Monday Motivator: Beyond the Checklist

Monday Motivator

“… the right way is the emotional way. Truly great performance isn’t rational. It’s not an exercise in project management, process improvement, or box checking. As much peace as there is in an instruction manual, that’s not where creativity and greatness lie.”

Gaping Void, “The Right Way is the Hard Way“, 6 Feb 2024

One of the things I try to do in my Higham Hall workshops is getting participants comfortable painting without a predetermined outcome, never a careful drawing that you meticulously colour in, more finding a path whilst heading in a certain direction with a set of techniques and materials. Having a few days means there’s time to wobble whilst being persuaded (occasionally a bit more like coerced) into continuing through the doubt and learning to trust yourself and the process.

It’s such a great joy to have a participant emailing me afterwards saying things such as this: “You have opened up in me the knowledge that pushing further with a painting doesn’t mean trying not to spoil it, you have taught me that it means allowing that painting to progress and develop and make way for happy accidents and to enjoy the process and not worry about the outcome.”

Monday Motivator: Comical Dreams

Monday Motivator
Monday Motivator

“Historically, comics emerged right alongside the painterly abstractions of the modernist era, serving as something of a populist counterpart.”

Nick Francis Potter, “My Kid Could Do That!”, Field Guide to Graphic Literature, p10

Like “someone” who decided that at a certain age the storybooks we read should no longer have pictures, so “someone” decided fine art in the Western world should not have words (with brief exceptions e.g. Pop Art). Comics possibly even sit at the bottom of the hierarchy: fine art, illustration, comics.

Some artists can’t even bring themselves to use words in a sketchbook. Who decides how many words there can be before it gets called art journalling and not sketching?

In 1992, Art Spiegelman’s ground-breaking work Maus was published, the first graphic book to win a Pulitzer Prize. Fast forward to today and there’s a category of comics labelled graphic memoir/narrative/literature, an intermingling of life and images. Powerful works such as Lucy Sullivan’s Barking.

As the in-house art critic knows, this is a long-held-but-never-pursued interest of mine, with Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics periodically being pulled off the shelf and reread. I have a sketchbook where I write snippets for “the book” about our love and life, losing vocabulary and time through a rare dementia, creativity in the face of loss and fear, and our cats. It’s titled “Wordless”, because that’s a category of graphic literature and a fear. So if five, 10 years from now I publish a piece of graphic literature, it’s not out of the blue, it’s a long time coming.

Some dreams take longer than others to turn into reality.

Monday Motivator: A Few Hours Over a Lot of Days

Monday Motivator
Monday Motivator

“Making art quickly can be incredibly liberating. Don’t think, just do. Don’t agonise, improvise. But not everything can or should be done with time efficiency as its defining characteristic. And learning new things takes time and dedication. Do something. Keep doing it … for a few hours over lots of days.”

Rebecca Armstrong, “Too Busy for Dry Hands“, Artnest, 31 March 2024

It’s excruciating watching someone draw using a “hedge-your-bets line”, where you go back-and-forth on a small section and gradually move along rather than drawing one long line in a decisive manner. It may feel more controllable, but it’s a continual second-guessing of what you’re doing as you’re drawing. “Just decide and go for it already!” is what I want to shout.

Decisive isn’t the same as confident; it’s about making a decision in a drawing and seeing where it takes you. Embrace that it (most likely) won’t be perfect and that your aim is for “heading in the right direction”. You can always redraw the line, but you don’t want to be redrawing its entire length as you’re still getting it down the first time.

Like so much in art, it gets easier with practice. My ink drawing of a friend’s dog below wasn’t my first attempt at dogs, nor with water-soluble ink in a pen. It may look like a confident pen drawing, but if it hadn’t worked, you wouldn’t be seeing it.

Plein Air Without Aiming for a Finished Painting

What would be different about how you painted if you were not needing to end up with a “finished painting”? Less worrying about things going wrong or ruining a good bit? Not focusing on all the elements of art but only your favourite things (eg ignoring perspective or tonal contrast)? There’s no rule that says you have to aim to complete each and every painting. You won’t loose your artistic licence.

It may be easier to do when pleinair painting than in a studio because you’re on a time limit and without access to all your supplies. If it’s a location you can return to, then instead of doing everything in one go, you can focus on different aspects on each visit.

Sitting here:

I ended up with this:

Without context, I don’t think it makes much sense, merely a set of squiggly lines. But if I said “incoming waves”, then you’ve a starting point for interpreting the squiggles.

I often watch the waves in this little bay, and on this occasion I had an impulse to see if I could draw the differences in the motion and textures of waves as they approach and hit the shore. Could I convey the energy and movement in a non-fluid medium, i.e. pencil. Would water-soluble pencil (the drawing in blue) be a better choice as it gives the opportunity for fluidity as it turns to paint? Or does it merely weaken the line and I should rather combine watercolour with non-dissolving pencil, coloured or graphite?

I’d done that looking at this rugged bit of shoreline:

I like the granulating watercolour, but the pencil feels too delicate for the subject. Maybe ink line is the answer? Or a softer, darker pencil? I’ll try on another day.

Do not adjust your eyes, these are green. Probably olivine the in-house art critic wearing his geologist hat said

Monday Motivator: Embrace Mistakes

Monday Motivator
Monday Motivator

“In creative work, sometimes the best way to reach a level of quality is through embracing quantity. You simply have to create quickly, iterate on the fly, and embrace mistakes as a part of the learning process.”

John Spencer, Making Time for Project-Based Learning (PBL), 26 March 2024


Multiple attempts or multiple failures. Your choice of wording predicts your longer term outcome.

Embracing mistakes is not embracing failure, it is acknowledging that learning takes persistence and practice. Doing something once and expecting perfect results is setting yourself up for frustration. It can happen, but what you are after is acquiring repeatable skill not mere happenstance.

It’s frustrating watching someone spend hours repainting something as they are unable to feel satisfied at any of the multiple occasions it could have been declared finished, yet also unable to articulate what it needed that was different from where it was before. If you keep painting on top of the same piece, you can’t compare and analyse. Paint several so you can put them side by side and figure out what differs, what you prefer and why. Take a step aside from painting “a real, finished painting” to learn.

Monday Motivator: Rejecting a Painting’s First Rendition

Monday Motivator

“Many artists consider art as a process of learning … [Richard Diebenkorn] considered the process of constantly reworking a canvas to be one of manifesting his ideas, finding it inappropriate to accept a painting’s first rendition. … looked forward to the moment when a work demanded rectification, enjoying this moment of change, considering this layering of ideas to be the process which generated his most successful work.”

Kate Reeve-Edwards, “David Mankin: Remembering in Paint“, page 75,

If an idea is good enough to paint once, why not twice, thrice, however many times you wish? Reworking it on the same canvas or starting it afresh. It’s a bit like doing thumbnails to pursue and refine and idea, but in actual size.

Claude Monet (1840-1926), Wisteria, 1917-1920, oil on canvas, 150,5 x 200,5 cm, Kunstmuseum Den Haag.

Plein-air Painting: Mark Making for the Feeling

I was ever so comfortably huddled under the duvet this morning after a busy week teaching at Higham Hall, but the forecast for big waves on the coast persuaded me to head to the beach in time for high tide. The sun came out too, changing the colours.

After a stroll along the pebbles enjoying the roar of the waves, I sat at one of the picnic benches to try to paint the feeling of the exuberant waves hitting the shore.

Also running through my head were thoughts about mark making, about how to better teach the concept, the idea of shifting away from drawing likeness to drawing the sense of something, the feeling of it, your emotional response to it through the calligraphy of your drawn and painted marks. What did I not convey to the one workshop participant who, after my explanation, drew little literal images on the sheet of word prompts, or were they merely disinterested in the concept?

I orientated the sheet this way because there was a slight slope to the table, which I noticed only when the ink and watercolour started to head to the edge of the sheet. I got frustrated that it wouldn’t dry so I could work onto it with oil pastel, and might still add this in the studio. As it is now I regard it as a painting of turbulence and rumbling (rocks), a painting to reinforce the time spent on this location with these sea conditions.

Monday Motivator: If You Want Your Paintings to Have Brilliance

Monday Motivator
Monday Motivator

“If you want your paintings to have brilliance, think in terms of more color, not lighter color. … Most students do little more than dirty their brushes with a little color and then try to wipe them off on the canvas. To mix color properly, you must have enough pigment on the brush in the first place.”

Paul Strisik, “The Art of Landscape Painting”, page 13-14

How much “enough pigment” is depends on the size of my canvas or sheet of paper. It’s one of the reasons I find changing the scale I’m working at takes me out of autopilot, as I’ve once again got to think about how much paint I’m going to need for an area. It’s a lost cause trying to remix a colour created from leftover bits on my watercolour palette.

Monday Motivator: Bad Drawing

Monday Motivator

The question “How old do you have to be to make a bad drawing?”, asked by cartoonist and teacher Lynda Barry on Instagram, had me thinking about how it is near impossible not to judge a drawing, yet it is possible to teach yourself to not be so emotionally invested in one piece. Give yourself permission to spend your time drawing and to use up your materials, to do another drawing and another and another.

What do you do with the drawings you judge to be bad? Turn the sheet over and use the other side. Draw into it with an eraser or paint. Keep drawing and see where it goes; you already think it’s bad, so what does it matter. Cut out a bit you do like. Don’t be too fast ripping it up but leave it a few weeks so you see it with fresh eyes.

Monday Motivator: Non-Dominant

Monday Motivator
Monday Motivator

“Drawing with your nondominant hand can seem like a difficult, even foolish endeavor, except if you are seeking a new line or form. … Your drawing muscle memory becomes accustomed to making certain marks and perspectives … By using your nondominant hand, you will discover a new language for your line and form.”


Whitney Sherman, “Playing With Sketches“, p68

Using your non-dom hand isn’t a new idea, but it may be new to you. It really is worth giving it a go as the results can be pleasingly surprising. The whole point of it is that you can’t control the pencil very well, so stop using that as the reason you won’t try this technique.

Occasionally when I suggest it to people who say they want to draw more expressively rather than tightly detailed, they say “oh yes, I’d forgotten about that”. So make a note somewhere to remind yourself to do it every now and then.

Take it up a level by using a brush or some other in your non-dominant hand. In the photo below I’m using a silicone tool to spread acrylic ink drawn with the ink bottle dropper, but maybe it was simply to reach the leftmost edge of this long sheet of paper.