Saturday, May 14, 2016

Looking back on a year of Morning Paintings

Somewhere halfway January of 2015 I rather spontaneously decided to start a daily painting project I called Morning Paintings. I was inspired by Jennifer Orkin Lewis (who did a year long daily painting project for a while already at that time) and Pam Garrison (who was writing about following in Jennifers footsteps).

My plans weren't half as ambitious as theirs at that time, because I couldn't picture myself painting every day for a year at all. A year! That was way too big a commitment for someone who sometimes has trouble keeping things up even for a week. I was not going to set myself up to fail.
However I had this small and thin 32 page sketchbook that seemed like a reasonable place to start. Fill that up and see how it goes. So that was basically my plan: see if I could keep it up for a month. And if I could, that would be pretty amazing in itself and I'd have a little sketchbook full of paintings to show for it.

My rules were quite simple: fill a page every morning before breakfast. No themes, no working on techniques, no masterpieces necessary. Just. Fill. A. Page. I decided to use gouache, simply because I love the medium and wanted to work with it more.

Well, the rest is history as they say. A year later I had 330 paintings in seven sketchbooks! Most were done in gouache as planned unless I was away from home, because then my rather big Caran d'Ache gouache box was a bit too bulky and I worked with a small watercolour set instead.

I kept up my daily painting practice almost exactly a year. I think there's a difference of one or two days. This is simply because my seventh sketchbook was full and it seemed silly to start another one just for one or two paintings when I knew I was going to move on to something else.

You may wonder why there are not at least 363 paintings then? Well, that's life as they say. I got the flu in february of 2015 and pretty bad too and I decided not to do my morning paintings on vacations. The paintings were supposed to become routine, but vacations to me are about getting away from my routine. I did however do them when I was away on trips for work or family visits. Several paintings have been done at my sisters kitchen table and others on either the ferry or in a hotel.

I would like to talk a little about what a year of painting every morning has taught me and brought me.

1. A little bit every day goes a long long way.
This is something we all know in theory. Little things can add up to big things. But I never experienced it so directly as I did with these paintings. If somebody had asked me to fill seven sketchbooks with paintings in a year or to paint 330 paintings I would have been incredibly intimidated, but one little page a day almost secretly adds up. It's amazing.
I was surprised every time I reached another milestone of fifty more paintings or filled up another sketchbook. How did that happen? day at a time of course. It's not rocket science. It's not magic. It's not even special.
What this also means is that even if you have very little time you can do art. Thinking you are too busy is not a valid excuse. Do half an hour every day, or only five minutes. or only every week. Things will develop. One millimeter forward is still a movement forward.  Maybe it's slow going, but at least it's going.

2. I am disciplined. Who knew?
Discipline is a word I have never really connected with myself. Keeping things up for a long time, or starting new habits never really seemed my thing. I have given up on every diet I have every tried for instance.
But I was wrong. If it is something worth my dedication I will keep it up. I think I myself am the most surprised that I was able to put these paintings first every damned day.
I have learned the key to discipline is a strange combination of dedication and letting go. By that I mean that I had to really commit myself every day again, but at the same time had to allow myself the leeway to not do it if it simply was not practical or desired. I am not a machine after all.
But most of all it has to be something that is worth the trouble to me (not to the world, not to the magazines, not to my friends or family, not to lifestyle gurus, to me). Getting up extra early every morning was worth the trouble, because I enjoyed doing these paintings and was getting something out of them. That doesn't mean I always felt like doing them, it just means I decided to give it a try every day again and every day I was glad I did and those experiences build up over time and make it easier to do it again.

3. Sorry optimistic self helpers, a habit does not form in 30 days (or three weeks or four weeks or...)
I'm sure you've read the articles or seen the tv-shows or whatever where they tell you that if you just keep up something for a small amount of weeks you will have formed a habit. Well, I hate to break that bubble, but that turns out to be a big fat lie. I can honestly say it took me over half a year if not longer to really feel like this morning practice was ingrained into my system. And even then I had to consciously do it.
Yes, of course it gets easier over time and I think I am now indeed at a point where doing art right after getting out of bed is simply a thing I do, but still it is not as natural as brushing my teeth or showering. That is why the discipline is important and why it has to be worth it to you. Things that do not give you some kind of worthwhile personal reward are impossible to keep up long enough to have the time to even form a habit. Or maybe they are, but then you're just miserable every morning by forcing yourself to do something you don't even want. 

4. Doing art every morning before anything else enriches your life
Why? Because you are doing art every morning! Whatever else happens that day, you have been creative. You have made something. You filled a page. You played with paints. This is the hardest thing to really explain, but you're all creative people so I'm sure you get what I mean. If art and creativity or crafts are important to you it is incredibly self affirming to actively make time for it every day. This cannot be overrated. It is food for the soul. And your day is simply better if you start it by feeding your soul.

5. I got to know my paintbrush really well
I painted mostly with one round watercolour brush when I did these paintings and now it is my absolute favorite brush in the whole wide world. I cannot speak for other brushes, but this one pretty much does exactly what I want now. I can fill in shapes with it, paint with it and I can draw with it. I found out just how much I actually love to draw with a paintbrush. I guess it is true that practice makes perfect, or least improves your brush strokes. It also means that if you want to learn about your art supplies, you have to use them. Don't save them for the right occasion. I pretty much used up that one Caran d'Ache gouache box and it was awesome.

6. Inspiration comes from doing
If I got one question a lot in the last year it was: how do you come up with something to paint every morning? The answer is: you don't. Sometimes yes, an idea would come to me right as I walked into the studio or even at night in bed. But just as often I had no idea what I was going to do that day. But there's something interesting about picking up a brush and paint every morning. It's like a muscle is being trained that just fills pages. If I didn't know what to do I could just pick a few colours and see if I could make an attractive pattern. The goal is filling the page, not make a fabulous painting. Just start by making a mark. And when you do another mark will follow. And then the inspiration comes. I wish it was the other way around, but it's not. The cool part however is that the more you do this, the easier this gets. And you can ruthlessly steal from your own previous ideas too! The more pages you fill the more you have to draw from.
I had exactly one morning when I really could not think of anything at all and then I decided that that would be the theme of my painting and I simply painted the words 'Even no inspiration can be inspiration' on the page and went from there.

7. I really found out what I naturally lean towards
Or maybe one could say I found my style? What I mean is that when you paint every morning patterns start to emerge. In my case often literally haha, because it became more obvious than ever how much I love love love patterns. So many of my paintings are pattern designs and ideas. But other things I apparently love are flowers, portraits, abstract nonsense, whimsy and mandalas. The amount of realistic paintings is very low. I did do some and they turned out quite nice, but they always seem to be a bit of a chore. I'd rather just make stuff up.
If you practice often enough this is bound to happen. It's why style is not a thing one should worry about too much. Style, like inspiration, comes from doing.
I have such great admiration for people who do realistic figurative art, but I apparently am not one of them.

8. One project leads to another
After one year of painting I stopped that project last January. Not because I didn't love it, but for practical reasons. Filling a page a day took too much time sometimes for the things I wanted to do. If I for instance made a more intricate pattern this could take up to two hours and that is time I simply did not have every morning.
However I had become very fond of my morning art practice and did not want to give that up. So while I was still working on my last morning paintings I started to think about ways to adjust my daily early dose of art.
Things I wanted to change were for instance:
  • the freedom to use every medium I want (not just gouache)
  • not having to finish a page every day, but being able to work on something for several days if needed
  • only spend 30 minutes on it every morning
That led to the project I am currently working on since February, which I call The Morning Book. I will tell you all about that in another post. Let me just say here that I love it. :-)

This morning art practice has become addictive. It's my version of daily meditation. Next to my journaling practice and my regular walks these are the things that keep me sane and help me clear my mind for other artistic endeavours and probably just life in general.

After a year of painting I don't really think I have become become a better painter or a better artist. But I do think my life has been enriched in a way that I never would have expected and I have learned things about myself and my art which influence the other things I do and make.

If you're still here after this wordy post I thank you for your attention and patience. I sincerely hope you have something that enriches your life and that brings you joy that is all yours and all for you. If you do, cherish it, and if you don't, try to find it. It doesn't have to be a daily thing, it doesn't have to be art. And it certainly has nothing to do with worldly success, status or money.

Feed your soul.