Left: Pigeon study in gouache on a piece of Canson Mixed Media paper (which I do not recommend but am using up). The piece was then torn out of the Canson book and glued into my in-studio 9 x 12 inch Fabriano Venezia journal. I was working with paints sitting out on a heavily contaminated palette, just wanting to paint before going to bed. A little bit of white pencil was also used when the paint was dry (because my white paint was all contaminated). Click on the image to view an enlargement.
As the year wraps up I have been posting about trial and error and experimentation, about having plans and letting them go, about embracing serendipity.
I want to encourage everyone to plan now to have a great 2012 in their visual journals. I want to invite everyone to take a step towards ensuring that fabulous year by altering the language they each use in their minds to discuss their journal work.
I receive letters from people all the time in which their journal pages are referred to as "failures." The correspondent talks about how he can't do something, didn't do something, isn't able to do something. The focus is all on the negative and what didn't work.
While it is important to bring a critical eye to our work so that we can improve, it is as important to bring a realistic assessment of the learning that has taken place.
Too often new and even accomplished artists talk about their failures without any nod to the positive gains their sketches and paintings represent. It might be a convenient way to be "humble" to the world when you discuss your work, it might be the way you were raised to think about your output, it might simply be your own inability to own the joy in your life. Whatever it is, you have to stop it!
Just stop it.
Language matters. And the language of an internal dialogue matters the most.
Look for those little bits of stuff that went right first, while your mind is still fresh and can find them.
(Read also Being Happy with the Little Bits Part 2, Being Happy with the Little Bits Part 3, Being Happy with the Little Bits Part 4, and a post about side paths being fruitful for more thoughts and tips about how to do this and plan better internal dialogues and critiques for 2012.)
Look for those places where you see improvement.
Pay attention to how you phrase things. "I didn't do X" is more negative than, "Next time I need to concentrate on doing X." (This last statement still keeps you honest about how you didn't achieve a particular goal, but it doesn't beat you down.)
Do that simple mental gymnastic flip with your internal dialogue and over time as it becomes habit you will find that as you sketch or paint you are not caught up in all the impossibles and things you can't do. Instead you will be open to all the possibilities of what you can endeavor and from which you can learn.
That's where the great stretching comes from. And in that stretching you find a place to breathe. And in that breath you find great wonder, and in that wonder you find great joy. (Look me in the eye and tell me you don't want this!)
This is both a simple and an arduous task. It is simple because we can choose to change at any moment. It is arduous because in that choice we buck a lifetime of opposite behavior. But with persistence you gather momentum.
The next time you stare down at a finished journal piece listen to how you speak to yourself. Begin to reform thoughts in a more positive way. Block the negative comments from coming in the first place by beginning to immediately analyze your work in a positive way with the simple question: What did I just learn?
If negatives start to spring up in answer to that question (such as I learned I can't draw curtains, or shoes, or flowers) immediately interrupt yourself and say something positive that you learned (such as I really could nail that small graceful line there; I really did catch the color of that petal; I really did capture that negative space well…).
Focus on what you learned that is positive, such as how much water you need to add to the paint and where in your painting you got that right, not all the places you didn't.
The more you practice this positive internal dialogue the more work you will do, the more you'll learn, the better your work will become…the more breath you will have in your life. Great lungfuls of it.
Changing the language of failure into the language of learning is your first step. There is great joy in learning. Learning is work, but it is also great fun, especially when you learn that there is so much more to learn.