Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Goofing Off is Good Sometimes

January was a heck of a month. I ran into the wall of my limited body energy head first and hard, after over six months of running on empty. A couple of minor problems and one major inconvenience escalated it. The elevator went out in my building for three months, leaving me four flights of stairs every time I needed to go out for anything. The minor problems were my going out for necessities and then forgetting one of them because I was too sick and woozy by the time I got to the corner store.

One extra trip down the stairs too many right before Christmas and bang, my bad back, hip and leg decided to quit. I wound up with a full month of unwanted rest. Not pleasant relaxation. Painful grogginess, sleeping like my cat and stressing out because I had deadlines set up based on my usual pace of living and painting.

Two commissions were both overdue, both of them pieces I wanted to finish before Christmas. I got two out of three paintings done on one of them and the other one, just didn't even get started till that one was done.

I thought I had another month or two on the Sketchbook Project 2012 too. So I'd set it aside in favor of getting important things done, paid commissions that people expected versus a personal project. Went right to the wire on that one but got it done last night and mailed it this morning. It goes on tour in April, that wasn't the "get it mailed in by" deadline.

I'd also signed up for a puzzle painting challenge when I thought I'd have plenty of time to do it. Managed to get that done too. Net result, a lot of stress that may have made it even harder to pull out of the funk. Even San Francisco has winter weather that slows me down. Lesson learned.

The hardest part came during the pain days when I wasn't up to doing anything at all except reading, doing email and playing a familiar computer game badly. That was when the panic set in because I was starting to feel burned out. I didn't want to work on any of it. I didn't even feel like doing cat gestures and couldn't muster the emotional energy to force myself to do one.

Back in 1995 or so, I quit selling portraits in the French Quarter and by the time I left New Orleans, was so burned out on art that I didn't keep any of my supplies. I gave away my oils and pastels and a lot of my stuff to friends except for a few favorite things, most of them materials I didn't often sell that medium. I couldn't let go of the big Prismacolors set.

It took me years to recover from that burnout. I understand it now - it was the massive defeat of my pushing so hard to keep up and survive by doing art that I hadn't had any time to draw anything for fun. I couldn't afford to keep any artwork that came out well. If someone wanted it, I needed to pay the rent.

I didn't understand at the time that I wasn't playing with a full deck of physical abilities. I thought I was a lazy git. Instead, since all physical effort takes me five times the body energy, I was driving myself into the ground. At the end I had days nothing sold because people don't come up and buy street art from someone who's half asleep and racked with pain. They want to see energetic, enthusiastic artists who love what they do, not some bloke who might as well be saying "Got any spare change?" Besides, to strangers if someone's that sick they might be contagious.

I've looked back over that burnout many times to try to guard against it. I don't want to lose my love of art again. This article provided an interesting perspective on art and life: Why Money Won't Buy Happiness. Turns out, there are some unexpected psychological effects to working for the money.

My gut reaction, that it would be dangerous to fall into just doing it for the money, was spot on. Sometimes I have to back up and relax, either doing non-art things on a good day or doing art that has nothing to do with selling the piece. Today's illustration is a life gesture of my cat in Tombow brush pens. They're not archival. It's in my art journal. I'm not cutting that up either, that's personal. So it doesn't need to be permanent and forever.

It's just a cool little sketch of my cat that made me happy. Afterwards, I petted him and we had a non-art moment of affection too.

I need to stick to my personal boundaries on commissions. One at a time, no deadline. It's done when it's done. If it takes longer than expected, even years longer sometimes, the client gets a painting that's stunning gorgeous, years better than I would've done before because I'm always growing. That's even if it's an easy subject because I've got a lot of emotion in it - a portrait of a beautiful cat always gets personal for me.

Where it didn't was when I started worrying about making my Internet bill at the end of the month and relying on commissions to close the gap. That level of need is too much pressure to paint well.

So the thing to do is tighten my belt and start building up some savings again. When I've got even $100 in savings, that's enough that most minor setbacks won't jeopardize the Internet bill. I've had that for the past five years. I got through many computer crashes, cat veterinary visits and other irregular expenses just by having some savings and doing a "loan to self" that I'd pay back the following month if I got a little too extravagant at Blick.

I know I'm not the only one who does this to myself. I'm not even the only extreme that I've known. Too many friends will also drive themselves hard if they're behind, to get caught up, whether that's on time and energy or on finances. Relocation is hard for anyone. I did more than relocate though.

I pushed myself to get out and screen for the San Francisco Street Artists Program and in two and a half months, have not had one good day when I was able to go out and actually use my new license. There's a fifty fifty chance right now that I'll be renewing the license out of pocket and waiting for nicer weather. Though since today was nice, I'm starting to have a little hope that I can get out at least one day before I have to renew it.

All the time I packed and planned the move, I looked forward to getting out of the house on my own. I wanted to go out plein air sketching in Golden Gate Park. I wanted to visit the Asian art museum that's only a few blocks from where I live, or the museum of modern art, or, well, any of a good half a dozen good art museums here. San Francisco is a wonderful place.

I meant to get out on the bus and just roam, get off when I saw something beautiful and sketch it, then develop the sketches into good street paintings. Instead, I haven't even managed a scouting trip to see the artists on Fisherman's Wharf yet. Let alone get that day off just plein air painting in Golden Gate Park with no expectation of selling it or doing anything but filling my sketchbook with beauty.

People who diet go through this process. Grim self control and self discipline can only be sustained so far. If the elevator hadn't gone out, I might have done all those things and by now would have the money to renew the license for a year and just not worry about it. Maybe it's better to do that annual renewal during a good season when I can count on good days to go out.

This entire article is a cautionary tale.

If it stops being fun, take a deep breath. Stand back. Go outside. Bake yourself some cookies or go for a long walk. Read a good book or fry your brain out on a video game. Do whatever it is that just makes you happy when you're goofing off. Two things happen when you love your work so much that it's hard to tell work time from playtime.

1) There is the up side that most of the work time is so pleasant it can feel like you don't need to work for a living. This is real. I've experienced it.

2) The risk is that if you love it that much and spend that much time at it, you can burn out and forget to have any playtime at all. "Busman's holiday" activities are essential. So is plain old time off doing something different.

I have a few mediums set aside for just that sort of thing. They would sell, surely, but never have at any price worth the amount of time that goes into it. Detailed Celtic Knotwork drawings exquisitely shaded and colored in colored pencils or watercolor. Colored Pencils Realism is another good one for goofing off with. Last and most frequent, the maintenance activities that I keep up while I'm working on major projects most of the time.

I sign up for challenges in my art community, WetCanvas. There are several I enjoy, where photo references get posted by a volunteer and everyone does them his or her own way. I didn't have to do the Puzzle Painting piece. It wasn't for sale or for the street. It's a goofy little four inch pastel sketch on my sketchwall that doesn't make sense without its context. But now like everyone else who participated, I'm looking forward to seeing it seamed up with the 35 other pieces to make a complete mosaic picture. It's a game. It was fun. It wasn't even serious practice, though naturally I tried out a few techniques because I could do anything I wanted with it as long as I got it lined up right at the edges.

I considered doing a fisheye effect on it or some other distortion, just for fun. Didn't, but I might with another one sometime.

If I hadn't made the time to do that one, I would have been fried. I'd have felt like a little kid who spent a month looking forward to something only to get told it's bedtime, you can't have it, now it's too late.

That little kid, your inner child, is a real part of every artist or writer or creative person. Drive the kid too hard for adult reasons and he or she will get cranky and start drawing on the walls, or throw a work stoppage.

No one can keep up with every obligation. No one can say Yes to every interesting thing that comes down, every need or want, every fun thing. Sometimes life throws monkey wrenches into plans. That's when it's time to back up, calm down and find something that works to get back on an even keel.

I set my February goals ludicrously low. I've got two of them.

1) Enjoy my Art. No matter what I do during February, whether it's painting a new cat commission or sketching loony dinosaur cartoons or picking up another Puzzle Painting piece, if I enjoy doing it, it counts toward this goal. I keep getting silly cartoon ideas, so why not run with them? That's art too!

2) Save at least $20 a month starting this February, so that I don't feel the pinch this bad again. Yes, it took everything I had to make this move before I was ready to go. That was an emergency though and the emergency is over. Now it's time to start settling in and rebuild my life in the beautiful new place.

They fixed the elevator. I can go out again without spending days resting up from it. I've got Paratransit thanks to some stressful research, calling and paperwork. It's $2 each way to go out anywhere in the city, $4 total for a door to door outing as long as I plan it a day in advance. I might get my day in the park soon.

Anyway, that's also the reason for a month without posts in what I'd been keeping up as a blog with weekly updates. When things started going overboard to get necessary things done, all of my blogs fell off the wagon. I'm glad to be back and hope you're glad too. Hopefully I can keep up a little more frequently now.

But if I don't during February, now you know why. I need a real vacation and getting sick doesn't count as one!