Limited Choices Lead to Successful ProjectsJuly 30, 2018
After my post last week about doing creative projects many people wrote in to tell me that they were inspired to start a project. One accomplished artist wrote in to ask advice:
Just looking for advice. After listening to the podcast on projects I’ve decided to take up the challenge. Over the years I’ve accumulated different art tools: pens, pencils, paints, paper, etc. Would it be too lofty or too broad to take a subject like my dog and make a composition of him each day using a different medium? I don’t want to start a project too big because I know this will become hard for me as the days wear on.
This artist is picking a subject that she knows she has on hand, and which she loves (her dog), and she’ll be sketching him from life (which she knows is also my preference). She has a lot of materials she wants to use up so she’s making that part of her project, but she’s a little unsure.
I’m really glad she wrote in because this gives me an opportunity to address the issue of limits and choices with a concrete example.
I wrote to explain to her that for someone with less experience taking the project on as outlined would be too broad. For her skills I thought it would work out OK, and I gave her some things to watch out for which I’ll share with all of you since I don’t know what skills any given reader might have.
How Projects Work
The creation of art is about choices, lots of choices.
Projects work best when choices are limited so that the majority of your creative time can be used to create.
The best way to limit choices is to tightly define goals, criteria, media, and subject matter before you begin a project. It also helps, if the project is to be daily, to have a realistic limit on the time aspect of the project.
This year for International Fake Journal Month I allowed myself 1.5 to 2 hours each day for my work—I wanted to really sit back and spend time on my pieces if the subject matter dictated that. I was involved in a group project which had other parameters I couldn’t set, but it was the only calendar time I would have for my fake journal so I had to let the projects merge.
In my normal work day I don’t typically have 2 hours for personal painting time. A typical daily project for me allows 30 minutes of sketching and painting time because I know I can always find 30 minutes in my day.
But there are other limits I place upon myself and I urge you to consider placing them on yourselves as well.
It’s great to use up supplies that you have on hand. My projects typically start with the realization that I haven’t used a medium for awhile or that I have too much of something and need to use it up. It also feels good to start a project with supplies you have on hand because then any sense of “expenditure” is removed from the equation. You don’t have to wait until you can afford to buy the necessary supplies because you have what’s needed on hand.
Setting limits is about removing pressures that block success.
Another reason it’s important to limit supplies is that it forces you over the course of the month (or whatever the duration of your project is) to look for new solutions with the same set of materials. Over the course of time you have explored all the “obvious” approaches and it’s only with that daily showing up with the same materials that you can position yourself to leap into new creative territory.
Additionally, as I mentioned last week, after the adrenaline of the beginning phase of the project wears off you are able to settle into the limited choices you set up and begin to find new creative solutions.
If, on the other hand you change paper, pens, and paints every day throughout the month (which we’ll just imagine for the purposes of this post is the duration of your project) then each day you are faced with 4 immediate choices: Which paper do I use? Which pen? Do I paint? If I paint which paint do I use?
Note too that which media you select on any given day may also drastically change your time commitment for the project. I can make a competent sketch in 10 minutes, a pretty good to great one in 30 minutes. If I add paint to that competent sketch at 10 minutes I may or may not exceed my 30 minutes…it’s now a factor where other choices and resistance can come into action. Spend too much time on a project one day and you may feel rushed or pressured the next day.
Already, the simple act of being open-ended on your supply choices has left the time factor of your project at risk.
When you begin a project you might believe that you will be able to make those supply decisions instantaneously and use your full 30 minutes for sketching.
In reality, after a long day at work, or a blow up in your schedule because of a child’s illness, or any of 1000 other realities that might intrude what seems to be a simple choice about which paper to use quickly becomes a daunting task. “I can’t decide which paper to use until I pick which pen. And if I pick a certain pen that means I can’t use that sort of paint? But do I really have time to paint? And is this paper that I want to work on really suited to paint anyway?” Etcetera, etcetera.
Indecision rises up amongst all the choices that seemed straight-forward the day you conceived of the plan.
If you already have resistance issues or frequent visits from your internal critic, the choices now loom large and weighted with importance. That’s the type of emotional and intellectual weight that can stop you in your tracks and end your project.
If instead you know that you are going to use Pen X throughout the month, as well as always work on Stonehenge printmaking paper, with watercolor as an option as interest or desire arises, you have set yourself up to start IMMEDIATELY the moment you sit down.
Don’t forget there is also the choice of subject matter—if you have the same subject matter throughout the project then it is simply a matter of finding where you dog is, or arranging for your spouse to sit for you in the evening while he watches TV, remember to pick up some flowers or vegetables at the grocery on your way home for work, or to stop at the pond on your way home from work and sketch the geese who are always there at 5 p.m. (But have a back up plan for the last, since I once showed up at a bird nesting site to find officials capturing the birds to relocate them.)
The goal of any project plan is to make the decision to start working simultaneous with the action of beginning work. (This is another vital skill essential to develop.)
This means that if you have the flu, or are tired from staying up all night to meet a work deadline you don’t have to think about anything, except to sit down and work.
This frees you up to make all the creative choices you’ll have to make as you work—where to put lines, which lines to show, how to show shape, value, shadow, volume, composition, design, and so on.
This limiting of supply choices and subject matter choice—it all helps ensure that you will be able to complete your 30-day project.
Affinity with Materials
Swapping back and forth between materials throughout a project also prevents you from developing an affinity with any one material or paper. You might go the whole month and create a bunch of passable pieces but not feel that your passion engaged in the creation of any of them.
The quickest way to ignite your passion is of course to find a subject you love. But a very close second is to work with materials on a daily basis so that you build a comfort level. It’s like learning to walk before you run. Once you have experience with the materials the remaining days of your project become all about enjoying the experimentation and increasing mastery of those materials.
Whether you keep the paper constant, the paints, or a specific pen constant by the end of the project you will find that your understanding of that item is vastly increased, especially in relation to your other supply choices. And you know have experience under your belt that will allow you to accurately compare your working methods on other papers with those materials, or compare other materials on that constant paper.
This is ultimately how you discover your love of a specific paper (canvas, wood, or other substrate) and the media you use to work on it.
A project with limited choices as to supplies is a short cut to knowing your materials.
When you finish a project that has been limited as to supplies you have greater confidence using those supplies even if NOTHING you created in your project sparkles as a solid keeper. This confidence is more important to your growth as an artist—you can take it to the next project and beyond.
Additionally you set yourself up to begin to see what works and what doesn’t not only in your materials but in your approach.
You’ve removed so many variables that the YOU of your art is coming through. A project with limited choices as to supplies is also a short cut to discovering your voice and style.
Does that mean that you’ll finish the project and know your style? Probably not. It simply means that you will begin to see what is pulling you and what you want to do and where you want to go. Then later, one day in the middle of a project your style may become clear to you. Why not start finding that now?
What if your project is of a very long duration? Let’s look for a moment at my Daily Dots. I began that project with simple parameters—daily life drawings of my dog, that took no more than 30 minutes. I limited my supplies to graphite or Creatacolor’s Nero Pencil and drawing journals made with lovely drawing paper from Michael Roger Press.
I bought 10 of those journals to start as I knew they would last the year based on page count. At that time I was only going to work a year on the project. But as the project continued I decided to extend it. I returned to the store to purchase more journals and the 10 x 10 inch journals were no longer available. I ended up getting what they had of those and some landscape journals with the same cloth covered boards and same paper.
I contacted the company and learned that those journals were discontinued. I knew, if I were to continue the project there would come a day when I would be working on different paper, but that was well in the future. I had time to prepare. My eventual solution was to bind books with the paper I wanted to work with based on the media I was going to switch to.
With a project of one year or longer in duration you have, if you think ahead in your non-project moments, the ability to bring in new materials in a controlled fashion to keep building on the gains you are already making in the project. A one year or longer project allows you the scope to make creative flexibility towards materials a part of the project while still retaining long stretches of time devoted to one medium.
A Few Words About Choices and the Internal Critic
You may believe that you don’t have an internal critic. You may believe that with unlimited choices you’ll just breeze right through your project. I sincerely hope you are right. If you know yourself well, if you have experience with all the materials you are going to choose from you probably will sail on through.
However, if this is the first time you’ve tried doing an extended month-long project and you have issues of resistance and an internal critic who loves to keep you company when you create, following the guidelines for limiting your choices I’ve outlined will allow you to keep your momentum going.
Remember, your internal critic hates momentum. He will do anything he can do to stop it. One of his favorite things is to send you to the art store for the perfect pen and many supplies. I’ve seen many students stumble at this first step. They are so excited to be giving themselves permission to create daily that they invite the internal critic right in with a wide open door.
Watch out for that.
Limiting choices doesn’t imply you are going to be inflexible.
Creativity is about being flexible.
Let’s say that you are going to use pencil for 30 days on a certain type of paper, let’s say Stonehenge printmaking paper.
Now at day 22 you have lost the pencils you were using (they are buried under something in the studio or you left them in a friend’s car after a sketch out and can’t get them until the next day).
So you don’t draw today?
WRONG. You look at what you have on hand and use it. You’re quick as you can be in the choice, grabbing the first thing that appeals, not over thinking it.
If you grab watercolors you’re in luck. I happen to know that Stonehenge printmaking paper takes watercolor very well. (In fact I prefer it to their watercolor papers and many other brands of watercolor paper.) It requires that you shift how you use your water to paint ratio a bit, and drying times are different, but this is all about responding in the moment and being flexible.
The great thing is that if you’re flexible now you’ll learn something new about the paper and your materials when the universe throws you a curve and you respond with flexibility. When your project is over you can take that new knowledge of those materials and build a new project around them for continued experimentation.
Another area of necessary flexibility might be in location and subject matter choice. I mentioned above how I showed up one day to sketch “my” flock of geese and found they were being relocated. That meant I had to come up with something else to sketch not only on that day, but also for the project’s duration.
When something like that happens (and the more you do projects the more likely this will eventually happen to you) draw something that is right at hand, right there, right now. Use those minutes you were going to draw your other subject. Do not fret, whine, or worry. JUST DRAW. Honor the project by accomplishing the task.
Then on your way home, or when you’re brushing your teeth before bed, brainstorm what you’ll do for the rest of the month. Maybe you decide that instead of going to the goose nesting area (which is now gooseless) you go to the zoo to sketch animals (your main goal anyway?) and you know you’ll always find animals there. Or you decide that the main thing was to just be outside so you have a rotation of 4 places that you go, without fail. Once on location you sketch whatever is on hand.
Creativity is about flexibility, remember that. Creativity is not about whining, complaining, wishing something else were happening. Creativity is being in the moment and responding from the reality of that moment.
How Limits Help Goals
When we start a project we always have goals. It is essential to have goals. This is how we ensure that we are the drivers of our own creativity.
For projects goals need to be more than “I’ll draw anything I want each day, with anything I want,” because that’s basically just saying you’ll keep a visual journal daily, and you’re already doing that!
Goals help us to zero in on our skills—what do we need to improve? They provide us practice if we’ve already identified what we need to improve.
But goals also help us assess the strength and usefulness of the completed project so we can better plan projects in the future.
If you begin your project with too many choices of supplies and other varied parameters there are no constants against which you can judge your progress.
When you finish a project that has clear goals you will be more satisfied, regardless of the quality of your output, because that output will tell you where you need to go next. It will scream at you. Your goals also help you see PROCESS not product.
That means that you will find, even in the work that you think is horrible, little gems, little touches of greatness and possibility that you can build on. You are training yourself to see the whole of your piece as an experience and pull from that experience where things worked.
You need to learn to see process so that you can see your progress, savor your progress, and enjoy your progress.
Having clear goals is the only way to assess your process and set up your practice so that you continue to make progress.
If you are using an unlimited number of supplies and approaches and subject matter, etc., your goals are not clearly enough defined. You’re missing out on understanding more about your process.
If you say to yourself, “Well I already know about my process and I know that I just can’t be held to one medium even for 2 days let alone two weeks,” ask yourself this—what do you expect to get out of your project? What do you expect to learn? What am I afraid of?
You need to ask yourself those questions and really check in on what is the motivating factor of unlimited choice in your project—because “Well I already know my process…” is what the internal critic wants you to say so he has entry to shut you down later the moment things get tough, and your expectations for finished product don’t materialize.
The “What am I afraid of?” question is about scarcity. I see students set up projects with unlimited media because they believe they’ll get “behind someone else” if they don’t keep using X, and they can’t live without using Y, and so on.
The reality is that you are where you are with your skills, right now. And the way you progress is to practice with specific goals in mind. None of this relates to anyone else.
And I can assure you, because there have been days when I have not used the Pentel Pocket Brush Pen, that you will keep breathing, and make some really fantastic art, even if you don’t use your favorite tool.
It’s only 30 days. That tool will be waiting for you. And you can apply your newly earned skills into using it!
A Quick Word on Expectations
Expectations can kill the momentum of a project. One of the things a project is set up to do is keep momentum going—even if individual pieces aren’t going well.
One day you burst through all your boundaries and create something special within the confines of the project. The next day, you notice that you aren’t as eager to sit down. You may have some trepidation.
That’s because you’re worried you won’t created another piece as good as the one you completed yesterday.
That’s because you are focusing on your expectations to create great pieces. You need to shift your focus to process and action.
Remember in the podcast I said, “You don’t say, ‘I’m going to write the great American novel in the next month.’ You say, ‘I’m going to write five pages of crap every day for the next month and if any of those pages are great I’m going to cherish it.’
Create first, and worry about the quality of it later in the self-assessment phase at the end of the project (which I wrote about in my previous post and write about in numerous pieces on this blog).
Set your expectations to “creation mode.” Remind yourself you are “in practice.”
If something spectacular is created on day 10, fantastic. But don’t dwell on it. On day 11 don’t think about what you created yesterday, don’t even look back at it. Create what you’re going to create today. At the end of the project you can look at everything. Keep your expectations in check and your momentum going forward.
I hope that you will all take a moment to think these points over carefully as you set the goals and parameters of your project.
At the same time, realize as you work through your project, especially if it is your first project, that things might not go as planned. Be ready to take new creative actions as things diverge from the plan.
Don’t listen to the siren words of the internal critic saying, “You’ve done two weeks of pen work, now stop and do something else.”
He’s trying to stop you from achieving the gifts that come with sticking to all of your goals including the end date.
That date will come, too soon in fact. And you’ll look at the book filled with pages, or the stack of loose sheets, and wish it weren’t over.
But you’ll know that you also have another project already to go!