am continually exploring ways to refine and deepen my practice. This almost always involves testing new things, exploring different material and techniques, and studying other artists. I have discovered, however, that reading and thinking about change are easy; actually doing change is a whole new ball game!
For example, I am often inspired by art that has bold colours. Not a lot - just subtle touches, skillfully placed. I have been stuck, however, between inspiration and actually using bold colour in my work.
Take red for example. Red, in any form, is a loud conversation. Using red in a painting has the potential to take over everything. For this reason, I have avoided all but the most gentle applications.
The biggest reason is that I feared getting it wrong…and ‘ruining’ a painting. Being stuck in this kind of do loop was definitely holding me back. As most artists know, the path to growth and learning means taking risks and getting uncomfortable. Kind of like life itself!
For some unexplained reason, I got out a tube of red (yes, I buy red paint, I just don’t use it much) and started working with it on a large canvas. Somewhere along the way, the painting started to work and I finished a piece I really like.
The learning here is that to make any positive changes in your art – or your life – there will be a period of uncertainty, discomfort, and fear. By repeating the changed behavior, however, it will become the new normal. And, the solid platform from which you can launch you next change!
The piece in the blog is the ‘red’ painting I finished.
So many factors influence our view of the world…and by extension, life. Our thoughts, moods, energy, judgements and more, directly impact how we experience each moment.
Once we have formed a view of any given experience, we are invariably closed off to the array of emerging elements that come our way.
Most of the time, what we miss has little potential to add value but missing could be a choice rather than our default mode. To truly capture our attention, something coming into our lives needs to be dramatically different than what is present for us to even consider responding to it. We lose the connection to subtle experiences.
I had a recent experience which drove this point home for me. I was walking along a snowy trail, focused on the sunshine as it played on a pristine winter landscape. Beside the trail was an aspen, bare of all but a few dried leaves. Looking closely, I saw intricate lines and shapes on the leaves which formed a beautiful pattern. Captivating!
As an artist, many of us focus on the big and the broad for influence. What I discovered was that inspiration can arrive in very small, seemingly insignificant natural elements too.
We just need to broaden our awareness when the situation arrives.
The painting to the left is my impression of the dead leaves I saw, still waiting to fall from the tree.
Awareness of boredom starts at an early age and is one of the first things children can express as they learn to speak. Parents frequently respond to a child’s complaint by giving them ‘something to do’. This ‘boredom - relief’ connection continues into adulthood as tools for distracting us are part of every aspect of our lives: turn on the radio while driving, listen to music while exercising, reading something on your phone while waiting are all part of a long list of strategies for dealing with boredom.
So…why is boredom a gift? Well, in cognitive psychologist-speak, boredom is actually very important because it is the gateway to mind wandering. Allowing your mind to wander – some call it day dreaming – is necessary for your creativity. It’s the time when you take an eclectic mix of random thoughts and connect them into an idea that could not have arisen otherwise. This process ignites a network in your brain called the ‘default mode’, sometimes referred to as the imagination network in your brain.
In life, we sometimes encounter situations that defy obvious solutions. As artists, we often get stuck either starting the work or part way through the work. It’s times like these that we need to find ways to ‘let our minds out to play’ and pay attention to the potential strategies that arise.
Once that has happened, we are still challenged to execute but now we are creatively pursuing something the previously had eluded us.
The painting in this post is nothing like I planned but arose from a place of being very stuck. It wasn’t until I stepped away and focused elsewhere that this image emerged.
Back In Black
Australian rock band ACDC began in the 1970s and were emerging as an energetic popular band on a global basis when lead singer Bon Scott died in 1980. Scott’s harsh voice and charismatic performances were a keystone of the group and his death spelled the potential end for the group.
Over the succeeding year, the group tried to reinvent themselves, with no clear avenue to success. Then, two things happened: the found Brian Johnson, whose voice lent itself perfectly to the signature ACDC sound and they wrote and recorded Back In Black.
Not only was the band launched to super star status, Back In Black is the seventh best selling album – of any genre – of all time.
The band went from almost certain failure to becoming rock music icons.
What’s this got to do with art and life?
Well…it shows that even when success looks improbable, anything is possible. In our own lives, we give up way too soon. We allow our rational minds to convince us that something we wanted to do was ‘impractical, a stupid idea, never going to work anyway, blah blah blah’.
Sometimes we need to turn the rational mind off long enough to make sure all reasonable alternatives have been considered.
The attached painting is an example. I started with a black canvas – something I had never done before – and explored the possibilities. Working dark to light was backwards from my normal procedure but the result showed me new possibilities and I am excited to see where this will go.