Still Life


Small Jewels



Creativity Lesson

I’ve just discovered a new creativity book: Growing Gills: How to Find Creative Focus When You’re Drowning in Your Daily Life by Jessica Abel. I just started reading it but have already found many helpful and enlightening insights and exercises.


The first is aimed at uncovering the obstacles that stand in the way of achieving creative goals. If you are like me, you are challenged by the task of creating art every day. (If you have read my previous messages, you know that art needs to be done every day.) The reason we do not create each day is not because we have no time, it’s because life gets in the way. We find ourselves in a dilemma- we could do our art or we could watch a movie on Netflix. A dilemma is a choice to be made. Every choice you make, every time you prioritize one thing over another, there are corresponding sacrifices you make. Facing the decision whether to work on your art or watch Netflix sounds like a no-brainer, yet if you look at it closely you realize it’s truly a dilemma, and there are real benefits and real costs to each choice. Choosing art over Netflix means you make progress that will give you a sense of pride. But you have to live with the discomfort of facing your work and all the feelings that come with that. Plus you’re giving up your “free time”. Choosing Netflix over art is a nice break and allows you to share in the social bonding that comes with watching the new shows your friends see, but now you have to live with guilt and self-blame for the art you haven’t done. The problem is not enduring the discomfort of the trade-off. The real problem comes when you don’t decide and instead let whatever happens, happen. In other words, you worst problems result from when you have a dilemma and you don’t face that fact and make the hard decision. Instead you just close your eyes and do whatever occurs to you. You didn’t consciously choose anything. How to avoid falling into this trap is to use the technique of “The Five Whys”.


You begin the process by identifying a problem: I always plan to start the day doing one hour of artwork but it never happens. The first why:


Why don’t I start doing art at 8 am as I plan?

The answer: Because I am reading and responding to my email the first thing in the morning.


The second why:


Why am I reading email?

The answer: Because I check email as soon as I wake up and then get pulled into answering each request.


The third why:


Why do I check email as soon as I wake up?

The answer: Because my phone is next to my bed.


The fourth why:


Why is my phone next to my bed?

The answer: Because I use it as an alarm clock.


The fifth why:


Why do I use it as an alarm clock?

The answer: Because it has an alarm clock and I don’t own another alarm clock.


Suddenly, you have an answer that points to a solution that is concrete and under your control.


You may need more or less than five whys, but the key is to keep asking why until you can ask something along the lines of “Why did this process fail?” You are aiming to identify a process that’s failing. If your intent is to do art first thing in the morning and it isn’t happening, you are living with the cost of not doing it. What does it cost you not to do art first thing in the morning? This is the dilemma that you need to face and solve.


This is just one gem that I gleaned from starting to read Growing Gills. Along with the book there is a workbook that is free to download and use as you work through the exercises suggested in the book. I recommend that you purchase the book and use it to organize your creative life. It is available through Amazon. Here’s to a new beginning!


Generating Mental Energy


Do you ever say, “I’m too tired to paint” or “I just don’t have the energy to create”? It is important to understand the relationship between energy and creativity.

We understand the energy needed to exercise or breathe or walk. But what kind of energy does it take to be creative? It’s not physical energy, it’s mental energy. It takes mental energy to sit through a boring meeting and resist the urge to get up and leave. It takes mental energy to resist eating that last cupcake on the counter. It takes mental energy to start a painting. A person who actively works at their art is using more mental energy that someone who is receiving other’s wisdom. An active creator is powerful, just as the sun is powerful, and for the same reason: the processes at work produce power.

The mind makes mental energy then uses the mental energy to think, to imagine, to calculate, and to fantasize. All are a part of making art. Mental energy has to do with the way the mind views the world and with our human need for meaning.

Answer these three questions:

  1. What generates mental energy?
  2. What saps mental energy?
  3. What replenishes mental energy?

Answers that come to my mind are “desire”, “fear”, “courage”, “curiosity”, “doubt”, “hope”, “passion”, “complexity”, and “clarity”. Apply these words to the appropriate questions and add some of your own.

How can you increase your mental energy? One powerful way is by cultivating positive obsessions and by eliminating negative ones. A positive obsession is a passionately held idea that serves your meaning making needs. A negative obsession is a passionately held idea that serves no good purpose.

Aleta Pippin, an abstract painter, explains obsessions this way:

“Good obsessions seem to be our life force. They inspire and motivate us forward. They are our reason for getting up in the morning. They feel joyful… When good obsessions become our focal point, they lead us to success…The most significant thing about bad obsessions is that you feel guilty, not good enough, that you don’t measure up. They are based in fear and we use them as tools for self-flagellation. In fact, they will prevent us from moving forward and achieving our goals, because of the attention we give to them. They become our negative focal point, preventing success.”

Nothing is more important to your creative life than producing and renewing the requisite mental energy to create. Focus on developing positive obsessions to move your art forward.


Digging for Meaning


50,000 years ago, someone who remains nameless, painted on the walls of a cave in France. We are still looking at those images and understanding that someone was making meaning. They are beautiful drawings of animals that he/she saw. They convey the joy that was felt by the artist. They communicate to us so many years later. That person had no idea that people far in the future would be looking at these images. That’s not why the artist painted them. They painted them because they were inspired by the world around them and they needed to express their feelings.


 “There is no such thing as creative people and non-creative people. There are only people who use their creativity and people who don’t. Unused creativity doesn’t just disappear. It lives within us until it’s expressed, neglected to death, or suffocated by resentment and fear.”


The above quote is from a book I am currently reading by Brene Brown called The Gifts of Imperfection. Brene makes the case for creativity being in the human DNA. It is how we make meaning of our lives. If we want to make meaning, we need to make art. Cook, write, draw, doodle, paint, scrapbook, take pictures, collage, knit, rebuild an engine, sculpt, dance, decorate, act, sing-it doesn’t matter. As long as we’re creating, we’re creating meaning. The only unique contribution that we will ever make in this world will be born of our creativity.


There are several facts that I learned from the book:


v  We all have gifts and talents

v  Squandering our gifts brings distress to our lives

v  Sharing our gifts and talents with the world is the most powerful source of connection

v  Using our gifts and talents to create meaningful work takes a tremendous amount of commitment

No one can define what’s meaningful for us. Culture doesn’t get to dictate if it’s teaching, raising children, or painting. Like our gifts and talents, meaning is unique to each one of us. How do we determine what it is that makes meaning in our lives? Brene suggests that we DIG deep to find out what in meaningful to us.


D is for being Deliberate: Be specific about what would make your work meaningful. Maybe it would be making work that is creative, inspiring, thoughtful, or beautiful. Think about what it is you want your work to express. Use this as a way to make decisions about how you spend your time.


I is for getting Inspired: Malcolm Gladwell says in his book Outliers that there are three criteria for meaningful work – complexity, autonomy, and a relationship between effort and reward. I can’t think of anything that describes better what painting is for me.


G is for Getting  Going: Make a list of the work that inspires you. I am a big proponent of making lists. When I get an idea for a painting, it goes on the list that sits on my desk. I may get to it right away or it may take a year before that particular idea gets to a canvas or paper. But there it sits waiting for the right moment.


So, start DIGGING. Find out what your meaningful work is, and get to it! Maybe someone will be looking at your work 50,000 years in the future. Or, perhaps, you will just have the satisfaction of expressing your thoughts and feelings about the world around you.


Self Sabotage

“Teach yourself by your own mistakes.”

William Faulkner

Do you struggle with a self-sabotage compulsion with your artwork as I do? This goes way back. I remember being in high school and laboring over a tempera poster for an upcoming event. I worked hard detailing a figure in bright colorsthat glowed. Every line was laid down with perfection. It was almost done when I dumped a glass of water over the entire image. Tempera ran in rivulets over the page and my image was ruined. This week, I did a similar thing. I had painted a detailed landscape for an upcoming show and carelessly placed it on the floor ofmy studio. I then started working with acrylics, splattering color over thatpainting. As I looked at the floor, I realized I had splattered rust colored acrylic on the sky of my watercolor painting. Acrylic does not come off. The paintingappeared ruined. It seems there is something in me that wants to ruin the things I create. I have to guard against that impulse. I try to prevent disaster by eliminating potential damage-makers. No food or drink is allowed in my studio. I try to put my work in a safe place (sometimes). However, even with precautions I am often careless with a painting once it is underway. I should not have left the painting I was working on in a place where it could be spattered.Sometimes the self-sabotage takes another form. You have been preparing a painting for a show coming up for weeks. The entry day comes and you suddenly get a sick headache and cannot get to the appointed place to enter your painting. Or maybe you forget the day that it is due. Was this just a chance occurrence or did you somehow make it happen? What causes these self-sabotaging actions? Behind all of them is self-doubt. Self-doubt is the uncertainty of opinion or belief.

  •  Are you uncertain about the direction of quality of the artwork you’re presently doing?
  •  Are you uncertain about the reception your work will receive?
  •  Are you uncertain about the goodness of your past work?
  •   Are you uncertain about how to meet or manage the marketplace?

What you are is scared. You could be successful and not self-sabotaging if only you would let yourself do it. Tell yourself:  “I am allowed to nurture my artist” or “I am willing to learn to let myself create” or “my creativity leads me to forgiveness and self-forgiveness.” Recognize your self-sabotaging as what it is, a block to your creativity, and learn to overcome it.


I saved my watercolor by painting acrylic clouds over the spots.


Do You Have Grit?

Creating art takes both courage and confidence. Courage improvises and confidence rehearses. It takes courage to approach the paper or canvas and put down that first stroke. We start our process with courage but to continue we need confidence. After that first stroke is down, we need confidence to continue. Where does that courage and confidence originate from?

Courage comes from the passion we have for creating art. Our passion drives us forward but then confidence takes us through to the conclusion. Dr. Duckworth, a psychologist from the University of Pennsylvannia, calls that combination of passion and perserverance, grit.

Grit is about holding on to a goal even when progress is slow and success seems elusive. Dr. Duckworth has found that grit matters more than talent or luck to attaining success. Grit is not something people are usually born with but something that can be developed through practice. To develop grit you need to practice the "Hard Thing Rule". There are three parts to this rule:

Part one: select one hard thing that requires daily and deliberate practice. Perhaps creating art would fulfill this requirement.

Part two: You must not quit, but practice every day, especially on a bad day. Choose an amount of time to practice and stay committed during the entire time. (As I have stated before, this doesn't have to be an extended period of time, one hour is fine, so is 45 minutes.)

Part three: Only you can pick your hard thing. Even though I am encouraging you to use this plan to develop your art, you are the only one who can determine what your hard thing will be. It would make no sense to do a hard thing that does not interest you.

How gritty are you? Dr Duckworth has developed a three question test that will tell you your degree of grittyness. Answer each statement with one of the following:

1. Very much like me

2. Mostly like me

3.Somewhat like me

4. Not much like me

5. Not like me at all

____New ideas and projects sometimes distract me from previous ones.

____Setbacks don't discourage me. I don't give up easily.

____I often set a goal but later choose to pursue a different one.

People with high levels of grit typically answer "not like me at all" for statements 1 and 3 and "very much like me" for statement 2.

Develop your grit to give yourself the courage and confidence to succeed at your art or whatever goal you pick as your "Hard Thing".