Choreographer Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit describes her morning routine of rising early and going through the same morning rituals; same coffee, same bun. She puts on the same leotards, goes down the same elevator to the same street corner, puts her same arm up in the air and gets into the first cab that comes along.
By the time she gets to the studio she has made no significant decisions. Stepping out onto the dance floor, her dancers await. It’s eight in the morning and her first decision is yet to come. It will be a creative one.
We painters also need to save our decision-making for things of importance. “Don’t,” as they say, “sweat the small stuff.” I figure an average 11″ x 14″ uses up several hundred thousand decisions. Compound that over a day of painting and it’s in the millions. Even the small decisions in a painting, some of them so micro and seemingly insignificant, are the building blocks of what we are to become.
Fact is, some lives are so filled with impedimentary drama and ancillary decision-making that there is little time left over for work.
While I sympathize with those who find it difficult to eliminate some workaday decisions, the idea is to step ASAP into the happy hunting ground. Here are a few ideas:
Simplify morning rituals.
Keep regular habits by day and week.
Have your workplace nearby and handy.
Work in a space unsullied by impedimenta.
Use a day-timer — plan your work; work your plan.
Always ask — “Is this action necessary?”
Be businesslike — discourage time-wasters and interlopers.
Be efficient and mindful of wasted motion in your space.
Drive your car mainly for pleasure.
As far as possible, get stuff delivered and taken away.
Be modern — pay bills, bank, book flights, etc., online.
Keep your dress code practical and simple. You don’t need to look good in a studio.
Quit your day and move to a relatively decision-free mode: Play well, laugh much, love much, sleep well.
Finally, and most important, with every non work-related decision, you need to decide: “Is the decision I’m making truly needed, or is it just another excuse?”
PS: “We cannot directly choose our circumstances, but we can choose our thoughts, and so indirectly, yet surely, we shape our circumstances.” (self-help pioneer James Allen)
Esoterica: The cosmetics tycoon and women’s advocate Mary Kay Ash said, “There are three types of people: those who make things happen, those who watch things happen and those who wonder what happened… You can decide which type of person you want to be.” We artists, in particular, need to be among those who make things happen. Self-starting, self-motivating and self-critical, we focus our energy on thought, planning, observation, quality control and production. Difficult decisions — lots of them — are both the joy and the burden of creative folks. “Those who avoid the tough choices of life,” said author Robert Brault, “live a life they never chose.”
The good path
by Ann Hardy, Colleyville, TX, USA
Sounds like nothing but good mental and emotional health. I have four what I call disciplines that I live by: base your life on honesty and beauty, take responsibility for all your actions and decisions of life, postpone gratification, and work for balance in life. If you follow these four disciplines, you can’t go too far off the good path.
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Three in one
by Warren Criswell, Benton, AR, USA
“There are three types of people: those who make things happen, those who watch things happen and those who wonder what happened…” (Mary Kay Ash)
I am all three of those people. Unlike you, Robert, I usually spend my mornings procrastinating. The New York Times, email, Facebook, working on my website, “cleaning up the studio,” anything to avoid looking at the painting on the easel. Then when I finally start painting — that’s when I’m the one who makes things happen, when I actually squeeze out some paint and pick up a brush — I immediately become the one who watches things happen. I may have made a decision or two about composition or color or whatever, but those are usually ignored by this hand with the brush. For about four hours I watch this hand doing things I had no idea were going to happen, screwing things up but also doing amazing things that I could never pull off in a decade of conscious deliberation and rational decision-making. Then at the end of the day I look at it and wonder what happened!
OK, I’m exaggerating a little — this “trance” is actually a constant dialog between the conscious and unconscious mind, the left brain and the right brain, the objective and subjective — but without these surprises I don’t think I could sustain my creativity. A certain amount of routine is necessary, of course, but too much of it turns us into robots, cranking out the same painting over and over. Not that there’s anything wrong with that… Those are the ones “who make things happen!” — and I sometimes wish I could do it, but I can’t. Without the watching and wondering, I wouldn’t paint anything at all.
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What’s original anyway?
by Maureen Karagianis, Coquitlam, BC, Canada
I am concerned with the issue of “originality.”
1. Is a painting considered original work if the artist uses an image from the Internet or a printed image, with or without a copyright tag?
2. Is a painting original if it has been produced in a workshop where instruction has impact on the finished product (hands-on or simply general instruction)?
3. Is it acceptable to offer for sale, as original, a painting done from an image which the original artist or owner has given “permission”?
4. Is there a period of time when a work of art is considered “in the public domain” and can therefore be copied or used as a source of inspiration?
(RG note) Thanks, Maureen.
1. It depends how far you take it. Say you wanted to paint a picture of a Dalmation dog and you went to Google images. If you copied one image owned by a photographer — even though it has been lifted to Google — that would not be Kosher. But if you scrolled through the Dalmation images you might understand their basic anatomy. In copying legitimately, the artist puts the spots where the dog in the picture needs them.
2. Instruction is okay but any areas with hands-on by the instructor makes it not original and off limits for shows and selling. Tell your instructor “Go away.”
3. Yes, if the original source and name of the permission giver is on the back. For example: “From a photo by Joe Bloggs”
4. Public domain varies between countries. Works in the public domain are those whose intellectual property rights have expired, have been forfeited, or are inapplicable. Examples include the works of Shakespeare , Beethoven, Michelangelo, Titian and Rembrandt. Some artists’ heirs go to the trouble to continue to own intellectual property, even for centuries. The term is not normally applied to situations where the creator of a work retains residual rights, in which case use of the work is referred to as “under license” or “with permission.”Some rights depend on registrations with a country-by-country basis, and the absence of registration in a particular country, if required, implies public domain status in that country.
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The Twice-Weekly Letters
by Sheree Chapell, Victoria, BC, Canada
I have been receiving your emails for the past couple of months, recommended by a friend. I wanted to tell you what pleasure I am receiving in both learning about new artists and viewing their work and the newsletters you send.
Part of my morning ritual has included sitting down with my morning coffee to these emails. It is delightful and inspiring. I then go for a walk in the woods, contemplate and enjoy the natural beauty before heading out for a full day of my chosen work. I am not yet an artist but I am developing my eye.
(RG note) Thanks, Sheree. The letters are apparently read by about 250,000 artists, would-be artists, and others. It’s not promoted or sold and is always free. If readers know someone they think might get something out of it, please pass it along.
Our modern curse
by Helen Howes, Norfolk, England
Indecision and inability to choose is the curse of the complicated modern age. I see very small children given 5 or 6 choices of food or toy. How can they learn to decide under these circumstances? When I teach textiles I say, “Choose two fabrics, then put them together, then add another. Keep it simple. It’s the only way to travel.
And then there’s the Internet — put in a simple Search and 6.4 million choices arrive in 1.2 seconds. No wonder we grab at the first thing to hand.
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Being your own good boss
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
Years ago, I asked myself how come it was so easy to go to the office while going down to the studio can cause so much anxiety? It didn’t make sense — I love my art! The answer was exactly what you are talking about. The corporate masters are very smart — they make it seamless for you to show up and start work every day before you are fully awake. Thinking process starts only after you have been brainlessly snared into your cubicle. Compared to that, going to a poorly set up studio can feel like being left to the wolves. Your list of strategies describes exactly how to deal with that, but may itself be a bit too long and complicated. I just decided to simplify, simplify and simplify everything that doesn’t require artistic thought. Painting setup must be seamless — pour some water in the bucket and start painting. This is tricky if you find comfort in satisfying by unnecessary rituals, such as organizing, filing, documenting and cleaning — all good stuff, but only if you are an organizer, filer, documenter and cleaner. Corporations have figured this out — they make all those things disappear for the creative work force. To be my own good boss in the studio and not having a support staff, I can at least eliminate miscellaneous tasks from my daily routine and schedule a minimum time for them for some non-disruptive time (procrastination finally being useful!).
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Declining art sales
by Darla Tagrin, Montgomery Village, MD, USA
The art market here near Washington, DC is still very depressed. There are many talented artists who make beautiful paintings that get displayed at shows and then reside in storage indefinitely (the paintings, not the artists). People still want art to hang in their homes, but there is a divide between “regular people” and collectors who buy pricey paintings at galleries. The only contact between those “regular people” and artists (who can be quite irregular) is local shows and art fairs.
Hanging art in restaurants and waiting rooms doesn’t often result in sales. There are interior decorators who might benefit from direct contact with artists, but how can we get more commerce between people who want art and artists? Booths at home shows? Free talks and displays at community events?
On a separate note, Frederick, MD and the Eastern Shore of Maryland are areas with large, enthusiastic art markets. Why are some areas so much better than others for art sales? It doesn’t seem to be a matter of population density, but attitude.
(RG note) Thanks, Darla. I’m not one who believes in booths, restaurants or community events, but others love these sorts of things. In my books, proper galleries are best. Indeed, some galleries have folded, but it’s an interesting situation right now. Some quiet, proprietor-owned, hole in the wall, low rent, off the beaten track, framing galleries — some even without websites — continue to do a steady, if unspectacular, business. They may only represent five or six artists — but they really froth at the mouth about them. These shops may be in touristy places, or they may be in small, well-heeled communities where they generate loyalty and fill a need. You’re right on about “attitude.” Never underestimate the personality of the shopkeeper. Hard working, dedicated and enthusiastic loners should be knighted. Funnily, it’s been some of the lovely, big, democratic galleries with hundreds of artists that can’t understand what’s happening.
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Apple app for timer
by Elle Fagan, Hartford, CT, USA
I love Twyla Tharp — a favorite since the ’70s. Thanks for sharing one of her stories. Add to it this one: “Later in life, one of the compensations is gliding effortlessly into focus in a thing. Since it is who we are, anything that is not the focus or supportive thereof is just not us. Even outside issues, when they arise, are interesting in that they only help define the focus more clearly.
Further, at your suggestion, I got the Pomodoro and loved it — but could not hear it, and soon abandoned it, as much help and fun as it was, until I found that Apple has an app called “Tomato” (the English equivalent of “Pomodoro”). It’s the same technique but it’s on my computers and digital phone headset, so I can amplify it and keep logs of it all if I choose. It automatically makes a task diary if you wish.
by Luc Poitras, Montreal, QC, Canada
In searching the clickbacks for the 37-minute exercise, I found one of your letters on focus. You mentioned Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life by Winifred Gallagher. I picked it up. I realized that much of my life has gone by without focus… a lot done, but nothing accomplished. I’ve decided to change that and be the one who makes things happen in my life.
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Mount Biddle Seen from Opabin Plateau
oil painting, 30 x 40 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Dave Skrypnyk of Cowichan Bay, BC, Canada who wrote, “I don’t understand it. You seem to be right inside my mind. I look upon this recent advice as the critical mass in a change of course about to happen.”
Enjoy the past comments below for Decisions, decisions…