Having started this week with an attitude of “get it done and get to the good stuff”, I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how cathartic some of the exercises have been. The artist’s date – a page from a ‘mindfulness’ colouring book – was particularly refreshing, and the exercise to write a letter to a champion led me to look up my old art teacher and find he’s still exhibiting.
The biggest issues I’ve faced this week have been:
writing the letters – short tasks are easier to fit into a busy schedule and, psychologically, ‘writing a letter’ is not a short task. When I actually got on with it, each letter was 20 minutes, tops.
actually finding all the tasks – the Core Beliefs exercise, referenced in later weeks, is hidden in the middle of the chapter and I had to go dig for it. Lesson learned for the future – re-read the chapter before diving in.
finding time to do the morning pages. Cameron says leave 30 minutes, but I’m clocking in about 50. My regular morning routine is suffering because, despite getting up earlier, I only have time to do my pages before rushing off to work. That said, they’ve led to some noticeable mood shifts, so they’re clearly unjamming something in there.
I don’t know that my pages have led me to dwell on negative thoughts – beyond how blasted tired I am – but it’s something to keep an eye on.
As far as the artist’s date activity goes, I also haven’t done anything resembling play for a very long time – a dearth of time and a surfeit of stress means all that went out of the window years ago – so I’m cribbing date ideas from Ellen Bard’s list 101 ideas to boost your creativity.
This week’s date was a page from a colouring book. I’m sure the spooky ghooosts and creepy castles were seasonally-appropriate when I bought the magazine (back in 2015) – like I said: it’s been a while since I just let myself play around. It was really quite pleasant.
And then I immediately regretted wasting an afternoon on such frivolity. Baby steps.
I’ve got a long way to go, but I’m feeling generally positive. This week wasn’t too rough, except for the damage to my morning schedule. I’m looking forward to next week.
I’ve owned a copy of The Artist’s Way for maybe ten years, but never actually started it (I did two days of morning pages when I first bought the book but immediately fell out of the habit and never picked it back up). Such is the life of a lot of my textbooks and workbooks. But I’ve decided that 2018 is the year I scale the foothills of my to-read pile; TAW is on the list, so here we go.
I’m starting by reading through the book before beginning the program, and I can already feel this is going to be a slog.
I understand that The Artist’s Way is based on a 12-step program and that surrendering to a higher power is part of that, but I’m not as religious as I once was and the frequent references to God/a creator are off-putting. In the early chapters, the tone is overly reassuring – bordering on coddling – and I feel spoken down to. Maybe it’s something other people will get more out of, but it’s not my thing and reading it was more a case of pushing through than actually enjoying it. The early chapters didn’t throw anything up that I felt strongly about; I’ve been seeing a therapist for a while now, so maybe I’ve already worked through some of the baggage these chapters are designed to help with. Certainly, week one’s “write a letter to the editor in your defence” sounds like behaviour I would have indulged in a long time ago, but now it just seems silly. I’ll still do it – I’m either going to go through the program properly or not at all – but I don’t know how much I’ll get out of it.
Weeks three and four sound much more difficult. The idea of being ashamed of creating, of seeking impossible acceptance, already raises some feelings, and I’m so immediately opposed to the idea of reading deprivation that I know it’s going to throw up something profound. The weeks get harder as they progress (obviously), digging deeper into things I thought I’d dealt with already but just reading the chapter immediately flags these up as something I’m going to have to work at.
Week seven is about perfectionism and jealousy, two things I thought I’d grown out of, but – even just skim-reading the book for an overview – I’m remembering feeling jealous of people for this or that as recently as a few weeks ago. Maybe it’s not something you ever grow out of , but we’ll see what’s under the surface.
Week eight is going to be looking at anxiety and procrastination. The notion of being too old is something I particularly struggled with in my 20s , and I still have Feelings about this topic, apparently.
Weeks nine and ten are about confronting fear disguised as self-recrimination, and self-sabotage respectively. I have an inkling this will be another emotional fortnight; I can feel the shape of the things I’ll be dealing with in these areas, even if not the fine detail.
The later exercises had less focus on letting go and letting the creator work or, at least the focus was less obvious. The last two chapters are about support systems and self-care and there’s an refrain that reminds me of a number of other books on creativity and the process of making art – that great artists share and they support each other. That the process of making art is an end unto itself, and that any fame and fortune that might or might not come with that is incidental.
My therapist said that all the self-help books in the world are just reiterating the same thing over and over but contextualising it differently. The trick is, he reckons, to find one that resonates with you. A quick read-through suggests to me that TAW is more self-help than creativity manual, but it’s got a reputation and I’m reading it as part of my artistic development, so it goes on the blog.
All in all, I think I’ll definitely gain something from working through the book (even if it’s just shelf space after I pass it on), but only if I’m open to the ideas within and willing to put in the work. Each week concludes with a check-in, which I’ll be blogging about.
Launching a successful Patreon is quite an endeavour. From building an audience and gathering a mailing list to setting pledge levels and arranging rewards, there’s so much to do and it all has to be done right and in the right order. Happily, flubbing a Patreon launch is so much easier! This simple, six-step process will have you with a desolate Patreon and a looming, yet vague, feeling of obligation to hypothetical future patrons in no time!
Make a Patreon account – Obviously, you’ll want to reserve a good URL. Only jerks URL squat, but you’ve got a brand to protect, so it’s okay.
Set up your page, using to best pictures you have to hand, despite a less-than stellar portfolio – You can work on the content later, when people are giving you money based on your promises and obvious potential!
Create some posts – It’s okay if you don’t know what you’re doing, you can figure it out as you go but, for now, just create some content. Patrons can read through old content while they wait for you to upload new stuff.
Launch the page! – You don’t need a big launch, just moxy, grit and a can-do attitude.
Make something, anything – Things you could post include advance access to blog posts. Maybe it’ll give you the impetus to write more often!
Give it a few months, then tell people you have a Patreon using a click-bait blog post.
For more articles on learning to be a professional artist, support me on Patreon.
Seriously, though. I’d been umming and ahhing over making a Patreon page for a long time and decided to have a look at what it is and how it works. I accidentally launched the page while editing it and couldn’t find a way to un-launch it. I’d been listening to the Fizzle show podcast and got concerned that, without a large social media following and a sizeable mailing list, I’d blown my chance of a successful launch and damned myself to abject failure. Fortunately, a few months later, I was accepted into the Tiny Dragons artbook and was able to piggyback off that success to tell people I had the blasted thing:
I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing with Patreon, but I’m getting there.
Portraiture is a challenging field, both because everyone knows what a face looks like and will be able to tell when something about it is off, but also because our symbolic language is geared towards faces, even to the point of seeing faces in random patterns (a phenomenon known as pareidolia).
Because of the challenges in observing the proportions of a face and reproducing them to such a degree that the face is recognisable, and the struggle to overcome the intrinsic symbol language, combined with the immediate feedback in recognising when a face isn’t correct, realistic portraits are ideal subjects for practice.
Because of these challenges, students often feel that drawing portraits, particularly recognisable ones, is beyond their reach, but drawing a head requires no more skill than drawing anything else. The problem with portraiture is the same problem with any drawing requiring “painstaking accuracy” – that we naturally enlarge things we feel are important and reduce things we feel aren’t. This occurs in the brain as part of its basic data processing, long before we try to put pencil to paper, and helps to winnow the useless from the vitally important. This isn’t great for drawing but, happily, it can be overcome with practice.
We tend to overcompensate particularly when faced with optical illusions. Edwards offers an exercise wherein the artist stands in front of a mirror at arm’s length, and observes their reflection. Although it appears to be live size, if they then make a mark on the mirror showing the positions of the top of the head and the chin and step aside, the marks will only be a few inches apart.
This reduction of less important detail leads to two major issues: placing the eye line too high on the face, and misplacing the ear in profile. The eye issue occurs when the student shows themselves to disregard the height of the forehead and visible scalp.
From person to person, the position of the ear doesn’t vary by much, which makes it a key landmark when determining the width of the head in profile. The distance from the chin to the corner of the eye is the same as the distance from the back of the eye to the edge of the ear. Visualising an equilateral triangle can help cement this relationship in the minds of the student.
When drawing portraits, remember the following points:
Focus on complex edges and negative spaces until you feel the shift to the visual processing mindset
Estimate the angles in relation to the vertical and horizontal
Draw what you see, without labeling or identifying elements
Draw what you see without resorting to symbolism and assumptions
Estimate the relationships between sizes
Observe and record proportions as they are, recognising the brain’s habit of changing things to suit it.
Questions to ask when drawing portraits:
Where is the point the hairline meets the forehead?
Where is the outermost curve of the tip of the nose?
What is the angle of the forehead?
What is the negative space between the hairline and the top of the nose?
If you draw a line between the top of the nose and the chin, what is the angle of that line relative to the vertical or horizontal?
What is the negative shape created by that line?
Where is the curve of the front of the neck, relative to the crosshairs?
What is the relative space between the chin and the neck?
Where is the edge of the ear in relation to the corner of the eye?
Where does the head join the neck?
What is the angle of the back of the neck?
Using negative spaces and relative measurements, anything – including a face – fits together like a jigsaw.
My copy of the workbook ends this section with a drawing of an American flag, or other striped object. The intent of this exercise is to highlight the importance of drawing what you can see, not what you expect to see, but I felt the point was somewhat lost on a non-American audience (owning a national flag is largely considered ‘a bit weird’ in the UK).
I substituted in a striped t-shirt, but I don’t feel like I had any preconceived notions of what it looked like and drawing it didn’t feel like it required much in the way of mental gymnastics. Short of buying a union flag specifically for this purpose, I’m not sure how I would fix the exercise.
Edwards’ third basic drawing skill is seeing relationships between objects, enabling the artist to accurately depict perspective and proportion. So fundamental is this skill, Edwards likens it to grammar, and I can see why – without a grasp of these relationships, a picture cannot hang together, regardless of the artist’s skill in rendering. Edwards opts to skip teaching the reader about vanishing points and the mechanics of perspective in favour of sighting. Sighting is a multi-part skill, comprising firstly of sighting angles relative to vertical and horizontal markers, and secondly of sighting relative proportions. Each measurement is made relative to a constant so that the brain is comparing ‘thing’ to ‘thing’, instead of naming objects or measuring absolute distances. The use of ratios enables the student to overcome their known reality to accurately recreate the illusion of reality on the paper.
Linear perspective is a relatively recent invention, originating from Renaissance Europe. Other cultures developed their own approach to spacial relationships, notably the stepped perspective of Egyptian and East Asian art, where depth is represented vertically and objects higher up the page are understood to be further in distance from the viewer. Distant objects are often rendered the same size and with the same level of detail as near objects.
Albrecht Dürer’s perspective machine (illustrated by Dürer’s own Artist Drawing a Nude with Perspective Device and Man Drawing a Lute) was a simple frame, strung with a grid of thread or wire, and held at a fixed position. A marker on the frame ensured that the artist was always viewing the sitter or scene from the same point (something I have struggled with while doing the exercises in this book). By recreating what is visible through the grid in the manner that it is visible the artist is able to create accurate drawings, using foreshortening to create the illusion of objects receding into space.
Something that I struggled with throughout this chapter is sighting angles. I’m far more comfortable sighting the ends of a diagonal, or points of a diagonal, and joining them up, and need to practice sighting angles, at least so I can compare the two methods.
Notes on sighting angles
angles are sighted against vertical and horizons constants
angles are sighted on the picture plane. Care must be taken to maintain the integrity of the plane
creating the illusion of reality will always involve close observation of perceived forms and the rejection of known forms (symbol language).
use the triangular negative shape created between the constant and the diagonal to accurately describe the angle.
do not determine an angle to be at 45°, 30°, etc. I do this currently, but Edwards explicitly counsels against it.
when deciding between a vertical or horizontal constant, Edwards recommends whichever will make the smaller angle.
Advice for perspective drawing
work from part to adjacent part
keep checking relationships
use negative spaces – focusing only on positive shapes weakens a drawing
areas of light and shadow are signed in exactly the same way as the shapes
“If in your drawing you habitually disregard proportions, you become accustomed to the sight of distortion and lose critical ability. A person living in squalor eventually gets used to it.”
Negative spaces are the spaces between and around the subject, and the observation of those spaces makes up the second of Edwards’ five basic skills of drawing.
Edwards provides an example of work by one of their students students, showing their struggle to draw an object they know and their inability to break away from calling on symbol language, and compares it to the same subject drawn by the same student using only negative spaces, and the difference is night and day.
Since edges are shared boundaries, the edge of any object is also the edge of the negative space. By drawing the negative shape, we free ourself from what we think we know and are able to draw what we see. A particularly useful trick when drawing foreshortening.
Composition is the way components or the drawing are arranged. Key components include positive space, negative space and format (canvas size), and are arranged with the goal of unity in mind. When starting from life, inexperienced artists often fail to grasp the boundaries of their picture and by addressing this, the most egregious flaws in composition rectify themselves.
A child has a full awareness of the canvas when they draw, says Edwards, but this trait drops off in adolescents as young artists concentrate on individual objects at the expense of the whole. The subject becomes the most important thing and the background becomes an afterthought.
“You can never have the use of the inside of a cup without the outside. The inside and the outside go together. They’re one.”
On sighting, Edwards says: “All proportions are found by comparing everything to the basic unit”. The basic unit is a distance based on something within the scene – a head-height, the width of a door, or the length of a gap, for example (note the inclusion of negative space) – that everything else is measured from. If a head is one unit, a body might be seven and a half units tall.
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?)