Making time, clouds and a tomato

One of the excuses I gave myself over the last few years for not drawing or painting was that “there’s not enough time.” This was, of course, bunkum. While free time has been a rarity ever since that big fat positive in summer 2011, there’s always been pockets of it to be found. Minutes rather than hours, sure, but time all the same. Instead, I wasted it online, consuming other peoples words and pictures rather than making my own, telling myself I didn’t have any time, that even the simplest sketch was too great an undertaking. 

Well, nuts to that. As part of this year’s reboot of whatever creative spirit I’ve got left, and triggered by the daily action, I’ve learned to seek out those little pockets of potential in the day. One cracker is the 40 minute commute to work (of which more shortly). Also on workdays, there’s my lunch break – usually just half an hour, but still! 30 whole minutes!

That’s all very well for my three days a week at the office, but what about when I’m at home looking after Bagl? No doubt a time will come when I can cheerfully draw and paint with him around, joining in, playing or watching with awe, but we’re nowhere near that yet. And although I could save any drawing and painting until the evening, that means working without daylight – not so good for still-lifes, nigh-on impossible for any plein air pieces.
Now, there's naptimes. Bagl's naptimes are relatively short compared to other sprogs – 90 minutes – but it works for him and means a reasonable bedtime. I’d convinced myself that naptimes were far too busy to do any drawing. After all, there’s all the essential things to be done – washing to sort out and hang up, lunch and tea to prepare, cleaning and tidying, titting around on the internet… ah. Ahhhh.
Turns out, if you remove the internet from the naptime equation, there's still a decent chunk of time left after getting all the chores done. It's not enough time for me to, say, write a novel, but a quick watercolour or oil painting? Go on! Sad to say, this realisation only hit me earlier this month, but I'm trying to make up for lost time.
Here, then, are the first three naptime oil paintings, all up for sale at £45 a pop (or with a nifty mini-easel display for a few dollers more) – two landscapes of the view from Castle Von Naggle, and a still-life of a halved tomato, each one painted in around 30/40 minutes, resulting in nicely expressive brushstrokes as I worked quickly to get everything down before young master woke. It's a pleasantly frantic way to work and shakes me nicely out of my comfort zone. And rather than beat myself up about the thought of how many paintings/drawings I could've got done over the last few years, better to think about all those future pieces waiting to be made. Well, until the boy drops his nap, then I'm nobbled…
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Oil on canvas board (£45)
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Oil on canvas board (£45)
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Oils on canvas board (£45)

Making the habitual

Or, how a 15-a-day habit isn't always a bad thing.

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For someone who likes to think of himself as an artist, albeit one whose day job is the polar opposite of such a calling, I've been ruddy useless at creating new art. This is nothing new – years ago I needed the distraction-free discipline of life drawing sessions to actually draw or paint anything, being too scatty minded and procrastination-prone to do so at home. Then we moved to Fife, a new life happened and spare time became a luxury I didn't have – or, at least, one I didn't want to spend on artwork. What kind of artist doesn't create new artwork?

Then, in late 2013, I started life drawing again. Once a month, just for 3 hours, but it ended the drought and reminded me that, goddamn, I love this stuff. I'm grateful for my day job, but any job satisfaction I get from that pales in comparison to the thrill of drawing, of painting, and doing it well. And if I put my mind to it I can do it well – those years of animation weren't a waste as long as I'm still putting pencil, pen or brush to paper. So it was that, come the end of the year, I dug out a book I'd been given a few years before but never read: Creating A Life Worth Living by Carol Lloyd.

I'm still working through it (expect a review here when done) but it's already borne fruit in one respect. Early on the book commends the reader to take up and commit to a 'daily action' – something creative that you'll do, each and every day, for 15 minutes (ideally at the same time every day):

"The daily action is fifteen minutes of a focused activity performed every day at the same time. Choose an activity that creates an empty space where your creativity can reassert itself. […] Inspiration grows into full-scale creation through persistence and imagination. The daily action exercises both. Doing your daily action every day (seven days a week), at the same time of day, will make self-discipline a habit. […] Once your action becomes incorporated into your life, it will become a ritual imbued with its own power – the power of your own energy, focus, and joy."

Well, doesn't that sound lovely? The obvious choice for me was 'sketching', particularly as I was becoming increasingly envious of artists on Twitter posting the most amazing sketches. So I dug out an old sketchbook I couldn't get precious about and committed to drawing in it for at least 15 minutes every day.

It started tentatively, quickly realising the limits of my ability to draw from my imagination (unsurprising, having barely done so for years) and fretting that I'd never be as good as those other guys, so why even try? Daft, of course – they only got good from practice, tens of thousands of bad drawings hidden in the past – but if it wasn't for that commitment to myself I imagine I'd have stopped early on. But instead I carried on, through dull & desperate drawings, sometimes sketching while watching TV or knocking out a quick still-life. Sure, I missed the odd one – sleep remains precious, especially on work nights when I'm up the next day – but as days became weeks I got into the rhythm of these daily drawings. Unlike my figure work, I felt (and continue to feel) no pressure or expectation to share these drawings with anyone, let alone try to sell 'em. If I make a bad drawing, no matter, because I've still achieved my 15 minute goal for the day – and there's nothing to stop me doing another anyway. And if I make a good one, hooray!

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Less than three months on, I'm genuinely amazed at the difference this seemingly minimal daily commitment has made. There's been a clear, definite improvement in my drawing,no doubt about it. But, more importantly, I'm not scared of drawing, of sketching, of filling up the virginal white pages of a pristine sketchbook with my clumsy attempts. Funnily enough, I think using an old but empty, no-big-deal, non-Moleskine sketchbook helped get over that particular worry. You know the one? That a sketchbook (or notebook, perhaps) is itself so nice as an object, it feels deserving – no, demanding of perfection, and anything less will be a terrible waste. Daft, but a persistent dread when it comes to sketching (unless it's just me who gets this!).

Looking back it seems ludicrous that in almost two years of working slap-bang in the centre of Edinburgh I've never tried sketching the landmarks around me. Most likely I convinced myself it would take too long, that a half hour lunch break was far too brief for anything creative like that. Nope! And it was in an effort to get my 15-a-day met during daylight hours that I pootled up Calton Hill two weeks ago during lunchtime, whipped out my brush pen (of which more to come) and drew this.

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Turns out you can get LOADS done in 15 minutes (okay, maybe 20). Since then I've gone on to draw the National Monument, the City Observatory Dome, the Old Observatory and (just today) Salisbury Crags, all within that half-hour lunch break. It becomes the most satisfying part of the day and I'm aiming to use every non-raining lunch break at work to draw, even if it ultimately means multiple drawings of the same monuments – ach, there's always different angles to pick. Then there's the dissection sketches from the other day – without the 15-a-day commitment I'd never have considered such a thing, but the result kindled a brand new interest in drawing what lies beneath the skin, not just the surface.

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Of course, many of these drawings will go beyond 15 minutes – it's a minimum with no maximum – but the beauty of a quarter-hour commitment is that it's substantial enough to allow some focus, some flow, even if it's all too brief, but not so long that you can easily shrug it off as "nah, not got the time". From being a bit of a burden at the start of the year, this daily action has grown to become a highlight, something to look forward to – even if I do still end up with a few stinkers.

This is an idea that goes beyond just artwork, something for anyone who wants to either change who they are, or get back to who they once were, yet never seem to have the time to do so. Make that commitment, put the time in, see where it takes you. Surely it's no coincidence that when Alain de Botton's The School of Life started selling an hourglass to promote a regular daily activity, it's set for – yes! – 15 minutes:

To make sure our priorities are well set this year, we’ve created a finely crafted glass timer to remind us to carve out 15 minutes a day for what truly counts.  That isn't very long, and that's the point: it's longer than we often give to so many of the things we ostensibly think of as so important – like properly listening to a partner, rationally analysing our career ambitions, or playing in a concentrated way with a child. It delicately shames us into doing the minimum necessary to remain the person we want to be.

Me? I want to be an artist again. Play us out, Sheep On Drugs!