Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Creative Over-Thinking

The most common complaints I hear from students and fellow painters have to do with too much thinking. Our minds are so creative. Individual thoughts and experiences are utilized by our mind to make our artwork unique and personal. But that same mind can sometimes get in the way, creating mental static and keeping us from creating. It’s sometimes hard to distinguish between a valid need for a rest break and plain old stubborn mental static. Generally when my mind is acting like a lawyer making convincing arguments that create a stuck feeling, then that is the time I need to override the thought patterns. The best solution is to grab a paintbrush and paint anything – just paint – doesn’t matter what. The act of painting changes the program.

Here are some examples of my mind’s favorite arguments. “Sales are not happening right now so why bother? My work isn’t good enough so why bother? I’m too tired. There’s not enough time today to get anything done. I have too many other pressures that need my attention.” Well, all these arguments at the time might have had some validity to them (our creative minds only use good arguments). But there is always some time in the day to paint – even if only for an hour. And in that one hour generally all the arguments fall apart.

The over thinking mind uses its best legalese at choice moments in our process. When we are at the brink of something new and big, ready for a change or to expand, the mind gets a bit nervous (as it is wired to keep status quo and avoid change) and launches its best attack in the hopes of keeping us from taking action. Each of these times feels like frustration or creative blocks, and represent a prize moment in our passage towards the next momentous step. We can choose to give in to the arguments and stop our progress, or override the arguments and enter a new phase in our creative work.

As I mentioned before, the best way to end this nasty phenomenon is to paint anyway. But here are some steps to help switch the program. First, just notice that you are using legalese-mental static. Then gently acknowledge to your mind that you appreciate it's efforts to help, but that you are OK painting and that new changes in your creative process are not life threatening. The more creative we are as artists the better the overthinking mind can use convincing arguments. Acknowledge how crafty our mind is but let it know you will be taking over.

Recently a student emailed me with the argument that she doesn’t have enough technique, so she isn’t painting. She wrote a whole page about it. This student has been studying painting for years and has more technique then most artists I know. Her argument should have received a prize it was so good, but what gave it away was the over arguing. If, however, she had asked a specific technique question – like how do I make this color more opaque – or which colors will give me a certain effect – then I would know she is searching for real information. But I could tell this was just another over-thinking moment, and that she just needed to paint to change the thinking.

The “not enough technique” is one of the most common arguments. I honestly believe that we only need a small amount of technique to get our message visible and understood. It’s in the process of painting that we discover the next technique, and add that to our creative “toolbox”. Even though workshops are good to take, and there are instructors with great advice, the next technique that we need is usually discovered on the spot with paints in hand. I like to take one or two week-long workshops a year to learn something new, but I have seen some students use workshops as an excuse to avoid working on their own, and making their personal mark. It is important to take time – several months at least – to create work on your own without any teacher or group influence. Too much technique is often overburdening (trust me on this one). All you need is a few paints and a brush and a clear mind, and a joyful spirit (usually found by turning off the thinking mind) and you can create the most superb paintings of our time.


Thursday, June 12, 2008

Key Word - FUN

Making art is fun, right? Isn’t that one of the main attractions to any creative activity? When you take on art as a career, though, the business aspects can easily bog you down with extra responsibilities not normally considered as fun. The career artist needs to be a photographer, web tech, marketer, publicist, writer, accountant, sometimes framer, shipper and self-motivator. Even if all those hats you wear are fun, the pressure of switching daily and still keeping enough energy to paint can wear down the fun part.

Several years ago I decided to make it my motto to keep everything I do fun. It’s not always easy, but worth the effort. By keeping everything fun, it doesn’t require numerous breaks from what I am doing to grab an ice cream cone and find the nearest swing set. (Actually one of my favorite pastimes). Instead I try to make what’s required next from me to be fun. If I notice that I am not looking forward to an important phone call, or a few hours working with digital images for my website, then I stop for a few moments and ask myself to think about it differently. It’s the thoughts that make all the difference. Once I switch from a negative thought about a situation, I can easily find a positive one to replace it. For instance, let’s say I need to call my gallery to find out where my check is, or some other touchy subject, and it gets me nervous or frustrated. Instead, before the phone call, I take a moment and think about how much I like some of the staff, how professionally they handled the last show, etc, and then I get excited about the call – like I am calling a good friend. And the results are often better then I anticipated.

I have spent many hilarious moments with artist friends comparing rejection letters and interviews gone haywire. Odd situations like a former gallery owner who wouldn’t return my unsold paintings a week before the gallery was due to close. (I had to send in my husband and they almost got into a fist fight). I’m not proud of those moments, but they happen. We can choose to let them get us down, or keep us in good humor by our thoughts about them.

Recently, I wrote a puppet show making fun of all those “odd” artist moments. My “Broadcast Puppet Theater” will present “Art Attack” a short 30 minute puppet play on July 4th weekend at my studio here in Santa Fe, along with comic performer/artist friend Barbara Mayfield. It was very empowering making a gallery director puppet, famous artist, collectors, etc. and acting out several of these scenes. Above is a photo of the cast.

One of my friends on a recent visit to my studio, stood in amazement at the stage, puppets and props I had made, and remarked “I have never known anyone who spends this much effort just to have fun”. I am so proud.


Friday, June 6, 2008

So Many Ideas, So Little Time

I think for most artists, scarcity of ideas is not as big a problem as too many ideas. Here is how I came to this conclusion. The other day I was browsing through my “idea book”, a purchased blank book that I vowed to keep updated with all my painting ideas, allocating one page per idea. Once I started, I found ideas popping up during car rides, outings with friends, reading books and in restaurants. I planted mini-notebooks in my purse and car so I could record them on the spot, then transplanted them into my official idea book after so many got accumulated.

I felt confident that this system of idea recording would keep me happy, knowing I would never run dry of good original ideas. After awhile, and since I decided to number each idea page, I discovered that I had recorded well over two hundred ideas. Now the feeling of confidence turned into dismay. How the heck was I going to find the time to do all these? I began to notice, though, that not all these ideas still held an interest for me. The feeling of dismay now turned to guilt. What kind of artist was I that I couldn’t keep up the excitement, and bring each into fruition? Where was my artistic integrity? Isn’t it important to keep up the pace of production with the fountain of inspirational ideas?

I grabbed a brush and began to paint in a successful attempt to keep myself from over-thinking. I got back to a happy place by painting, and put my mind to it again. Soon I came up with an idea about ideas. I realized that not all ideas are meant to be born into the physical world, even if they really excite us in the moment of discovery. Some ideas, by staying in the non-physical (just writing them down, or allowing them to simmer in our thoughts) became stepping stones to the BIG ones. I figured that if I tried to keep up with them all, and paint each and every one of them, I might miss the BIG picture. I noticed that for every 20 or 30 ideas I would write down, I would get inspired to actually paint and bring to fruition the next idea in the chain. And that one would in a way reflect or contain all the others.

After writing this, I am now finding an uncanny correlation to my to-do list for today. All these errands, phone calls, food shopping…how the heck can I find the time to do everything? Well, I had better grab my painting brush before I start over-thinking again.