Thursday, June 18, 2020

Traveling Light and Going Goal-Free

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Here we are: June already, and the time of year I usually do a goals check-in, asking myself how it's all going, what's working, what isn't . . . Oh, boy.  

What can I say? As much as I'd love to tell you that my cumulative efforts toward goal-completion are moving with rocket speed, the truth is, they are not. In fact, a few weeks ago I actually got rid of my goals journal, and I feel a lot better for it.

As we are all probably sick of hearing (and knowing), 2020 hasn't been much of a joy ride. So many plans have had to be changed, put aside, or dropped altogether. For me personally this has involved abandoning plans to take new art and language classes, as well as giving up on even thinking about overseas travel. What I can do, however is keep working, as in:
  • Keep writing, which means continuing with my WIP.
  • Keep submitting my work for publication.
  • Keep learning and practicing to improve my drawing and painting skills.
  • Keep beading and building inventory for an eventual business, one that was supposed to start this summer, but now is, well, getting ready for NEXT summer!
My "modified goals" are simple, doable, and fit into my new 2020 routines and schedules. To make things even more streamlined, I've been doing some packing, putting away art supplies I'm not using at this exact moment; placing various unfinished works-in-progress into plastic storage containers; discarding old writing exercises that I know for sure I don't want to edit or publish, ever. 

I feel a lot lighter and a lot happier. With only a small amount of projects on my plate I feel as if I'm on a kind of creative vacation, the kind that only requires a small overnight bag and plenty of sunshine and rest.

Traveling light suits me and has always been my preferred way to see the world, whether it's a quick trip to Santa Fe, or a longer journey to Taiwan. Not only is a small suitcase easier to carry, but I never have to pay for any unwanted baggage fees. Most importantly, a small case makes me focus: What do I really need to have with me every day? What items will only create clutter, take up too much room, and will probably never be used anyway?

I weighed these same types of concerns to evaluate what it was I truly wanted to have with me for the rest of the year, if not beyond. As I was packing up my old first drafts and unused sketchbooks, it got me thinking about what else I could let go of, things that might be causing more trouble than joy in my life. You might recognize some of these in your own life and feel the need to let go of them too: 
  • Emotions revolving around creative work. Something I've learned about creativity is that it's never going to be free of anxiety and stress. Stress that something isn't "right." Stress that a project or manuscript will never be "good enough." Heck, I can even stress over finding a typo in an old blog post! So often our expectations are light years beyond what is required to achieve or complete any given project. The sooner you can let go of worry and just create without expectation, the better your work will naturally become. Ironic, isn't it?
  • Over-achieving. For me this means the need to work on too many projects at once. I fell into this bad habit when I read--and believed--a very stupid book that claimed multi-tasking was what highly-motivated professional writers and artists did: spin plates while walking on high wires and jumping through hoops with paintbrushes in both hands and a manuscript in their teeth. All day long! After hard experience and a lot of burn-out, I now know: tackling one project from start to finish is a far more productive, and satisfying, way to work. It's also a whole lot less to carry around in my brain.
  • TBR pile. I love to read, more than anything else on earth! But sometimes I can have such a huge pile of books to get through it feels like I'm in some never-ending high school English class: read those books, write those reports! Better to have just one book that I really want to read than a stack of homework assignments.
  • Too big of a to-do list. Another of my really bad habits: sitting down to write a daily to-do list that should only include: "buy milk, check post office box, pick up dry cleaning." Okay--that makes sense, one round trip should do it all. But then I start adding things like: Finish novel (which requires at least another six months). Practice drawing faces (well, maybe I have time for that over the weekend). Gesture drawings--twenty of them (which would take probably three hours). And it doesn't end there. Usually I need to get a second piece of paper to write down everything I want to do for the rest of my life. And it's all so counter-productive! Believing that I can accomplish all of this while going to my day job and buying the milk is a good guarantee that I end up wanting to do nothing but read one of those books from my TBR pile. From now on, my to-do list is going to be the size of a post-it or I won't even bother writing it.
  • Too many ideas. Although I've done a good job of packing up my various projects in order to concentrate on finishing one manuscript in the form of my current novel, I still keep getting IDEAS. I don't want to ignore them completely and I don't want to lose them, but really, there are days I wish they'd go visit someone else. In order to semi-solve the situation, I've taken to simply writing them down and putting them away in a folder. I want to add "never to be seen again" but who knows, there might come a day when I'll be glad of them. The one thing I'm certain of, though, is I'm not going to a) dwell on them, b) drop everything else I'm doing to pursue them, and I'm especially not going to c) purchase anything they might cry out for such as new paint sets or special supplies. No, no, no!
  • Too many online obligations and interactions. This is a difficult one, I know. But there's been something special about having this extra alone time to befriend myself, getting to know what I really want from life, and what types of goals will suit me best when I do come out of isolation. None of us need a thousand "likes" to know our work has value, just a strong inner voice reminding us to show up and do whatever we can at any given time.
To me traveling light means the ability to travel well and to travel easily. It means going where your heart calls you, not where the guidebook says you must. It means being able to stop and smell the roses right in front of you rather than  rushing off to find and paint acres of magic orchids just because it sounds so grand and accomplished. For now simplicity is truly the key. Happy Trails!
Tip of the Day: What's weighing you down right now? There's no reason to carry anything other than what you love, but even those things might need to be re-examined in order to navigate our current world with greater ease and a lighter step. Take some time to consider what to keep, what to get rid of, and what you might want for later but don't want to discard completely. Pack it up and save it for next year!

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Things to Do at Home: Urban Sketching, Picture Book Style!

Baby werewolf in a coffee mug. Every home should have one!

Greetings from Albuquerque! And greetings from another day of, well, stuck in the same old place with no relief in sight. But stuck doesn't have to mean running out of ideas or things to do. Sure, there may be days (weeks) when it feels impossible to wring another ounce of inspiration out of lock-down, but, hey, we're creative people--we can do it! 

Like so many others in the world right now, here in New Mexico we've had to place our lives on hold while we wait for our health statistics to improve. The two things I personally miss the most are 1) the library, and 2) meeting with my various creative groups. I especially miss my art groups, but fortunately Albuquerque Urban Sketchers has done a fine job of staying in touch, encouraging members to keep drawing, even if it's just sketches of our home life. 

With the instruction of "drawing in place" however, comes the caveat of "drawing the truth." Didn't wash the dishes? Show us those dirty plates! Laundry piling up? We want to see! Be real, be honest, be exact. No fancy-pantsy Architectural Digest staging for us sketchers

I have to admit that when I read these "be honest" guidelines I wasn't particularly thrilled with the idea of using my sketchbook as a visual to-do list ("Mop that floor!" "Scrub those sneakers!"). Instead, I needed to shake things up a bit, color outside of the lines, as it were. That's when I thought of sketching at home from the viewpoint of a child: What if I crawled under the bed? Or, What if I lived upside-down on the ceiling? In other words, I could sketch out a picture book.

Some of the tips I considered to help me get into picture book mode included:
  • Thinking in terms of height and size: e.g., what do the items on my kitchen counter look like if they're above my head? Or, if I were only four years old, would a flight of stairs seem as deep as the Grand Canyon? 
  • Ask what a child would find interesting about a house. While the neighbors might admire a well-kept lawn, a child might notice that there's a gopher hole right in the middle, or that birds are building a nest in a rain gutter. Adults might disdain an old piece of furniture, but to a child it's a time machine or the entrance to Narnia.
  • The same goes for any ornaments or household objects. For instance, you could bring a cat figurine to life, invent new uses for a potato masher, or create an entire story around the items in your closet.
  • Explore small objects: egg cups, button collections, jewelry; even the junk drawer can be a source of interesting things to draw. 
  • Toys and their varied surfaces and textures can provide an infinite amount of sketching ideas. Try posing and arranging them in unexpected places. (For some of the best examples you'll ever see using this technique, I suggest viewing the work of Dare Wright--my absolute favorite children's book creator.)
  • Don't overlook your own backyard (if you have one, of course. For me it's a balcony, but I do see trees!).  Is there a mysterious, neglected part of your yard? Use it to the full. Make a "fairy garden" and sketch the results.
  • Study and copy patterns found on wallpaper, draperies, bed linens, or tile work. Patterns can be useful additions to creating a lively border or background to a picture book page.
  • Think back to your childhood home and/or the place where you grew up. Can you reproduce from memory anything you loved or that was unusual or visually interesting? Don't worry about quality, just get the general ideas down and worry about perfection later.
  • Even though we're temporarily cooped up for much of the day, it's important to get out and into the fresh air whenever possible. Can you visit the exterior of a museum or playground to sketch for a little while? How many details can you observe? Taking your own photographs can be a quick and easy option if you choose not to linger anywhere.
  • Go wild: if you're sketching your toaster, why not color it pink and covered with gold stars? Or replace the cars in your garage with a herd of antelope? 
  • Sketching for children is a good opportunity to consider your color palette. Rather than just aiming for primary colors or anything "bright and shiny," give some thought to mood. Are you feeling happy, sad, wistful, or nostalgic for your own childhood? Play with watercolor washes and draw over them later.
  •  Set up some reference files from magazine cut-outs or sites such as, e.g., Toys, Children's Clothing, Play Rooms, Bedrooms, Animals.

Can we go play??

I must say it's been an eye-opener these last few weeks lying on the floor sketching chair legs--and not just because I discovered my base boards needed a good dusting, but because it's made me think seriously about illustrating a children's book from the perspective of an urban sketcher. Sketching is, after all, a way to explore ideas, collect data, and experiment with mediums, palettes, and composition. And where better to start than at home? 

Tip of the Day: If you find yourself getting bored with your own supply of pots and pans and coffee mugs, experiment with designing an entirely new set on paper. Draw a household from your imagination, one set on Mars or ancient Greece. Place your characters on a pirate ship or living in a log cabin. You don't have to be accurate, just playful. Have fun and let me know how it goes. See you next time!