After picking up a cheap bottle of Dr. Ph. Martin’s Hydrus liquid watercolour from my local art shop a few months ago, I spent a while looking for a place to use it. I found my excuse in a painting of a friend’s dog – a beautiful black and orange pup who’s portrait was crying out a strong base colour.
I’m not normally a watercolourist, but the colour of this paint is just ridiculous (I thought the Brilliant Cad Red I bought was a neon orange when I first saw it) and I’m such a sucker for vibrant colours it was inevitable that I bought more.
Set two of Dr. Ph. Martin’s Hydrus Fine Art Watercolour contains:
Hansa Deep Yellow
Add to that the bottle I already had, and the result is a very generous spread of colour. I’ll probably add a colour here and there as I go on (I’m already eyeing up a more brilliant yellow and a second blue) but I’ve got plenty to be getting on with.
The paint is amazing; I think I’m in love.
Being pre-mixed, it skips the frustrating “not quite enough pigment, not quite enough water” balancing act I struggle with when I use pan paints, and it blends beautifully – perhaps because the increased liquid content stops it drying too quickly and forming hard edges.
When it is dry, it layers nicely and the previous washes seem to resist being picked up by subsequent layers. We’re going to make some beautiful paintings together, I can tell already.
Bypassing the symbol-system of the verbal brain requires work and directed study. The last chapter inverted the subject, this chapter features pure contour drawing.
More pure contour drawing of crumpled paper or flowers
Pure contour drawing is an effective way of freeing up the visual brain that because it involves the close examination of large amounts of data that can’t be classified or sorted. It’s the first step in the perception of edges.
The picture plane is analogous to Speed’s ‘flat colours on the retina’ – a two dimensional representation of a three dimensional scene. The modified contour drawing is designed to introduce the concept and to convince novice artists that realistic drawing really isn’t that hard.
After picking up Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations at a bookshop clearance sale, I’ve been reading up on Stoicism, and the more I read, the more I like the sound of it.
The stated aim of Stoics is to achieve tranquillity of mind, which, for a chronic worrier, sounds wonderful but utterly unachievable. But I’ll try most things once, so I’ve read a collection of Stoic texts and the lessons do seem to be of the ‘easy to practice, hard to master’ variety. I’m told there’s a lot of overlap between Stoicism and Buddhism, especially around the idea of non-attachment (I’ve never read too deeply into Buddhism, but that tallies with what little I have read), and it seems to mesh with mindfulness and meditation, which means I can build on what I’m already doing.
“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts: therefore, guard accordingly, and take care that you entertain no notions unsuitable to virtue and reasonable nature.”
Stoic values (virtues)
Navigating complex situations in a logical, calm, informed manner. Translated variously as intelligence, prudence or mindfulness, the Stoics cultivated wisdom, valuing rational thought, science, and knowing what in the world is good, what is bad, and what is neither.
“It is our attitude toward events, not events themselves, which we can control. Nothing is by its own nature calamitous — even death is terrible only if we fear it.”
Exercising self restraint and moderation in all aspects of life. Epictetus said that the worst of vices are lack of courage and lack of self-control, and mentions several times in the Enchiridon that a student of Stoicism should look to act out their virtues rather than talk about them*.
“No man is free who is not master of himself.”
Treating others with fairness, even when they’ve done wrong. Other people’s failings aren’t our concern – we don’t have any control over anyone’s thoughts or actions but our own, so we should look to being the best person we can be. People can only act according to their nature, and we can’t expect them to do otherwise. If someone’s behaviour bothers us, it’s because we expected them to act contrary to their nature; we can either try to correct them or accept that they’re the type of person who acts like that and lower our expectations accordingly.
“Humans have come into being for the sake of each other, so either teach them, or learn to bear them.”
Facing daily challenges with clarity and integrity Some of the sources I looked at described courage as being analogous to endurance, determination or even industriousness. It looks to be about having the perseverance to continue, despite minor (or major) setbacks, and to follow what you believe to be the right course of action, despite opposition or ridicule.
“Be like the rocky headland on which the waves constantly break. It stands firm, and round it the seething waters are laid to rest.”
Everything in life – friends, family, health, wealth. prestige, even life itself – is transitory and we will eventually, inevitably, lose them. By practising non-attachment, Stoics aim to prevent themselves from becoming distressed at their loss. Epictetus suggests that we think about the things we value in abstract definitions to prevent ourselves getting too attached to any one specific person or thing – I love, not my partner, but human beings in general; I am fond of, not the specific mug I use at work, but mugs as a whole; I love, not my job, but being meaningfully occupied.
Locus of control
We have control over a very small set of things in the world, namely our actions, thoughts and desires. External things, like whether people like us or if we’re going to succeed at a venture, are all beyond our control and worrying about them is an exercise in futility, because we can’t do anything about them. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t prepare – when packing for a holiday, it’s sensible to bring some clothes suitable for wet or colder weather, instead of assuming the forecast of wall-to-wall sunshine is going to be accurate, but there’s no sense in worrying about what the weather is going to do, and even less in trying to change it. We can’t do anything about things beyond our control, but we can mitigate the risk and prepare for the worst-case scenario. For example, driving is (statistically) one of the most dangerous things I do on a daily basis, but I wear a seat belt, obey the speed limit, maintain a appropriate braking distance and check my mirrors before manoeuvring. I control the things I can, but I have to accept that everything else is out of my hands.
“Freedom is the only worthy goal in life. It is won by disregarding things that lie beyond our control.”
I’m not sure how authentic this technique is, but it’s been recommended from a variety of sources. As you acquire more things, you become complacent about what you have and desire things you don’t have. This leads to strife and discomfort, especially if the thing you desire is something you can’t have. By imagining life without the things or people, you love refreshes your joy in what you already have, making you grateful for them and less complacent. Additionally, having practised grieving for them can help buffer you against their loss in that you won’t have so many regrets or things left unsaid.
“Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now, take what’s left and live it properly.”
Stoicism and me
On the face of it, Stoicism seems like a pretty grim outlook – regularly imagine if life was so much worse than it is, eschew nice things in order to “build character”, accept other people’s crummy behaviour as par for the course – but I’m finding it immensely helpful. I’m an anxious person, so taking a realistic look at what I can and can’t control, and then acknowledging that what I can’t control isn’t worth worrying about, is useful to me. For a long time, I was paralysed by the idea of embarrassment and failure and the fear of being thought stupid or foolish, but Stoicism has helped me to accept that what other people think of me isn’t my problem, and that’s liberating. The other thing I have long struggled with is a sense of my own mortality. The sense I’m wasting my precious, finite time – has wasted more of my time that I care to think about. While I talk about being death-positive, I don’t know that I’ve really internalised that, and I need to push through, accept that there are certain things that I can’t control (I have to work, I have to eat) and focus on the time I do have. Mindfulness should help here, and hopefully Stoicism will give me a framework to practice within.
“Life is like a play: it’s not the length, but the excellence of the acting that matters.”
That said, the main area I see myself struggling in is in temperance. My self-control is very poor in certain areas (snacks and books, mostly), so that’s my primary area of focus. Snacking is easiest to establish rules around – not eating between scheduled meals, proscribing certain types of food and drink, the usual – but sticking to them is going to be harder, especially in the face of temptation.
As far as reading goes, I considered making a rule that I have to read two books for every book I buy, but tackling my to-read pile already feels like climbing the North Face of the Eiger, and I have a horrible feeling that imposing such a rule means I’ll be found crushed to death under my books in short order. Limiting myself to one new book a month would be more practical.
No shopping for non-essential things on Sundays and bank holidays
No more than one new book a month
Read at least one book a month
No fizzy pop
No deviating from the meal plan
* Epictetus did follow this by saying that a student of Stoicism should refrain from talking about their philosophy, as wanting to talk about Stoicism shows they haven’t grokked it and will only mislead the people they’re trying to teach. In that light, take what I’ve written here as my personal notes, and check the references for more information:
It takes energy to be creative, and being sick, stressed, strung out, or tired. My health has been an utter bloody shambles these last few years, but I’m solving the problems one-by-one. I won’t ever be well-well, but I’m upright and functional, with a greater appreciation of how it feels when all the wheels come off and a determination never to go back there.
Stay out of debt
Bit late for this, what with student debt and a mortgage, but (rightly or wrongly), I differentiate those debts from debts accrued by having too much month left at the end of the money. I’m fortunate to not have to worry about money right now, but I still try to live like I did when I was earning entry-level wages in a startup company in a basement, not out of some self-imposed asceticism but because I remember having to choose between dry boots, a boiler service and food, and I don’t want to go back there, either.
Keep your day job
There are several reasons to keep a day job, not just money (but the money’s important).
Routine, connection to the world and other people, and freedom to do what you want with your art. Use what you learn in your job to enhance your not-work life, and build a routine that allows you to be creative. Work gets done in the time available
Get yourself a calendar
A body of work is the accumulation of small bits of effort. A body of work is the accumulation of small bits of effort. A body of work is the accumulation of small bits of effort.
20-30minutes of work, 500 words, whatever the smallest unit of work is, every day will get me where I need to go.
Kleon proposes the X-Effect, which I know of, but need to get serious about. Today is the first day of he rest of your life and all that. Let’s go.
Keep a logbook
Look forward to future events, but also keep track of the past. Keep track of how far you’ve come.
I have a bullet journal, but I need to keep it better. I already track what I’m grateful for, but I could also ask myself “What’s the best thing that happened today?”.
A good partner supports your dreams and keeps you grounded. I reckon that this is the garbage in, garbage out of people again. Find relationships (emotional, romantic, sexual) that fulfil, sustain and support you, and ditch ones that drag you down or make you feel small. And, I would argue, you don’t even have to marry; all relationships are important and I don’t like the cultural emphasis on marriage as the be-all and end-all of emotional connections. One person can’t sustain you emotionally or intellectually.
10. Creativity is subtraction
Choose what to leave out
I often have trouble knowing my limits and, despite reading Essentialism last year, I don’t think it’s fully sunk in yet and I appear to insist on taking on a hundred projects at a time. Time for a re-read, I think. Kleon advocates using limitations to spur creativity, which is a solution to a different problem, but worth bearing in mind when the well runs dry. Working within limitations – financial, material – can bring out our most creative solutions (although ‘d say that, in my experience, chronological constraints tend not to bring out my best work). In his Ideation Lab, Sterling Hundley talks about a “three sided box”, where a concept is bounded on three sides by a deadline, physical dimensions and concept, but that constraint gives creativity room to grow. ——
Take a walk
Start a morgue file
Go to the library (do the ‘role model family tree’-thing)
Buy a notebook and use it
Get a calendar
Start a logbook
Give a copy of this book away (nice upsell; does this series count?)
Borders are no boundary, timezones no obstacle; we live in the future! The internet means that your peers can live everywhere around the world. Connect to people all around the world, do your networking online, make professional contacts through social media and build a digital Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
Solitude is good; self-imposed isolation is better. Make time to disconnect from the internet for a bit, clear some space – mentally, physically, temporally -and put it to good use.
I love isolation, although I need to improve the “without distractions” bit, but I know I can easily become isolated and need to pay attention to when I last saw my friends, left the house or had a conversation with a person.
Despite the interconnectedness of the digital age, where we live still affects the work we do. Travel broadens the mind – without new experiences, we can’t form new mental connections and go on to create new work. With freelance work, a digital (or portable) studio and an online community, the “digital nomad” lifestyle is definitely viable. I’m not sure it’s for me (I have too many books, to start with, and would struggle to part with them), but it is an option.
Kleon says that, ideally, the weather should be bad for about six months of the year, the food should be good and the company varied. And you shouldn’t stay for too long! Keep seeking out new experiences
8. Be nice (the world is a small town)
Make friends, ignore enemies
“There’s only one rule I know of: you’ve got to be kind”
I don’t think I’m the type of person to badmouth people generally, but I know I can have a temper and I know I can get riled up, and that’s the danger for me – getting into arguments and showing myself up. People are going to find that and, if I only post when I’m frustrated or argumentative, that’s what they’re going to think I’m like all the time, because they won’t have any other reference.
In short: be nice and don’t post when you’re tilted.
Stand next to the talent
Garbage in, garbage out applies to people, too. Hang out with arseholes for too long and you’re going to start to smell like an arsehole.
“Find the most talented person in the room, and if it’s not you, go stand next to him, Hang out with him. Try to be helpful.”
“If you’re the most talented person in the room, find a different room.”
“Quit picking fights and go make something”
Anger is great. It’s jet fuel, and it’s pushed me through some awful times, but it isn’t always useful and my key takeaway from this chapter is probably going to be “learn to ignore insults and let people be wrong”.
Write fan letters
Like Kleon, I wrote to my favourite artist when I was a kid and I was lucky enough to get a letter back (an illustrated letter, no less!). Public fan letters (fan art?), blog posts with links to websites, answer questions, solve problems – and don’t worry about getting a letter back.
Validation is for parking
External validation is for chumps. It either comes too late (or not at all) or it pressures you into doing more of the same, even long after you’re sick of it. Get busy, keep working, and don’t pay attention to the people who want you to do the thing they like.
Looks like there are two most important lessons from this chapter.
Keep a praise file
External validation is for chumps, but it is nice.
It’s also temporary.
There will always be dark days, and the Black Dog is only a few steps behind, so build an emotional buffer of proof that you don’t suck, that people like your work, that life isn’t always this grim.
Have a variety of projects on the go to keep from getting burned out on any one.
But also: remember to breathe. Space between projects allows ideas to percolate and give your mind time to find connections.
I already know the importance of having a hobby I’m not trying to turn into a business, and I know how rapidly I fall apart when I sacrifice leisure time for more work. My meditation practice is equally important, giving my space in the day where I can just be for a moment.
Don’t throw any of yourself away
“Keep all your passions in your life.”
If you love two or three different things, see if you can marry them together. Trying to ignore them doesn’t work
The things I’ve enjoyed most in life have always been books, drawing and animals. I’m fortunate that finding a link between those three shouldn’t be too hard!
6. Do good work and share it with people
In the beginning, obscurity is good
How do you get discovered? Wrong question. How good can I get before the pressure to perform starts to destroy my ability to play?
The not-so-secret formula
Do good work and share it with people.
Part one, do good work:
Make stuff every day.
Accept you’re going to suck, fail, and get better.
Part two, share it with people:
Put it on the internet
The secret of the internet is also simple: marvel at the world and invite others to join you. Marvel at odd, obscure things that move you, and be open about sharing your passions, and your methods, with other people. (Consider making online courses?)
We learn through teaching, and we find something to say by speaking – having a blog encourages you to write, apparently. I certainly feel obligated to write.
Share your dots, but don’t connect them
Find people who like the same things you do, and connect and share your passion with them.
Tease your audience with sketches, doodles and snippets, share tips and advice, link to interesting articles and talk about what you’re reading.
“We make art because we like art. We’re drawn to certain kinds of art because we’re inspired by the people doing that work.” If you want to see, read, hear, play it, so will others. If something disappoints you, make it better.
“Whenever you’re at a loss for what move to make, just ask yourself, ‘What would make a better story?'”
4. Use your hands
Step away from the screen
I’ve been moving to and from digital work for a while; on the one hand, the cheapness, speed and ease of setup and teardown is fantastic but, on the other, I feel less involved and less fulfilled by digital work. Working standing up helps, but I miss the smell of paint and the feel of stylus on glass is nothing like as pleasant as pencil on paper.
Kleon talks about analogue work engaging all the senses and they’re not wrong.
Don’t wait until you know who you are to get started
Make things, know thyself
Find yourself through your work; the act of creation forces us to confront and refine who we are. Professionals talk about “Impostor syndrome” – everyone who creates for a living feels like they’re about to be discovered as a fraud. No one knows what they’re doing, so just keep showing up.
Fake it till you make it
Whatever you practice, you become an expert in. Act like a pro and you’ll become a pro.
Do master studies. Do a lot of master studies. Vary the masters to explore different styles and learn from each. The object is not to learn to copy the style, but to learn how the artist sees the world
Imitation is not flattery
Attempts to imitate are destined to fall flat – we are not our heroes – but the adaptations we make to accommodate those shortcomings create a unique style. “Add something to the world that only you can add”, even if you don’t know what that is yet (see point one).
“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that which it was torn”
T. S. Eliot
Steal like an artist
How to look at the world
There’s no such thing as a value judgement, no good or bad, just “worth stealing”, “not worth stealing”. Figure out what’s worth stealing, then take it. Everything’s up for grabs.
Is it, though? Balancing this philosophy against colonialism, exotification, cultural appropriation and generally Not Being a Dick means that some stories aren’t mine to tell and that’s okay.
Nothing is original
Like it or not, we stand on the shoulders of giants and they stand on top of a mountain of culture and history. Stop trying to be original and start trying to be authentic.
“What is originality? Undetected plagiarism.”
William Ralph Inge
The genealogy of ideas
Any idea is a remix of the thinker’s prior experiences. Curate your experiences wisely, because…
Garbage in, garbage out
… whatever you surround yourself with, you’re going to end up making more stuff like that.
Climb your own family tree
Pick a role model and study them. Pick one of their role models and study them. Rinse, repeat.
A creative lineage grounds you and contextualises your practice.
“Whether you’re in school or not, it’s your job to get an education”.
Be curious, look things up, experiement; go deeper than anyone else. Search for everything before you ask questions; if you can’t find the answer, you might yet find a better question.
“Collect books […] Nothing is more important than an unread library.”
Save your thefts for later
Wrote things down. Thoughts, ideas, favourite poems or passages, overheard conversations.
Keep a morgue file to store things you’ve stolen from others – dead things you’ll reanimate later.
“It is better to take what does not belong to you than to let it lie around neglected”
Success is mostly about pushing through failure. Keep producing work, without assumptions of success or failure, and be prepared to seize opportunities when they present themselves.
“If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.”
You are only as good as your last piece; no one cares what you’ve done, nor what you’re going to do next. They care about what you’re doing now. You can’t stalling if you keep up the momentum. Do the work in front of you, review it and start your next piece while you’re still fired up.
Go away so you can come back
Working without a break is exhausting and can lead to mental burnout. A sabbatical can be a great opportunity to restock your mental and creative reserves. Obviously, the flipside of that is that a high-stress or overly demanding scenario can drain you, even if you aren’t creating at the time. Although a multiple month- or year-long sabbatical isn’t practical for most people, but Kleon offers three somewhat more practical mini-sabbaticals, originally suggested by Gina Trapani:
Spend time in nature
The important thing is to take a break.
Start over. Begin again
Related to “being an amateur”, never rest on your laurels or allow yourself to coast. Keep learning new things, techniques, media. Stop trying to refine old material; junk it and build something new. It takes courage and commitment, but it makes you stronger, and better able to assess your weaknesses. Learn out loud. Go back to chapter one.
Some advice can be a vice
Feel free to take what you can use and leave the rest