Sunday, August 31, 2014

Nurturing creativity...or killing it

Last time I explored some of the things (and they are many) that encourage creativity.  Things that delight me, light that spark, make me want to grab the nearest pencil or pen.  

Or yes, try a new Moroccan dish, design a tunic, make some Japanese tsukemono (kraut), solve a prickly problem or try a new approach to writing.  (Thank you Andy Couturier for your book and your class!)

The old Marrakech Cafe is what got me started on the Moroccan-food kick!   Now I make my own...

And for me (and for many of us), what can kill creativity--and the desire to create--are several. 

Like my very personal discipline of making a list on what nurtures creativity,  I find it helpful to write down those things that do not.  It fixes them in my mind and reminds me to run like a rabbit, for my own sanity and peace.  Sometimes that list is noticably shorther than the one that inspires creativity, and for that I am grateful.

But somehow this "list" got a bit wordier and a good deal less "listy"! Here goes...

Rules, with a capital R, for one.  You must NOT use this or that tool, you must NOT erase, you MUSTN'T use opaque paint with watercolor--or that feeling that you MUST do something every day, hence creating pressure to produce over being inspired or responding to something you care about. 

We are not factories. We are creative souls. 
The idea that you must use this medium or that, and you mustn't use the other one...for me, whatever works to express what I NEED to is what I use. If I want to use a pencil, I use it. If I want to go all ink, I do. If I jump right in with watercolor with no guidelines at all, then that's what the piece asked me to do. If I feel like giving myself guidelines--or making the underlying drawing the work itself, embellished with watercolor, then go to! If the piece calls for a touch of contrast where I've forgotten to leave one, a bright sparkle, I bring out the gouache or the white Sharpie!  

But uniformity in rules or requirements? Not for me, thanks.  Freedom to fly is what I need.

(Though actually, yes--I'll admit to a certain childish rebellion when faced with Rules--perhaps they DO encourage creativity, in a kind of reverse psychological way, for me!  "Oh, yeah??  Who sez?  Watch this!" Yes, I am a stubborn brat, why do you ask? )

Assignments--whether freelance, for pay, or casual prompts are not for me. Not any more.  If it hasn't come from within, it doesn't satisfy my creative urge.  (And mind you, many others find challenges and prompts extremely inspiring, making them their own.  Perhaps it's all my years as a freelance artist, stomach in knots until the client responds, that makes me dislike these things so thoroughly!)

I suspect copying someone else's work can compromise creativity, as well.  It's all right for learning a technique or understanding how the artist did what they did--after all, that's how artists learned, as apprentices, for generations.  But creative?   

Do you give a flying fig about "the Color of the Year?"  I don't.

Creativity is our OWN response--to a subject, a mood, a color, a quality of light.  A loved one.  Something we care about! 

Working from a photo is borderline, for me.  I'm not into photorealism, at all--a camera can do a much better job than I can, and truthfully I don't have the patience for such exacting work.  

And often, photos flatten the scene and obscure detail--especially on a sunny day with deep shadows.  The main challenge of translating the wonderful 3D world to the flat 2D surface has already been solved in a photo.  And we are often tempted to render it exactly as it appears, with little personal response, really.  No tweaking, creative editing, or immediate gut-level response.

Have I worked from photos?  Of course I have.  I take hundreds, and sometimes I can't wait to render them in watercolor--or interpret them in watercolor, perhaps I should say!  

Sometimes, back when I did much more freelance work than I do now--and thanks be to God I don't have to take every assignment that comes through the door, any more!--I frequently had to work from photos.  

When I did hundreds of illustrations for The Walker's Companion, a Nature Company guide (long out of print, and Nature Company is long out of business), they did NOT send me all over the US to do the field sketches!  What a dream assignment that would have been...

Often illustrators are asked to work far out of season, as well, in advance of the season for various wildflowers or other photos are our only recourse.  Most of my Country Living Magazine illustrations fit that profile, as well.  Baby bunnies are not born in January, but that may have been when I did this illustration.

I've done dozens of in-person demos with absolutely no opportunity to work in any other way...and of course, some of my favorite paintings have come from that necessity.  But I did interpret, not attempt to reproduce the photo, as you can probably tell, below.

This was a demo at Old English Garden Shoppe, in Missouri...a long way from Maine!

...and it was not winter when I painted this demo, also at the shop/gallery.  It's nearby, and I HAVE painted on that road, many times--but this was a demo in the evening, not a sunny winter afternoon.

Other things that can inhibit creativity?

  • The Inner Critic*
  • Pretty much any criticism (not the constructive kind, which, in fact, I am also not fond of!)
  • Active discouragement (parents, teachers, siblings or spouses can say the most deadening things...)
  • Lack of encouragement or understanding
  • Expectations--our own or others' (let it happen, let it flow.  Try being in the moment and see what develops.)
  • Too many suggestions or requests (for me this includes "why don't you do this or that, why don't you make a video on X, or would you teach on color theory/portraits/oil painting," etc.)
  • Lack of time
  • Lack of confidence
  • Comparing to others' work or skill
  • Not taking the creative urge seriously
  • Not giving ourselves permission to create
  • Not giving ourselves permission to explore
  • Waiting to find the perfect tool (brush, pen, pencil, paper, journal, whatever)
  • Exhaustion
  • Discomfort
  • Overscheduling
  • Overstimulation (too MUCH information, too many options, too many choices!)
  • Impatience with yourself
  • Expecting to improve without practice (some people think they either "have it or they don't."  Could you play the Canon in D the first time you sat at a piano?)

And alas, sometimes the clunky nature of sharing can suck the joy out of it. Photographing and tweaking, scanning and tweaking, uploading, may take more time than creating! So I give myself a break and just don't, unless I'm in the mood.

I know you can probably add to that list--I could, if I set my mind to it, but enough wallowing in the negative! 

We need to do more than add to a list.  We need to weed out those things that can be weeded, and find ways to deal with the negatives--creatively. 

Simplify, give ourselves permission to create, to play, to "waste" paper or pigment (it is never a waste, trust me.)  Set aside time, eat well, get more rest, turn off the TV, take a walk, breathe, use what we have rather than search for that special tool (the "special tool" is ourselves, our hands and minds and hearts.) 

And enjoy that moment...


*How do I suggest dealing with that Inner Critic?  Let ourselves greet that fearful, negative, or angry voice with kindness, gratitude and respect--it's only trying to keep us from failure, embarrassment or disappointment, after all.  Then suggest it take a nice long walk, have a cup of tea or a cookie, we're doing what we need to!  

What we were born to, really...

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

New Etsy Listings...original art

...and as I said, there WILL be occasional offerings here.

Tidepool, Maine--7 1/2" x 9 1/2", watercolor pencil

Alas, I did one of the completely squirrelly things that seem to happen when I have far too much on my plate...I recently sold one of my pieces of original art in the Etsy store, and then could NOT find it in any of the bins or envelopes that hold that stuff.  Even St. Anthony doesn't seem interested, this time!

Mind you I just SAW it a couple of weeks ago.  But...where?

Babble, babble...

The dear lady is extremely understanding and chose the image above as an alternate (thank you Sandi!), but having torn the studio apart for 3 days I finally offered her her pick of the new listings of similar price range (plus I'm going to send her a print of the lost one!). 

This is the one that was lost--I added the print to my Etsy store, siiigh.

While I was at it I got a few more from the bin scanned, tweaked, and listed...please take a peek in my Etsy shop, Cathy Johnson Art & More,  if you like!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Nurturing Creativity

Playing with carving my own print blocks

I suppose we all have the occasional dry period when nothing seems exciting, when we just don't feel like picking up a brush, when we're tired or overwhelmed.  And in fact I have a whole post in the pipeline that will be a follow-up to this one, addressing those things that kill creativity--or at least inhibit it to the point of entropy.

And honestly, when it comes right down to the nitty-gritty, what inspires us--what nurtures that mischievous and elusive muse--is as individual as we are.

Often, what works for me is to make a list--well, two of them really.  One list of those things that feed my soul, and one of the things that definitely do NOT.  I have done this little exercise time and again through the helps me take compass readings and make sure I'm still on course, as well as where I need to jettison some cargo or turn the wheel a bit to starboard.

Who wouldn't wish to see a few more of those stars like silvery eyes in a velvet sky, eh? (And yes, of course my sailor husband would remind me that starboard isn't up--work with me here, all right? I'm sailing this imaginary sloop...)

I've been doing a lot of jettisoning, lately.  Simplifying, getting rid of excess Stuff--belongings, ideas, occupations, imaginary or outworn obligations.

Making room for Creativity.  For life.

For we ARE creative beings.  That's what we do. Whether we create a piece of art, a symphony, a happy child, a balanced budget, a good meal or order out of chaos, we are fulfilling that urge. I once wrote an article suggesting that that is what we have most in common with the Creator; I still believe that, and I'm more grateful than ever, 25 years later.

Dip pens cut from feathers or sticks

So.  What nurtures creativity?  What inspires me?

Here's my list--this week.  Make your own.  They may be quite similar, they may be entirely different, but they must be honest, straight from the heart. 

  • An open mind
  • Paying attention
  • Meditation
  • Listening to what really matters to me
  • The light on my sleeping husband's face
  • Quiet
  • Time
  • Books
  • Textures
  • Joseph's hands
  • Flavors
  • Play
  • New places
  • Old ones...heart homes, near and far--places that have touched me
  • Music
  • Rest
  • A new tool--a new pigment, a fountain pen that's smooth of nib, a vegetable peeler, whatever!
  • Paper I love to work on
  • Beauty
  • Nature
  • Light
  • Color
  • Learning
  • New ideas
  • Reviving old ones that work 
  • Taking time for me (if I give it all away, I have nothing left for any of us)
  • Honesty
  • Friends who "get it"  (Get what, you say?  Well, that's as individual as we are, as well.)
  • Art--seeing what others have done or are doing can spark a conflagration
  • Rembrandt sketches, Vermeer's chiaroscuro, Winslow Homer's watercolors...
  • A new direction (the stamps above were my balance from too many weeks of the same kind of thing)
  • A different medium--almost but not quite the same as above
  • The grace and antics of cats
  • A quiet chat with an old friend
  • A new discipline
  • Old photos
  • Time for memory
  • Interaction with others...for me, sparingly, but still...
  • A quote that speaks to me
  • That One Perfect Word--you know, the one that strikes the ear and makes everything different  
  • The sure and certain knowledge that there is no one right way when it comes to creativity

A friend's recent art on used teabags inspired these two...thank you, Palma.
My own technique was different...but her work let me take off from there!

And once I have my list?  I do more of that.  Whatever it is, whatever I have time for.  What bubbles to the top, what serendipity throws my way.  What insists I pay attention.




Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Stories hidden in the wood...

...not "the wood" in the sense of "into the woods," but the way a memory is triggered, full-blown, complete with scents, sounds, touch, sight...

We sat companionably in the shed last night and suddenly my eye was caught by a piece of oak that has been on my desk since we built the shed--and before that, in a place of honor among my treasures in the dining room--and before that, on a shelf at our old farmhouse.

I remembered that rounded end used to glow with a deep shine; I felt the need to rub it until it shone once again. 

And like Aladdin's lamp, the genie of memory was called forth.


When we lived on the farm, back in the 70s, my then-husband Harris and I cut wood for fuel.  We also had propane, but it was not adequate for our tiny 140-year-old log house, and the cats' water would freeze on the floor.  So would our feet!  We supplemented with a woodstove and a vintage cookstove in the kitchen, and that meant cutting a lot of wood.

We preferred to cut deadwood, already seasoned and ready to burn, so we constantly kept our eyes open for possibilities.  I think we amused some of our longtime REAL-farmer neighbors when we'd ask if we could cut this or that old snag, but they always graciously allowed the greenhorns to do what they needed to, to survive.

This wintry day we climbed a barb-wire fence into an unused pasture with the tumbled remains of another log cabin on it, a frontier homestead long abandoned, fallen in on itself.  The tree that had once shaded those ghostly inhabitants had long since succumbed to age or lightning or wind, and lay reaching toward the road with broken, bare branches. Perfect firewood, that aged oak.

My Ichabod-Crane husband plied the roaring chain saw while I split and carried wood to our undependable old Chevy truck...and then I noticed the rounded end of one of those branches.  It shone with a rich polish, smoothed by years of cattle rubbing against it to ease an itch; it looked as though it had been sanded and rubbed with tung oil for generations.

At my request, my bemused spouse cut that end off for me and I carried it home, separate from the more mundane firewood--the rest of the wood burned merrily in our stoves, but that little piece has traveled with me down the decades, from house to house and life to life.

And polishing it again to restore its glow, I can still smell the aroma of cattle, the prickle of frost in my nostrils, the scent of my own woodsmoke on a snowy day. 


Funny that it took me close to 40 years to sketch it.  While we lived on the farm, I did some of my favorite paintings--of my double-bitted axe, of the barn door, of the goats, the woodpile, the watering trough in a nearby field, and the colander full of just-hulled peas.  I painted  the hand scythe in the barn, the bright jars of tomatoes on the woodstove, Harris tilling the garden, myself carrying wood into the house. I painted the beloved little house itself.  I even painted Ern, our elderly neighbor, making sorghum and wreathed in sweet, fragrant steam.

Winter Crow
Hand Scythe

Old Ern

But this homely bit of magic in its place of honor on my desk is what called up the memory of that one icy afternoon, in all its amazing detail. 

That's the magic of art.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Apparently I have a lot to say...

...I have 7 partial posts in the pipeline now...on issues of work and creativity, what encourages creativity and what kills it (for me, anyway), memory, simplifying, finding our own true path and more.

Whatever bubbles to the top first is what will appear here!

It's been good for me.  I need the balance.  I love putting words together, I love writing, I love THINKING, and I am doing so, here, with a passion!

I hope you'll continue to visit...

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Routine and Sacred Ritual...

...where is the boundary line?  How does one become the other?  How is it that something that seems so ordinary can become sacred to us?  And why, sometimes, does ritual--even the sacred--become routine, even boring?

I suspect, in my case at any rate, that it has to do with mindfulness.  Paying attention.  And with gratitude.

Our morning Dayspring--stepping outside to greet each new day, whatever the weather--is sacred ritual.  It feels good. I pay attention. I notice more.  I am ready.

I enjoy the small things.  I like chopping vegetables--for a tagine, a stir-fry, soup, whatever.  I like my old oak cutting board, stained with the rich patina of a thousand meals, and the knife that Joseph fashioned from a bone-handled 19th C. table knife.  It is sharp, it is useful, and it is beautiful.  It does what it was created to do--and isn't that a wonderful thing?

I like the quiet silky zip of the knife as it cleaves a zucchini or pepper, the chunk of the blade hitting wood at the end of the stroke  I love the colors and shapes and textures and scents of the vegetables as they tumble together into the old kitchen bowl.

It's a homely, comforting ritual, for me.

I used to enjoy ironing the fair linens for church, when I was with the altar guild; the touch, the scent, the silky smoothness of linen pleased me inordinately.

I like folding clothes.  I even enjoy the quiet whish-whish of my old broom on hardwood floors--till my back begins to ache.

Entering my shed studio in the morning has elements of the sacred, as well.  I made a mezuzah-like creation that hangs by the door that I remember to touch each morning with gratitude and attention.  It's made up of things that are meaningful to me, mounted on a piece of wood found in the yard--the comforting, eternal aspect of rocks and fossils, a spiral given to me by my late mother-in-law--I do love my spirals!--a tiny sterling sun-face, a crystal...

Below it hangs a tiny glass vial with tightly rolled scriptures, particular favorites of mine.

And yes, of course, one is from the magnificent Job 38.

Tea can be a very personal ritual, as can writing in my journal, or preparing to begin my work.

And of course, drawing can become meditative, contemplative, as I did in the drawing at the top of the page, or even the slow, careful drawing of a piece of our ancient plumbing, below.  We focus on something outside of ourselves, something other.  I can lose all track of time. (So much of our lives is on fast-forward, as if multi-tasking really accomplished much besides inattention--and tension!  Slowing down to draw--or to pay full attention to anything--is antidote to that scattered, harried, White-Rabbit state.)

My brother-in-law reminds me about walking meditation--and I find that when I walk mindfully, paying attention to the feel of my feet on the earth and the air on my skin and the coming and going of my breath, my knees don't hurt as much.

My life has a great deal of sweet routine, and I love it that way.  I've worked consciously to create those routines, and they are important to me.  Comforting.  (I try not to border on OCD, but hey...I DO like my colored pencils in a certain order, points up, in their box...)

When I rush through life without paying attention, when I'm thinking of ten things at once, when I resent what I'm doing and wish, oh, I WISH I were finished--then ritual is out the window and my beloved routine becomes truly routine.  Boring.  

And I must, on occasion, remind myself that "routine" is not the same as "rigid"...I try not to trap myself, or get anxious if the routine must vary from time to time.  It just does.  It's all right.  What is happening in this moment is all right, if I truly pay attention, if I honor it as this particular moment in time.  It's my life.  It's unique.  It won't return.  You really can't step in the same river twice.

And yes, you CAN teach an old dog new tricks.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Pulling on a Thread...a different look at social media

...and how we get to where we are in our lives.

Granted social media takes too much of my time, though not as much as it does for some others.  I've manfully (womanfully?) resisted Twitter, Instagram and a number of other communication options.  I took a different look at the 'net recently, in this post.

It IS interesting to think what a difference social media and the Internet have made in our lives.

I know my distant relatives much better than I once did, and treasure the contact.  My dear Jenny Hearn is even more precious to me than ever, and I love knowing what my godchildren are doing. I stay in touch with old friends, too, and get to see photos and even videos of their lives, as well as sharing my own.  I treasure that as well.

I am making most of my living with online classes and eBooks, now--15-20 years ago and more, that was not the case--the option didn't even exist.  I mostly wrote books, freelanced for magazines, and did in-person workshops, which latter are stressful and exhausting.  (Actually so is freelancing, and many of the magazines I worked for have disappeared in any case.)

(Needless to say, this working online option is wonderful for an introvert of "a certain age."  I can teach in my nightgown with a cup of coffee to hand, if I wish, and no dragging art supplies and suitcases through airports!)

My life online started, originally, with email, which I "didn't need."  Saw no point in it...but a friend talked me into it.

And I am endlessly grateful. (Thank you, Don Dickerson...)

Shortly after that I got involved with several online discussion groups--reenactors, history groups, historical costuming, art, photoshop...and ended up running the very big Revlist for Revolutionary War reenactors for almost 10 years.  (Great practice for learning communication skills, mediating, and calming troubled waters, those folks were PASSIONATE and often at cross-purposes.)

Revlist was a trip...and it's where I met my now-husband, Joseph.  I invited a number of clear-headed people to be my advisory board to help deal with the traffic on the list, incivility, sticky questions, and so forth; he was one of the best!  We struck up a friendship offlist, and the rest really IS history.

The involvement with reenacting spun off into Graphics/Fine Arts Press, where I've written, illustrated, and published a number of books of interest to reenactors, docents, museums and more (including one by my knight and partner in life, Joseph Ruckman, Recreating the American Longhunter.)

I was invited to join an eBay consortium, another Yahoo group, by my dear friend MaryAnn Harris, artist, editor, and delightful wife of one of my favorite writers, Charles DeLint,  and was very much involved in selling there (which I still do, though not with such frequency. Look for katestreasures!)  I remain friends with many of the people in that group...what an amazing gift, thank you MaryAnn!

My friends in the group told me they all had blogs and invited me to join there I was, in the blogosphere.  I've met wonderful artists and writers here, and feel quite blessed and challenged by the experience.

I have several active art groups on Flickr...and belong to others...

I've taught online, on my own and in classes for Strathmore Papers and Danny Gregory's Sketchbook Skool, and I've taken classes as well...

...and then there was Facebook, where I've learned more about my beloved family than I ever could have imagined.  I joined, originally, to keep up with the, THAT certainly mushroomed...

So here I find myself...

...where I can teach without the stress and pain of travel or stage fright.

...where I can find answers to so many questions, large and small, and inspiration  and beauty and the assurance of our innate goodness, our humanity.

...where I can see my nephew Chris Busey's outstanding photos of the American West and my old friend Kevin Morgan's stunning pictures of our town.

...where I can see sketches and paintings from artists all over the world, and share my own.

...where we can plan my sister's memorial party or a family birthday celebration all of us on the same page.

...where I met the love of my life...

What if I had resisted that first email address...?

We are never allowed to know what might have been...but I find myself very, very grateful for where I AM.


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