Have you ever arrived home after a long day at work and not remembered how you got there? You sort of remember leaving the office and getting in your car, but everything after that is a blur.
Welcome to life on autopilot.
The reality is that we all do it. Mindless repetition. From brushing our teeth to tying our shoes. In a way, it’s a good thing. Imagine if we had to mentally review the steps for starting our car, backing out of the driveway, etc.
Repetition, routines and habits burn neural pathways into our brains. We don’t have to think about it, we just do it. Of course, it gets a little scary when we do stuff without remembering.
I’ve found myself in the checkout aisle with a cart full of groceries and little memory of the shopping I did. My mind was elsewhere, ruminating about work and life.
Most of the time, running around on autopilot is no big deal. You get the mundane stuff done while your mind meanders in daydream mode.
The problem is when your life gets stuck on autopilot.
A relationship to the whole
I studied landscape painting with Scott L. Christensen, a master artist. I still remember my first workshop with Scott. He took our entire group out on location and gave us just 30 minutes to paint the scene.
“Time’s up! Pack your gear, we’re heading to the next location,” Scott shouted to the group. Sadly, I hadn’t accomplished much with my painting. I wasted most of my time painting a single tree.
At the next location I hustled more, but only managed to paint the foreground. We were above the Snake River in Idaho and the view was stunning.
Unfortunately, it was also overwhelming. So I zeroed in on the foreground, forgetting to work on the rest of the scene.
Scott knew that many of us were struggling. He quoted a line from the painter John F. Carlson:
“It is a curious fact that out-of-doors, nature is to the beginner an enormously overloaded ‘property room.’ He sees, for instance, the myriad of leaves upon a tree long before he sees the tree at all.”
So it is with life. There’s so much going on and it can all be overwhelming. To cope, we tend to zero in on familiar things. Stuff we’re comfortable with and can do well.
Before long, we become myopic. We only focus on what we know. And then we end up on autopilot.
Scott’s approach to painting landscapes is to work all over the canvas. Much like a symphony, he orchestrates different areas and adjusts where needed. With each item painted, he steps back to evaluate its relationship to the whole picture.
Each piece of the painting affects all the other pieces. Just like each area of your life affects all the other areas.
The accomplished painter Carolyn Anderson, in one of her blog posts, suggested painters stand at a distance that allows them to see all four corners of the canvas. She added:
“We have a tendency to paint ‘things’ without regard to the spaces around the ‘things.’ Getting in the habit of seeing the entire canvas makes it easier to recognize that each mark and each shape has a relationship to the whole. Staring at pieces of information is an entirely unnatural act. In our everyday lives our eyes are constantly moving so keep that in mind next time you find your nose inches away from your painting.”
If you want a better life and improved artwork, here’s the first tip:
Step back and take a look at the whole.
Do it with your paintings and the landscape of your life. Don’t keep focusing in on one small area at the neglect of everything else. Don’t let yourself run on autopilot.
For painters, we need to literally and physically step back in order to clearly see the entire painting.
For writers, don’t get so bogged down on your awesome character development or descriptive scenes that you forget the rest of your story arc.
For musicians, don’t fall in love with your ostinato at the expense of other areas in your song. Don’t overdo the high notes and disturb the quiet transitions.
Good photographers and designers understand the importance of stepping back and looking at the whole. They know that negative space, where our eyes can rest, is as important as the main subject.
Think about your own life. Maybe you’re killing it at work. Making serious bucks. But your family life is a wreck. Not to mention your health.
It’s like having one area of your painting that sings. Perhaps that tree in the foreground. Brilliantly executed. Too bad the sky, clouds and horizon are lacking.
John Singer Sargent used to back up completely across the room in order to evaluate the whole of his portraits. By expanding his field of vision, he could more easily see what was lacking in his paintings.
We need to back up from the minutia of our lives, in order to consider the whole of our lives. That way we can better see the problems.
When we fail to stand back and take in the whole, we deny ourselves greater artistic and personal growth.
Something of value
Creating a painting is a lot like building a life. A great deal of time, effort, patience and thought goes into it. There will be trials and errors.
Sometimes we have to wipe the canvas and start over. Much like beginning with a clean slate.
If we are to create a masterpiece, we must make use of proper values. In painting, values refer to the relative lightness or darkness of a color.
Most painting instructors will tell you that 90% of failed paintings are due to incorrect values.
I’ll bet when people fail in life, 90% of the cause is incorrect values.
When I first began landscape painting, I didn’t know much about values. As a result, my skies were painted too dark and I had trouble making objects stand out.
Fortunately, patient teachers and lots of practice helped me improve the values in my paintings.
So it is with children. They don’t know much about values until someone patiently teaches them. Then they must practice the values they were taught.
Some of the best values we can live by include honesty, kindness, trustworthiness, loyalty, love, and self respect. When we adopt strong core values in our lives, we are better able to steer clear of trouble. We make better decisions and succeed more.
Writer and blogger James Clear created an expanded list of important values. Not everyone adopts the same core values, but the important thing is to have them.
If you want a better life and improved artwork, here’s the second tip:
Adopt proper values.
Some people are fortunate enough to be raised by loving parents who teach them proper values to live by. Other folks aren’t so lucky. They stumble through life because they lack values.
I’ve worked on some paintings nearly to completion and then realized the values were off. I couldn’t in good conscience sign the piece and try to sell it. Because I knew it was flawed.
So I wiped the painting off the canvas and started over. Because I wanted to create something of value.
The good news is that you can start over, too. If you’ve made mistakes in life, or failed to become the person you dreamed of being, take some time to examine your values. Or your lack of values.
By starting over and adopting proper values, you can finally create the masterpiece you long to become.
Yes, it might take some time and serious effort. Any work of art does. But it can be done.
We have forgotten that we belong to each other
Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu was born on August 26, 1910 in Skopje, the current capital of the Republic of Macedonia. Her father died when she was young and her loving mother raised her.
A devout Catholic, when Agnes turned 18 she decided to become a nun. She traveled to Ireland to join the Sisters of Loreto in Dublin. It was there that she took the name Sister Mary Teresa after Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. Today, of course, we know her as Mother Teresa.
The website Biography.com notes:
“Mother Teresa was the founder of the Order of the Missionaries of Charity, a Roman Catholic congregation of women dedicated to helping the poor. Considered one of the greatest humanitarians of the 20th century, she was canonized as Saint Teresa of Calcutta in 2016.”
Mother Teresa’s parents raised her with good values. Her Catholic faith deepened her values. So much so that when she stepped back to take a look at the whole of her life, she found a calling to help the less fortunate.
One of my core values is kindness. I try hard to be kind to others and appreciate it when people are kind to me.
My affinity for kindness is why I admire Mother Teresa. She literally dedicated her life to being kind and helping the poor.
If you value kindness, I have a call to action for you. Use your creativity and art to help other people.
Good writing, artwork, photography, music, sculpture, crafts and so many other artful pursuits bring real joy to people.
I used to use my cartoons whenever I visited school children. I’d participate in a school’s annual read-a-thon. After reading the children’s book, I’d draw cartoons on the grease board. The kids laughed and loved it.
I’ll bet if you put your mind to it, you can come up with ways to use your creativity and art to brighten the lives of others.
You might find that doing so will brighten your life, too.
Mother Teresa once said:
“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”
Everyone wants a better life. We all desire happiness. The more we spend our lives on autopilot, going thoughtlessly through the motions, we forget about our duty to others.
We neglect the golden rule to treat others as we’d like to be treated. We forget to be kind.
Wherever you are in your art or life, remember to step back and take a look at the whole. Be sure to adopt proper values. And when you’re ready, use your art and creativity to make the world a better place.
Remember, we belong to one another. Together, we can improve our artwork, our lives and the lives of others.
All we have to do is start.
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(Originally published in ArtplusMarketing.com).