(watercolor and ink)
“Every Spring is the only spring, a perpetual astonishment.” – Ellis Peters
So true. Year after year, winter gives way to tulips, violets, irises, dandelions… and it fills me with delight and wonder. The grass turns green and my energy is restored. Long days, bright colors…each year, it’s a reliable and welcome source of joy.
Winter has its inspirations, too, but they require more effort to find. Much energy goes into keeping a positive attitude, and I have to pump myself up to go forth and seek ideas that engage me. It takes a lot of work to gain and maintain the momentum needed to get simple things done. And it takes even MORE work to hold onto a sense of purpose about what I’m doing. The energy required to get up and seek inspiration comes at a cost, leaving little behind when it comes time to put those ideas to action.
But I’m human, with a brain and a knack for adapting, so I’ve figured out how to deal with winter, and it’s enjoyable in its own, temporary way. I’ve found it to be an optimal time for doing slow, obsessive projects that require most of their planning upfront (like the Bittersweet paintings). I put effort into finding an idea that excites me, and then lay out the parameters before beginning. I make the big decisions beforehand, and I take care to outline a satisfying, doable trajectory. This way, I only have to rely on “feeling inspired” at the beginning, when the idea takes root. Once it’s set in motion, I can then rely on the more predictable appeal of hard work to see it through. I wake up each morning knowing I have something to work on, and knowing HOW to work on it. What inspires me in the winter, then, are things that are meticulous, detailed, and that will expand my technical mastery. During these times, the joy of creating relies heavily on the satisfaction of physically doing the work — of engaging with the materials and obsessing over the details – and of falling into a comfortable harmony with a world that seems quiet and still.
But something shifts in spring. Nature is less stingy, and inspiration literally grows on trees. Unlike Winter, Spring heaps energy onto my plate like a grandma feeding pork chops to her grandsons. It gives, and gives abundantly. Suddenly, I’m awash in life and meaning, and it’s begging to be expressed.
It’s not just the flowers that sweep me off my feet. It’s the change in daylight, the singing birds, the nostalgic smell of warm asphalt and mulch, and the re-emergence of my neighbors from their winter dens. I don’t have to scrunch up to keep warm. There is no bracing myself against the biting wind or staring at the ground to protect my eyes from the sun’s harsh angle. Now I can expand, breathe, and let myself feel my body as the sun warms my cheeks and the wind knots my hair. That reconnection to body and earth reminds me that I’m a part of this beautiful universe, and it is from that that my sense of purpose is re-awakened. Life matters, moments are beautiful, memories are precious…etc. All of this fuels my creative drive, amplifying the persistent need to “capture” and express these bountiful moments so that others may feel the goodness I’m feeling, too.
But of course, this comes with its own challenges. Because now I’m FULL of energy and ideas and purpose, but it will scatter all over the place if I don’t take some measures control it. Then I’ll end up good and tan, with lots of dirt on my bare feet, but winter will come and I’ll have gotten nothing done.
So usually, things go like this: For one week, I let myself frolic, untethered, through the creative whirlwind (and pollen induced blur) that arises during those first days of TRUE spring—those days when nature comes back to life and I can walk outside without a jacket. My imagination goes wild and I usually don’t sleep much because I’m on a roll brainstorming about the nine million projects I’d like to undertake.
I become like a hummingbird that can’t stop flying because it has to keep finding more delicious flowers to drink from so it can sustain its crazy metabolism. Only, instead of nectar, I’m drinking inspirational fodder, which I need to sustain my hungry creativity. I let myself flit around, delighting in my ideas, stockpiling energy and inspiration. I write long lists of potential projects in my notebooks. I take a lot of ugly reference photos. I write down specific feelings, thoughts, and words that will help me remember. Though I create very little, it feels very productive.
I don’t hold back and I don’t take the season’s change for granted. It is a welcome restoration to what feels like my more natural state: that state in which my zest for life drives me to explore my curiosities and try to recreate them on the page. (I say it feels like my “natural” state because when I’m in it, I feel like I’m thriving. It seems to contribute to my well-being somehow). For that precious week, I indulge my exuberance. And then I try to settle down and get back into a work routine.
My cache of ideas, gathered in that first burst of Spring excitement, becomes a sustainable energy source. This makes it easier to maintain a productive routine. I go to bed and wake up excited about my projects. I cherish my routine because it moves me daily, bit by bit, down the list of projects I have in my head. Of course I know I won’t be able get to ALL the ideas on my list, not in one season or in one lifetime. But that is a WONDERFUL motivator because it means I’ll always have something to do. There will always be a reason to keep trying, another carrot dangling before me. Life won’t get dull unless I decide to stop listening to my curiosity and creativity (which, in all likelihood, seems impossible since these things are inherent to being HUMAN). This is an excellent incentive to take care of myself and to honor my days, because I want to keep having that creative experience of seeing beauty and getting lost in it.
Thanks goodness Spring will come again next year, and with it, more ideas and energy. With such knowledge, I can buzz forth, landing on the flowers that catch my eye, relishing the freedom of Spring’s abundant generosity. I’m free from worrying too much about “keeping up with my ideas” because there will always be enough. Yes, as long as the years keep turning, there will be enough.
(What are these lists of new project ideas, you ask? I guess you’ll have to keep coming back to see!)
(One last thing: Thank you for reading this. I fear that my posts may be beginning to sound redundant. Certainly I’ve written about spring before. But each year, I learn and grow so much, and as I come to understand myself more, life becomes better and better, artistically and otherwise. I hope you know that I only share these personal insights because I think they might be helpful to you on your own path, not because I love to talk about myself. I think we all benefit from seeing how other people pursue a meaningful life, and I’m just as interested to know how YOU do it! So if you can relate at all, to the change in seasons, or anything else I said, please DO share in the comments below!)
Thus concludes my “Bittersweet Series”…for now. Together, these 3 paintings are my winter tribute to the complexity and beauty hiding in the “little” things that surround us. I used to find winter painfully uninspiring. The winter landscape was dull and depressing, cold and colorless. Everything was all pokey twigs and brown, brown, brown. It was the soul sucking epitome of artistic boredom.
Then, with time and effort, I learned to look a little bit harder. I opened myself up to the possibility that beauty hides in the drabness. I learned to see things differently, to change my perspective. (Metaphor? Perhaps…).
When I was in Sedona, AZ, a few weeks ago, I did a very quick watercolor sketch of the colorful rock hills that make the town so famous.
After returning home, I looked at that sketch and decided it needed sprucing up. So I made it into a Pueblo city, inspired by the Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde, New Mexico — a place I visited many years ago, when I was a little squirt.
Because who said travel sketches can’t be composites of different adventures I’ve had over the course of my life? Such sketches are like slices of my brain, transcending regular time and space. They’re documents from the part of my mind where memories have been a’stir (going about their business of building up on themselves, shifting shape, and assimilating new information). I guess you could think of them as travel sketches from my trips down “memory lane”. Which is kinda cool, I think.
(watercolor and ink)
The “essential effort” of artists “is to catapult themselves wholly, without holding back one bit, into a course of action without having any idea where they will end up.” – Anne Truitt, Daybook: The Journal of an Artist
This is a watercolor painting of some tangled bittersweet branches that I’ve been slowly working on for several weeks now. It’s still a work in progress, as you can see.
The going has been slow, due to starts and stops along the way. Once, I had to put it on pause so that I could finish up the commissioned wedding stationary I shared a few weeks ago (and I’m not complaining! It was a great project). Then, when some oral surgery left me surprisingly wiped out, I took another little break. And yet another time, my momentum was interrupted by a spontaneous and much-needed trip to Arizona (again, no complaints!).
But more than once, I stopped because of Creativity’s pesky little companion: Fear.
Fear is an inevitable part of making art, brought on by the inherent unknowns that characterize the process of creation. And, with the exception of brain damage and other physiological malfunctions, it is basically impossible to eradicate it. As artists, though, we can’t make progress unless we learn to accept that Fear is there and to learn to do our work regardless of it.
There are already many things trying to steal time from our projects: Appointments, trips, holidays, social obligations, chores, headaches…etc. So why on earth do we let internal obstacles get in the way as well? Well, I suppose it’s because Fear is good at making himself seem big. He’s crafty. He knows how to make compelling arguments that strike close to home. What are we to do?
It helps to understand that it’s all just rhetoric. Fear starts chattering the moment we face a new project:
I don’t know how this is going to turn out. Will this even work? What if it’s a waste of time?
And he keeps it up at each step along the way:
Is this what I’m supposed to be doing? What if I mess up and everyone hates it? Maybe I should stop before I invest too much time in a failure…
Fear will do anything to get us off track. He starts with the basics, telling us how dumb our ideas are and pointing out how unqualified we are for the job. He tells us we’re too tired and too sore to spend another day at the easel. He measures us up against all of the other artists whose work is better than ours.
Then he gets existential. He tells us that it’s not our art that stinks, it’s us. Period. And then he goes on to suggest that perhaps art is pointless altogether, and that our pursuits contribute nothing to the world. “Other people are doctors, doing surgeries and saving lives. And you’re painting twigs?!” He said to me the other day. He reminds us, untruthfully, that everyone must surely be watching and waiting for us to FINALLY DO SOMETHING AMAZING with our lives…that it’s our last chance to prove our worth before ….something terrible happens.
I’ve even heard Fear go so far as to suggest “Kid, if you mess up this painting, it’ll mortally wound everyone you love.” WHAT?! C’mon Fear, that’s going too far.
Yes, thankfully, when Fear reaches that point, its pretty easy to call his bluff. (I mean, even I can see how irrational it is to suggest that an erroneous mark will cause the death of millions). But what do we do then, once we recognize what’s going on?
For starters, we seek the community of fellow creators, both living and dead. It’s helpful to know that other people have been there, too. I’m reading Anne Truitt’s Daybook: The Journal of an Artist right now, and every page makes me feel connected to other artists throughout time. “For me,” Truitt says, “this process is mysterious. It’s like not knowing where you’re going but knowing how to get there.” I read this, and I feel understood, strengthened, and soothed. Hearing other artists share their thoughts about fear makes it feel less personal, which diminishes its power to paralyze. Go to the library and borrow a book, read an artist’s blog (ahem), or go to a museum. Join a local artist community. Any of this will help bring clarity to our thoughts and foster the determination needed to continue working.
Because ultimately, the only REAL solution to the stagnation of fear is just that: to get to work. “No excuses, no explanations” my mom likes to say, borrowing a quote from Julia Child. And she’s absolutely right (as mothers often are). Fear will make excuses until he’s blue in the face, offering millions of reasons why we can’t get to work. He’ll demand that we explain ourselves, that we rationalize why our ideas are worth the effort. But meh, whatever. It gets to be an old story, eventually.
So yes, Fear will greet me, day after day, but I won’t let it freeze me. We’ve developed a working relationship, Fear and I, just like author Elizabeth Gilbert did (see her book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear). Nowadays, in my ripe old age of __ (fill in the blank), I tell Fear this: “Thanks for sharing your thoughts, but I’ve got work to do.” And then I get to work as soon as possible, before he starts talking too loud. I don’t worry that ignoring Fear will hurt his feelings, because I know he’s not going anywhere anyway. He’ll be around for the next project, and the next, and the next, which is why I might as well teach him his proper place in this relationship. His proper place is over there, in the corner, where he can talk and talk forever. Because I’m not listening anymore, anyway.
Through art, we grapple with life’s biggest questions. For instance: I woke up one day wondering “How would a cat interact with a pineapple?” So I got out my watercolors and began searching for an answer.
What a relief to have gotten to the bottom of such a pressing matter.
I’m on vacation in Arizona right now, but it’s Friday so here are some words for thought:
I’m a sucker for vibrant color, but I’m equally wooed by stark black and white. When I doodle in a crisp black-and-white style, I’m usually pretending I’m designing woodblock or linoleum prints (since I don’t have the capacity to do REAL printmaking right now). Or I fantasize about what kind of tattoo I’d design if I were to get one. I put on my “design” eyes and try to pull out and exaggerate the pattern-y elements of whatever I’m looking at. I approach this style of doodling much more slowly and carefully than when I use watercolors and ink. It requires me to be calm and focused. It’s for that very reason that I tend to draw this way when I am feeling anxious and scattered – the act of slowly rendering a design forces me to reign in my thoughts and find my center of balance.
That’s one of the many reasons why I think ALL of you should have a sketchbook, regardless of how “artistic” you think you are. There are a lot of reasons that I sketch that have nothing to do with my “job”. It’s often a tool for keeping sane. Sketch to calm down, sketch to focus, sketch to connect to a particular moment in time, sketch to let your mind wander…it’s more of a meditation and devotion practice than anything else.
Anyway, here are some doodles from my sketchbook that I did in one such moment of “angst”. It did the trick and detached me from the whirlpool of useless things I had been stressing about at the time.
I guess it’s the same idea as all those adult coloring books you see now.
See you when I get back from my trip! Perhaps I’ll have a few vacation sketches to show you.
My friends, it’s March! I was shocked to see the first of the crocuses blooming last week (in February!). Last year at this time, everything was covered in mountains of snow. I don’t think I saw grass until April! But now?! Spring is in the air!
And so is wedding season!
Over the last few months, I have had the pleasure of working with two very wonderful people to help create their custom-made wedding stationary, which included save-the-date cards, invitations, and thank-you’s. The bride had the beautiful idea to use green and purple hellebores, ferns, and trilliums to adorn the cards – a genius combination, if I do say so myself! I painted the flowers and ferns with watercolor, and then we worked together to come up with the overall layout, wording, and fonts. It has been a great project to brighten up the winter.
And here’s the design for the Save-the-dates:
I’ll hold off on showing you the design for the thank-you’s since they haven’t been sent out yet (the wedding day has to come first, you know).
Thanks for looking! Hopefully, this got you PUMPED for Spring!
I suppose it’s no big surprise that our sketchbooks reveal a lot about ourselves.
I, for one, am apparently very taken by colorful, round objects:
I think I find round things comforting, which is why I feel compelled to draw them.
My sketchbook also reveals other things going on in my life, like what books I’m reading or what I’m cooking for dinner. For instance, I am currently reading “The Shipping News” by E. Annie Proulx, and have subsequently taken an interest in nautical knots:
So, there you go, a little slice of my brain as revealed to you on paper. Important? Probably not. But still…mildly interesting!
What do you find yourself doodling? DO you doodle? I hope you do