Why do artists succumb to every distraction? The answer(s) might be surprising — and enlightening.
By Gail Sibley
See if this sounds similar to your own experience with your painting studio.
I’m headed to my home studio after breakfast. I’m revved, because I’ve just perused an article in Pastel Journal about an artist doing some pretty amazing things. Totally inspired, I’m ready to get to work. Passing by the bedroom door, I suddenly remember I need to throw in a load of laundry.
Clothes in the washer, I’m again painting-studio bound and still pretty excited about trying out those new techniques. As I approach the studio door, I realize my tea is cold. I’ll just go make another cup, I think to myself. Besides, waiting for the water to boil will give me a few more minutes to study that article. I turn on the kettle and settle in with the magazine.
A Few Interruptions
I suddenly wonder if anyone liked the drawing I posted on my artist Facebook page. I check. Ah, someone’s made a flippant remark. How
to respond? Let me think. Should I write that? Maybe I’ll play it safe and say this instead. The kettle hasn’t boiled yet. I’ll just take a quick peek at my personal Facebook page. Oh, my gosh, that video is hilarious. I’ve got to share that now. Oops, better put the kettle on again — I missed that first boil.
As I wait, I receive a text from a good friend I rarely see. She’s passing through town and wants to know if I have time for a short visit. I think
I can log a few hours in the studio before she arrives and so I say, yes, come on by. Then I reconsider my creative plan, determining that the two hours remaining before she arrives isn’t really enough time to paint. After all, I wouldn’t want to get fully engaged in my painting and then have to stop once she appears at my doorstep. Better to start fresh tomorrow, I decide. Then I head to the kitchen to bake a batch of cookies in preparation for her visit.
“I’ll start fresh tomorrow.”
That evening, I look back on my day and wonder what happened. Why wasn’t I able to work in any time in my painting studio? I feel wretched for not having accomplished anything. Why does this happen day after day?
Does this sound anything like you? Why do we do this? What is the reason we, as creative people, skirt around our studios, succumbing to — perhaps even welcoming — every distraction that comes along? Why do we do this avoidance-procrastination dance?
Facing the Fears
Well, for one thing, creating is hard work. And to do hard work, it helps to have a passion for it. If your passion flags, your energy and enthusiasm do too; distractions are welcomed.
And then no work is accomplished, so your passion is unrevived, and so goes the cycle. There also could be the stress of producing work for a show, with the stress so out of control that you avoid the work, which in turn exacerbates the stress.
In our day-to-day relationship with the painting studio, though, when passion is simmering and stress is at a minimum, the reason we avoid the studio is often some form of fear: of the unknown, of the blank canvas, of making a mistake, of rejection, of being unproductive, of wasting time, of not getting it right, of wasting materials, of making a total mess of a painting, and on it goes. Fear drains our passion. Passion needs enthusiasm, curiosity, and vitality to thrive. With fear as our companion, we do nothing.
So, What to Do?
After some soul searching, I realized that a) I was allowing myself to be distracted and b) the reason I was allowing myself to be distracted was due to underlying fears. Once I knew this, I could ask myself, why am I so fearful? What’s the worst that can happen if I make a total mess?
I determined that my initial tendency is to try to clear away all the bits and pieces — physical, mental, and digital — so I can have a clear run at the prime objective: studio time. But that never works out because all those bits and pieces grow until there’s no time left to do the one thing I really want to do. In fact, upon closer inspection, all those bits and pieces are mere distractions.
Now, studio time comes first — no excuses — and bits and pieces come later. This means that, when it’s studio time, I don’t go near my computer (or at least I don’t open the email program or browser). Laundry can wait. I don’t water the garden. Texts or phone calls go unanswered. I don’t check the news. Instead, I focus on being present in my painting studio.
When I want to paint, I make studio time a priority for at least four hours a day, five days a week. Minimum. By doing this, I often end up staying in the studio longer than anticipated thanks to momentum and flow.
Lighting the Creative Spark
In addition to fear, I’ve learned that lack of inspiration may keep me out of the studio. If I’m feeling uninspired, I’ll sit in my ‘pondering’ chair and look at my work in process, or flip through an art book or sketch- book. That usually does the trick. Once I see something that excites me, the creative spark is lit. And then I’ll turn on some music and away I go, either working on something at the easel or doodling in my sketchbook. The creativity flows from there, and the next thing I know, hours have flown by as I happily enter the where-did-the-time-go? zone.
Even if the studio session is a struggle and things don’t turn out as desired, it’s still studio time, and I’m energized and blissed out by that. I find that once I get going, the desire for distraction disappears.
Breaks and Rewards
The other thing I do is turn distractions into wee breaks and rewards. When my energy level subsides after a couple of hours, I go get the mail, read the arts section of the newspaper, water the garden, or treat myself to coffee and chocolate.
And that two-hour time slot I thought was too short for studio time while waiting for my friend to arrive? I’ve learned that although such small windows of time may not be enough to become immersed in the painting on the easel, I can still use them to accomplish other studio activities: making thumbnail sketches, cutting paper, applying pastel ground, even cleaning my painting studio.
Hmm … speaking of cleaning my studio, maybe I’ll go bake muffins.
Gail Sibley, of British Columbia, Canada, is a workshop instructor and signature member of the Pastel Society of America.
To learn more about Sibley, check out the full version of this article in the April 2016 issue of Pastel Journal, or visit her website at gailsibley.com.
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