Limiting Options to Raise Productivity

February 1st, 2018

Last time I wrote about combatting burnout by trying something new.  I love having many different media available to work with, and developing the confidence to use each one comfortably.  Each medium has its strengths as well as its drawbacks.  So it would seem counterintuitive to regularly limit my options in using them.

But the truth is that I have a tendency to spread myself too thin.  We used to call that being a Jack of All Trades, which, of course, can easily preclude becoming a master of any.  With too many options at my disposal, I find I actually accomplish less overall than when I concentrate on a single medium.

The first quarter of this year, I am teaching watercolor classes.  So during this period I’ve decided that the focus of my own work should also be on watercolor to explore a variety of techniques to broaden the repertoire of my skills.  When I attempt a variety of techniques in, say, oils and pastels, at the same time, can I gain enough practical experience in the multiple media to benefit me much in any of them in the long run?  Probably not as rapidly as if I focus on developing skills in one medium at a time.

Similarly, if I divide my practice time among landscapes, portraiture, and still life, my visual attention will be scattered.  Whereas, if I focus on landscapes alone, I can attune my eyes to notice perspective, value and saturation changes, atmospheric effects, shape differentiation, and so on.  If I focus on figurative work, I am more inclined to notice how the angles, planes, and variations from “the norm” reveal the identity and attitude of an individual, as well as consciously observing the hue and temperature changes in various skin tones.

Although I may select more than one subject to use as examples for my students, my own practice and production should reflect the focus of whichever studies (both subject matter and medium) that I’ve selected to concentrate on, for my own benefit, at any given time.  In this way my attention isn’t so scattered, and I’m less likely to become sidetracked into less productive directions.

Procrastination and Burnout

January 15th, 2018

Procrastination and Burnout would seem to be at opposite ends of a productivity spectrum, but I’m coming to believe they’re not actually all that far apart.

Inspiration or Burnout?

“Inspiration or Burnout?”

Procrastination – the action of delaying or postponing something.    Procrastination, which is often manifest by replacing one task with another, often unrelated,  activity, is often triggered by fears—of either failure or success, of embarrassment or unwelcome recognition—or by indecisiveness or lack of motivation.  Or perhaps we’ve been sidetracked by demands in other areas of our lives and are finding it difficult to get back into the swing of those things we need (or even want) to return to.

Burnout – physical, mental, or emotional collapse caused by overwork or stress.    Burnout is caused by applying effort without incorporating sufficient downtime.  The phenomenon of burnout can also be brought on by fears—of failure, loss of motivation or opportunity—or by insecurity or losing perspective on our physical, mental, and emotional needs in relation to our efforts.

Both cause a slowdown in our level of productivity.

We all need time occasionally to regroup, evaluate the direction and effectiveness of our efforts, and consider alternative means of accomplishing our goals.  Some of us may need encouragement to overcome indecisiveness or insecurity; others may need help in finding direction or motivation.  Some may need a mentor or encourager to help us overcome various fears that deter us from accomplishing our goals … or to remind us to pay attention to other areas of our lives that may have been neglected.

If our lives are out of balance, as mine often gets over summer travel time or winter holidays, we sometimes swing from procrastination in some areas to over-compensation, which can lead to burnout, either in the same area or in other areas of our lives.

Scheduling can help in overcoming procrastination.  I sometimes set myself imaginary deadlines to complete certain goals.  That technique usually works pretty well, so long as I don’t allow those “deadlines” to float, which defeats the purpose of providing motivation to accomplish those tasks without further delay.

Though habits and schedules can help us use our time efficiently, they can also dig us into ruts that leave little room for variation or innovation, both of which are necessary for creativity.  It’s like following the same set of recipes every day:  Without variations, those favorite and nourishing meals eventually become boring, and we may be unaware of shortchanging ourselves of other important nutrients.

So to combat stagnation or creative burnout in our artistic endeavors, sometimes we artists need to change it up, try a different medium or tool, select a different kind of subject, view a scene from an unusual perspective, limit our palette or change to colors we rarely use.  We may need to experiment with a different size or format.  Or it may be time to put down our own materials and go to an exhibit of other artists’ work to gain perspective and inspiration for our own.

How do you combat your own tendencies toward procrastination or creative burnout?  I welcome your suggestions and feedback.

2018 Watercolor Classes

January 1st, 2018

A new year marks a good time to take a fresh look at the methods and approach I will be taking in teaching my watercolor classes this year, as well as to redefine my goals for them. I look forward to starting my new 5-session series of beginning watercolor classes next week in both the Verandah and Pelican Preserve communities here in Fort Myers.  I want to give my students more than bragging rights for a “refrigerator magnet” style one-time souvenir.

Instead, I have two goals.  The first is to provide my students with the basic understanding of the medium, technical know-how, and confidence to be able to begin painting in watercolor on their own, from an unlimited choice of subjects, for the rest of their lives.  The second is to instill in them a joy in painting so they want to continue developing their skills and understanding, increasing in both confidence and satisfaction in their ongoing efforts.

"Still Life with Ixora Blossom" by Charlotte Mertz (171207w detail)

“Still Life with Ixora Blossom” by Charlotte Mertz (171207w detail)

As I review my course syllabus, I know the information to be covered in each class session will lay a groundwork upon which any further learning can be based.  But more important than that is the enthusiasm I hope to express as I talk with my students and demonstrate my own joy in painting.  Enthusiasm (or lack of it, unfortunately) is contagious.  So I want my joy to always be apparent both in my own work and in my attitude toward the students and each topic I present, so each group of students bonds into a supportive community, enthusiastic and encouraging toward one another as we learn from both our successes and that inevitable “School of Oops,” from which few of us ever entirely graduate.

Art is one field in which we can never “know it all.”  It’s a wonderful subject for those of us who consider ourselves “lifetime learners,” because it poses a never-ending challenge to exceed whatever our current level of skill and expertise might be.  No matter how innately “talented” we may be even without instruction, or how developed our skills become through extensive education, there is always room to learn more.  But without a sense of enjoyment and satisfaction we will probably feel little impetus to maintain a long-range drive toward excellence.

So that is my primary goal for these beginning classes—not that I necessarily start my students on a road to becoming great artists, but that they feel motivated with an inner sense of pleasure and satisfaction to pursue their budding interest in watercolor painting and carry it as far as they will.

While maintaining an atmosphere of camaraderie and encouragement, my subsequent 5-session series of Continuing and Intermediate classes in both communities will continue to build on the basic skills learned in the Beginning classes.  The Continuing and Intermediate classes will focus more on general artistic principles, which contribute to a sense of perspective and reality.  Although my classes will address how artistic principles can be applied specifically to watercolor work, understanding them can enhance compositional design in any medium.

Will you be joining us as we begin our classes next week?

Of Prudence and Preference

December 15th, 2017

In this month that too often turns into Frenetic-Shopping Season, it’s important to trust our own taste and judgment about what to choose.  We can be unconsciously and unduly influenced by the hype of advertising and salespeople, especially when shopping for merchandise with which we may feel insufficiently knowledgeable, such as artwork.

Art is one area in which uninformed buyers can easily be duped into “investing” in works of little intrinsic value or merit.  But how can you protect yourself?

While traveling earlier this month, I was reminded of how easily an uninformed shopper can be misled.  At a so-called “plein-air” gallery, the displayed paintings were, to my eye, obviously painted from photographic reference material rather than ala prima style, en plein air.

What’s the difference, and why does it matter, you may ask.   These are valid questions.  “En plein air” is the French term for painting outdoors, on location.  It involves contending with the natural elements:  heat, cold, humidity, rain, snow, wind, insects and other wildlife, and all their associated discomforts and inconveniences.  It also means that the light is continuously changing as the sun moves and alters the position of shadows.  So plein air work is often done comparatively quickly, without the refinements an artist is more likely to take time for in the studio.  Animals, human figures, and details are more often suggested with quick, minimal, but carefully considered brush strokes than with fine detailing and highly rendered brushwork.  So the overall appearance often tends to be rougher and more “painterly” than studio work.  But the immediacy of the ala-prima (all-in-one-go) approach also imbues it with a sense of liveliness and personality that is difficult to reproduce in the studio.

Whether or not it’s actually worked en plein air makes no difference to its intrinsic value; but some collectors prefer the smaller sizes and spur-of-the-moment quality that typifies plein air work.  If you like the painting, it shouldn’t matter in what manner or under what conditions it was painted, but don’t be misled by an inaccurate representation of the work.

Another gallery I visited sold beautifully executed watercolor images but didn’t openly specify that the merchandise were prints rather than original watercolors.  Typically, prints are priced considerably lower than original watercolors because any number of copies may be made from a single original image, and can be made in a variety of sizes.  This means that the same image may be sold to a number of different buyers for a variety of purposes.  For the artist, the sheer quantity of sales can make up for the lower price of the prints.  But the inks used may not precisely match the original colors and are often subject to more rapid fading than most professional-quality watercolor pigments would be.  And the buyer does not have the exclusivity of owning the original painting, which is what most fine-art collectors prefer.  If you see multiple copies of the same image, or notice it in more than one size, or if the price seems unusually low, you can be pretty sure that you’re looking at prints rather than originals.  And that’s fine if you don’t feel strongly about owning an original.  But you should be aware of the differences before you decide to buy.

Prints of oil paintings, of course, usually lack the impasto texture typical of oils.  Even these, though, may be reproduced on canvas and may be “enhanced” in key areas with an impasto gel to simulate the surface textures and brushwork of the original painting.  Look for inconsistent surface textures and for textures that do not align with the direction of the underlying brushwork, as shown below.  These prints have their place, but if you buy one, let it be a conscious, informed decision rather than a misguided mistake.

Inconsistent surface textures indicating gel enhancement over a print of an oil painting.

Inconsistent surface textures indicating gel enhancement over a print on canvas.

“Limited edition” prints usually show a number, such as 83/250, in a lower corner of the trim edge.  This means that it is print #83 out of a limited print run of only 250 total prints, after which no more would be made (traditionally, the metal plate used would be destroyed).  This designation used to be more important than it is now because it was used to indicate how comparatively crisp the manually pulled print was likely to be when taken from a metal plate.  This plate would wear down a bit with each print taken from it, gradually losing its crispness and clarity.  So the lower the first number, the higher the quality was likely to be.  This is still a valid designation for etchings and some other art forms, such as wood-block prints. But most reproductions of paintings today are not manually pulled from this kind of plate but are more often gicleés (sprayed ink) or other computer-type printouts, which make the size of print runs and the relative position within the run virtually meaningless.

So, especially if you lack confidence when shopping for artwork, whenever you choose art, don’t think in terms of its financial investment value (which is always a high risk, whatever salespeople might try to tell you about the demand for some high-profile artist’s work), but base your selection instead on what moves you and art that you truly like.

If you can, try to learn the motivation and story behind any specific artwork you are interested in purchasing.  Learn about the artist and what influences might be reflected in the work.  These stories will help you connect with it on an even deeper level than what originally drew you to the work, and will enhance your appreciation of it in the future.  It will also provide you additional information to share with people who admire it in your home or place of business.

In short, there’s no need to be afraid to shop for artwork.  It’s available to suit a broad range of tastes and in a wide range of prices.  Let any thought of “investment” be purely in your pleasure in the artwork, not in some “potential” (but unlikely) increase in monetary value.  So find what you like, and what suits your needs.  Whatever your budget and targeted price range, be discerning when it comes to quality to know what you’re getting.  As my grandmother used to say, “Trust your own good judgment.”

I hope you find exactly what you’re looking for, both in this joyous, if somewhat frenetic holiday season, and throughout 2018.

Please feel free to contact me if you’re interested in learning more about any of my work.  My paintings are currently all originals, not prints or gicleés.  I am always happy to divulge the stories behind my work when requested.

Winnowing the Yield

December 1st, 2017

One of the plights an artist faces is what to do with the vast amount of “product” that accumulates in the studio.  If we are skilled and in demand, much of what we create sells promptly and clears the way for further work.  Although I’m not quite at that point yet, I intend to keep working at it.

As we climb the stairway toward greater success, years’ worth of practice, studies, and still-immature work tends to accumulate, gradually encroaching on the working environment, consuming shelf, drawer, wall, floor, and other storage space until there’s scarcely room to move.  So sometimes we need to glance back down that stairwell to see that though what we achieved at each step succeeded in teaching us something to carry us a step further, that we had not yet reached our destination.  Just as I did in this depiction from several years ago of an unusual natural-wood stairwell configuration.

"Spiral Stair" 11"x15" watercolor (#130702w)

“Spiral Stair”
11″x15″ watercolor (#130702w)

Even knowing that my own work has not always lived up to my hopes or expectations, I often find it difficult to discard what amounts to ideas.  (Surely they could be useful to me sometime in the unforeseen future.)  The problem is that the material accumulation of unsuccessful or unfulfilled “ideas” can interfere with my continuing work in the present and even deter fresher ideas from coming to fruition!

So as we approach the end of another year, it’s time for me to winnow out the chaff—those earlier efforts that reaped no rewards beyond experience (a good enough reason in itself to have painted those pieces) to make room for more mature work.  Three stacks soon accumulated:  discards, salvageables, and keepers.

“Salvageables” fell into several categories—those that require only minor work to bring them up to acceptable standards; those from which I would like to make another attempt of the same subject, usually in a different medium (Oh dear, there are those ideas again!); and those from which I can reuse the canvas or framing materials, if nothing more.

The decisions aren’t easy.  (I can be ridiculously sentimental about some of my work.)  But as a professional, why would I want to waste space on pieces of much lower quality than I can currently produce?  I mustn’t!

Certainly, selling it might bring in a bit of immediate revenue, but it wouldn’t help reinforce the brand quality that I want to project.  So some “tough love” has had to come into play.  And some forthright frankness with myself about what lives up to, or at least approaches, my current level … and what simply doesn’t.

The job of culling the crop isn’t finished yet, and may not be before the end of the year … but hey, … I can already see a little open rack space again!