One of the blessings of working hard at this stage of life is the recognition that it doesn’t work to beat myself into creative productivity. Instead, I’m more inclined to observe what works, how, and when, and to build my studio life around that. I’m finding there is a cycle, with recognizable seasons for me to navigate throughout my creative process.
Interestingly enough, I can identify 12 of them—the months of my creative calendar:
1. Input - Walking outdoors with a friend, visiting an art museum, or traveling to an exotic city—like a bee flitting through the garden or a whale scooping up the plankton—it’s a feast for the senses. Rather than looking for something, it’s just a matter of floating: eyes open and seeing what the world has laid out for me to see.
2. Interest - Wandering around and letting my eyes entertain me happens naturally, and if I pay attention to the things that pull me toward them, I am led to where I should be going. Sometimes it’s a stunning vista, but often it’s the play of light on something fairly ordinary. The trick I’ve learned is to pay attention to the little leaps of the heart and take note and perhaps to snap a photo.
3. Ideation - Thoughts and images, colors, textures, emotions, and shapes can tumble around in my head for days. I try not to get in their way but to let them dance and play, understanding that they know best how to figure it out.
4. Inspiration - Then out of the blue, they do. They come up with a great idea, and I am getting excited! Now the work begins.
5. Intention - The first thing I have to do is to tease out some specifics. Can I articulate it? Can I make it visual? What’s the overall concept I’m dreaming up here.
6. Arrangement - And then, there are the details: What are the dimensions we’re talking about? Is this a big painting or a small piece? What’s the color palette? What will be the focus? What’s the dominant value? What’s the overall temperature? Mood? Composition, line, shape….
7. Application - Now I’m ready to start. After I select a canvas and underpaint it according to the needs of the painting, I’m ready to sketch, block, and paint!
8. Assimilation - After this start (and actually throughout the painting process), I need take a step back and see how it’s working. I take it in with a little distance and determine whether I’m on the mark or not.
9. Analysis - There are specific benchmarks or things I can look at and evaluate. Sometimes it’s a matter of tweaking, and sometimes there are major problems. What are they, and how can they be addressed?
10. Abandonment - Not always, and not necessarily forever, but some work needs to be turned to the wall for a time to figure out where I (or it) stands. Sometimes the answer is that the idea wasn’t a keeper. Sometimes it’s a do-over.
11. Amends - Other times it’s a matter of reworking, refining, and redoing until it feels good. The trick here is not to get deflated but to get to work and make it better.
12. Amen - And this continues until… Ahhhhhh. That lovely feeling when I know I’m done. The painting is complete, and I feel good about it. There might come a day when I want to tweak it still more, but for now I’m happy to let it be.
And with up to 20 paintings in process at any one time, I can easily find a painting that’s in a place where I can pick up and go forward. I don’t always know what I’ll be working on when I step into the studio, but it doesn’t take long before I grab one canvas or another and we’re off.
Knowing there are phases helps me avoid the frustration of trying to push too far too fast. If I try to go straight from interest to application, it’s likely to end in disappointment. But knowing that, and letting those ideas simmer long enough, I have confidence that something good may come of it in time. Or not, and that, too, is OK.
There was a time when I would have pushed myself and my paintings, and it felt like a failure to produce was some failure of mine. Now I realize that I might as well have tried to squeeze a flower from its seed through pure strength of will. Now I am much more comfortable letting nature do the heavy lifting and just joining the dance when I’m asked.