Listen to Your Muse

Whatever your plans, be receptive to new ideas. Continually allow for revisions or adjustments that might take your work places you didn't anticipate.

This watercolor piece ended up differently than I had planned, but I couldn't be happier with the end results. I'd been thinking about this one for while. I wanted to use analogous colors—blues, greens, and yellows—to create something earthy. Then, I was going to title it "Analogue" as a statement about enjoying nature without digital interference. That was my plan. However, in the face of inspiration, I abandoned the concept entirely.

That concept did guide me through most of the piece. I even penciled in trees on the outer layer during initial sketching. As I drew layer by layer, I would look at the page, visualize something, and draw it. I knew most of it would be abstract, so I didn't think too much about what the shapes would represent. I knew I wanted trees; that was all I had figured out. As I started adding color on the interior levels, something kept bothering me. What were those long triangles pointing up between the trees?


As I continued painting, I kept feeling like something else needed to accompany the trees. I didn't know what. And I didn't know what the triangles in between them would be.

"Inspiration exists, but it must find you working." —Pablo Picasso

I kept adding color, building out to it, even painting the background beyond the mandala. The point is, I kept working. Even though I hadn't quite figured out the plan, even though I knew I was missing something.

I kept asking, "What kind of triangle silhouette do we see next to trees? What could those shapes become?" I had painted nearly everything else when the idea of steeples was revealed to me. Poured in with it came in the notion to alternate different kinds of steeples. I titled it "Analogous", using the many meanings of the word to apply to the color palette as well as religions that coexist alongside each other. At the very end, I decided to add black outlines reminiscent of stained glass.

This piece exceeded my expectations in every way. If I hadn't listened to my muse, it would have been a lukewarm sentiment about nature. Instead, it's a powerful statement about religion and spirituality.

Break the Rules! A Quick Way to Spontaneous Creativity

Artists like to talk about process. The steps we take to create work are part routine, part conditioning, part mystery. Process is a vehicle to creation. It's a way to teach the mental patterns. But it's not an absolute necessity. You've probably heard the saying, "You have to learn the rules before you can learn to break them." This certainly applies to the creative process.

In college, I spent semester after semester learning the process of design. Research. Sketch. Choose the best idea. Create it. Fine-tune it. Re-evaluate whether it was the best idea. Start over as needed. Polish. Present. We'd spend several weeks on one project at a time. One professor challenged us to condense this process. He'd assign a project to be completed within one 3-hour class. In the real world, time is not always available. Often, you have to work fast and be good at it.

Creating quickly and effectively, relying heavily on impulse and intuition, is a fantastic skill to practice.

In my recent endeavors, having just learned the process of drawing mandalas, I became intrigued with the idea of abandoning that process. How would I do with no gridlines? What would I draw with less time to think?

I had to try it, if for no other reason than to sate my curiosity. Armed with two weights of black Sharpies, I picked up a blank sheet of paper and began. Here's what I did in one session. I spent about an hour and twenty minutes on it. 


It's a little lop-sided, but I'm glad I tried it. For now, I prefer penciling in guidelines, sketching out a preliminary drawing, and spending more time on each step. Taking my time and building from an initial sketch leads to better symmetry, which is more appealing to me for mandalas. 

This is a great experiment, though—a clear representation of where my freehand skills are right now! I may revisit this technique later down the road, either for a change of pace or to check my progress. Sometimes it feels good just to get something new down on paper. Changing or abandoning your ritual can refresh your mindset.  

For now, I'm ready to move on to a different medium. I'm planning a mandala in watercolor. I'll let you know how it goes...

A Productive Kind of Self-Torture

I run on deadlines. My whole work schedule hinges on them. I've seen infographics that suggest the creative process is about 90% procrastination, that the panic of an approaching deadline propels creative sparks to fly. I don't design that way. I work beat-the-clock style, trying to turn projects in before the deadline as much as possible. It's a productive kind of self-torture and it makes for happy clients!

In other arenas, it's a different story. Unfinished shopping lists and unfilled school forms haunt my downtime. To-do lists pile up around the house until I know I'm a bad person for ignoring them. When my declining self-image can take it no longer, I spend a weekend being super-productive, blasting through all my yardwork and housework and paperwork.
Sketchy Charcoal Judges You

Turns out drawing, for me, is more like the latter. I had started this new mandala. I'd like to tell you I steadily worked on it every week, finishing at a reasonable pace. But, about halfway through, I set it on my table and left it. It kept staring at me, saying, "Get over here and finish this..." Its opinion of me slowly deteriorated with each passing day. For weeks I kept putting it off.

Every time I thought I would work on it, I ended up changing my plans at the last minute.
Oh, I need to do dishes.
Oh, I need to spend time with the kids.
Oh, I need to take a nap.
Oh, I need to read this magazine.
Everything else seemed more important. I caught myself lamenting that I never had time to draw. Other papers started piling up on my table, and I thought, "Well, if I'm going to draw, I'll need to clean up my office first..."

One evening, the kids went downstairs to watch YouTube and I started mentally preparing myself to conquer the piles of paperwork. Then, I realized that was just another excuse. If I was ever going to draw again, I needed to just do it. I had to finish this self-righteous, judgmental piece! (Turns out the threat of cleaning my office was enough to tip the scales.)

I took my paper and charcoal to the kitchen table. I sat down and finished it that night. Because there! Take that, judgy charcoal!

Perhaps I work better with deadlines.