Sometimes when the mojo isn't flowing, it's time to lock the door and put up the "out to lunch" sign. That was the case last night. I got off work a little early. My wife, a nurse extraordinaire, was working the evening shift. My son was out of town. Just me and my trusty pooches for the whole evening.
Having a night to yourself is like a blank page to doodle on. What should I draw? What masterpiece shall I create? My mind filled with all kinds of ideas for how I should spend the evening.
My first plan was to film a cartooning sequence. For awhile now I've wanted to incorporate videos into my blog (they're called "vlogs"). There's just something mesmerizing about watching an artist at work.
I borrowed a slick little camera from a work buddy and affixed the gadget to one of my tripods. Then I tried to contort the tripod and camera in a way that would capture my drafting board surface. I lay some paper on the drafting board, turned on my adjustable lamp. And frowned.
The light from the lamp hit the back of my hand, casting a shadow over the paper. Frustrated, I started readjusting the camera tripod. In doing so, I bumped my drafting table, which spilled my watercolor cup. Arghh!
Then the camera battery died! Undaunted, I pulled out my iPhone and discovered the image quality was better than my buddy's little camera. But I had no way to attach my iPhone to the tripod. So I held it in my left hand to film and drew with my right hand. But I still had that darn cast shadow problem.
I moved from the drafting table and affixed the sketch paper to my vertical painting easel. I clicked on my easel light and, juggling my iPhone, filmed myself doodling on the paper. I played back the results. They were less than stellar. Too unstable and shaky. Clearly, I need to invest in a better system.
My whole goal was to produce a cool little cartooning video for my next blog post. I planned to send it out to my entire email list. But clearly that wasn't going to happen.
In my depression I looked down and spied my palette box. I opened it up. Next thing you know, I'm starting to mix paint and block out a little imaginary mountain study. Nothing to write home about, but for a spontaneous painting session, the thirty minute study wasn't half bad.
My furry studio assistants were growing restless. It was their dinner time. So I put down my paint brush and retreated to the kitchen to feed them. Then I sat down for a bit and began reading Peter Heller's book The Painter. After an hour or so I took a break and grabbed a sketch journal and some markers from my studio. I returned to the living room, switched on the evening news and doodled for a bit.
I was experimenting with a cleaner cartoon style, as opposed to the sketchy, crosshatching style I often do. I liked the look of the doodle, but I just couldn't come up with anything to say. Nothing came to mind that was worthy of a blog post.
I closed my sketch journal and looked at the oil paint drips on my hands. The dogs had settled onto the couch, content. I sat back in my chair and closed my eyes. I resigned myself to the fact that the entire evening was a bust. My little cartoon video flopped. My impromptu painting session got me no closer to a decent blog post. And my cop doodle seemed to be telling me something. Maybe I should just hang it all up and start an ant farm!
Around this time, as I was feeling sorry for myself, my wife arrived home from work. We chatted for a bit, I brought her something to drink, and then I turned in for the night.
It's funny how a night's sleep and subconscious reflection can produce ideas and insights. When I awoke I had an unexpected epiphany. I had gone to bed feeling like I frittered away my entire evening. Wasted all that time when I should have been writing a blog post. But now, with my morning coffee and rested spirit, I realized why paint drips and doodles are important. Because they lead to progress and breakthroughs.
Artists and creative souls need downtime to experiment and allow stuff to happen organically. Even failed experimentation, like my cartoon video efforts, can move the needle towards progress.
For example, now I know what doesn't work. Today I'll research a proper system for filming my cartooning and painting. My painting study made me realize I need to learn more about rendering rocks. And my quick little cop doodle has given me ideas about a clean, less busy cartoon style. Most of all, it occurred to me that sharing the ups and downs of my seemingly failed evening might remind other creative folks that nothing is wasted. Turns out I had the makings of a blog post all along.
So take heart. Some days will feel unproductive. Let's call them "paint drips and doodle" days. But those days are important. The absence of deadlines and commitments free you to unearth subconscious ideas, creative tangents and new directions. All of which lead to breakthroughs, authentic work and greater success. Maybe even a new blog post or two!