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!


  1. It's wonderful to hear you've recovered some from a bad month, Robert. I loved reading this article, and I look forward to your future posts!

    I needed to read this. Goofing off is great. I'm not in a position to goof off much; I graduated seven months ago and still have no job. But if I allow myself a bit of personal time for art or writing, I feel so much better. I have not sketched or written regularly since November, and it was wearing me down. At one point, I felt so stressed and panicked about finding a job that I thought I would abandon Brainsick, it was that bad. Rest assured, I will never abandon it. I just need to keep searching and applying.

    That's why reading this cheered me up so much. I know countless friends and fellow grads who burned themselves out during college and no longer want to work degree-related jobs. I will work up to a degree-related job when I can, and hopefully I will be able to support myself on my art before too long.

    Brilliant post! Thank you for writing it.

  2. Thank you so much!

    One thing that helped me back when I could work was to approach Job Search like it was a job. I'd schedule it on Monday through Friday. I'd schedule hours as if I was already working and schedule myself a lunch and breaks during the day. Then get it all done at once.

    That concentrated my efforts. I know it's a lot harder than it used to be in the current economy. The thing is, effectiveness goes down with too much stressing about it.

    I'd get my resume ready, then cold call all the businesses I wanted to work at doing what I wanted to do, whether that was mat cutting or typesetting or whatever. I decided what kind of work I wanted and called them alphabetically till one of them had an opening. I'd line up some interviews and go to them. It got intensive - I'd cold call all the days I wasn't writing my resume or going to interviews.

    But it got me a job a lot faster than just putting in my resume and waiting for them to call me. I kept track of the leads too, if they wanted my resume I'd call back every week to see if they were interested or had an opening.

    By the end of the first day or two I had it down to a "Script" and half the places I called thought I was an employment agency instead of an individual looking for a job. That turned out to be a compliment. Because it worked so fast I was able to be a bit choosy about where to work, working conditions, type of work. In fact that's a good thing all around, the more specific you are in what you want, the easier it is to make that match instead of getting stuck in a lousy job with months of "Is it worth going through all that again to get to spend my workday somewhere I can stand going?"

    That and of course, all time that you spend on Art and Writing is investment in a future where you made your own job and hired yourself in a heartbeat.

    I should do some articles on pricing and marketing art soon too. Going to try to pick up this blog to weekly again, build it up, I missed writing it. Thank you for commenting!

    LOL - yesterday I completely Goofed Off and now all the things I have to do in February are starting to look like fun again. :D

  3. Robert,
    I am so happy to hear things are turning around for you. You certainly had jumped into a number of demanding projects - I completely understand how the weight of commitments begins the downward spiral. Your enthusiasm interferes with your ability to say "No".

    I appreciate you sharing your experience. It is heartening to know burn out can be surpassed.
    Blessings and better days,

  4. Wow, thank you! Yes, it's possible to overcome burn out. There are a lot of tricks to help overcome it. One of the best is just to take time off and goof off a bit.

    You're right too. My enthusiasm makes it hard to say "No" to things I want to do and then I get overbooked. Especially if I misjudge the amount of time and effort involved. Usually I can tell "Uh oh, I'm not going to have time to do this one too." But not when my health takes a sudden downturn. I need to plan as if that downturn could happen at any time for any reason and be very clear on the "No deadline" aspect of commissions.

    Every time one gets delayed it comes out better than if I'd done it at the time I planned anyway.


  5. Hey Robert
    (another fan, here). Go with the cartoons. I know part of the brain says they're not 'real' art, but they are. My long-sleeping interest in art got revived 6 months ago when I started drawing cartoons in a sketchbook. I also bought some books on how to do it. They got me going. They are fun, yet I learned a lot about drawing from doing them. The cartoons led to the 'serious' stuff, Coloured Pencil, Watercolour and Pastels.

    There are definitely days like yours; days where I have all these goals and not enough time and, more importantly, energy. It's worse because it's a race against time: I've rekindled a childhood interest in art at the age of 45. If it takes 30 years to get any good..well...I'd better get hoofing, then! You can see where the pressure comes from, how we do this to ourselves. I too, even at this early stage, find myself at times baulking and backing away from something I'm doing because all of a sudden it's turned too much into work, and it feels heavy and dispiriting.

    Although I have a day job, I eat, breathe and sleep art, now that I have re-discovered it. So much to learn, so little time and energy! What's being left out is the mental health days, as I call them. I have these DVDS I never watch because in the small amount of time that I have, it's them or the art. I've noticed myself becoming stressed that I've not watched any of them yet.
    Last night I was feeling unwell, and pushed myself to draw anyway. I tried 2 different projects, but didn't spend much time on them. I was angry with myself. Did as you did, called myself lazy. It took a lot to finally remind myself that I was feeling unwell, I would be well again soon, and would have the energy again to do them. Today is the second day unwell.
    I watched an art history DVD. Fascinating. Enjoyable. I came away not feeling guilty for not doing my art instead. This afternoon, if I feel like it, I might draw a cartoon or two. Leave the 'serious' art alone until I'm better. Or I may watch another DVD.
    I think the hardest part is to recognise what's going on, and intervene. Catch it before it does real damage. Recognise that down time is essential. Let yourself have it.
    Your piece eloquently demonstrates that.
    Glad things are on the up for you. Well done.
    Donna (Australia)