Feeling Good?

There is growing scientific evidence that, “…when in a good mood, people become more intuitive and more creative…”
I read this in “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” by Daniel Kahneman, and immediately my mind rebelled. After all, the assumption that an artist must be tortured is so well accepted that it has become a stereotype. It’s as if, in our minds,  suffering is a requirement to being great. And looking at the lives of Vincent Van Gogh, Virginia Woolfe, Edgar Allen Poe, Sylvia Plath,  and Frida Kahlo, I have a hard time imagining any of them ever being in a good mood.

Still, science is science, and there are lots of experiments that support Kahneman’s statement.
So what gives?
I’m not sure. I am not a psychologist and I’m only a wanna-be artist, and the only story I know–really know–is my own. Yes, I draw and paint when I am sad and troubled. If I am upset, making art soothes me. I get lost in the process and my brain gets quiet. I slip away to a peaceful place and when I come back, I often find that I am ready and able to face my problems with new insight.

I also draw and paint when I am happy, excited, and feel full of potential. At those times, making art is energetic–I try something new, I take a risk, and the results might be something great or complete trash.

But I guess the question really is: At which of those times am I creative? And the only answer I can honestly give is that I am creative at both times. In fact, I make art both when I feel creative and when I don’t. If suffering isn’t a requirement for being an artist, then feeling creative isn’t a requirement for making art.
And while I realize that a good mood might oil the wheels of the mind, making it run smoothly to creative, new ideas and thoughts, I also know that the very act of creating can create that good mood.
Can science explain that?

Who I Will Be

The kind of artist I want to be isn’t afraid to try a new technique or style.

The artist I want to be remembers that inspiration is everywhere–and, more importantly, remembers to look for it.

The artist I want to be doesn’t blow her weekly gas and groceries budget at the art supply store.

She’s an artist who knows her strengths and weaknesses. (And most of the time, she’s ok with them.)

She doesn’t save the good paints and papers for herself, but shares them with her sons when they show interest, because there is always more where that came from.

(But not the watercolor brush that cost $23 and was worth every penny. Hands off!)

The artist I want to be will always wonder what really happened with Artemesia Gentileschi (don’t you?) while admiring her brave Judiths.

And she will be silly sometimes, serious sometimes, and will smile a lot.

And also will continue (for this week, anyway) to recommend “Exit Through the Gift Shop” to anyone who will listen.

The artist I want to be is humble, grateful, and determined; and thanks God every day for art that can touch the heart and make us better versions of ourselves.

But meanwhile, the artist I am is having fun. I hope you are, too!

Too much?

I wonder about an alcoholic taking his or her first drink. Do they know, immediately, that what they just tasted might own them, control them, take their life? Do they know right away, and do they already feel that it is too late to turn back?

Yes, I have written about creating with feeling. I have written about my efforts to think less while making art. And I don’t take any of that back–and yet–I also wonder about the power of raw emotion. It’s uncontrollable power. Can it be destructive?

Sometimes when I am finished with a drawing (it might or might not be a good one), there seems to be such an amount of direct feeling in the lines on the paper that it defies the effort I used to create them. I wonder where that amount of emotion came from, and it scares me when I don’t know. Why? Because, somehow, it seems like a lack of effort to control my drawing, or to discipline myself, and that seems both irresponsible and dangerous.

I think of, years ago, watching Nirvana give their Unplugged performance on MTV. Anyone who saw the performance of the last song could have guessed that Kurt Cobain’s death would be tragic. Watching it, you see him express raw emotion that escapes him and will take control and torture him until he succumbs.

Maybe, being less talented that Kurt Cobain was, I don’t need to worry. Then again, I think I might strive for balance, just in case.

Making It Count

 

OK, so instead of whining about how little time I have, I thought I’d share five quick tips I use for making the most of my time.

1. The first should be obvious: get your stuff together. If you only have five, ten, or fifteen minutes to spare, you don’t want to waste it hunting down your journal or favorite pen. If you have a desk, keep the tools to use most often at arms reach. If you cannot leave items out (maybe you have little kids, like me), then just keep it all together in a shoebox up on a shelf.

2. Remember that it’s ok to be simple. Others may create complex layers in their pieces with sophisticated combinations of color and media. It’s ok if you don’t do that. It still counts as art.

3. Begin with the end in mind, like Stephen Covey says. It’s best if you have an idea of what you want to do when you first sit down. You don’t have to be holding the complete sketch or journal page layout in your head, but it helps to know which journal you want to work in, if you’ll be using watercolors or pencil, and so on. To keep from getting frustrated, it also helps to be clear at the onset how much you hope to get finished. Say to yourself, “I am just going to get a pencil sketch down, next time I’ll start to add watercolor.” (What do I think about on Friday afternoons when I am stuck in traffic? What journal page I am going to work on Saturday morning, of course!)

4. Work even when you’re not inspired–it lays the groundwork for when you are. Spend a few minutes cutting sheets to size, sharpening pencils, or creating interesting backgrounds you will collage or draw on top of later. For those times when you are inspired, remember to stop short of working through all your ideas. It works like this: if you sit down and work until you are stuck and have no ideas left, then you’ll never want to come back to that piece because you have no idea of what to do next. Stopping just short of your last idea, saying to yourself, “OK, I know what I am going to do next,” means that whenever you have a chance to come back, you already know what to do, and that smooths your transition back into the piece.

5. And the last is easy–or at least, it should be: have fun! Remember there should be some joy in creating. Don’t lose it!

Does It Take Five Minutes?

…’cause that’s what I have time for. Anything that takes five minutes or less gets done; everything else has to wait.

Having spent five and a half years getting used to the limited energy that a brain injury leaves you with, I feel ok about this. Although some interpret my attitude as either aloofness or self-importance, it isn’t either. I am used to prioritizing ruthlessly, to cutting things out of my schedule that  I really enjoy–knowing that I won’t really enjoy them anyway if I’m worn out.

A few minutes with my art journal here and there is all I’ve had time for. (I’ve had even less time to upload those pages to flickr or tumblr to share with others.) At least those time constraints have led to some interesting results. What is hastily done doesn’t have time to get precious, and what might seem careless can also seem care-free.

But I hate letting others down. I’ve got some pending blog posts and other updates to share here that I will get to–promise.

As soon as I have more than five minutes. 🙂

…and that’s how it goes…

I am sure anyone creative has experienced one or more of these extremes: you have time, but no inspiration; you have plenty of  ideas, but no time; you have both time and ideas, until you sit down and are facing a blank piece of paper, at which time either a child starts demanding attention or all your ideas evaporate. This past week I’ve experienced all three.

Taking those distance learning classes through Ithaca Collage  has really cut down my art time, my online time, my reading time … my time for everything! I am glad I am taking the classes because I am learning so much, most of which I can apply to my job immediately. I certain these nine months of hectic living will be worth it, even if I seem to be complaining.

However, I miss making art! I miss seeing the art of others online! Sigh…

My current compromise is this–be simple. Since I am only going to have a brief amount of free time to devote to art, I need to sketch something small, something uncomplicated, something I can finish fast. Either that, or it has to be something I can break down into simple steps, so I can put the piece away at a moment’s notice and then pick it up later (whenever “later” comes).

Doing pieces like this 4×4″ simple sketch of a branch keeps me from feeling like I have abandoned my sketchbook. Yes, I’ve already drawn branches just like this one a million times. But I tried to make it look more interesting by doing the sketch on a map–something colorful, instead of white paper. And no, it’s not my best sketch ever. But for now, it’s good enough!

Drawn to Dreamland

A detail from the Unicorn Tapestries.

Sometimes, the stress of everyday life seems too much. I race from meeting to meeting at work, race around helping to take care of the boys when I get home, and by the time my body collapses into bed, my mind is racing. Sleep can seem a long time off.

So I’ve started taking 15 to 30 minutes at night once the boys are asleep–no matter how tired my body feels and no matter how many dishes are in the sink–to draw. I find an image from an art book at home and copy it (or just a portion of it). It works wonders for relaxation!

Because I am copying another’s work, this exercise is both good practice and pressure-free. (I don’t have to spend mental energy trying to be creative or original.) It must also be good for my mental health, because once I close my sketchbook, I immediately drift into a trouble-free dreamland.

Ahhh…

From the movie set model for Gormenghast Castle.

From William Moriss's Chrysanthemum Wallpaper.

The Thing Itself

“Not Ideas About the Thing, But the Thing Itself” is a Wallace Steven poem that has fascinated me since I was first introduced to it in college. At the time, it was the most obscure poem I had ever read, and I just couldn’t figure it out. It was a “welcome to college where you’ll find out that you’re not as smart as you think you are” moment. It was a moment of authenticity.

And authenticity is what I think of when I read that poem today; after all, we seem to live in a culture that is hungry for experiences that are direct, immediate, and most importantly, authentic. This has a good side: protesters across the world can take videos with cell phones and instantly upload them to the internet to show us what their totalitarian leaders are really up to. On the other hand, it means that “The Jersey Shore” and other reality shows like it are the most popular shows on television. I have no numbers to prove this,  but instinct tells me that today more people read blogs than newspapers.

There’s more–think of how few people write first novels anymore. They write memoirs instead. And think of how professional wrestling has lost the interest of many, while the UFC is growing. The first time I saw an UFC fight on TV, I told my husband (a blue belt in jiu-jitsu), “But it just looks like two guys in a street fight!” Exactly. Whereas professional wrestling is a performance, this stuff looks real.

Our culture today rejects anything that seems too manufactured, too polished, too precious. We want the real thing.

But what does this have to do with journals and art? I wonder that myself.

It was a little less than 15 years ago when I first saw example of art journals at a presentation given by Tracy and Teesha Moore. The idea that you’d make art that is just for you–just like you’d write a diary that you never intended anyone else to read–and then show it, was so new that it was a shock to me. But now art journals and sketchbooks are hardly new; in fact, they seem to be all over. There’s the 1000 Journals Project. The Sketchbook Project. There are books and books of examples and how-to’s; there are websites, too.

It used to be that artists’ sketchbooks were private places where they worked out the challenges of larger, finished pieces that were intended for a wider audience. The finished piece was “the real thing.” Today the opposite seems to be true–those raw, unfinished pages seem more real. More genuine.

And so even if the popularity of “the Jersey Shore” makes me worry, more sketchbooks–and more art–in the world doesn’t.

The Trouble with Hands

Hands are hard to draw. But you already knew that, right? I created the watercolor backgrounds for this journal page in just minutes, then spent hours (and a lot of my eraser) drawing the hands.

What I didn’t realize at the time–and what a visit to the library for a book on drawing techniques or a trip to a museum to look at the work of some masters could have taught me–was that it is sometimes ok to just suggest or imply instead of drawing every detail outright. As my pencil point became blunt as I worked (because I refused to come up for air, stop, and sharpen the darn thing), I found I liked the results better. Up close, it was not clear what those blunt marks referred to. But when I looked at the finished page as a whole, they fit in and led the eye to complete what was not “really” there.

The trouble with hands is: they can’t do it alone. The eye has to engage, participate, and share in the work. But then, I guess that is true of all art.

After creating an abstract piece, I expect a viewer to attach meaning or emotion to what they see–even if it is meaning that I didn’t intent to put there. Their view is their experience, after all.

Maybe figurative work isn’t so different. And so, with that thought, I am going back to my journal. My hands still need some work.

Watercoler abstract mounted on chocolate brown mat board.

Learning to be OK with Uncertainty

A recent journal page with watercolor and colored pencil.

If you lived with me, I might drive you crazy. I am one of those people who have to put their car keys away in the same place every time, otherwise I’ll never be able to find them when it’s time to leave for work. Really–the same exact place. Every single time.

It can be a bit much.

It’s not just the car keys, either. It’s my purse, my phone, my iPod, my ID badge for work, the TV remote. I was even that way about the speed and extent of my recovery from brain surgery until my neurosurgeon set me straight: “You’re not the only one in charge here,” he said kindly. Yet uncertainty is difficult to deal with, and I attempt to remove as much of it from my life as I can. I am sure I can seem like a control freak to my family.

Of course, it gets more complicated when it comes to art. If you look at my earliest collages, you get a sense that I am an artist exercising control. I’ve put each piece in it’s place; I remember one time that I spent about 20 minutes trying to decide if a certain paper would look better in the composition with a torn or cut edge.

But true art doesn’t flourish under the constraints of control alone, and I have made an effort to welcome unplanned and unpredictable elements into my work. As I work on my drawing exercises, I try to welcome unintended pencils marks instead of automatically reaching for the eraser. There is room for discipline, but there should be freedom, too.

I say that because I have learned that capturing spontaneity in artwork is what gives it meaning. It gives energy, emotion, and power to the finished piece. In my case, the finished piece may not have been what I intended–but then, was my intention just to make a pretty picture or was it to create something that makes someone think or feel when they look at it? And what about the fact that while looking for the camera battery charger last week (which was not put away in the right place) I found the iPod case I had been trying to find for months? Wasn’t that an unplanned and unpredicted bit of luck?

I am going to continue practicing giving up control in my art. Maybe, if I get the hang of it, I can start introducing that idea to the rest of my life.

More drawing exercises. Wherever the pencil went, I just tried to "make it work."

Those paint splatters were a bit more uncontrolled than I wanted!