A Cup of Tea


The day is perfect.  You are on a journey, or at a museum, or in a park. Nature, or stirring works of art surround you, or the gritty patina of an historical place gets under your skin.  Or you are moved by the elderly couple on the bench nearby, or by the cheeks of your child or of your child’s child. Or the smooth roundness of a model speeds your heart rate.  In other words you are inspired.  Your emotional reaction to that which you experience rises up inside you and you can’t wait to get to the studio.

Alas, there you are with an hour or so in front of you, your basket of colors just waiting to dance—all the tools and all of the time and the urge is mounting. And then you move forward with some drawing, some rendering, some marks, or some paint. And everything you put on the canvas looks like crap to you.

What do you do?  How do you continue to ride the wave of visual stimulation? In our studio I often see and hear what is probably the quickest way to douse the flame–almost immediate denigration–like Bette Davis just walked in the room, as she did in Beyond the Forest, and pronounces “What a ‘mess’!” I’m guilty too as this thought rounds by brain… “After so much inspiration, anticipation, education and opportunity and then THIS– THIS is what comes out? How could you?”

It’s a natural reaction as our ego jumps to defend anything less than momentary brilliance by trying to discount the effort.  In other endeavors slow starts and trial and error over time are acceptable.  But somehow we find it difficult to allow the same when it comes to creating. We either have talent and it must be displayed immediately, or we don’t. That is the common miss-belief. So if the thing in front of you looks like it was taken from the local Montessori, the early years, all efforts are discounted and we doubt the validity of the doing.

To what can that possibly lead in the creative act? Typically the chest tightens around the previous anticipation and it has now become a lump.  The face furrows and frowns. The body slumps and the shoulders tighten. Breathing is shallow and the urge to destroy is hard to resist. Non-attachment that leads to fearlessness is a good thing.  But that “I must not let the world see my folly” move to eradicate is not.  How do you soar when you’ve put this yoke around your neck?

Allow yourself patience.  Practice patience. Patience is not trying harder. Patience is a room for mistakes, for mud and muck and silliness. Patience is a way forward. Let patience muffle that critical voice so possibility has a place.

It is ultimately about changing pace. It’s important to be able to decelerate after the rush of inspiration in order to let the process proceed.  Resist that nose-to-the-grindstone approach.  Drop the obsession to “to get it done”.  You’re not making wallpaper.

Develop strategies that allow you time. Perhaps work on more than one piece simultaneously. Walk around the room every 3o minutes or so. Ask for feedback or advice from more than one person. Look at your work.  Wait until your own eye tells you the next move– not all the next moves. Watch it from the corner of your eye while you do something else.  Put it up with other work, your own and others, not as a comparison, but just to see how it looks in a different context.  Move it around, upside down, etc.—even if it’s a figurative piece upside down can show you compositional flaws. Look at it in a mirror.  Take it to another room. Change the light. Sneak up behind it. Make a cup of tea. I often clean up while “watching” my work.  Or fill my eyes with other art from the books around the room. Not with an analytical approach just a way to shift perspective.

The next component is belief—a simple belief that the mushy, pre-school style rendering in front of you is not a reflection of your ability or your character or anything else.  It is only a seed, a starting point. Have belief that no matter where you start you can and will learn how to do what YOU need to do to say what you need to say. The skill set is attainable if you don’t judge too quickly. Trust things that feel good and when they don’t, be willing to abandon any part or the entire piece.  But wait—wait for an idea for a new approach, wait.  It will come. Make tea.

Below is lifted from an article entitled The Power of Patience published in last fall’s Harvard Magazine:

”The art historian David Joselit has described paintings as deep reservoirs of temporal experience—“time batteries”—“exorbitant stockpiles” of experience and information. I would suggest that the same holds true for anything a student might want to study at Harvard University—a star, a sonnet, a chromosome. There are infinite depths of information at any point in the students’ education. They just need to take the time to unlock that wealth. And that’s why, for me, this lesson about art, vision, and time goes far beyond art history. It serves as a master lesson in the value of critical attention, patient investigation, and skepticism about immediate surface appearances. I can think of few skills that are more important in academic or civic life in the twenty-first century.” Jennifer L. Roberts November-December 2013 Harvard Magazine

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