Project Friday: Dealing with Interruptions and Chaos—The Reality of Creativity

November 1, 2013


Above: page spread from an 8-inch square journal I made with light blue Magnani Pescia—a printmaking paper that is lovely to sketch on with pen or pencil. (The above sketches are in pencil, specifically Palmino Pencils. I was saving this page spread for another project which didn't happen but it fits here nicely. I will review Palamino Pencils on another day.) These sketches were made in a crowded nursing home hallway, in front of an aviary.

I define a truly effective person as one who is able to work in all conditions, whether he or she feels so inclined, isn't "inspired," is tired, is stressed, whatever.

If you are new to my blog you might want to go and read one of my posts from 2008: Productivity: J. M. W. Turner. 

Because I believe so strongly that one needs to be able to work through interruptions and chaos I started the Minnesota State Fair Sketch Out (five years ago) with the Avidors. Actually I started it because a couple years before that the Avidors and I were sketching at the Fair and Ken said, "We always sketch at the Fair we should get more people to sketch at the Fair." But I think sketching at the Fair just also happens to be one of the best ways to jump into the deep end of the pool and sketch in "less than ideal" conditions, so I like to use it as an example. And I like to encourage people who want to sketch in public to come to the Minnesota State Fair Sketch Out!

You can of course sketch out anywhere in public and meet with difficulties that will make you initially crazy and then crazy calm (if you're drawing). So for purposes of today's task you need to know the following, AND you also need to know that this will take longer that an evening or even a weekend.

•Don't wait for inspiration—just draw. Wherever you are. Just do it (as Nike likes to say).

•Don't make excuses. Excuses are boring (as Roz likes to say). By the time you make an excuse as to why you "can't" draw right now (the now being whatever moment and situation you find yourself in), you could actually already be finished with your drawing. What would you rather have: memory of all the lame excuses you made, or filled pages in your journal? If you selected the former please continue reading someone else's blog.

•Always be practicing. 

•Baby steps are fine. Don't overload your system and shut yourself down. 

•If you are timid or wary or confused, find a friend to sketch with, but as soon as you can, make this a solo practice. This is about you standing on your own, creating on the spur of the moment.That's hard to do if you're dependent on having a friend handy because sometimes they are just not available.

•Don't talk with the friend you're sketching with when you're sketching. He's there only as a security blanket. This isn't a coffee-klatsch. DRAW.

Now, if you really want to be one of those people who can draw in any set of circumstances, regardless of how he might be feeling at a particular time this is what you do…

•Select a location where you can draw in public, when you know there will be noise, smells, confusion, probably a lot of kids (running about), and little space. 

•Pack a bag of only your essential supplies—journal, pencil/pen, small watercolor palette and Niji Waterbrush (if your location is somewhere watercolor will be allowed, which is pretty much anywhere except some museums). If you work with colored pencils take only 6 (a couple reds, a couple blues, a yellow, and a white perhaps). The idea is to pack as little as possible. You want to have a very small footprint initially.

•Limit your time initially. Go and draw for an hour, not five hours. Expect to come back with NOTHING. That way you'll be happy if you actually come back with a decent sketch.

•Remember to BREATHE.

•The universe isn't against you. The universe doesn't even know you if you aren't regularly making an effort to show up creatively. It couldn't care one way or the other if you are sketching, it has too much other stuff to do. DON'T TAKE INTERRUPTIONS PERSONALLY.

•Keep your wits about you. If you're in a public space are you standing or siting where it is safe to do so? Are you out of the line of traffic (vehicles or pedestrian)? If it is noisy don't zone out with music on an iPod or block sound with ear plugs. Stay alert to your surroundings. If you rely on a device that contains your own sound track or ear plugs which shield you from real life, you'll never develop the ability to work without those aids.

•Don't ask for permission—just sketch and add color if you desire. If someone stops you. STOP. If they tell you not to continue, don't argure, simply stop, pack up, and move on. This is one of the hazards or interruptions of working in public. This is fantastic practice for working with interruptions. You can either work from memory later in a new location or you can abandon the sketch having learned to let go. (Not everything in life, or art, is within your control.)

•After your outing debrief yourself: What worked, what didn't, what should I have brought, who should I have ignored, what could I have said in that situation when that rude man jostled me? (And in answer to that last, you aren't looking for witty repartee, sometimes the best response to someone who pushes you is to APOLOGIZE. That may not be fair, but remember we aren't out on a mission to bring justice or to argue the fine points of space allotment on a park bench. You are supposed to be drawing. The sooner you apologize and get that klutz out of your face the sooner you can go back to doing what you are meant to be doing—drawing, dealing with interruptions and still being creative, still being productive.)

Now the NEXT time you go out…

Try going out when you feel a little tired, or when you're a little hungry (or will be out long enough to get hungry). Learning to keep working even when you're a little tired and hungry is a great way to keep working through distractions.

When you become accomplished at sketching anywhere at the drop of a hat you might want to enlarge the pack of supplies you carry so you can change media at a whim. You will also take up a greater footprint and it is more likely someone will come and interrupt you to either tell you to move on or to ask you about your materials. Welcome those interruptions.

Later when you have practiced all this many, many times you will be able to decide on the spur of the moment whether the person interrupting you is "worth" stopping to chat with. This is different from instantly recognizing security guards! What I mean is that on any given trip into the world there are people who will interrupt you. Some will be rude, some curious, some stupid. Some will be children: there's one rule, always be respectful of children and their questions because you want to foster their creativity. Remember they are the people who will grow up and create things that make this an interesting world to live in when you're older and want to be entertained. Also, if they are ill-mannered it isn't their fault, but the fault of their parents. 

With any other category of "annoyance" you can decide how much attention to give it. And that's how you learn to work with interruptions and get back to work after them.

The NEXT time after that…

Vary what you take, where you go, or perhaps stay home and leave the TV on, (or turn it off if you always have it on), or sit in a very uncomfortable chair, or work when you have a cold.

Like any exercise program BUILD your tolerance for interruption and chaos by increasing the duration of exposure and the intensity of the exposure.

Great Places to Go for Practice


The Bell Museum of Natural History (where during the school year young kids run nearly amok!)

hotel lobbies


cafés—Rule of thumb, always leave a tip commensurate with the time you took up a table from a waiter, and factor in the lost tips they would have received from other patrons cycling through that spot in that time slot, so if you are sitting through a busy lunchtime, work out how many other lunches might have been eaten at your table in that time—we aren't in France where you own the café real estate in perpetuity.

crowded parks

art gallery openings

public lectures

shopping malls (The Mall of America is especially great for a noise/crowd drawing challenge.)


If You Want To Get Really Creatively Cagey About This…

If you want to cram as much practice time into short sessions as possible you can of course create additional constraints. Set a time limit of 90 minutes for Project Friday, tell all your friends to call you during that time, and work but still deal with the interruptions. After each interruption practice getting back to work instantly.

That's something you probably already have to do at work, or it's something you have to do when you take care of your family. What is different is that you are consciously applying that approach to your CREATIVE LIFE. You are saying that your creative life is important enough to be given the same attention, focus, and space in your life.

If you want to be even more cagey, go out with a friend and take turns being in charge. When it's your turn to draw you get to pick the spot you sit or stand. But your friend can stop you at any moment of your 30-minute drawing time and take away all but one of your supplies, stand in front of you and obscure your view, or begin making a nuisance of himself by singing Gilbert and Sullivan tunes (which frankly I happen to like, but it would create a scene and cause some interruptions). He just can't take away your paper, your last drawing tool, scream in your ear, sit on you, or continually bump you.


The Reality of Creativity

I was lucky. All my life my family traveled and moved from place to place. All my life I existed in noisy, crowded situations where I might have to stop writing and drawing at any moment. As an adult I have worked in a creative profession where I have to produce engaging product to a client's specifications and deadline, whether or not I feel like it. It's 8 a.m. so you better be working.

I'm grateful for these circumstances. I literally can be happy anywhere, pretty much for any length of time—I just like to know that at some point there's going to be a flush toilet on offer. But that's just me. And even that isn't essential because I "know better" than to count on such things.

It is a myth that you need a special chair, or pillow, or pair of shoes, or room with a certain view, or "fill in your own blank" in order to be creative. You are creative wherever you are, if you decide to allow that part of yourself to come out. 

Here's my point: If you want to do something badly enough you will work out ways to do that something regardless of where you are and how you feel. And the best way to get to that point in your life is to practice scenarios which will allow you to develop skills to do just that. Spend time making your own creativity boot camp experience to develop the creative skills you claim you want.

  1. Reply

    great reflective post.

    • Margo
    • November 1, 2013

    Thanks, a well timed nudge.

    • Sarah O
    • November 1, 2013

    Thank you for the note on being respectful toward children. It seems some people have forgotten they were children once and feel children don’t have the right to be in public or even exist. Also, thank you for the fabulous tips. 🙂 I always enjoy reading your blog.

    • Sandi T
    • November 1, 2013

    When you are out and sketching (having to stand the whole time) at the zoo or public place, what size book is the most comfortable for YOU to hold when you plan to stand and paint with your gouache or watercolor? I haven’t sketch/painted while standing so I’m curious. From your blog it seems like you enjoy working large. It seems like it would be difficult to hold the book, paint, and water brush if they are big but maybe I have it wrong. Thanks for your generous blogging.

    • debra
    • November 2, 2013

    Roz . . .thank you! I needed to read this post. You are definitely a blessing in my life reminding me to just DO IT! Even after your advice a few weeks back, I have been finding excuses. My mind seems so crowded. Focus is hard. Thanks to you, I started looking around my area, bought a pocket pen brush & aquash brush . . .found a figure study class nearby & I am going to on Tuesday! I am hoping to train my mind once again to get into the zone. Have a great weekend.

  2. Reply

    Margo, I’m glad it helped and I hope you have a great Sat. and Sunday extension of Project Friday!

  3. Reply

    I think the cult of parenthood has a lot to answer for and that has created backlash that you are observing, picking up on the sense of “children don’t have the right to be in public.” There are all too many parents and grandparents rushing about with their kids acting as if they are entitled to be first in everything, greet misbehavior with indulgent smiles, or themselves seem to believe that everyone in the family gets to misbehave because they have a child. I expect a higher standard from parents.

    Everyone needs to own up to his or her own behavior and how it impacts on other folks.

    Beyond that we have to remember that kids are particularly receptive to good behavior and calm assertive attitudes in non-family adults. I can’t count the times when a misbehaving child has come to sit next to me, calm down, and see another possibility for being that she/he doesn’t see a few feet away in his/her misbehaving family.

    So if we all focus on being kind, respectful role models, at least the children will see that for a few minutes.

    And at the same time we are kind to them we are also responsible for setting good boundaries.

    I wish parents would be a little less self-centric and focus more on their children. Just this week, after waiting with Dick for an hour to be helped in an eye-glass store, a woman with an uncontrolled 5 year old begged the exhausted sales person to butt in line because the child was tired and hungry (they’d been there for 10 minutes). When asked we let them go ahead of us not because we felt anything for mother and child but because we felt for the salesperson who was buried and couldn’t concentrate with all the loud behavior.

    An appropriate response to the situation on the part of the mother would have been to take the child somewhere for food and a rest. Instead she continued to feed the child with whiny language of her own and reenforce the child’s sense of entitlement all at the same time making a string of promises to the child that both the child and everyone around her knew, would be never met.

    Very poor parenting. And if you see people upset with children misbehaving in public that’s at the root of it.

  4. Reply

    Sandi I like to work with an 8 x 10 inch square as a maximum (opened it’s 16 inches wide), or smaller.

    My typical journal is 8 x 8 inches square. I also like the 6 x 9 or 6 x 8 inch size.

    I have smaller journals that were made with the “waste” left from tearing down sheets. These can be in the 6 x 4 inch range (they tend to be landscape because of the way waste ends up) and I may take them on trips and such, but in general I find those pages too small for me.

    I do enjoy working large, especially in the past two years. A chain of events has reinforced that—I returned to life drawing co-ops so I always had a large sheet of paper to work on; and I started focusing more on portraits using the brush pen. I like to work large with the Pentel Pocket Brush pen. Strathmore’s large 11 x 14 inch journal size which I’ve been using in the studio has been just too fun to use, but it’s totally inappropriate for me to use sketching out because I couldn’t hold it while standing, even if both my shoulders and arms were in full working order!

    Hope that helps to explain what’s going on. The image today was in an 8-inch square journal I made and it’s easy for me to hold that size, hold my small palette (use the blog’s search engine to search for travel palettes and you’ll find a photo of my various palettes—typically I use the very small ones, but even the square ones in the image can be used standing with this size of a journal).

    I hope to do some videos next year of me sketching, when my arm is recovered, and then maybe you can see how I hold it all. I might get someone to take a photo in the meantime.

    Hope this helps.

  5. Reply

    debra, I’m glad you’re setting plans and trying to push through to focus. Focus is hard for everyone. I have always done a lot of stuff, but there are some things that I’ve focused on, the journal being one. In 2003 or so I decided to stop doing things with fabrics because of work space constraints and some vision issues at the time, and because I felt it diluted my efforts towards other things. I’ve always been a beader, making rather elaborate jewelry and several years ago I decided I had to focus on other things that meant more to me because my thumbs were going to go at some point and what did I really want to accomplish in my life? So that’s one way to narrow your focus. Or you can ask, “From what activity do I get the most enjoyment and emotional sustenance?” And then cut back on the others.

    You don’t need to tell yourself that you’ll never do the others, it’s just for now you’re focusing on something else. I still have drawers full of beads and stones and thread and wire. I keep them because upon occasion I like to pull out a couple items and make a quick piece, just because it’s fun.

    So pick something and stick with it until you begin to feel really comfortable with it as well as still challenged. And remind yourself of your goals. You’ll probably fall in and out of focus over time, but if you know what your goals are you can get back to task quicker each time. Good luck.

    • Sandi T
    • November 2, 2013

    Thank you Roz. I enjoyed your class with Strathmore so much and I know you mentioned that when you showed the zoo sketching. I wish you could make that available again somehow for us. A new class would be fantastic. I asked Strathmore for you again or if we could review the class and they said something about it being contractual and could no longer provide it. Thanks for your prompt answers, I’m going to bring a 6×8 since I have one, next will try the 8×8. Recently found the Rives BFK and can’t wait to try it.

  6. Reply

    Yep I own the rights to my Strathmore class, they paid to show it for a finite length of time. I have wanted to bring it out again (now that time has passed and there may be a whole new group of students interested), but until recently I couldn’t find a platform to put it on that did everything I wanted. I think I have found one, but it’s got a larger monthly fee than I was hoping for, so before I move forward with online classe to want to have several classes ready to go. In that way I will see if I can generate some on-going interest in online classes which actually will pay for the platform and justify the time spent on features like real time discussion. And none of that will happen until I can use my arm easily again. Hence the time schedule of 2014…or so. We’ll see how it goes. I’m pretty excited about the prospect. I’ll write about it on the blog when I get close to doing it.

    I hope you have fun with your 6 x 8 inch journal! And with the Rives BFK. (Which color Rives did you get? I like using gouache and ink on the buff/tan Rives BFK.)

    • Sandi T
    • November 3, 2013

    I bought the white because that’s all they had. I looked at Wet Paint to see if I could order it but couldn’t find it. I’d love to try the buff/tan too.

  7. Reply

    Sandi, WP does carry the tan/buff Rives BFK because I’ve purchased it there before. Since you already have the white, and working on the tan will be similar you might want to try a different tan paper instead. Magnani Annigoni Designo is an interesting, heavyweight tan paper that is made for wet media. WP and other places sell it in sheets (I recommend you get it in sheets as the padding process flattens the surface somewhat). If you search for that paper using the blog’s search engine you’ll come up with lots of examples and mentions.

    If you like the white Rives BFK you can always find some tan/buff.

    Have fun.

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