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How Do I Settle on a Style for My Art?

collage of different art styles
With the help of some wonderful teachers, I made art in all of these styles this year.

It’s a question that every kind of artist grapples with:

I do these watercolor landscapes, but I also do abstract collage and sometimes I get really into architectural ink sketches. I can’t seem to focus on just one.

I write short stories, but I’ve also written three mystery novels and now I’m thinking about writing a biography. But successful writers pick their genre and stick to it.

I play classical guitar and I’m also in a blues band and lately I’ve gotten into the harmonica and I’d kind of like to learn percussion, too, but I’m never going to get anywhere if I don’t choose one.

Sometimes it’s a question of a creative person picking one of several very different pursuits:

I’m into photography, and I love to crochet, and also I do pottery. Why can’t I pick one?

So in the last year, during the shutdown, I’ve been meditating a little. Just a little. I put on the Headspace app for ten minutes in the morning. It’s not a big deal, and I don’t claim to be any kind of expert in mindfulness or meditation.

But here’s something anyone will learn in their first ten-minute meditation session: Thoughts are just thoughts. Feelings are just feelings. You can observe them and let them float by, like clouds on the horizon, or like cars driving down the road, while you sit alongside the road in your lawn chair and watch them go by.

You don’t have to jump on board and ride down the road with every Crazy Thought Car that goes zooming past.

What this has taught me is that I can differentiate between the facts, and my thoughts and feelings about those facts.

Fact: I do watercolor landscapes, abstract collage, and architectural ink sketches.

Thought: I can’t focus! I need to focus. I have to pick one. Real artists, successful artists, know how to pick one and stick to it. There’s something wrong with me. I’m doing it wrong. 

You see? Those are thoughts. Not facts. As thoughts go, they might be awfully persistent. They might hang constantly around the horizon, rather than drift away.

But there are other, equally viable thoughts that could be attached those facts. Such as:

I’m a polymath. I’m well-rounded. I contain multitudes.

Or, simply: I’m versatile. Flexible. Agile. Nimble. I do several things and I do them well.

Or even: I do several things and I enjoy them all. The question of whether I do them well or not doesn’t matter.

The question of whether a person can be successful doing more than one thing is not all that interesting to me–what is success? A certain salary? A number of awards? If you want a list of artists who are successful at more than one thing, or who work in more than one style, that’s easy to find. Look at all the actors who paint. Look at all the musicians who write. Or look at the ever-changing styles of Gerhard Richter, including his late-in-life stained glass work. I grew up with a mother who painted in watercolor and acrylic and wrote and juggled many jobs, and a father who made a living playing classical guitar, jazz guitar, and “whatever pays the bills” rock and pop guitar. People called him for gigs because he was versatile–he could do a number of things, and he could do them well. He’s also a photographer. For many years he was a sailor. He studies French and sometimes dips into Spanish and Italian for fun.

But the reason this idea of “let’s find examples of people who successfully do many things” is not all that interesting to me?  It’s because this is also thinking.

What I learn from my ten-minute meditations is that mindfulness meditation is not about replacing “bad” thoughts with “good” thoughts. It’s not about judging one thought as wrong or inadequate and replacing it with some better, more empowering, more useful thought.

It’s about recognizing all thinking as thinking, and all feelings (the pleasant ones and the unpleasant ones) as feelings.

It’s also not about eliminating all thoughts and feelings. That’s impossible. It’s only about recognizing them when they drift by, and naming them as thoughts or feelings, and understanding that they are separate from facts.

So I’m not suggesting that you replace one thought with another. (Wait, it’s not that I can’t choose! It’s that I’m a polymath! That’s better!)

Nor am I suggesting that you stop thinking entirely. (I just had a thought about my art! Bad artist! I should just stop thinking!)

Instead, I’m just suggesting that you can observe the facts about your art practice in a kind, non-judgmental way: I enjoy these watercolor landscapes, and I’m also playing around with these abstract collages….

…and then recognize that all the thoughts and feelings that rush in to finish that sentence (and therefore I really need to choose! And therefore I’m an agile, nimble polymath!) are just that: thoughts and feelings that your very big brain generated all on its own, because it saw some facts and decided that Conclusions Must Be Drawn From Those Facts.

And if you can do this–if you can recognize that the thoughts and feelings about your art practice are separate from the facts–then maybe, just maybe, that will open up a little space in your creative practice to explore your art, and to follow your preferences wherever they might lead.

On the subject of following your preferences, no one says it better than Nicholas Wilton. He explains it so beautifully in this video. Notice what he says about how when you follow your preferences in your art, your art gets better, and then you learn how to also follow preferences in your life, and your life gets better, and it turns into a feedback loop.

So really, all I’m saying in addition to his words of wisdom is that in order to get to that place where you’re really following your preferences, it helps to acknowledge that all that thinking about your art is thinking, and all that feeling is feeling, and that you are free to acknowledge all those thoughts and feelings as they float by, and then turn back to your art and follow your preferences and go where it lights you up to go.

 

 

Some Thoughts About the Bee Gees, The Little Prince, and What Exactly Is the Point of It All

I loved the Bee Gees documentary on HBO, so much so that I would consider it worthwhile to pay for a month of HBOMax just to watch it. I am not ashamed to admit that I love their music, which takes me back to happy moments in my childhood. I also loved learning about their songwriting process, and I found it to be a moving and complex story about siblings working together. (I am literally only just now realizing the parallel to the Kopp sisters story. I’m not real insightful sometimes.)

One thing struck me: Over and over, through the years, you hear them say that their very specific goal was to be FAMOUS. And you know, when that’s your goal, you make very particular career decisions. You see this play out time and again as their fortunes rose and fell.

There are a lot of different reasons to make music or art, and they don’t have to be about fame or fortune. Just look at Seth Rogen and his ceramics.

Most of us WANT to make some money doing the thing we love, or…well, doing something, but what is the money FOR?

I mean, it’s to put food on the table, obviously. We all have long lists of things we’d do or buy if we had more money, but underneath all of that is the idea that if we had more money, our days would look different. We would do something other than what we’re doing right now.

I guess this wasn’t the case for the Bee Gees. Fame was the point. As long as they were doing “fame,” they got what they wanted. But I think that for a lot of us, we struggle with what we actually want and what we’ll do now to get what we want someday.

So it’s kind of like…we spend our days doing this thing that earns money so that someday we’ll have enough money to be able to stop spending our days doing that thing and instead spend them doing something else.

I think a lot of self-employed people in particular struggle with this: We get an idea to do something, but then there’s this question: Am I doing this because it’s something I genuinely want more of in my life, or am I doing it in the hopes that I’ll make enough money that I can then stop doing it and go on to do whatever I genuinely want more of?

Sometimes it’s hard to know the difference. And the difficulty is that if you put a lot of time and energy into doing a thing, you’ll generally get more of that thing. But maybe what you’re really hoping for is the freedom to have less of that thing.

It’s been such a hard year that I’ve been thinking a lot about how to fill my days with activities that are pleasurable in the moment, with no future outcome in mind.

The Little Prince book coverAnd that got me thinking of this passage from The Little Prince, where a man is selling pills that quench your thirst, so you can save fifty-three minutes a week by not having to drink.

The little prince replies, “If I had fifty-three minutes to spend as I liked, I should walk at my leisure toward a spring of fresh water.”

I guess my point, which I admit is half-baked, has to do with finding the intrinsic value in doing the thing you’re doing, or finding a way to do more of the thing that has intrinsic value. I’ll leave that for you to ponder and I’ll do the same.

Join Me for a Flowery Valentine’s Day Zoom Event!

 

Photo of Amy Stewart and Teresa Sabankaya in her flower stall

 

On Tuesday, February 9 at 5 Pacific/8 Eastern, I’m going to host a Zoom chat with the delightful and charming Teresa Sabankaya. Teresa is the florist I interviewed for Flower Confidential. Here we are together in those days, back when we were young and cheerful and our hair more closely matched the color we were born with.

Teresa and I felt an immediate bond because we are both Texans. The joke is that if you meet somebody from Harvard or Texas, you will know it within five minutes because they will tell you. That was true of me and Teresa. But I also adored her seasonal, garden-grown bouquets, which at the time she sold from a flower stall in downtown Santa Cruz, where I used to live.

Now she’s written a gorgeous book of her own, The Posy Book, in which she explores the old-fashioned language of flowers and tells us how she makes her delightful posies (which she also ships!)

This chat is quite deliberately timed for Valentine’s Day and will certainly be a floral-themed lovefest. Please join us to talk about the flower business, to learn more about Teresa’s sentimental posies, or just to hang out with your gal pals for an evening.

Please register here! We can’t wait to see you.

Meet Aspiring Ceramicist Seth Rogen.

Seth Rogen is probably the only ceramicist to have 8 million Instagram followers. He got into ceramics the way many of us get into art–by following his interests, his enthusiasm, his curiosity. If you scroll down his Instagram feed, you’ll see that he’s a longtime collector of ashtrays–don’t laugh! They’re really interesting ashtrays!–and then he went to a pottery studio and made something, and then, being Seth Rogen and having all the money, he had his own studio and kiln built, and now there’s no stopping him.

He takes the most wonderfully pedestrian approach to his art. When he posts a new piece, he generally says something like, “I made this thing and I like it.” When he made some pots he wrote, “I made these pots and planted these plants in them.”

In this lovely interview he says, “I do like tactile things; I like to produce tangible work. With movies, we spend years on them and then they’re very intangible. They don’t have weight, they don’t occupy a physical space. You used to at least get a DVD or a Blu-Ray, and you don’t even really get that anymore. I don’t like to keep my own movie posters around because those are just advertising for the product, not the product itself. I do really like being able to create an artistic expression that is a thing that I can pick up, hold, show to people. It is just so different from what I normally do which has no mass to it.”

In other words, he’s doing it because it scratches an itch for him. It’s personally satisfying. He’s obviously not trying to build a business or win any awards. He says, “It’s been fun because I can just explore and play around and try different things. If something turns out terribly, it’s not ultimately damaging to my overall reputation as a ceramicist.”

Be Seth Rogen, everybody. Just go make your pots. Explore and play around and try different things, and don’t worry about your overall reputation as a ceramicist, which is just another thing that has no mass to it.

Donate to the International Rose Test Garden, Win Some Paintings and a Book

 

 

I live just down the street from the International Rose Test Garden in Portland and I visit it so often that I think of it as my backyard. It’s a very nice backyard.

I’m usually there with my sketchbook, so when the time came for a fundraiser to do some important work at the garden, the staff asked if I’d donate some paintings to sweeten the deal.

So. Read all about their fundraising campaign and make a donation here. You’ll be entered into a drawing to win these four paintings, all original gouache 5×7 paintings on 7×10 paper, signed on the back by me, PLUS a signed first edition of Flower Confidential, my book about the global flower industry.

Even better: Donations are being matched by a private funder!

Get over there by January 31, 2021 to make a donation.

“People in Temporary Jobs Making Permanent Decisions About Your Career”

Painting of Ellen McIlwaine with quote

 

I read this obituary for guitarist Ellen McIlwaine and I was so struck by what she had to say about her decision to start recording under her own label: “I’m tired of being on labels. It’s people with temporary jobs making permanent decisions about your career.”

This is something I’ve thought about a lot over the years. Once, when a new publicist offered to start handling all my speaking engagements, I told her that she’d need to keep a list of everyone who requested me as a speaker and share that list with me. She was a bit taken aback and wanted to know why.

“Because you’re going to leave,” I said. “Someday, you won’t have this job. But I’ll still be here, doing my thing. And if I don’t have this list, there’s no way for me to go back to these people when I have a new book out, or when I’m coming to their town, and so on.”

I never could convince her to share her list. (I suspect she didn’t keep a list.) And I could tell that she didn’t really see herself as just passing through my career. In fact, she probably thought that I was just passing through her career.

But in fact, no one who was involved in my career when my first book came out is still around. My first agent? Retired. My first editor? Changed careers. My first publisher? Also retired. First publicist? Moved on.  I’m the only one left, and at the end of my career, I will be the last one standing. I’ll be the one to turn out the lights and lock the door.

There’s nothing wrong with people in temporary jobs making permanent decisions about your career. If not for all those people in temporary jobs, I never would have found a publisher, finished a book, given an interview on NPR, made it to a bestseller list, seen my books translated into eighteen languages…all of that required the expertise of many excellent people in temporary jobs.

But it’s also true that a person in a job can only offer you what they have to offer within the confines of that job.

I once sat next to a country singer at a dinner. He was pretty well-known, solidly in the middle of his career, and on his way up. But guess what? He didn’t want to sing country music anymore. Jazz was his passion.

“But my label really doesn’t want me to do this,” he said. “They’ve got a definite idea of where my career is headed, and this isn’t it.”

“Your label can only help you make the thing that they know how to sell,” I told him, deciding on the spot that I was somehow qualified to speak on the inner workings of the music industry. “There’s nothing wrong with that. They’re good at selling country music, and building up country artists. But that’s all they have to offer you. They can’t possibly see where you’re really meant to go as a musician. Nobody can. They don’t have a vision for your career. They have a vision for how to sell the thing they know how to sell. As long as you are making the thing that they know how to sell, you two can do business. But that’s as far as it goes.”

This is where I think Ellen McIlwaine got it right. A label–or a publisher, or a film studio, or a gallery–is perfectly poised to take an artist in the direction that they know how to go. And the people who work there–temporarily, all jobs are temporary–will make a lot of decisions that the artist will own forever, long after that person has moved from one temporary job to another.

It doesn’t mean that every creative person should rush out and start their own label, or publish independently, or fire their gallerist. But it does help to stop and think, every now and then, about who actually owns this thing called your career, or your artistic path…and what do you want from the people who are just passing through?

 

Are You Getting Ready to Declutter?

Photo of messy paper files on a desk

It’s the time of year when everybody’s thinking about getting organized or decluttering. Maybe you thought, at the beginning of the shutdown, that this would be your big shutdown project, but then time just drifted down a lazy river and it never happened.

I know. A lot of things never happened last year. But here we are in January, and I’m guessing that some of you are about to roll up your sleeves and tackle a messy desk or a room or a garage or whatever.

I have two things to say about that.

The first has to do with paper clutter. A few years ago, when I got ready to move to Portland, I finally decided to go completely paperless for all my household and home office stuff. I just didn’t want to move boxes of unnecessary paperwork to Portland. That forced me to get it done.

I figured out a system, worked out what equipment I would need, and decided on a way of approaching it that would not be too overwhelming and would actually happen.

So the first thing I want to say is: I created a class on how to go paperless. You can read more about it here. It’s for household paperwork and for very small businesses like mine–businesses that are too small to require Quickbooks but still need some sort of system beyond a shoebox full of receipts.

The second thing I want to say is aimed at those of you who are thinking, “I need to go through all this stuff before I die so my kids don’t have to”…or for anyone who KNOWS someone who is thinking that (like your parents, maybe?)

This bit of advice comes from my having been married to a rare book dealer all these years. He gets called out to look at a lot of estates. The advice is: Don’t declutter just to spare your children the chore. Do it if it will make your life better now. Do not worry about your heirs.

But that’s crazy, you say! How awful to leave that job for my kids! So here’s the thing: Your heirs do not have to, and hopefully will not, sort through every single thing in your house and decide what to keep, toss, donate, recycle, sell.

Instead, they can and should take whatever family heirlooms they personally want to keep, along with important papers, anything with private/financial information on it etc. This does take some effort. (And all of us should get our financial and private/family papers together!) But then the heirs can hand the keys to an estate liquidator and walk away. The estate liquidator will decide what to sell/donate/recycle/toss, and return to your heirs an empty house, along with (probably) a small check. Or maybe no check at all, but at least your heirs didn’t have to do it.

Easy. Done. Not a burden.

(Edited to add: A lot of commenters have said, “But what about hoarders?” I’m not talking about hoarding, which is a serious problem. I’m talking about you and me, feeling guilty because of the boxes in the attic or that closet full of stuff we never use or that overly full garage.)

I once met a woman at a party who told me that she and her husband had just spent TWO YEARS going through her mother’s massive house, garage, and storage units, painstakingly handling every item, holding garage sales, hauling loads to the dump, sorting recycling, and donating to thrift stores.

It took up every weekend of their lives for two years.

When I asked her (because I’m not very tactful, which is why I don’t get invited to a lot of parties) why on earth they hadn’t simply turned it over to an estate liquidator and walked away, she looked at me in astonishment and said they simply hadn’t thought of it.

SO…THINK OF IT!

Another mistake people make is in assuming that their possessions (or their dearly departed’s possessions) are worth a fortune and must be dusted off, polished up, and put up for sale to the highest bidder. Sometimes people go online and see that an identical teacup sells for $35 on eBay, and they start looking around and doing the math, and decide that tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of real American dollars can be extracted from that estate.

Probably it can’t.

Most people’s collectables are not that collectable. Most of those prices on the Internet are aspirational: the dealer would like to get that price for the teacup, but hasn’t yet.

And the labor involved in photographing, describing, pricing, listing for sale, and then packing and shipping each item is considerable.

Most people’s stuff is not worth nearly as much as they think it is. Let go of the idea that all those possessions can be easily turned into money. It’s harder than it sounds.

If you’re truly convinced that the painting above your fireplace is worth a fortune, then have it appraised (which you will need to pay for), and get professional advice on how to store and care for it. (Hint: maybe not above the fireplace) Leave the appraisal along with your will so your heirs will understand how it needs to be handled.

Otherwise, trust the estate liquidator to get you a fair price for anything of value. People like my husband get called all the time by estate liquidators to look at potentially valuable books, for instance. There are few things more heartbreaking than to show up at an estate filled with worthless books, only to realize that the heirs have spent weeks sorting, organizing, and making computerized lists of every book on every shelf, along with a price they found on the internet. Do not do this! Go live your life! Do not spend your precious time on this earth making lists of a dead person’s possessions!

It’s also true that often the most valuable items are things people don’t recognize as valuable, so they get thrown away in an overly ambitious clean-out. (My husband once showed up at the estate of an elderly gay couple. He asked, “So where’s the porn?” The heirs looked shocked but finally confessed that they’d thrown it out. That vintage gay porn would’ve been the most valuable thing in the estate.) This is why estate liquidators would advise you not to touch anything, do not spend time sorting, do not spend time cataloging, and to leave it all up to them.

So if any of you hear yourselves (or your parents, or your elderly aunt) in the words “I’d better go through all this stuff before I die so my heirs won’t have to,” the answer is: No, you don’t. Do it if you’ll enjoy it, do it if you just want a good clear-out for your own well-being, but don’t do it for your heirs. Your heirs can call an estate liquidator. Make sure your important papers, finances, and family heirlooms are in order, but if you don’t want to deal with your old coats and extra coffee mugs and unopened jigsaw puzzles, you don’t have to.

This advice goes for people who are downsizing as well. Pack up the stuff you want to take with you to your shiny new little condo, and leave your half-empty house for an estate liquidator to deal with.

So. I hope this helps. And go take my class on going paperless.

Sketching Street Scenes with Ink and Watercolor

You can take this class on Skillshare, which is a Netflix-style membership site. On Skillshare I have divided this into three short classes. These links will get you a free trial to explore everything Skillshare has to offer:

Travel Sketching in New York

Urban Sketching in a French Village

Travel Sketching in Italy

I’ve also bundled these classes together on Udemy, where you only sign up for the classes you want to take. You can find it here on Udemy: Sketching Street Scenes with Ink and Watercolor.

The best part of travel sketching is capturing lively, bustling street scenes, whether it’s a big city like New York or a small village in Europe.

To do that quickly and accurately, it helps to have a grasp of the basics of perspective.

In this class, we’ll work on simple one-point perspective with New York as our model.

Then we’ll go to France and look at a village scene where those rules of perspective have to be tweaked to handle a sloping, winding road and a jumble of buildings that are lined up in a row.

Finally, we’ll go to Italy and work on adding just enough detail to really capture all the elements that make a scene so compelling.

Using pencil, ink, and watercolor, we’ll work on:

  • Perspective
  • Light and shadow
  • Varying line weights
  • Differences in color and shading in the foreground and background
  • What details to focus on, what to simplify, and what to leave out entirely

By the end of this class, you’ll have all the skills you need to incorporate lively street scenes into your sketchbook practice, when you travel and also in your own neighborhood.

Quick & Easy Travel Sketching

You can take this class on Udemy with this link.

This class is also available on Skillshare, which is a Netflix-style subscription platform where you can take all the classes you want for one low monthly fee. On Skillshare this one is divided into two classes:

Quick & Easy Travel Sketching

Paint Lively & Colorful Doors

Join me on a sketching trip in beautiful, lively Guanajuato, Mexico! A travel sketchbook is a great way to capture a vacation, and it’s a wonderful excuse to explore and observe when you’re traveling. Whether you’re an experienced artist or a beginner, this class will show you how to travel with art supplies and create quick sketches on the go.

We’re going to start with a simple building façade, and learn how to recognize familiar shapes and fit them together. Building facades are a great place to start, because you don’t have to think about the rules of perspective just yet. With a little simple measuring, you can get all the elements in place and have some fun with ink and watercolor.

Then we’ll zoom in and paint a charming, colorful old door, complete with peeling paint, ancient stones, and the other details that are so fun to capture in a sketchbook.

Finally, we’ll take a similar approach to a very basic landscape.

All three of these subjects have something in common: Once you’ve learned the basics of how to identify the big shapes, measure, and arrange them on the page, the rest comes pretty easily. That’s why this is the best way to begin travel sketching.

And Guanajuato, Mexico is a beautiful place to start!

Create a Garden and Nature Journal

A few years ago, I started a new garden journal on the day after the winter solstice–the first day of the new year, according to the sun, anyway. My intent with this particular journal was to document everything that was blooming or changing in Washington Park, the beautiful park just a couple blocks away from my house in Portland.

Of course I didn’t document everything–it’s a 458-acre park–but I did fill that sketchbook over the course of a year. And that process led to this class.

You can take the class on Skillshare, which is a membership-style platform like Netflix. Use this link to get a free trial and check out everything Skillshare has to offer.

On Skillshare, this class is actually two classes: Painting Lively & Vivid Greens, and Loose & Expressive Flowers & Leaves.

You can also take this class on Udemy, where you pay per class rather than a monthly membership. Here’s the link to take the class on Udemy.

Here’s a bit more about the class:

When it comes to creating a garden or nature journal, there’s so much that you can explore with paint and ink.

In this class, we’re going to focus on creating a complete garden scene, with a variety of plants and even a little structure peeking out from behind the foliage.

And in order to do that, we’re going to tackle one of the most challenging aspects of sketching the natural world: quickly mixing a variety of greens.

I’ve taken a lot of art classes over the years, and I think that sometimes painters can get a little too technical when it comes to greens. So in this class I’m going to simplify and demystify greens, so we can get on with our painting!

But that’s not all! Garden and nature journals come to life when you use watercolors to capture the intense, luminous colors you see in flowers, leaves, and other details. So we’re also going to work on ways to really push the paints towards bold, vibrant colors.

We’ll work on loose and expressive pen and ink lines, too. I’m going to show you my approach to creating lines and marks and shapes that look entirely original– like something that could only be made by you, at that particular place and that particular moment in time.

What we’re not going to do is get caught up in perfection or rigid accuracy. The great joy of a garden and nature journal is that it is a record of the time you spent in close observation. It’s a place for you to be yourself on the page.

With a little ink and watercolor, and some time to enjoy the outdoors, you can create a lively, personal record of your connection to nature.