Can a retreat during a busy time help us be more productive? I believe the answer is yes, what do you think? I’m not talking about scrambling to meet a deadline. I’m referring to times when we have a lot going on and are being pulled in many different directions. I’ve been so overwhelmed the past few months and got caught up in pushing myself harder to catch up. Even though I knew it wasn’t working and probably never would.
Fortunately, I saw an announcement for an online artist retreat by Alice Sheridan called Refresh and Reset. My soul cried out for refreshment and I put everything else on hold to devote myself to this process for at least a week.
The advantages of an online retreat are that I could do everything from the comfort of my home. I could also take naps, read, journal, and play in the studio when, and for as long as, it suited me. Videos and guidance were emailed daily and Facebook provided a forum for discussion and questions, both in a news feed and in daily live calls (except for Sunday). The rest of the time was my own to focus on self-care and dive deep into the process.
Dissatisfaction and Spinning My Wheels
I haven’t been happy with the canvases I create for a while now. I’m getting more proficient at the technical requirements of the process and have started creating some pieces I think are rather cool. Yet, I don’t want to exhibit them or put my name on them because they have no soul. They are not what I want to put out into the world. I enjoy the beginning of the process but hate the later steps. The finished pieces could be called attractive and interesting but are flat and one-dimensional. I didn’t know where to go or what to do. I would avoid my studio and watch the clock when I was there.
Slowing Down to Speed Up
I was so focused on outward energy that I had lost touch with myself; my true needs and desires. I needed to slow down and turn inward for a while. I needed to be heard by me. This is what Christine Kane calls slowing down to speed up. Sounds counterintuitive, I know, but it works. Rather than drinking more coffee and pushing harder, taking time to step back refreshes us and gives our inner voice a chance to guide us. I’d begun a mindset shift and needed to slow down and get my bearings, get a compass bearing on a new direction. I hadn’t done this since I left my corporate job so this process was way overdue.
Julia Cameron, in her iconic Artist Way book, calls it filling the well or stocking the pond.
“Art is an image-using system. To create, we draw from our inner well. This inner well, an artistic reservoir, is ideally like a well-stocked trout pond. . . As artists, we must realize that we have to maintain the artistic ecosystem. If we don’t give some attention to the upkeep, our well is apt to become depleted, stagnant, or blocked.”
It was time for journaling to connect with my desires. This is part of a tried-and-true method for me that I learned from Julia Cameron. Unfortunately, I’d been neglecting it.
A great key I learned at the retreat was how to prioritize those desires so I’m not trying to do everything at once; which would put me right back where I started.
All the focus on to-do lists and outcomes had thrown me out of balance into left-brain thinking almost exclusively. A balance of left-brain and right-brained thinking is needed to have a successful art practice, and I would argue a successful life.
The analytical side is needed to learn new skills, and to discern which new skills are needed. It is needed to critique a work in progress and understand what it is missing or what to eliminate. That left-brain thinking helps with setting prices, organizing business files, and all the other academic functions needed.
Right brain thinking is crucial to creating as it releases our creative, intuitive, and playful side. A devastating thing for an artist to neglect.
The skill set I need to work on is identifying the type of thinking needed for a situation and keeping myself balanced and whole; in body and mind.
Defining a New Creative Focus
Being an artist’s retreat, the goal was to identify a new creative focus to explore that will help me develop my art. Since this was something I’d been struggling to do on my own, I’m immensely grateful that access to a great process popped up just when I needed it. Isn’t serendipity great?
Since I was so out of balance toward the analytical, I let my intuition be my guide in selecting and completing my retreat projects.
New Palette Project
For a couple of weeks, I’d been drawn to colors in magazines that I wanted to include in new work. This seemed like the perfect time for some color play. I was excited by this project because I’m motivated by color but have trouble with it. I love rich jewel tones but feel my paintings tend to end up loud & thin. This is a skill I need to develop.
First, I cut out colors that I was drawn to from high-end magazines. I then started playing with the cutouts; trying combinations & groups. Next, I pulled some color studies I’d done a few weeks ago & was able to match a couple of the mixes to the cut paper colors. This gave me a starting point.
Once I did color mixes for all the paper cutouts, I created a list of the paint colors used. Then I got a little geeky and made a spreadsheet. This allowed me to easily see where there were gaps in the palette which I filled in with colors from my color cart. The colors highlighted in green were from the mixing colors list. As I’m writing this I see how my left and right brain were already learning how to play together in completing this project.
Mini Composition Studies from Torn Paper
I’ve been leaning toward a return to landscape painting with a more contemporary approach. I used the same cut & torn magazine pages to make some compositional sketches. My 2 favorites are posted here.
I knew I needed a change of direction and had a general idea of landscapes, but I didn’t have a real handle on a goal; a vision of how I want to move forward. I needed to define the work I want to do for the next few months, at least. This is where the vision board comes in. Again, I worked intuitively, journaling first then gathering words and images from magazines (that Architectural Digest subscription is paying off.) I’m not sure this is complete but I’m beginning to get a good feel for where I want to go.
Self-Critique of Work
Finally, I went through my studio and pulled enough completed paintings to cover dominant styles and subject matter for me over a few years. I chose paintings that I was proud of at the time but always felt missed the mark somehow. Taking them one by one and writing about them I was able to identify my areas of dissatisfaction. Those areas were surprisingly similar across the board.
I then went a step further. A marvelous reference book was recommended, during a retreat discussion, that is turning out to be a God send; Nancy Reyner’s Create Perfect Paintings. Through a more detailed, skills-based, critique I found blind spots in my skill set. I’d improved on so many things but almost every painting I reviewed had the same shortfalls. To paraphrase Einstein ‘We can’t solve our problems with the same eyes that created them.” Thanks to the guided retreat and an excellent guidebook, I see differently now and know specific skills I need to improve to elevate my work toward the standards I hold for it. Now the left brain can step in and I can set tangible goals for improvement.
This retreat was intense, fun, and very productive. I now have a new palette, new vision, guidance & structure, a vastly improved critique process, and a greater understanding of myself and my creative process. Have you ever gone through a process similar to this? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.