Welcome to my ideas on art and life...
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.
Our life experience is defined by opposites. For us to truly grasp and feel what is happening, we need a reference point, a comparison. Without sadness, there is no joy; without anxiety, there is no peace; without hate, there is no love.
The important factor is to recognize negativity without holding on to it.
One aspect of many lives today is the drive for accomplishment and the need to get stuff done covers every part of our daily existence. Keeping the pressure on for an extended period can exact a significant price on a person’s balance and wellness. No one is meant to stay ‘on’ all the time. The myriad of difficulties facing our troops when they return from combat is a real life illustration of this reality.
Intentionally letting your mind out to play is an example of counter acting the need for accomplishment. As an artist, I often feel compelled to produce ‘finished’ work. The reality is that most paintings I start end up in the ‘to be reworked’ pile. Knowing that I have ‘paint over’ as an options removes a huge amount of pressure while doing something I love.
And then, every once in a while… The attached painting is the result of ‘play’ that turned out kind of cool. I call it “I Forgot My PIN’…
As we live…and age…we gather life experiences, which collectively become our wisdom. The wisdom we have and, more importantly, how we choose to use it, directly influences the life experiences we gather.
One thing that is often lost in this rich process is our comfort with, and willingness to start fresh. To start with no preconceptions, no judgments and no expectations opens us to new and potentially radical ways of expanding our wisdom.
This may seem reckless but the reality is that regardless of our radical beginning, our wisdom will always keep us from a permanent trip to the ditch.
In art, the beginner’s mind is the source of complete freedom of expression. In my experience, the most inspired creations started with the question ‘I wonder where this will end up?’. There is little risk in this approach because as you move forward, the sum of your skillset will keep your art adventure between the ditches.
The beauty here is that you may learn something you could not learn any other way!
I’ve called the piece to the left ‘Equanimity’. The term equanimity refers to the state of being at peace with whatever is going on now.
Much is made today about mindfulness, staying present, focusing on what is happening now. While these concepts may come across as media hype, there are some fundamental principles at work here – principles that can significantly affect your quality of life.
Everything you do in your life can only be done now. Consequently, if you are thinking about where you will be, what you might do next week, or regretting what you did yesterday, you are not truly aware of what you are doing now. You can only learn in the present, you can only listen in the present, you can only love in the present.
No one can stay continually focused – nor should they. The important aspect is to know when to focus and when to let your mind out to play. That’s where mindful awareness comes in.
This practice pays off in most areas of your life. In art, for example, the creative process evolves from expansive imagination through preparation and finally into execution. Two of the most critical aspects of art is knowing when to take a break and when to stop. Without awareness of the process, you can blow right through an important step…and your art project becomes a renovation.
Just Enough Oct 2018
Oryoki is a Japanese term associated with the Soto tradition in Zen and translates to ‘just enough’. Awareness of the boundary for ‘just enough’ is a valuable state of mind because it allows us to know when to stop…and check in with ourselves.
Why is this a good thing? Well…how often have we been ‘on a roll’ doing something and gone past the point when it was no longer a positive experience. The second piece of cheese cake, the third glass of wine, the extra application of Golden heavy gel…you get the picture.
As an abstract artist, I am confronted with the principle of oryoki regularly. As I progress through a painting, I can become attracted to something that is going on and push it to the point that it has lost its impact on the painting. Pleasure turns into a learning experience...most often a learning that can't be undone!
In life there is a point beyond which virtually anything begins to lose its value and may even become harmful. Awareness of what is happening at any point in the journey allows us to stay closer to the principle of oryoki.
The painting beside this is a recent effort in my journey to discover ‘just enough’.
Living a meaningful life is a worthwhile aspiration and yet the possibility eludes so many people. The potential is all around us and yet we are blind to it or resist the pull of it.
For example, an Australian palliative care nurse interviewed several hundred patients in hospice, with the question “looking back of your life, what do you regret the most?”
The top answer:
I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
“This was the most common regret of all. When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honored even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. Health brings a freedom very few realize, until they no longer have it.”
With that truth in mind, I came across this powerful short piece by Leo Babuta, whose insightful blog ‘Zen Habits’ has become one of the key sources of inspiration in my life. The blog was titled ‘When Fear Is Stopping You From Meaningful Work’ and it offers a practical path to a more meaningful life.
Check it out here: https://zenhabits.net/fearful/ .
As an artist, more meaningful work definitely includes a more open minded approach to creativity!
Easy Is Boring
In art and life, there is a point at which repetition drives complacency, becomes stale, inspiration and energy decline. One of the ways to course correct when the doldrums set in is to investigate your relationship with the concept of flow.
Most people can recall times when they were so immersed in an activity that they lost all sense of time yet enjoyed a heightened level of awareness and focus. In athletic terms, this is ‘the zone’.
Renowned psychologist Mihalyi Czikszentmihalyi developed the concept of flow to describe it. He defines flow as the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.
In simple terms, flow occurs when the degree of challenge balances with the outcome of the activity. If the challenge is too hard, you become disheartened, discouraged, frustrated; too easy, you become disheartened, discouraged and bored.
The flow zone is always moving and it’s important to be aware of where you are in relationship to it.
If your art – or your life – no longer inspires you, perhaps you have lost touch with the flow zone. Perhaps it’s time to look for new ways to test yourself and get back in the flow…
In art and in life, building expectations into an activity is a natural and very tempting process. So many of the activities that make up our lives are driven by what we expect will be the result when we are done. The reality is that often, in spite of our best efforts, the activity turns our differently than what we expected. Result? Disappointment, self criticism, doubt, regret, wishing we could have a do over.
What is lost in the flurry of self recrimination is the learning. So many important things in our lives could not be learned any other way than ‘failing’.
Art is a perfect venue for failed expectations or learning. The difference is the perspective we bring to the canvas.
It’s very good practice to plan an art project and bring all your technical skills and knowledge to the easel. The key is to avoid the trap of expecting a particular outcome.
Regardless of the result of anything you try, a simple review of your work by asking these three questions will guarantee growth, learning, and no bruises from beating yourself up!