Why Is Creating So Hard?

It may seem that the outside world is preventing us from taking part in our creative art or hobbies. At times, it’s hard to find any time for our interests because of our many day-to-day responsibilities. But it also seems that when we find some time, it’s hard to even get started. We hope to find some time daily but often struggle with feelings of avoidance or resistance in our effort to pursue our interests. We might feel that if we get our chores out of the way or check a couple more things off the to-do list, then we’ll deserve to do something creative. But we seldom seem to get our break. We may have a stretch of a couple of free hours for ourselves one day, then have difficulty returning to continue or to finish our projects. We may be procrastinating, unable to begin or continue, for a variety of reasons.

First of all, yes, there are too many other things to do – we’ll never get them all done! Like many ‘responsible’ people, we may spend so much time taking care of everyone else that we don’t make time for ourselves. ‘Life happens’ and interferes, right? 

Well, actually, the difficulty might not be having so many things to do. Our struggles may be more INTERNAL, relating to our thoughts, our attitude, the way we look at the situation. WE are the ones who don’t decide to MAKE THE TIME, don’t make art a PRIORITY, and become discouraged, doubt ourselves, even self-sabotage our dreams. We all do it to some degree. We all deal with what author Steven Pressfield calls ‘resistance’, a tendency to sabotage ourselves when we attempt to improve our life (for example, through doing art, beginning a diet or an exercise program, writing a book, making New Year’s resolutions, etc.). Most people tend to pursue creative work only “ as a sideline”, when nothing else is pressing.

Summer Tomatoes Watercolor.

PROCRASTINATION may be the most common example of resistance to creative work. “I’ll begin that project tomorrow”, we tell ourselves. Unfortunately, when tomorrow arrives, there may be another obstacle, so we repeat, “I’ll get to it tomorrow.” Putting our creative dreams on hold can become a habit as we come up with one excuse after another! We become stuck, afraid to act on our creative passion. 

RATIONALIZATION and PERFECTIONISM may set in, making the situation worse. “My work probably won’t be good enough anyway. I don’t want to embarrass myself.” More excuses! So what if what you begin isn’t wonderful and perfect? What you’re attempting never even existed before you tried to bring it forth. You may have success, you may not.

Barn Interior Watercolor.

What to do with this FEAR? How can we move beyond those fears and judgements enough to let ourselves create and to accept ourselves and our art? Give yourself a break! Be kind to yourself. Focus on the process of doing, not on the quality of the end product. We all doubt ourselves and fear that our work won’t be good enough. Accept your doubts and fears; don’t deny them, but take some ACTION in spite of your fears. 

Take action BEFORE you think you’re ready. (You may never feel ready!) DO it anyway. As Steven Pressfield suggests, “The more resistance you experience, the more important your unmanifested art/project/enterprise is to you – and the more gratification you will feel when you finally do it.”

Howard’s Trumpet Watercolor.

So, make the decision to practice your creativity REGULARLY if you want to make progress. Begin. Start small, with what you have now (the space, time, money, equipment). Be determined to create the HABIT, build MOMENTUM. Some of your work may be terrific, some may be awful. So what! Sooner or later, with persistence, things start to happen. And you’ll feel all the better for doing it! It’s a practice, and it takes practice… Just don’t give up!

You might enjoy these other blog posts that relate to creativity: “Fostering Creativity.”, (9/24/2019), https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/09/24/fostering-creativity/, and “Creativity Can Be Learned!”, (1/8/2019), https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/01/08/creativity-can-be-learned/.

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Ten Fun Things To Liven Up Your Art!

Don’t know what to paint? Disappointed in your last paintings and feeling inadequate? Bored with your art? Need some inspiration? Craving some creative calm? Try something new!

Here are a few things to excite you and help you change your art up:

1.) Invest in a new brush! But, don’t buy just any old brush. As a watercolorist, it’s so much easier to paint well with a decent brush! Here is my new favorite brand. Give yourself a boost with an ESCODA Versatil brush, a SYNTHETIC brush designed to have the attributes of a natural kolinsky. These brushes hold a lot of water, have a firm spring, a sharp point, plus durability. A size #10 pointed round sells for about $20 (on dickblick.com, jerrysartarama.com, or cheapjoes.com). Nothing makes play more fun than a new toy! What a treat!

2.) Take an actual (or virtual!!!) trip to a museum to get inspired. For instance, the Museum of Fine Arts Ghent, Belgium, currently has a Jan van Eyck exhibit up ( through April 30, 2020) entitled “Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution”. While the actual exhibit is closed until April 5, zoomable images can be found at closertovaneyck.kikirpa.be and on their Van Eyck page.

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What art did you enjoy looking at? What did you especially like? Can you borrow some ideas about technique, treatment of light, or use of color to adapt to your own paintings? Track done another museum you’d like to check out. Look at the NY Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibits (https://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/current-exhibitions), The Worcester Art Museum (https://www.worcesterart.org/exhibitions/), or The Wadworth Atheneum Museum of Art (https://www.thewadsworth.org/), for example.

3.) Try a new brand of watercolor paper. Make sure it is ARTIST GRADE 100% cotton fiber (NOT cellulose), such as Arches, Waterford, Fabriano, Lanaquarelle, or Indigo Handmade. Most of these brands can be found online (dickblick.com, jerrysartarama.com, or cheapjoes.com). Remember that you can sometimes buy an assortment of different papers, or a pad or block of a different brand – you needn’t buy full sheets. I recently got some Indigo paper from amazon.com and am looking forward to giving it a try. These papers made of cotton absorb paint much more evenly and make it easier to paint well! They are definitely worth any extra cost. Experiment!

4.) Find some inspiration by buying yourself a new or used watercolor book to immerse yourself in. Learn about all the critical ingredients that turn paintings into art with Joseph Zbukvic’s Mastering Atmosphere and Mood in Watercolor or Thomas W. Shaller’s Architect of Light: Watercolor Paintings By a Master. Or look into the amazing John Singer Sargent: Watercolors (https://www.amazon.com/John-Singer-Sargent-Erica-Hirshler/dp/0878467912/ref=sr_1_6?crid=2FWU61E1CBLTR&keywords=john+singer+sargent+books&qid=1585064924&sprefix=%2Caps%2C162&sr=8-6). Looking to shake things up? Try Mark Mehaffey’s Creative Watercolor Workshop. Or, if you’re a beginner, check out Watercolour For Starters by Paul Talbot-Greaves, Let’s Get Started by Jack Reid, or Painting For The Absolute and Utter Beginner by Claire Watson Garcia.

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5.) Gift yourself a new tube of watercolor paint in a color you might like but do not have. Wouldn’t Daniel Smith’s Lavender be beautiful? Try a tube of Cobalt Teal Blue, Quinacridone Gold, or Bloodstone. Fun!

6.) Look at your paints in a new way by arranging them in a round palette (see robax.com) in a color wheel format. To learn how much easier color mixing can be with a color wheel format read my recent blog post Color Choices For a Circular Palette, published 2/11/20, https://leemuirhaman.com/2020/02/11/color-choices-for-a-circular-palette/.

7.) Sign up for a watercolor workshop with a talented artist. Now is the time to plan! Get a couple of your friends to go with you, if you want, and make a day of it. I’m really looking forward to a Robert J. O’Brien workshop with two of my friends at New England School of Fine Art, Worcester, MA., http://www.nesfa-worcester.com/index.html, entitled ‘The New England Landscape’, on May 30, 2020.

8.) Or perhaps you’d enjoy taking an online workshop. Many artists offer online instruction. I have been developing several online art workshops that will be available in the near future. Stay tuned for news, or contact me to express interest. In the meantime, look at the offerings from artists Angela Fehr, Rebecca Rhodes, Anna Mason, or Birgit O’Connor. Courses are also available from Artist Network, https://www.artistsnetwork.com/, or Art Tutor, https://www.arttutor.com/classes. Some classes can also be found for free at jerrysartarama.com. And finally, YouTube has many free videos on watercolor technique.

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9.) Find yourself a new piece of art equipment to help you paint better and LEARN TO USE IT. A gray scale or value scale, for example, can help you create more dynamic and effective paintings by improving your light and dark contrast. Don’t know what a gray scale is? Read my blog post Why Should I Bother To Use A Gray Scale?, posted 5/21/19, https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/05/21/why-should-i-bother-to-use-a-gray-scale/, for more information.

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10.) Finally, try something NEW or BREAK SOME RULES! Don’t take things too seriously. Paint with some unexpected colors, or unusual color combinations. Add some complementary colors that you don’t actually see in your reference image to add interest to your painting. Or zoom in close to your subject to crop out unnecessary details. Change your viewpoint in your picture to either raise or lower the horizon line. Try looking down on your subject, e.g. painting a lake looking down from a cliff. Alter the mood in your painting, perhaps creating a more somber, dark, heavy, moody image. Or try charging your colors ON your paper (see the watercolors of John Singer Sargent, especially his images of sunlight on stone, one of which is below) to add life to your picture and prevent a flat lifeless wash. Or exaggerate your lights and darks. Above all, focus on the PROCESS of painting without worrying about (or even considering) the result.

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John Singer Sargent watercolor.

Choose one of the ten above suggestions to try – begin with the one that excites you most. Then try another – just keep painting or thinking about your art. Strive to keep calm through your creativity. And ENJOY your painting!

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How Do I Develop A Personal Painting Style?

What is it that makes a painting meaningful and gives it a personal touch or style? Most artists spend a lot of time and effort practicing technical skills and learning technique. They study and practice to improve their competence.

Nevertheless, a well-executed painting, even if technically perfect, can be lifeless and without feeling. What exactly do we mean by style? How can an artist paint with feeling?

CHOOSE SUBJECT MATTER AND INTERPRET IT:

Style is more than the SUBJECT MATTER an artist chooses to paint, although it begins there. Style includes a personal INTERPRETATION of a subject. Each of us will see and describe a scene in a somewhat different way. When we paint, we hope to express our own POINT OF VIEW, our FEELINGS about the scene. By omitting or SIMPLIFYING details that seem unimportant and highlighting other details, you can focus on what is important to you. You might make an effort to limit your reliance on reference material, at least to some extent, to allow for more interpretation. Decide what touches you about a scene, rather than blindly copying (without thinking) all the details of what is before you. Do this, and you will begin to develop your ‘style.’ Tell your own story!

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GET TO KNOW YOUR OWN FEELINGS AND LET THEM SHOW:

It is not easy to create art that expresses your feelings and personality. You may need to get to know yourself better and begin to identify what truly interests and excites YOU. Instead of copying other artists by painting what they paint in the way they paint it, don’t be afraid to do it your way. What makes you an individual is what will give your painting style. It’s your feeling about a work that helps the viewer to connect, on an emotional level, to your picture. Strive to show an imaginative, original, unusual, perhaps even surprising, viewpoint. Experiment!

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PAINT BOLDLY:

TIMIDITY and FEAR OF MAKING MISTAKES are two obstacles to developing your painting style. When you paint with hesitation and uncertainty, you tend to create tight, stiff, overworked images. Strive to loosen your BRUSH STROKES, painting more BOLDLY and with LARGER brushes. Small brushes make it too easy to paint minute details, leaving nothing to the imagination of the viewer. Instead, suggest and omit nonessential details, thus allowing a viewer to become involved in imagining and filling in ambiguous specifics for themselves. One technique to increase viewer connection is the use of LOST AND FOUND EDGES in painting. (For example, vary your edges by using hard edges as well as soft or disappearing edges to create interest in your picture.)

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USE COLOR IN YOUR OWN WAY:

COLOR CHOICES can play an important part in developing your style. The paint pigments on your palette affect the feel and flavor of your paintings. The Zorn palette, for instance, created and used often by Anders Zorn, consists of primarily four colors: yellow ochre, ivory black, vermillion, and titanium white. Vincent Van Gogh, on the other hand, tended to prefer other color combinations, as did Johannes Vermeer and Claude Monet.

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CAREFULLY OBSERVE AND EMPHASIZE SUBTLETIES:

Beyond the colors on your palette, style also depends on how you ’SEE’ what you choose to paint AND how you might choose to EXAGGERATE subtler colors. (For more information on ‘seeing’, check out my blog post entitled “Painting Begins With Looking and Seeing,” https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/12/18/painting-begins-with-looking-and-seeing/, published December 18, 2018.) Painting with style thus involves looking carefully and analytically at a subject, and taking the time to observe. Without careful looking, your paint colors can tend to be flat, conventional, tired, and uninteresting. We have all seen beginners who paint trees or grass an unvaried, unnatural green. Strive instead to observe subtle color variations which are almost always there to be seen. Further, use your imagination to emphasize some of the subtler, more elusive colors to suggest to your viewer WHAT YOU FEEL about your subject.

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CAPTURE THE LIGHT:

Observing and capturing the QUALITY OF LIGHT in an everyday scene will help you to paint with style and feeling. Again, study your subject and really look for the nuances and subtle variations of light at different times of day and in different locations. Light affects how everything appears, whether it be the strong golden light of summer or the soft purple-gray mist of a rainy day. Shadows, whether cast or reflected, also tend to have rich and subtle color variations that you will want to get across to the viewer of your art.

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IN SUMMARY:

One artist will interpret a scene differently from another. In choosing the essentials and leaving out unimportant details, a painter begins to develop a personal style. Further, your selection of colors, materials, and techniques to use in painting will be unique, contributing to your style. Over time, each of us develops our own characteristic and distinctive shorthand for dealing with familiar objects; these habits can become recognizable. For instance, I often paint trees by scumbling the leaves, and I use lots of dry brush when painting rocks and stone walls. An artist’s selections, simplifications, and techniques are individual, making style a natural evolution within an artist’s work. However, to develop style fully, you must move on from simply considering materials and techniques to delving deeper and getting to know yourself and what you value. Be sure to express your feelings about a picture; be creativeRemember, your style is yours!

To delve even deeper into the subject of creativity, check out my blog posts entitled “Fostering Creativity” (9/24/2019), https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/09/24/fostering-creativity/,  and “Creativity Can Be Learned!”  (1/8/2019), https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/01/08/creativity-can-be-learned/.

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Fostering Creativity.

How many of us are secretly afraid, although we hope it is not true, that we don’t have the abilities necessary to be creative? How many of us feel it is too late for us to become artistic and reinvent ours lives? How many of us don’t know where to start even though we have a desire to be creative?

If you’ve ever wondered about these issues, let me assure you: you are already creative, and you can become a still more creative artist if you wish. Creativity – bringing something new into being – is a tool we can all access and utilize. As the poet Maya Angelou has said, “We need to remember that we are all created creative and can invent new scenarios as frequently as they are needed.” And similarly, according to Brenda Ueland, “Everybody is talented, original, and has something important to say.”

Cooking can supply an example of how creativity enters into even everyday processes. At first, you learn the lay-out of the kitchen and how to use equipment; you learn how to read a recipe and where to find and how to prepare ingredients. However, with a little practice, time, and effort, you begin to change the recipes, combine two or three different recipes, adapt a recipe to use ingredients on hand. You have begun to create something – perhaps dreadful, but often wonderful – with your own style. You are being creative! You take the time and make the effort needed to finish cooking the meal. You persist through difficulties and interruptions. You focus on what you’re doing, observe the process. You might take a chance and trust your intuition, adding less of one ingredient and more of another. With luck, you do not judge the results negatively, put yourself down, or feel a failure, and you are not afraid to try again, make a mistake, or feel foolish. Instead, you taste and evaluate the product, keeping in mind what worked well and what you might improve next time. You note your reactions and ideas, are inspired to plan another meal and to keep practicing your skills. You continue to experiment.

Once you’ve decided you want to get acquainted with your creative self, where do you begin? How do you jumpstart the creative process? First, be yourself; you are original.

With mass production, mass marketing, and mass media, it is important to remember that an artist needs to be independent of pressure groups and popular opinion. Have the courage not only to say no to superficial trends, but to say yes to your own emotions, thoughts, and creative impulses.

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Don’t be in a rush! Take the time to get to know yourself. Get beneath the surface, and observe your reactions to what goes on in and around you, allowing yourself to notice details you might have missed. This patience and openness will allow you to recognize the invitation of inspiration, whether the stimulus is an idea, a hunch, a thought, or an impulse. (See my related blog post, titled “Painting Begins With Looking and Seeing”, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/12/18/painting-begins-with-looking-and-seeing/, published December 18, 2018.)

When you choose to follow your inspiration, whatever it may be, it needs to be captured and recorded. One of the best (and most adaptable) tools available is a journal to help provide a “visual record the way your creative ideas evolve.” Write down what you want to make. Think about your project – subject, materials, technique, color, time, cost, style, shape, whatever seems relevant. “Record everything.” In writing (or sketching) your thoughts, you honor their value. Brainstorm. Research. Plan. Get organized. Create reminders of what you are doing and symbols that are visible to you.

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The next part of the creative process may take an hour, a week, or months. Don’t be impatient – you mustn’t be in a race to the finish line! The project may need time to come together, to simmer, to mature, to evolve. Allow the time necessary for this incubation. It often helps to carve out a corner as a sanctuary where you can sit in quiet reflection. Spend time regularly in your creative space. A ritual, or simple routine, can often spark the creative process, whether it is taking a walk, lighting a candle, or sitting with a cup of tea. Interestingly, shaking up your routine can also cause a creative spark. Try some new things, a museum, gallery, or art fair, and expose yourself to new ideas. New experiences will stimulate your imagination. (See my related blog post, titled “Creativity Can Be Learned”, https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/01/08/creativity-can-be-learned/, published January 8, 2019.)

It’s one thing to have an idea, but it’s quite another to trust your idea and follow where it leads. Translate your thoughts into a plan of action. Take the risk and begin! Many of us have been taught to be too cautious, too nice, to play it too safe. To be truly creative, you must be willing to try and fail, and then get over it. Remember that perfection is NOT the goal – this is the time to experiment! Have courage and heed your intuition. Sample or test, change a variable, and sample again. Do the work and DON’T give up!

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Avoid judging yourself by whether your project is a “success.” Enjoy the journey instead of focusing only on your results. If your goal is creativity, it’s the process that matters. Trust that if the process is good, the end will be good as well. And NEVER allow other people’s opinions to intimidate you or make you feel vulnerable.

You might seek out mentors, role models, or advisors who are supportive of your uniqueness and expression. Creativity flourishes within an atmosphere of security and trust but dies if surrounded by a climate of criticism and stress. One thing a mentor might tell you is to leave enough time in your life to do something that makes you happy. Keep in mind that what you really WANT to do is what you are really MEANT to do. Don’t feel guilty or selfish! Take the time to make painting (or whatever else you choose to do) fun, and strive for your dream.

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Creativity is within your grasp. It means you being yourself, thinking your own thoughts, responding to what you feel, NOT rotely copying someone else or a reference photo. Creativity transforms conditions as they ARE into conditions as they COULD be or OUGHT to be. You create only when you bring forth something that was not there before. There is no need for you to make your painting abstract, realistic, or any other particular style if these options make you uncomfortable. Make your own shapes, values, and color!

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Realism: Better Than An Exact Copy!

Realistic painting often gets a bad rap nowadays.  The implication seems to be that abstract painting is creative, raw, cool, and trendy; that realistic painting is merely like a copy of a photograph.

Well, realistic painting (the seemingly straightforward representation of objects as they appear in the physical world) can be every bit as CREATIVE as making an abstract image.  Good realistic painting has a great deal in common with abstraction.  Paintings of each type may assume different positions on a continuum from more realistic to more abstract, but both need to use sound structural designs (that is, well-organized images) to be effective.  Good design directs the viewer’s eye through the picture by using shapes, line, color, edges, value, and manipulation of space.  Planning and structuring your painting do not stifle your creativity.

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Artist Georgia O’Keefe commented on the dispute over realism versus abstraction:  “It is surprising to me to see how many people separate the objective from the abstract.  Objective painting is not good painting unless it is good in the abstract sense.  A hill or a tree cannot make a good painting just because it is a hill or a tree.  It is lines and colors put together so that they say something.”  Even the ideal subject must be shaped and adapted to fit the idea and emotion the artist wants to express. 

Copying an image exactly without determining a focal point or eliminating distracting details does not improve that image.  Painting ought not involve simply copying what you see; slavishly reproducing an image is not the goal.  To create good realistic art, you need to make it PERSONAL.  Your art needs to reveal what you want to say and what the image/scene means to you.  The goal for most realistic painters should be to combine the realistic image with a distinctive INDIVIDUAL PERCEPTION and expression of the subject.  You must select and arrange colors, lines, shapes, and other design elements.  You can create an unusual color scheme; use a dramatic value contrast; emphasize texture, pattern, or line.  As an artist, you transform the subject by filtering it through unconscious thought processes so that it reflects your past experiences and personal beliefs.

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If something intrigues you, it is worthy of your interest and of your audience’s interest.  Explore any subject if you feel you have something to say about it.  You paint best what you know best.  One artist may seem successful at selecting unusual subject matter.  Another artist may be a people person and prefer portraits.  Yet another may enjoy the refreshing feeling of landscapes.

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In the classroom, students often copy the work of other artists.  Copying can be useful for practicing skills and techniques – that is, as a way of learning – but a number of pitfalls to copying can emerge.  It is difficult, for instance, to capture the emotion expressed by the artist who made the original.  You might also simply copy mistakes or poor techniques without being aware of those flaws.  Furthermore, copying prevents you from learning to organize a picture on your own; some people become dependent on copying.  Since the creative experience is missing when you copy, you need to move beyond copying to become a creative artist.

Much better sources for images to paint are your own photographs.  However, you will need to adapt even your own photographs when you use them as source material; remember that even a well-composed photograph needs editing to become an effective, forceful painting.  Also try working from life to design your own picture.  Observe carefully.  Pick and choose, simplify and rearrange until you have transformed a literal image to fit your impression.  Leave out distracting or extraneous details.  Focus on essentials to turn nature into art.  Use your memories to visualize something that isn’t there now, and imagine or invent something if you think it would make a good picture.  In any case, strive to be selective and imaginative rather than literal.

In composing your picture, think about what you want to say.  You might make a list of descriptive words that characterize your subject; include details about its physical appearance and qualities that make it unique or interesting to you.  These could be related to mood or emotion.  Brainstorm as many ideas as possible; then narrow these down to one clear meaning – this is your concept, what you want to say.  Concentrate on this meaning; you can have only ONE focal point.  Start with the real, but enhance it!

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