There are times when you just can't bring yourself to paint. I've been there more than once over the past few years. You know those moments when nothing hits you, nothing comes, except maybe frustration, and the conclusion that you're just not "on" that day. Or worse, the conclusion that you've "lost" your edge. For those of us who desire to earn a living through our art form, our patience for this sort of thing is limited! Once in a while is no problem at all, but what about those times when days turn into weeks?
How does one push on through that feeling and paint anyway?
I suspect it’s the same way one does dishes or cleans out a closet. By starting.
I don't know about you, but sometimes, only good ol’ discipline will get me moving. Sometimes just setting up will create a momentum. (Just like I know that once I’m into doing the dishes, I’m fine. It’s just getting going in the first place that’s a little bumpy.)
Maybe you're like that, too.
So what happens en route to that starting point, that stops us, or makes us have to will ourselves through?
I believe it’s what we tell ourselves.
“I don’t know what to paint” “I don’t have the energy” “it’s too nice outside” “I’m just not inspired”.
These could all be The Reason, or they could be things we say until the Real Reason surfaces: “I’m just not inspired.”
What is inspiration?
Is it a flash of knowing? A vision? Being filled with this unstoppable feeling that we must create? Well, yeah, kind of. And wow, when inspiration visits us, it's amazing, to be sure. It's the ultimate. Paintings just pour out; just seem to paint themselves.
But what if we sit at the canvas without that knowing? Without that vision, and without that motivation? What if inspiration can't reach us that day? What if it's two doors down, partying with another artist, late for its appointment with us??
I'm of the belief that inspiration is like air: there is enough for all, at all times; it is always available. Just how available is up to us.
I'd like to suggest that inspiration is something we can tune into, like tweaking a radio dial to tune in a station. What if all we had to do was 'receive' its signal?
In my experience, that is all we have to do. To 'receive' is to 'allow'. Things take a turn for the better when we allow inspiration, instead of sweating its not being here yet. It's a whole shift in energy, like letting go after hanging on with sweaty palms.
Here are ways we don't allow: (or, how we keep our radio dial set to 'static')
hanging on tightly to our ideas
needing things to go a certain way
being invested in the outcome
expecting things (anything!)
directing or controlling the flow
How do we let inspiration find us at those times we need it most? First, let's notice that the heaviest word in that question is 'need'. Nothing will weigh a wish down more than having it drip with need. It is about finding a way to become neutral that will move us out of the way, letting inspiration come.
How do we allow?
by letting go of our ideas and keeping an open mind
allowing things to unfold as they will
being neutral about the outcome
receiving the flow and staying in gratitude of where it takes us
While inspiration is a breath of air, a sweet relief, an answer, a welcome visitor, the expectation of inspiration is like pinching off the hose to have it flow a certain way, and leads to frustration, dead-ends, and giving up.
So what DO we do? (or, how DO we tune into a station?)
What if we sit at that canvas with only questions? No answers, only questions. That might look like us sitting there, all set up to paint, but with no idea where to take it. In other words, no inspiration.
How uncomfortable, right? I’d rather vaccum, you say, understandably.
But what if we just sit there and be. Be in the question with the canvas.
To take this idea a step further, what if we question the canvas itself? Literally.
Next time you sit at the canvas with no idea what to paint, try this:
1. Take a pencil and write a question on the canvas. It could be a question you've wanted an answer to in your life, such as 'should I leave my current job?' 'what can I do to improve my health? 'should the kids go to summer camp?' 'should I color my hair?' (in other words, it is YOUR question, big or small, it's all valid.)
2.paint the answer.
Oooh. . . now it gets more interesting. Write a question and paint the answer.
And of course, it’s not about finding any particular answer. What if we stay in the question the whole time? In other words, keep your focus on the question as you paint, never seeking answers. That way, everything remains possible. Just stay open and let the brush lead you. Just keep the question in mind. Let the brush select the colors, let the brush lead the dance on the canvas, let the brush figure out any answers.
Gently stay out of the way, your attention solely on the question, only tuning in enough to hear the sweet song of inspiration.
Showing Up is Everything
I have great respect and admiration for the person who shows up. Shows up to whatever it is that calls them: the canvas, the page, the instrument. Hair in curlers, top pants button undone, no makeup, they just show up; come as they are, and START. It's even juicier to me if they are untrained, and bring only their shy willingness. (They are my heroes.) They are the ones outside their comfort zones, saying, 'maybe I can do this'.
Without that start, none of it happens. Paintings stay unpainted, books remain in the head, and music only on the inside, when really, it needs to live on the outside, where it can be shared and heard. I believe that a life unexpressed is what leads people to depression. Showing up and starting turns into staying and doing, which leads to all manner and levels of masterpieces and satisfaction. Doing this a few times leads to the delicious, 'what else is possible?'
What Creative hasn't been stared down by a blank canvas or a blank page? It can be intimidating as you resist the urge to let it take you down.
I recently read that in some circles, it's considered 'low-rent to go out with wet hair'. Really? I just see a person who has things to do, and the impetus to do it, regardless of perfection, and I encourage it.
I was in a diner having breakfast, and there was figure skating on the wall-mounted TV. The seeming ease and obvious strength of these skaters put a big lump in my throat, as I thought, 'they just kept showing up and showing up and showing up.' That's an example of showing up leading to mastery.
Putting off writing or painting or any other soul-thirsty pursuit is putting off your inner desires. Has this happened to you? You enter your studio or craft room with intentions to create, and instead, find yourself cleaning and straightening clutter. While this is not a negative endeavor, the timing of it is questionable. When you find yourself doing this, catch yourself and re-align with your original intent.
Whether that inner voice is a whisper or a full yell, it doesn't take to being ignored. It's the voice of reason, after all. Listening to the voice that gives loving direction, that tells you what action you can take that will turn into a creative masterpiece, or some such bliss, is worth listening to.
Follow Your Heart
Painting, and other creative pursuits, should transport you. Heaven’s on Earth when one is in that sort of ‘time suspension’ that comes from being engrossed. Spirit moves through you as you just move your brush, as it answers the call of what needs to be expressed. And believe me, it needs to be expressed. The flip side of ignoring that inner nudge is loss of some sort, and usually manifests in either depression or general malaise, which I call 'flat-lining'. Who wants to flat-line through life?
Here are some tips to give you permission to follow your creative heart:
Approach a canvas with an adventurous, willing spirit
Let go of expectations. My favorite works are the ones I painted without a map.
If you get stuck, turn the canvas upside down and peer at your markings as you would clouds. I’ve built entire paintings from a random mark that turned into a leg.
If you begin a painting and find that you don’t like the direction it’s taking, keep painting, and tweak it until you do.
That said, don't get too attached to any direction a painting is taking. Be willing to trust yourself, follow your instincts to paint over something and change direction. It’s just paint! You have absolutely nothing to lose, and everything to gain.
Paint for *yourself*. If you paint with an 'audience' in mind, you'll 'hear' all sorts of critical noise and nonsense and there is no surer path to becoming blocked. (What if all criticism is a lie? What if any criticism you ever received was just love and gentleness that someone wasn't able to give to themselves, and had nothing to do with you?)
When you come to a point where you like where your painting is going, enjoy the feeling, but still, don’t get attached. Becoming attached leads to over-thinking, and over-thinking is the death of a good painting and the birth of a tight one.
Let the canvas be your wild inner life, expressed. (It's always the quiet ones.)