Have you ever had the feeling that you are forgetting something really important? Not like car keys but something bigger, deeper? A phantom limb, it nags you.
With some time to kill, I stopped in at a Starbuck’s in Seattle. I had an old watercolor set in my bag that had been hopeful for years — and painted what was right in front of me, the latte. My hands shook from lack of practice. But then this voice in my head got on her soapbox, Hey Niya, you’re on vacation, this is just water and pigment and a mote of paper from a friendly, unfortunate tree, just watch the color do it’s thing and drink your latte. Uh, well, alrightie then.
I shared my watercolor book with friends over Thanksgiving dinner. I soon realized I was sharing it like it was about to be put in a coffin and writing notes for the eulogy. Why? What was driving my days that was more important than doing what matters most? Painting had been my happy place. The place where the world stopped and the magic began. It cured heartbreaks, grumpiness and even the flu. It birthed new ideas for living, new ways of being, more freedom, more laughter more consistently than anything else I had experienced. So why was I about to kill it again? A habit that had a long tail backwards. Much of it not based on truth or creative living.
So, this is how it began. A fuzzy sense that my days were spent being more reactive about what comes (clients, life demands, etc.) and less proactive about what mattered. I was determined to create a body of work that had personal meaning. I chose a year, and daily, because in my experience it takes a year for a practice to become second nature. Not missing a day tells your brain and nervous system you are serious and this practice is here to stay.
On January 1, I created my first painting and posted it with a little story. I buzzed with excitement that I was going to paint 30 paintings of coffee or tea in under an hour per day. I had 30 tries to get it right. This tickled me to no end.
By month 2 I knew I was in over my head.
A perfectionist by nature and by training as a designer, painting in under an hour before the workday began started off with verve. A perfectly organized kitchen table to paint on with a perfect view, the perfect blog set up and not so perfect paintings, but hey, I had another 330 tries. Perfectionism looks pretty like a cheese cloth at first until it squeezes everything novel out you and leaves your efforts dried up curds in a lacy bag. If I was going to make my daily creative nest matter and sustainable, I would need to make some decisions about what I wanted out this project; what rules where needed and the tendencies in my own behavior that needed to be scrimmaged, started down and harnessed. This is what I decided:
1. KILL PERFECTIONISM. I wasn’t going to have much fun under the guillotine. But how?
- CRINGE AND POST. At the end of an hour, post what you painted no matter what. (I cringed through many of these). It will never be good enough. Post anyway and get a good night’s sleep. Never stop experimenting and learning.
- IMPROVISE. No reference material. 80/20. 80 percent whatever comes to my head and 20 percent references when there’s a series and research is needed or for a boost of inspiration.
- NEST. Clean or chaotic, enjoy the nest. And I challenged myself to let the chaos lead the next painting the next day vs. needing to clean up. I wanted to nurture the rituals of making vs. trying to make something perfect. Play good music. Have a glass of wine, really enjoy this one space in the day that is not assignment/deadline/other focused.
- UNPLUG COMPLETELY. As long as I was plugged into technology, my mind was triggered into perfectionism, performance, delivery, other-focused, audience-expectations. When I turned off the computer and devices and the ringer on the phone to paint, I quickly renewed the focus to playing, improvising and making whatever wanted to come out without the vague sense of audiences online. The senses open up as well.
DISCIPLINE. LOVE. A cognitive framework I chose to internalize that helped immensely. I decided to do everything in my power to make this the one hour in the day was full of love and playfulness. I knew it was going to take practice. But I have rabbits and friends that make me laugh and completely supported this project in it’s purity.
Instead of thinking of the posts as a blog, I imagined each painting as a love letter to the world. I wanted my viewers and subscribers to breathe a bit deeper and feel the delight of color in their email box in the mornings. Especially since we are in the battle of the email box these days. To have something delightful that inspires, energizes and doesn’t ask anything of them. This gave me the feeling of being their redhead Santa every single day. A wonderful feeling. So this hour was not an act of discipline with the cracking of the whip, but an hour of giving to myself and others.
3. PERMISSION for IMAGINATION. Frequency gains momentum. When creating everyday, I often found myself in a snowball effect. The day before was never complete, the day ahead always waiting. I needed to manage this somehow so that I didn’t go the opposite of perfectionism and get sloppy. The themes were often subjects that had odd relationships to one another, but somehow lent themselves to natural story frameworks. Bunnies & Bicycles for example. I hadn’t planned to tell stories with the paintings (and certainly didn’t on everyone), yet it really helped ground the painting in the end. The painting got it’s much needed punctuation. The more I let go of perfectionism, the more velocity of imagination, and the more fulfilled, energized and relaxed in the end. Soon I was really looking forward to my one hour. It was an adventure.
When I stopped and chased down some tendencies that in the past sabotaged creative habits and put some cognitive structures and boundaries around it, I was able to sustain and have more fun over the year.
Over the year there have many course corrections, improvisations, experiments, mistakes, clumsiness, poor decisions, better decisions. But having an hour to make the mistakes that only I can make — having 30 opportunities a month to explore focused subject matter is a unique sort of bliss that I had never experienced until this year. The endorphin rush of introducing a new subject is something I will miss terribly. The daily emails and comments from new friends from the project is something I looked forward to everyday.
Now that I have this positive ritual in my life, I won’t be giving it up. I can realistically set goals in this next year and have a metric for what can realistically get done. I’ll be writing about this project for some time and hopefully helping others establish their “space in a day, room of their own” to grow larger imaginations around what really matters to them.
This wasn’t a marathon for me, it was teaching myself something I’ll use for the rest of my life. I’m grateful to people who jumped in and offered incredible insight and support over this year. It made it that much more special!
I donated to 9 organizations from the print sales from the website/shop. After painted and posted, I created a high resolution print and a little printing and shipping shop from the studio and gave a percentage monthly. This tickled me because the shop came out of requests to buy the work.
What’s next for 2014
I’ll be producing 3 books this year—2 non-fiction and one illustrated children’s book. 5 viable children’s books came out of the 2013 painting stories and many scenes beyond that. I’ve chosen one to develop. I will be working with Carla Sonheim to teach myself the fine art of children’s book illustration/painting by studying the masters. It begins in January. I’ll post paintings here and there and share my process. I’m excited to continue to work with Carla. It was her style and her talent that mentored me all year in learning the craft of working on paper. I had always been an oil painter on canvas.
The non-fiction books are exciting to me. And they are also based on this project. One of them I will solicit agent support to sell to a publisher. It chronicles this project and dives deeper into the practice of imperfection to really get stuff done. The other book is imagination focused. An expository narrative. It pulls 10 story paintings and discusses the role of imagination in life, work, and day to day living. There is enhanced content as well. You get to enjoy what lounge chair coffee bean bags enjoy on the beach right there with them. ; ) I’ll be raising Kickstarter funds for that one.
I also plan to offer an advice column support group discussion area for folks starting their own creation projects. There’s still the gallery exhibit coming up in 2014 of the originals. I just need to find one with the walls and willingness. And balancing work and personal life. There’s that!
2014 promises to be a year of writing and offering support to others who are making their ideas happen. Because wow, strategies around sustained practice in our very distracted world is core to getting something done— an innovation in and of itself.
Wow, I can’t believe I did it. That it’s really over. I think this will be sinking in over the next couple weeks. Thank you again supporters. I SERIOUSLY couldn’t have done it without you!
~ Love, Niya Christine… your daily painter 2013 —Writer/illustrator/coach in 2014.