Friday, 11 July 2014

Dear Susan... how to procrastinate, productively

Susan is a Distance Learning student of mine, who lives in Wales, UK. Once or twice a year she visits me for a drawing or painting weekend, to recharge the batteries and get kick started on a new set of exercises to work on at home.  Like many distance students, she has a busy life, and travels around the world with work, which is not handy for her art. Last month, she wrote in despair, very frustrated and upset about her latest artwork, had an impressive hissy-fit, and declared that perhaps she'd pack it all in, harUMPH. Joking aside, it was heartbreaking to read. Particularly as her artwork was great..! 
One of the amazing strengths that distance students acquire, is the capacity to stick with it, no matter what the interruptions. This is so very hard. This IS Discipline. My tip for anyone who hasn't been at the desk recently, and is about to resume - recap, revise and recoup before moving on to the next exercise. Refresh yourself by taking a small step back and start simple and small - it'll give you a better spring in your step to move forward. 
So this month I was thrilled that Susan's letter showed she'd turned the corner. With her permission, here is some of our exchange. I have not shown her crit, for that belongs to Susan - the words below show how it FEELS to produce, how it IS to produce and illustrates the rewards of continuing to strive. 
Dear Julie 
Distant Learning Course: Susan B. 
Bloc 3, Exercise 8: Pomegranates on Canvas, June 2014

I feel really pleased with myself. I got back to this exercise this morning – having got up really early to start work. I did find myself procrastinating, putting on a wash, emptying and loading the dishwasher… but I decided it was now or never. Either I do it, or I abandon the whole affair with paint!
I had already done an afternoon on the pomegranates three weeks ago. But, I had to go to Germany for a week, so today was my first free weekend since...
So, I pushed myself upstairs. Julie and her last crit were ringing in my head.
I decided I would look at what I had done three weeks ago, over a slow coffee; have a feel of the paint, and the paint brushes [I need new ones definitely], take my time before I actually do any painting as such.
The start was not so good – despite the effort to refocus the brain and the mind on this. I was rather unsure what I was doing. I thought - ring Julie – she said I could. I don’t know what I am doing here…. I don’t know what to do!!
But, as if by magic, - or now that I look back on it – as if by telepathy from Julie and her crit to me, I for the first time in my life stopped feeling scared!! Scared of the paint, the paper, the task, the output! For the first time ever I had this strong sense that I could in fact let go of all of that – and just paint.
What a difference that makes! I have so, so enjoyed my morning. I have discovered lots. First, although it may seem common sense to know this – I have just realised that what is first put on the page is NOT the finished product; it is important, because it defines the composition and the size of the drawing, and in this case the basic shapes of the fruit. But, it is not the end result. There are processes to be gone through after that and they take time, and they are just as important as the first session at a painting. In fact, it is after the first session is over and the painting is retuned to again, then the layering and the depth, and the richness of the painting begin to emerge. I have discovered layering. I know that Julie often says ‘there was a fair bit of layering’ when she shows you one of her paintings – but this is the first time I understood what she meant! Layering is wonderful – it gives depth and richness to a painting; I used to think that layering was all about putting on paint to fix mistakes. So, you layer over a mistake – and as I make many, - and am constantly frustrated by my inability to draw and to get the composition on the page anyway reasonable [such as not squashing the composition in to the end of the page, and leaving loads of blank space above that somehow has to be filled in!], layering had become for me a remedial action. And Stressful! But, today I discovered layering has a function in its own right – not to correct mistakes. It allows you to make the painting come to life, to enrich the colours, to give more tonal variation, to deepen the image! Ah, I am slow…..
However, I think that I go carried away with the layering idea – and now need to think: there is a difference between layering and turning it all into a mud brown. When to stop? 

I also discovered that by not being afraid of the painting – I could move my brush to make more bold lines. This may not make sense Julie – but I have discovered today that I usually keep to using the brush as a dabbing tool – ‘just a little blot only here - just in case’ approach. Today, letting go of the ‘having to have a painting to frame’ tyranny, I was able to stretch my hand out and make bigger lines, across the pomegranates so as to form the different surfaces, rather than being constrained by the ‘not too much of the brush just in case…’.

I had no idea that painting was so emotionally complex when I started all this – the exercise of painting is like a mirror in to our personalities!! It reveals all!!

I also like using canvas: it has a lovely feel and I like the springy surface. I used only a small canvas – which is less daunting. But, this sacrifices a sense of space. I still find it hard to put in any details with oil colours and with such small working surfaces.
Julie, I owe you big thanks. By keeping your crit in my mind today, I have broken through a real fear barrier! It may rise again, but, I guess now I know it can be scaled….


Dear Susan
Many thanks for your WONDERFUL letter. So so delightful to read the difference in your words, in your emotion and your experience since your last letter. I felt great relief in reading. As a teacher, I truly have the best interests of my students at heart, so it was painful for me to read your last letter, so full of self judgement and despair. For you to have lost your balance, and consider quitting painting altogether would have felt to me like my failing - certainly not yours. However, all of this creative path is your own, Susan. No matter how I contribute, it is YOU that does it all.
I guide and explain just enough to get your inquisitive genes flowing, I hope, because there isn’t a Right Answer to much of this. There are multiple-possibles, multiple-probables and lots of OOH, aHA!’s. Even for me who has been doing this for a long time, even for all artists who are striving to be the best they can be. Because at some point, we get it. At some point we realize that WE have to Look, WE have to See, WE have to learn to control our materials. And that’s what makes it a never ending journey of delicious discovery, and whether you are working in a room full of others, or alone in the back bedroom, it is a solitary personal journey. 
Now that I’ve written that, it dawns on me that THIS is why we procrastinate. I do it too. Though I am ‘wise’ enough (which means I’ve been procrastinating on a Professional Level for some time...) to understand the various degrees of procrastinating, and that they are a part of the creative process. Rather than feeling guilty about procrastinating, I think viewing it differently really helps. For example, what if:
1. Inability to get on with the thing that you THINK you SHOULD be doing, means that you aren’t in the right head-space to do it? What if there is something deep within us which resists ANYTHING, when we think we OUGHT to do it? 
2. What if we recognized that in some way we feel a small bit that we are selfish and that spending time doing something for pleasure is wrong..? 
3. Faffing about doing household chores is a form of head-clearing, necessary (for women, anyway) to preparing ourselves to enter the right energy?
4. What if we took a mental review of our own behaviour patterns and worked out our best-time-of-day? Once we identify that time, we can enjoy guilt-free-faffing, so long as we time it right. (I had a sad aha! moment when I discovered this for myself. My children were very young, and my time at the desk was limited and had been for many years, through looking after them. One day they were both invited to friends houses after school, so I was in my studio drawing. Then I noticed the bird song had a slightly echoey sound about it, which I hadn’t heard for a long time. Birdsong has different pitches at different times of the day. This was a late-afternoon sound, and it echoed around the trees. It struck me then that it was so familiar because it had been the sound of, the accompaniment to, my drawing. My Best-Time was from about 3pm onwards. If I was settled at 3, I could work like a train till midnight. And what time do the children leave school to come home...? 3pm.. Recognising this helped me enormously. I forgave myself for faffing. But I also altered my way of working, because I knew that I wouldn’t have access to my best-time for many years to come. So, in order to not have years of frustration, I prioritized my day - I knew that the things I HAD to do, I always WOULD do, even if late at night. So I did the drawings first. This is discipline. And it was a choice. It’s not the same in your case, but it isn’t MUCH different. Your time is very limited. But you ARE choosing!
5. ‘A solitary personal journey’... No wonder you had to force yourself up the stairs. This is difficult! We set standards for ourselves! And on top of that, we go it ALONE?! Good grief, it’s a miracle that we manage it at all, no wonder our bodies procrastinate, for it is EASIER to NOT do it.. Yet, we so want to.. When we feel procrastinative, it is because at some level we know we are taking a journey into our souls. Gulp. And to improve, we have to be honest, vulnerable, open. Those are difficult, very personal things.                         
I am so proud of you!
When we have a long break from things which require skill, there is a fear about starting again. In this instance, the last experience you had was very negative, because you weren’t forgiving yourself, you were forgetting yourself. So your procrastinating was forgivably understandable. 
Because at some point, we get it.  Interestingly, we have to be a certain way into the learning experience before we get it. I think you have gone through a creative rite of passage. You went into the Black Hole, that make or break point, and chose to climb out and carry on. Welcome into the light. 
I am so proud of you!
Now I hope you understand what it means when I say that all artists are learning, always. I hope you understand what I mean when I say that it would be a mistake to assume the paintings in galleries look the way the artist had hoped, when they began them. Often, by the time artworks reach the gallery, the artist has moved on, glad to have stopped those paintings, as the next one will be better... 
Your pain is not over, but it will be frustration tinted with understanding, which is a fine thing. You need to keep the desire alive, the desire to stretch - it’s just that by now, you almost know too much...!! There is no going back! Allow yourself to have fun sessions, and challenging sessions, and recognize the joy in learning new things, over and above the completion. We’re a long time in the learning, we might as well love it! Your job is to balance difficulty-level with pleasure. 
I am so proud of you!
It is interesting to read about your Fear. Recently I have started mentioning fear in my weekly class. Someone was so tense, as they’d missed a couple of weeks (!!) that I could see they were hardly hearing my instructions, for their inner voice was loudly screaming. So I said that the worst thing that would happen is that they would have to start again in 10 minutes, but they wouldn’t actually DIE while trying. The difference that made was astonishing. They were instantly relieved, laughed, and did a great drawing.. What’s going on there then...?! In my absence, please speak to yourself. If you hear yourself say I can’t or I’m rubbish or anything else that I wouldn’t say to you, change it immediately. Soften it to ‘I can try’. ‘I love learning’. ‘I love this so much’. ‘This is going to be fun!’ You could even say, ‘Fear, you’re going to DIE!’ 

I am so proud of you! 
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  1. Brilliant post, very welcome . I too am experiencing these things. The chatter telling me I should do my jobs first or I will not be able to relax enough to paint a thing! The chatter, telling me I can't . The fear, there I am, paper, paints, water, brushes, and err ?! But yes, this post is spot on, be brave just do it! I am going to give the " paint first jobs after" a go, that will be good for me. Then I will at least get started and feel happier. Thank you Julie & Susan xx

  2. Shirley, I am so proud of you too. When you sit down to it, glue yourself to the desk. Sooner or later, it takes about 10 minutes, if you know you aren't allowed to leave, you'll Start. For, what else is there to do, seeing you're there..!