If we want to create a daily practice, whether it’s exercise, diet, thought, or art related, we need to make sure that we contain elements of fun in that practice. It’s those elements of fun which keep us coming back to the practice. And ultimately it’s the fun that we bring into our work that allows us to stick with things long enough to develop skills. And once skills start to develop there is a whole other level of fun to be had, and once that chain reaction begins it almost seems like we just have to hold on.
But little things can still derail you, interrupt, or even stop a successful habit.
I think it’s useful to examine how our bad habits keep going and learn from that. Then apply those circumstances and conditions to the good habits we want to build and keep at it until those good habits kick in. And it also helps to think proactively about how we want to build our life and our habits.
Goal setting helps with the latter—if we go into a new habit with goals clearly stated then when we reach those goals a sense of well-being will keep us going.
If our goals are honest in their expectations they will also foster a sense of well being. Having the expectation that we are going to paint like Gerôme at the end of a month is an example of an expectation that will explode in our faces. Having an expectation that at the end of a month, if we sketch 15 minutes a day we’ll be able to maintain that activity is a realistic goal. (I’ve written a lot about the studies on habit building which prove this.) Our progress and skill within that practice will then influence new goals that we set for our development.
It’s partly a matter of not putting too much “weight” or significance on a new activity. It’s also a matter of not listening to the type of negative self chat that you might hear in your head when things don’t work out in the way you had hoped. (That’s the internal critic chiming in. You give him permission to do so when you set unrealistic goals. And he will jump at the chance.)
But to have a goal where you complete an activity each day (a simple activity that can be completed in a fairly brief window of time) is more likely to happen if you also have a bit of fun involved.
For me, painting involves a lot of concentration and goal setting. I start a painting with a particular intention. For a portrait it might be the intention of coming out with a likeness. Or it might be that I want a particular type of lighting effect. Or it might be that I just want to get something down on paper. Or that I want to work on a particular type of paper.
All of this doesn’t mean that within my brief window of drawing and painting time that is my daily habit I don’t also get to play. (Here I’m separating my daily practice from any other work-related drawing and painting I might have to do in a day.)
Playing during my daily practice actually allows me to bring play into my work.
What it does mean is that I take the pressure of expectations off my shoulders and allow what is about to happen to happen?
I know that however bad the result I will enjoy the physical act of moving paint around on paper. I know that however bad the result I will discover one thing that I can learn from and carry forward in my future efforts. I know that however bad the result might be I will not break myself or my habit—as long as I keep talking to myself in a realistic and positive way.
At the end of December I caught a cold which turned into a bronchial infection. Despite lack of energy I kept working on my drawing practice, it simply keeps me sane to do so. And there is a lot you can do when you are feeling a little off (or a lot). It’s a matter of setting expectations.
Over time you also grow to know yourself better and better when you start to pay attention to things like goals and intention.
You start setting up “problems” or “tasks” or “situations” in which you can not only meet your goals but come up with insights at the same time. At the very least you can learn which paths might prove fruitless to pursue.
I always begin the new year with a journal I’ve made with a favorite paper. I do this even when I feel under the weather, because I don’t believe it’s fair to me to not challenge myself. And I don’t believe it’s fair to me to not enjoy some wonderful paper!
I realize that the main goal is to keep up my practice during the illness. I’m supporting my practice by my choices.
This January I elected to work in a journal I made with the new Folio paper. (You can search the blog for other posts on Folio paper and learn about the old, defunct version of this paper and its new incarnation. I have a love-hate relationship with the paper, but mostly now I love it. It’s been long enough since the old Folio disappeared and even though I have a few books with it left I don’t use it as often as the new Folio. I see them as what they are—totally different papers.)
While new Folio isn’t one of all time favorite papers I can see it’s moving up in the rankings. I had the best time working in this journal in January, all the while being ill. Everything, page after page, turned out swell. And watercolors worked better than they ever seemed to work on the paper before. I was buoyed up each day by the fun of it all.
And I realized that part of what was happening was I had finally divorced all expectations I held from this paper. I was able to do that because I had adjusted my goals and expectations while I was ill. The happy result was to find myself simply working and enjoying the work, with no expectations except the fun of moving paint around.
It’s why I’m writing to you about this now—I want you to look hard at the expectations you carry with you every day. See how they impact your goals, see how they impact your sense of fun. I’m not advocating that you have to be ill to let go, but if you do succumb to some nasty bugs, don’t give up on your practice, instead change your expectations and goals to fit what is possible.
In that way I believe you won’t lose momentum.
OK, so what’s fun for me about the image in today’s post? Well, one day I was too sick to do anything else so I painted a couple page spreads in the journal with background textures, knowing I could use them later when I arrived at those spreads.
The decision was about momentum. Keep doing stuff that supports your goal of daily drawing and painting.
Next I was playing with gouache. This was old gouache on a palette used for another painting, and the palette was full of contaminated and dried out pigments, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use it and have fun! Part of the fun of gouache is the act of moving the paint around the paper and feeling the drag of the brush on the texture of the paper, seeing the paint obscure what’s below, or reveal it as you decide (see the green of the texture coming through in the nostrils). The happiness you feel when doing something you love will help you keep that momentum going.
The final and most significant benefit was that in just letting go of expectations there was no pressure to get a likeness. Instead I could simply sketch and enjoy the negative shapes around that hair, and ears. I could play with the spatial distances I observed. I could experiment with strokes to develop a vocabulary for stubble. I could play with the colors already set out and make them work (or not). In other words I could stay in exploratory mode. And that’s a great mode to be in because it keeps the momentum going—”if this, then that, OK, now try this, oh, that wasn’t what I expected so let’s try that…”—all exploration generating momentum.
(I actually also caught the likeness of this young actor in “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow,” but that was simply a happy byproduct of letting go of expectations. And I’m also sorry I forgot to mention this show in my Friday post. This is a great show to watch while you are cycling indoors! Lots of actions scenes keep you pedaling. I wasn’t pedaling when I painted this.)
Keep this in mind the next time you want to develop a good habit or keep a good habit going, build momentum…find the fun and play by lowering those expectations.
Lowering expectations in this context doesn’t mean you’re not going to play (or work) as hard as you can, it means you are going to be fully present in the experience, enjoying the practice, enjoying the medium, enjoying the exploration, without any expectations of a final product.
Try it just for a couple weeks, every day, and see your momentum build. Start having a different conversation with yourself.