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Limited Choices Lead to Successful Projects

July 30, 2018
In this sketch my goal was to make a quick sketch for shape, outline, and rough feature placement using an wide tipped orange Uni Posca marker. It was part of a short project where I began sketches that way. You can see some of the outline most clearly in the top of the hair. Then I went in with watercolor and direct brush painting to complete this 11 x 15 inch sketch. (Sktchy Muse used for reference.)

 

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.

Detail of the featured sketch shows how the texture of this lower grade Bienfang Watercolor paper gives pop to the dry-brush strokes. Viewers of this portrait think it’s gouache. (Note: there is no black paint or ink in this painting. I mixed the dark neutrals with complementary colors.)

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.

Flexibility

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.

Successful Projects

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!

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    • Terry B
    • July 31, 2018
    Reply

    THANK YOU! I also had been wondering if the scope of my project was too ambitious. Your guidelines and suggestions make a lot of sense!

    1. Reply

      Terry I’m glad they struck a chord. I hope you can test some out and adapt them to work for you.

    • Asta
    • July 31, 2018
    Reply

    Wonderful! How is it that I never thought about limiting my materials? This is life changing! Thank you so very much!

    1. Reply

      Glad it gave you a lightbulb moment Asta! Good luck with your projects.

    • Diane
    • July 31, 2018
    Reply

    Good advice, as always. And it works!

    1. Reply

      Thanks Diane!

    • Debra Moini
    • July 31, 2018
    Reply

    Thank you for another very informative and helpful post.

    1. Reply

      Debra, so glad that it was helpful. Thanks for reading. Good luck with your projects.

  1. Reply

    Thank you for this detailed explanation. I have tried some of your helpful ideas over the years including doing IFJM several times both successfully and unsuccessfully. I have even had the experience of being pleasantly surprised by what happened on day 13 of an IFJM project and it still makes me happy to look back at the sketch my character did that day.

    Nonetheless I am happiest and most productive when I accommodate the fact that I am what Barbara Sher calls a “scanner.” Her book “Refuse to Choose” describes 11
    different kinds of scanners including Cylical Scanners, Sequential Scanners, Plate Spinners and Wanderers. Sher says that scanners are “genetically wired to be interested in many things.” It may be for some readers that it’s not that your suggestions and examples aren’t well thought-out but that they are scanners too.

    1. Reply

      Susan, I haven’t read Sher’s book so I can’t comment on what she says from her perspective. I happen to be “one of those people who is genetically wired to be interested in many things.” (

      What I’ve found in my own learning, and in the role of teacher to others, is that some time period of focus is necessary to reach mastery or approach mastery (depending on one’s goals), regardless of the many interests that pull one’s attention.

      I can only write to my own experience of what I know works for me and the others I’ve taught.

      As someone who has varied interests in everything from art to cadaver search, and bicycling to beading, and just about everything in between, I also don’t see my suggestions as limiting anyone who is a scanner. These suggestions don’t limit them in their life, as I haven’t found these practices limiting in my life. So I don’t see them as mutually exclusive as you seem to do.

      1. Reply

        I totally agree that focus is required to get better at something. I’m still getting better at software development after focussing on it off and on since 1970. My point was not that your suggestions are limiting but simply that the same approach isn’t going to work for everyone and people shouldn’t feel they are flawed if it doesn’t work for them. For example, if I’m interested in something new I typically get totally immersed in it whether for a few hours or a day or much longer. I also understand that if someone has a very busy life 30 min. a day may be their only option. Just the other day Sher’s daily newsletter was on the subject of “What to do after work” and she pointed out that doing something you love will likely energize you even if it’s hard to get started.

        1. Reply

          Susan, I believe the best way to keep from feeling “flawed” as you say it, is to have a plan with clear goals and criteria against which people can judge real actions and honest attitudes, with the flexibility and realistic expectations I mention in the article, to best discover what new actions and choices they can make, instead of being shut down by feelings of being flawed. It’s inherent in this approach that you develop tools which help you to slough off the internal critic which is the actual voice generating those feelings of being flawed.

          This post was written as a close follow up to the previous post which actually mentioned the many resources on my blog which deal with those types of feelings and ways to develop kinder approaches to one’s work. It’s what my whole teaching effort is about.

          Unfortunately in a post that is already over 3,000 words I can’t hit topics I just hit in another sister post (referred to in this post).

          I believe that discovering one’s process is the best way to step away from “feeling flawed” and find a method of making art which is based on owning all your choices, including the individual’s decision that daily art making isn’t for her/him. That realization made in conjunction with real choices and goals is actually freeing.

          Again, I haven’t read Sher’s work that you are referring to, but I have written numerous times about how art, done in spare moments (including afterwork) will energize you. It’s the mood lifting and life enhancing aspects of art that I focus on in my blog. So perhaps her position isn’t that distant from mine.

          1. Roz thank you again. I don’t mean to be taking up so much of your time. I know that your approach has helped many of your students with inner critic and other issues. Barbara Sher is a very famous person who’s written at least 6 widely-published books in the last 40 years and I don’t think I can do her ideas justice. You can easily find out a lot about her and might enjoy comparing her ideas and advice with yours.

    • Jan
    • July 31, 2018
    Reply

    Fabulous post and so timely for me!

    1. Reply

      Glad it was useful Jan.

    • Cathy
    • July 31, 2018
    Reply

    I very much appreciate your blog and wonderful advice! I plan on doing a “project” for Aug. using your examples here in your article. Do you have any advice for someone who buys paint, tries out color choices, trying to get a palette of colors that I like, but then I don’t create anything, or rarely. I now have a ton of paint, but get stuck on what to use!

    1. Reply

      Cathy I think you have a bunch of projects sitting right in front of you. I would pick a paint type you like and have, like watercolor, I would get a book on color theory like Nita Leland’s or Jeanne Dobie’s and I would look at the sample palette they suggest. Then pull those colors together from what you have, and follow the exercises each day from ONE of those books to learn how to mix those colors.

      When you begin to understand how to mix a standard palette then you’ll start to see how you can diverge from it. Then you can start (as a different project) to make substitutions, and test them.

      You start with the standard palette so you can get a feel for how things interact. That’s your foundation. And then you can get a feel for where you want to go based on that foundation.

      Last year I tested two different Schmincke palettes.

      The boxes were being sold with some of the colors I like to use, and I love the boxes (almost square) so I bought them, took out the colors I would never use and put in my own additional colors that were of interest to me to test and then took the boxes out to test.

      I tested them separately for different periods of time not at the same time. And I made sure to use them in conditions I like to work, such as going to the zoo, or at the Minnesota State Fair.

      Right now if you aren’t using your paints they are weighing on you and tamping down your creative energy. So if you start to break things up as suggested above you’ll start to find colors you like to mix that will work for you and the subject matter that you enjoy. A year of projects like the one above and you’ll have a unique palette in all your media and a lot of pieces created. Have fun.

      Also check project fridays in my category list as I think I write more about this elsewhere on the blog, but with over 2500 posts I may be misremembering and it might be I’m just remembering what I say to my color theory students.

    • Cathy
    • July 31, 2018
    Reply

    Thanks Roz, I’ll give those authors a look and at your Project Fri. posts. Hope you are feeling better too!

    1. Reply

      Great Cathy, I think they will give you a lot to think about and get you started making even small studies with actual paints so that you can them move forward with your media and start to find colors which speak to you as you want to use them. (Thanks too for the health wishes. I’m starting to actually feel more normal today.)

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