How To Be An Artist In 5 Minutes or Less

Photo by Jill Pollack

I’m sitting in a coffee shop at F and 7th NW. The sound is deafening, crowds of people and every seat taken. Because I am a stranger here in D.C, I have to ask where the line is to order. Shockingly, there is no one in front of me. At home in Chicago, I get my tea right at the register because it’s such an easy order. But here, I have to wait in the other line, which isn’t really so much a line as it is a scrum, bodies jockeying for position to reach their arms in and grab the cup with their name on it.

Familiar, right? These days, coffee shops feel like they are all the same, and yet, they are all different. This is what I love about traveling. There are streets and cars and buildings and shops and restaurants—all things that I know and am comfortable with. But in a new city, those streets and shops are foreign, forcing you to see them anew. Forcing you to see something you think you know, with fresh eyes.

Perhaps that’s the best definition for creativity. Seeing something we think we know, but erasing a previous image so a new one can form.

If you follow me on Instagram, you know I’m teaching myself how to paint with acrylics. Unlike writing, which I have studied and taught most of my career, painting is something I wish to stay ignorant of, at least for the time being. There is such freedom in not knowing you’re doing something the wrong way, like using the wrong kind of brush, mixing paint colors and turning everything brown, waiting to wash your hands so they end up being greenish for a week, etc. (By the way, this is exactly how I learned to be a writer! Experimenting, writing without structure, and then finding good teachers when I was ready to study the craft.)

Because I don’t know what I don’t know, I paint with abandon. I paint with confidence. I’ll show my stuff to anyone because I don’t really care about their opinion. (Tell me one writer who can say that!) I love everything I paint, while at the same time I can look at it critically and see where I want to try something different next time. I’m learning to understand why a painting works, or doesn’t.

I paint because I needed another creative outlet. Because I see life in images, it made sense. Although words are my usual art of choice, even as a writer I am painting an image in my head that I then must translate into words.

Sometimes, when I am working with creative writers who are stuck, I will encourage them to write not knowing where they want to go. Just start with an image or a character and put words down. It’s fun and freeing. Giving yourself permission to write without worrying about a roadmap for the story gives you wonderful ideas and beautiful sentences. But it is another thing altogether to look at those words and be able see the structure of a story. That comes from stopping and seeing what you have, but seeing it anew, letting it reshape itself like a photo that re-arranges its pixels.

I once asked my friend, August (one of the most talented artists I know), how do you know when a painting is finished? She shrugged her shoulders and said, “you just know.”

My studio, the place where I write and do client work, is on the third floor of our house. It’s a wonderful, open space with built-in bookshelves and a skylight. When we moved in, I immediately claimed the room for my own. But it’s taken me 20 years to finally use the space to its fullest. Half the walls are orange and half are light grey. There is an old library table from the 1940s and a stand up desk from 2015. I can sit in an office chair, a rocking chair, or the futon. The dog can come upstairs to keep me company and sprawl in her bed on the floor.

A perfect space, right?

On the other side of the stairwell is the dumping ground; a weirdly shaped storage area with a ceiling that cuts diagonally so only short people like me can stand in there. When I say dumping ground, I mean it. Think your junk drawer but lifesize—with suitcases, shelves, boxes, 15-year old bills, filing cabinets, every gift bag ever received, keepsakes, and more than a few items I don’t want to think about.

A year ago I decided to clear out this space. I didn’t really have a plan for it, but I got inspired by Marie Kondo. Once I finished my underwear drawer, the closet, and kitchen, I had to find new collections of things that did not bring me joy. Not difficult, really.

After months of cleaning a little bit at a time, I had finally cleared off an old butcher block top we used to use as a desk. It’s sitting on two filing cabinets, newly emptied, and lives in the corner, right under the lowest eave where even my head hits the ceiling if I move forward too far, and where the light from the only window brightens only half the desk.

In our Story Mode work, Beth and I are always reminding folks that you have to think about your audience at least as much as you think about yourself. What they need vs. what you need. (If you’ve worked with us before, you know I’m talking about the Magic Football.)

It’s the most important thing we can leave with a team, or an individual business writer. It’s one concept that every student of ours can point to and say, this has made my communications better.

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? (Hillel, look it up)

But like most things in life, there is the converse to the rule. And this is what I struggle with. In trying to meet the needs of others, some days I don’t always leave room for myself. I don’t even show up in my own Magic Football.

And that’s where painting comes in.

On top of that butcher block, I have the cheap student-quality tubes of paint I bought at Blicks. They are in a plastic tray which sits on a heavy piece of cardboard which sits under a canvas I painted which didn’t turn into much and then black paper on top of that. Why black paper? Who knows? I find it a wonderful blank page. There are two jars: one with a set of brushes that I bought at Michael’s for $5.99 and one I fill up with water from the bathroom faucet. There are some old jewelers tools mixed in there that I took from my father’s desk and that I use to create scratches and etchings (Thank you, August!), and there is the detritus of bits of paper and fabric and cardboard and beads and all kinds of stuff that I pick up because I think someday I will decide they are the absolute right thing to glue on top of something I’ve painted.

Without even meaning to, what I’ve built on our third floor is an organized messy space that serves both work and art. One side is my orange office where I get in Story Mode and earn a living. Just across the hall, not three feet away, is the butcher block desk with the cheap acrylic paint and tiny canvases that has made me the happiest I’ve been in a long time as an artist. 

Yesterday, I worked on client projects all day. At the same time, I created one of my mini paintings for my nephew. As a break, every hour or so, I went across the hall to put on a bit more paint, or try out a texture. Five minutes at a time. That’s all. Because I wasn’t focused on it so deeply, every time I went back across the hall for my paintbreak, I saw the canvas completely anew. The idea to mix in the yellow didn’t really work and now I see that if I play with the burnt sienna, I will get the effect I want.

I have succeeded in creating that space I have always craved—in my head, in my heart, and in the world. The challenge now is to always see it anew.


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