Building Stamina and Seeking Grace: The Artist’s Journey

Building Stamina and Seeking Grace: The Artist’s Journey was the keynote address to the Silk Painters International Festival  given by Jane Dunnewold . Jane speaks about creativity, dealing with the internal critic, the importance of developing your technique,  and to slowing down in order to focus on what is best for your work. This talk is really worth taking some time out and listening to.

If you find the video of benefit help spread the word and click the like button on Jane Dunnewold’s You tube page here

Taking on too much as a creative challenge

Drawing of toolsThere are times when I bite off more than you can chew and then chew like mad. January I took on a number of drawing challenges while also doing Liz Steel’s Sketching Now class and the Sketchbook Skool BootKamp (yes that is the way they spell it). I quite deliberately went on overload – in fact I started to call the month overload January! All up I did 36 sketches in the month so allow me to share what I think I gained from the experience and why I went on overload.

Why I went on overload
I admit that the reason I did this, was a desperate attempt to kickstart a practice I have had trouble doing. For a long time I have wanted to establish the habit of regular drawing from life and I have found it difficult to do. I do manage to write a journal daily and regularly use a studio journal to capture design ideas and record what I am working on but doing a drawing from life has been a difficult habit to establish. When I was younger, I used to sketch and draw often. As digital technology became more and more part of my life the habit was broken. At first I did not really notice it as I was still working in my studio journal often from photos or doing collages and I my creative urges were perfectly satisfied by working with textiles. But in the last few years I have missed drawing from life. I have missed that feeling of pen on paper. Even more so, I have missed the close observation of life that comes with a habit of drawing.

What I did and what was my goal
I decided for one month to take on as many sketching challenges that caught my attention. I thought that if I took on too much and went on overload I would at least achieve the goal of drawing from life everyday.

How I did it
On Facebook there are a number of large sketching groups and they are simple to join and share work on. These groups are active with interesting chatter that revolves around the subject of art and drawing yet being a Facebook group the conversation is not hidebound or elitist. My “overload January“ coincided with many new year challenges so there was lots of community stimulation and chatter which makes any challenge more fun

drawing of a jacketI thought about timing
In Australia January is a holiday month. The children do not return to school until February and many families are on annual leave. So for me, with my husband on leave and the house in holiday mode it was a good time to do such a crazy thing, in other words the timing was good. For the whole month I did a sketch everyday.

What did I gain?
I learnt and gained a huge amount. After about day 3 or 4 I was no longer procrastinating as I started to establish the rhythm of including drawing in my daily life.

Within about 10 days I realised I could not aim perfection. I simply had to ditch the idea totally. I did not have time to dither about and agonise if something was good enough to show publicly. I learnt that there are good and bad days. All faffing about stopped and I learnt to simply turn the page and get on with the next sketch. This was also a blow to the destructive internal critic as it was a case of “shut up I am too busy to listen to you”. This attitude of  not listening was consolidated through the month. Dealing with an internal critic like this is not quite a habit yet but is definitely stronger than when I started.

I had stopped being so stressed and precious about every little sketch I made. Then, I did super crazy thing. One of the current Facebook memes is a 3 for 5 days challenge. The idea was to post 3 pieces of art work for 5 days but instead of posting previous work I decided to adapt it and post 3 sketches a day for 5 days. It was the best thing I did as it really pushed me to get on with it and consolidated everything I was learning. After that block of 5 days doing 3 drawings a day doing one felt easy!

Where things could have gone wrong
I think there are a number of points in the process where I could have stumbled or fallen. Sometimes when we set ourselves a particularly strenuous challenge it is easy to feel overwhelmed and do nothing at all. I think this happens particularly if the actual gaol for doing the challenge is not sorted in our minds. The reason I did it was to draw everyday and that is what I achieved.

It is easy to feel defeated by a challenge if you focus on what you have to do rather than what you have achieved. Early in the month for instance I decided I did not have time to doubt what I was doing and really had to give the internal critic the royal order of the boot. To be honest that is a huge achievement. I am not saying that I have no internal critic, everyone has one, but I was reminded that I control my internal dialogue rather than it controlling me.

The other reason I need to focus on what I have achieved- is that if I focus on simply keeping up the experience becomes a “to do” list. For me the minute something becomes a “to do” it can kill my creativity.

The advantage of going through this process in public by sharing it online in a blog is that I had tame the drive towards perfectionism. Every one wants to produce their best all the time but that can block producing anything at all! In publishing online I had get over myself, and stop taking every little mark so seriously. Going public like this  helped to disable the internal critic too.

So What is next?
First up I will not inflict a daily sketch on folks as I think although interesting for some a round up every few days is probably more suitable. It also means less time blogging!
This month I hope to do two things. The first is to turn some of what I draw into designs and patterns and share a little of that process.
I am going to meet the challenge of sketching daily but also as the Australian summer cools a little and we head into Autumn, I plan to get out of the house a bit and draw outdoors more.

Below are the sketches I did this month. Click on any of the thumbnails to see a larger version

Slowing down to look

This is a heads up on thought provoking article about how we Slowing down in a Museum from The New York Times. Make a cuppa and read the article as the key point Stephanie Rosenbloom makes is to slow down and spend time with a painting. I am suggesting you slow down, read the article and think about how we encounter artworks in a gallery.  Stephanie Rosenbloom suggests that 20 minutes in front of painting will reveal more meaning to the viewer than racing to see the top 10 pieces in a collection. I agree with her.

Much of contemporary life has become about collecting experiences and catching a selfie in front of not only famous works of art but in front of famous icons such as the Sydney harbour bridge or the Eiffel Tower, London Bridge, on the Great Wall of China etc. I have nothing against selfies as such, but I do wonder what does this experience mean? What is actually happening when people dash here and there, seeing this and that? What is this fetish with collecting experiences? The activity becomes similar to someone collecting stamps.

The process puzzles me. In the case of viewing a painting if people treat the gallery experience as if they are scanning text on a computer screen the quick fleeting impression they gather will be only be partial at best and shallow at worst.

Stephanie Rosenbloom article in The New York Times opens with an image of everyone taking photos of the Mona Lisa. The last time I stood in that room I know I spent my time watching people (because I could not really see the painting) and I felt many did not quite know why the painting was so famous. In the hall next door there are 4 paintings by Leonardo da Vinci that people just walk past. There is even a seat in front of them that you can sit and contemplate the works but tired tourists sit with their back to paintings, facing the door to the room that holds the Mona Lisa usually waiting for their spouse or fellow tour companions to exit that room after seeing the Mona Lisa. Who am I to tell someone to turn around and see the Leonardo da Vinci behind them but I was left wondering what people took away from their day at the Louvre.

Cycladic figure page spread

Cycladic figure sketched at the Louvre

I will happily plonk myself down in front of any of the works in the major galleries of the world as usually if something is in their collection it is worthy of being thought about. Even if I know little about the history or context of the work usually something will reveal itself if I just pay attention and actually look with my brain engaged.

I  pull out my sketchbook and take a note of the key elements in famous painting or no so famous. The note itself may not be very important, but what is important is the slowing down to make it, the slowing down to look. I like seeing the brush strokes and seeing how the painting was made or something about the composition might catch my eye so I sketch it out.

This is important in those big block buster exhibitions where people scoot through the rooms quickly. I use a sketchbook to pace myself because if I am in a crowd that is moving at certain pace, I find I will move with the flow too. It’s like I can easily become part of heard and whisked through the exhibit. So I pull out my sketchbook, stop and stubbornly take notes! I will note the colour scheme as it is an interesting combination and before I know it I have spent a good few minutes in front the painting and I have learnt something. This ‘something’ is a discovery I have made. It is not a snippet passed on by a guide which is useful to place a piece in context, but it something I have discovered and as such will texture my mental life and become something I reflect upon.

Egyptian sculpture in the British Museum in travel journalIf I want to slow down even further I will often sketch an object. This is particularly the case in a museum, as doing so makes me slow down and look at what I am seeing. As I draw I notice all sorts of little things about an object and quite simply I get much more out of the experience of seeing one thing well than twenty things quickly. I find this is really important when travelling as often my senses are on overload and slowing down allows me to focus on key elements of the experience.

OK here is my confession. I have just said that often it appears to me that people in galleries are collecting experiences like they collect stamps yet I love books like 1001 paintings you must see before you die, or 1001 books you must read before you die. What is that contradiction about? I think some of it is that I like to secretly disagree with what is recommended. I am worse with lists of books to read than paintings to see, as I am a real sucker for a good list! In the case of book lists I love being exposed to things I may have not sought out. So there is my contradiction, I like lists but insist on slowing down and not following the crowd.

What are your thoughts? How do you approach a gallery visit?

Thanks to Danny Gregory for the link to the thought provoking  article.