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The Importance of Regular Self Evaluations in Our Creative Lives

October 5, 2015


Above: One of my goals this year has been to draw as many interesting noses, ears, and beards as I can. Even on days when I can't get out and draw people from life, I might stay up late and get some practice in, sketching from TV or from old photographs I've collected. (Sketch in an approx. 7 x 9 inch Japanese Lined Journal. Pentel Pigmented brush pen and Pentel dye-based [watersoluble] brush pen, with a background of red Montana Acrylic marker over washi tape)

Students taking my “Drawing Practice: Drawing Live Subjects in Public” this summer are now six weeks out from the intensive first 30 days of class. It’s the time I suggested they do a self evaluation to assess how their drawing practice is going.

Regular readers of my blog will know that I advocate regular self evaluations throughout the year, less frequently the longer a habit has been in place. I post a summation of my end of year evaluations.

Use my blog's search engine to find "self-evaluations" and "self-assessments" or click on those terms in the category list in the left column.

For me, evaluations allow me to see trends that are developing, new interests that are taking over the old ones, and areas where I need work on my skill set.

I also strongly recommend that people participating in International Fake Journal Month (IFJM) do a self evaluation  shortly after the last day of April, when the project ends. I think it’s a great way to look at how the project went and what was gained. If new media were used during the project it’s also a great time to assess what additional exploration in media is needed, to make it a useful addition to the artist’s tool box.

I often receive notes from readers after I post an evaluation, or after IFJM about their own evaluations. In the case of the latter, participants can ask to have their evaluation posted on the Official IFJM blog. I think it’s another way that everyone in the project can learn a little more than they would working only on their own.

Recently a participant in IFJM wrote to tell me that she had read her 2012 IFJM wrap-up (which is what I call those evaluations).

She raised some very serious and important questions:

I was surprised (and frustrated) to see that I could use the same words to write about this [year’s fake journal. Does anyone else] have the feeling of always being at the same place and unable to see any progress? And if so, how do you fight these feelings? Is there something that helps you to see things in a different light?

I’m sharing my response to her question on my blog, because I hope that my students will keep these thoughts in mind as they go forward with their drawing practice, and go forward with their self evaluations. I hope that I can encourage other readers to take up the practice of regular self evaluation.

I firmly believe that regular, honest self evaluation is the best tool any creative person has to burst through feelings of stagnation or a sense of lack of progress.

First, don't be discouraged if you complete an evaluation and realize it could stand in for your previous year’s evaluation (or your quarterly evaluation…). Use the knowledge of the similar patterns and results to look deeper. 

Ask yourself, “Are things really the same?”

Look minutely at things when you ask this. Look minutely at the way you work and handle media, and the way you created your project. 

Take the project planning, organization, and resultant “product” apart and look a little deeper.  

Look at your life. What is the same? What has changed? Circumstances sometimes seem stable, but can change in a moment. The circumstances of our personal, family, and work lives all effect our creative lives. 

Here’s just one example. Perhaps one year you were changing jobs and juggling a new schedule and that took time away from your project. The next year you were busy with family obligations which devoured your time. What you may be looking at, if finding time for your project in both years was an issue, is that you worked hard at busting the grasp of work over your entire life in the first year. You were poised to enjoy that freedom the next year, only to be faced with greater than usual family duties.

The voids we create when changing our habits, will be quickly filled, unless we are alert to the subtle changes. We can only become aware of many of the possible subtle changes, over the long, long course of years.

And that’s just one aspect of how one set of variables might superficially make your two consecutive evaluations look identical. The combinations of life, work, and art are endless.

At other times we have a sense that nothing has changed when actually a LOT has really changed, but we are too close to things. That's why I'm suggesting you look really deeply at all aspects of your project AND your life. In that way you can find the things that are different, the things that are the same, and maybe even some things that need to change before you take the next step—whatever the next step is.

We need to be careful to not be tripped up on that last element—the order in which change needs to take place. Keep that in mind when you do your evaluation and come to believe you have not made progress. Look at how you can break the steps towards your goal down. What steps did you leave off?  

Maybe this example will sound familiar to you? You have a problem with procrastination. It scuttles your creative work. Last year you organized your life so you would have 30 minutes a day for drawing (or you fill in the blank) and you found you could do that, but this year it wasn’t repeatable. When you look deeply at both evaluations you may find, if you’re honest with yourself, that in the first year you marked your calendar each day, you told everyone of your plans, and solicited help from friends and family to stay on track, but by year two your helpers had returned to their habitual ways, and you had returned to using all your time to care-take their needs as a way to procrastinate. 

The real issue is that you didn’t clear away that obstacle of your habit of stepping in and using your energy to help everyone in your family or friendships to do their work.

That’s the real first step that needs to be addressed for long-lasting change.

I Want Change To Happen The Way I Want It To Happen

Good luck with that. We aren't omnipotent. It isn't possible.

I tend to do self evaluations two to four times a year. They are usually “quarterly” or completed after a major project ends. 

If I feel, at a self evaluation, that things aren't changing in the directions I want them to change, then I need to see to it that I'm clearer about what my goals are.

If we have vague notions about our goals, then we really can't move towards them. 

So for instance, if my vague idea is that I want to have my art in more shows, but for all of 2014 I don't put any deadlines on my calendar and I don't create work for any shows, it's not going to happen. (I give myself a pass for last year because there was no point to putting dates on a calendar, because of all the ups and downs related to eldercare.)

From this example you might see something in your life that you can change to help you change your process, your approach, and the outcome. 

How Specific Are Your Goals?

Saying, “I want to improve my drawing skills” or “I want to learn watercolor,” are both too vague as statements to serve as goals. They will not allow you to see any real improvement over the course of a project or several months of creative work.

Being specific means digging down honestly to what is really needed. Then you need to identify steps to make that goal doable in a “small” chunk of time.

You might decide that you want to improve your drawing skills, but after honest examination of your current skill level, you might realize the only way to do this is to take a basic drawing class and study for a month or two using the most basic of tools and approaches.

Or you might decide that the drawing "issue" you want to learn/improve/overcome is how to apply your already considerable pencil sketching skills to direct sketching in ink. Or you might realize that you already draw fairly well, but the dissatisfaction in your drawing skills lies with your desire to draw recognizable portraits of people—so your efforts would go there.

Once you’ve identified a more specific area of concern or interest, then you can break that goal into doable steps which will be more “visible” to you on a shorter time line.

Only when we have clear goals and criteria, can we judge accurately (and not with the silly pooh-poohing of a nay-saying internal critic), the result of any project or progress toward a goal.  

How Do I Work Forward From Two “Identical” Self-Evaluations?

If two consecutive self evaluations look dishearteningly similar to you, turn up the scrutiny level you’re using to compare them.

Begin by looking at everything you can think of in your two projects (or time periods), your life, and you attitude to your artwork (beginning with the time you allot your artwork in your life).  

Sit down and ask yourself how clear your goals are. 

Write your goals down and be very specific, e.g., deadline for jpgs for National Watercolor Society—Date, Month, Year, etc.

Note: When you put a deadline like that on your calendar, remember to ALSO work backwards from that date to have all the INTERMEDIATE STAGES listed with their deadlines.

For instance, if you need jpgs and you can’t scan your own work you need to work backwards from that deadline three weeks to allow one week for having someone else shoot photographs, or scan for you, and two weeks for them to get that material to you. (The amount of time you have to allow will vary, and it will be specific, because it will be based on sitting down and finding a vendor to do each necessary task, and then calling them to schedule time after finding out how much time they need.)

When you’ve written down all your specific goals, and the dates related to them, next write down where you want to go with your art and any aspects of your life that are under scrutiny because of this realization.

I would write that out clearly, with as much specificity as well.

If, for example you want to learn to work in encaustic (I just picked that out of the air) write down WHY you want to learn this medium in very specific terms. 

It is critical to have this WHY written down. When the learning gets tough you will need to look at that statement and remember why you chose this course of action in the first place. If you did it just on a whim, you’ll be apt to allow yourself to let go of the learning at the first sign of difficulty.

Also, if you did pick encaustic just on a whim, the necessity of writing down WHY you want to learn a new medium will expose the whim and allow you to question if this is a good use of your time at this moment in your life. We all have to make choices about how to use the limited time we live. Make conscious choices based on your goals. Weed out the distractions and the activities which dissipate your energy and time.

Next, break down what you have to do to get where you want to be. If you want to learn encaustic (to keep the same example) do you have to take classes? That might be the best action, because certain equipment will be available to you in a class. Working on your own will mean you’ll have to spend a significant amount just to try something you may not like after all.

Find a class. Find a tutor. Find a mentor. Be realistic about the budget you have for getting new knowledge, etc.

Write all that down as a plan. This plan will have contact information for teachers, suppliers, etc. These will be the people to call or write to first, so that you can get information from them for your time line. You’ll get deadlines and course offering dates from them. Put it all on a calendar.

If you believe that you’ve made no progress since your last evaluation, or since the start of a given project (that you thought you had designed well-enough to meet your goals), FIGHT THOSE FEELINGS BY TAKING ACTION. 

Don’t beat yourself up for not creating the perfect plan in the first place. The more you work creatively the more you’re realize things rarely go strictly according to plan (and that’s a good thing). 

You can’t expect yourself to be all-seeing and all-knowing. 

You can demand of yourself the willingness to look honestly at your process and progress and admit when things don’t go well—and take steps to change those things.

That’s all that anyone can do.

The early examinations you do of your process, projects, and life are the first action you take. 

I believe you will find, if your are brutally honest with yourself, that there is SOMETHING that is different from what you did and who you were, and where you were artistically last year, from this year.

Take that as a positive, even if what you find is a negative (e.g., less work produced, work produced that you don't like as much). Why is it a positive? Because you have noticed it and it's your key to change.

If you’ve done any planning, even if your goals were not specific enough to show real progress in the limited time you had, you’ll see movement. You'll find that you've actually moved along on your path, but you just haven't moved as obviously as you would like. The very fact that you stated your goals and now have to revise them with more specificity is evidence that you are in a different, and better place!

Minute movement doesn't mean you aren't moving, it means that you have to be a little more patient. And maybe your expectations were totally out of line when judged against the time you could put into your art/projects, etc.

Start breaking goals and projects down. Take a hard look at your break down. Make your goals even more specific. Then make a plan of action.  

ACTION always changes things.  

Taking ACTION is how you fight those feelings that nothing has changed from the last evaluation, those feelings that nothing will change.

Analyzing whether those feelings are based on truth (is there more you're not seeing?) allows you to then take action to move things in the direction you want to go. 

Consider the discovery of your previous self evaluation or project wrap up looking like the current one, as a wake-up call. This is a gift the universe is sending you.

Now you need to take action to change things the way you want them to be.

And you need to be KIND to yourself and remind yourself that nothing happens overnight. Change that is substantial and meaningful certainly doesn't. 

For instance, many people can develop a habit of journaling daily after doing a project like IFJM. That's one of the bi-products that many report they benefit from. But just because someone is journaling daily doesn't mean that that journaling is going to fulfill him or get him to reach his artistic goals. What he has is the habit to do something. The next step then is to guide and craft that doing into the thing that he values most. 

There are tons of examples—someone can learn to paint, but he never takes time to know who he really is. Consequently he will never have anything to SAY in his paintings. Has he achieved a goal of painting regularly? Yes. But is there real fulfillment in those paintings? Probably not.

Again, use this as a wake up call to dig a little deeper into what you see is the same about your project wrap ups or evaluations. Don’t over look what was going on in your life at both times. Use the information you gather to set up an action plan.

Remember we're all human and aspects of our lives and our goals are going to leap forwards at times. Other times aspects of our lives and goals will seem to remain static. And at still other times change happens slowly, but it does move us forward. 

We can’t dictate the rate at which things will change. But if we are aware of our goals and have a plan, then we can take advantage of those situations when a leap is possible!

And that’s the real goal—to be constantly assessing how things are, and where we want to go, so that we are prepared, when circumstances open and allow for a leap.

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