Tag: stephencartwright

The Cup Theory of Stress and Me

The cup theory says that your ability to handle stress is like a cup. As things occur during the day, good and bad, stress fills your cup. When your cup fills and you keep adding things, your cup overflows. That’s when you melt down.

When you start the day already overwhelmed and worried, or in pain, or depressed, or otherwise stressed, then your cup starts out partly filled. You can handle less. Even if it’s good things, or things that you normally can handle without too much difficulty, if your cup is full, you can’t handle it today.

That’s why there are some days where you can’t make yourself do one more thing, even if it’s something that would only take five minutes. That’s why there are days where you have to hide away so that you don’t snap at people for laughing too loud. Have you ever felt out of control and it scared you? This might be why.

Adding new things to your schedule can be difficult on stressful days. On those days, you may be struggling to complete your normal schedule. That’s okay. Worrying about what you can’t do will just add to your stress.

So, what does this have to do with me and my art? Well, as an introvert, days and weeks where I’ve had to socialize a lot are stressful. I have to recover from them. Even when it’s people I like and I’ve enjoyed the social event, it’s stressful. Good stress is still stress.

While I’m recovering, something has to give. I can fit less into my schedule. The easy thing to give up is my art. Learning something new is more stressful than a familiar activity, and so dropping it temporarily is such a relief.

Yet, just because it’s the easy thing, doesn’t mean it’s the best thing. If I find that I’ve been dropping my art or procrastinating it and running out of time for more than two weeks, I need to take a close look at my schedule.

It’s not good to be regularly stressed and overwhelmed. If that’s happening, I may need to give some things up, even if they are good, positive things. Or I may need to ask for help. Either way, I need to find a way to lower my stress levels and bring my life back in balance.

In this way, my art practice can act as an early warning system. If I’m too stressed to do something that I want to do and enjoy doing, and it keeps happening, something is wrong. It’s good to have that warning before I get sick or start snapping at people.

I once went to a talk by Nancy Young. (Her family runs this remarkable website:
https://www.alyoung.com/ and publishes the Storybook Home Journal.) She said that she knew she’d been away from home too much if her little laundry room started overflowing and her youngest child became clingy. They were areas in her life that could not absorb neglect. She said it was like a barometer, measuring the pressure on her home and family. When she saw the signs, she knew it meant that she had to cancel some outside commitments and spend more time at home.

What are the signs that you’re under too much pressure? What areas in your life cannot absorb neglect? Have you ever felt like your cup of stress is too full? What do you do to bring things back in balance?

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Filling the Well

In her book, “The Artist’s Way,” Julia Cameron talks about how to overcome writer’s block and burn out. She says that when we are creative, we draw on our life experiences. When we draw from the well too often without replenishing it, we eventually come up empty. We are left relying on the same old stories, or cliches and tropes, or worse, we can’t come up with anything at all.

Creativity is important. It’s not just used for creative endeavors like painting a picture or writing poetry. Creativity helps us solve problems in our daily lives. It assists whenever we communicate or create something new. It is essential. If you are feeling burnt out and stuck, and you aren’t sure why, it might be time to refill your well.

Julia recommends regular walks, keeping a journal, and regularly scheduling time for activities that bring you joy.

The journal is three pages of whatever you are thinking about. It’s meant to be a way to unload your worries and concerns. The activities can be small, like coloring in a coloring book or visiting a furniture store or going to a museum. It can be anything that you can look forward to and that takes you out of your normal routine.

Some of my comic diaries about various activities I do to refill my well. Inspired by Brittany Olsen’s “Comic Diaries.”

Another idea for filling your well is mindfulness. When you get too caught up in your thoughts or a screen that filters the world through other people’s thoughts, then you aren’t really experiencing the world around you. Taking time present in the moment makes food taste better, and it makes the colors around you seem brighter. You notice details that you overlooked before. You feel more free, and the experiences you fill your well with are richer.

Service is a great way to fill your well. It connects you with other people and the outside world. For a moment, you are taken out of your problems and focus on someone else’s. Being an outside observer helps you enter problem-solving mode more easily, and it can jump start your creativity. Service can have the added bonus of building relationships, making your problems seem a little smaller, and bringing you happiness.

If everything seems dark and pointless, and you can’t make yourself do anything, reach out. Tell a trusted friend. Talk to a counselor. Pray. Heavenly Father loves you, and He listens. There have been times where I hid in my closet and cried and prayed until I felt like I could face the world again. I have cried and prayed as I picked tiny game pieces off the floor for what felt like the thousandth time. I’ve prayed for help when I felt like everything is hopeless. The problems didn’t all go away, but they seemed manageable. I had hope and peace once more.

These are all suggestions I’ve tried. They worked for me. They may not all work for you. I hope they do. The world has an unending store of problems to solve. There are things waiting to be created that are beyond our current dreams. Fill your well and you can draw from it whenever you’re in need.

Have you ever felt blocked or burnt out? What did you do? How do you fill your well?

The Joy in Participation

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Art is different when you create it. You notice things, tiny details that you skip over as a member of the audience. I think this is true for all kinds of art.

Last weekend, I sang in a choir. We spent months practicing a dozen or so songs. Within a matter of hours, the performances ended, and we turned in our binders. In past years, I listened in the audience to this same choir perform. The experiences were very different.

Spending months with the songs, I learned the words. I learned the intricate harmonies and how they fit together. The songs stuck in my head between practices, and I hummed them as I washed the dishes. By the time we performed the songs, it almost seemed anticlimactic. I still hum the songs as I wash dishes. Though the performance is done, the music isn’t over.

As an audience member, I thought the music was lovely. Listening to it sparked so many ideas! I didn’t always understand the words, but that didn’t matter. Though I quickly forgot how the music sounded, I remembered how it made me feel and the impression of its loveliness. It was not the same lasting experience as singing in the choir.

When I copy an illustration I admire, I discover so many overlooked details, hidden faces and patterns and figures.

I find myself admiring an expression or the shape of a hand or a lovely combination of colors. “Oh, that’s how you do that,” I realize.

When I make just the right line here or match the right shade there, it feels like victory. You learn so much by doing. Copying art forces me to slow down and focus on details, one at a time.

I admire my favorite artists more after carefully trying to recreate their work.

This does not mean that I have to make a perfect copy or sing all the right notes to appreciate art. I make mistakes much more often than I like. I think the joy comes from putting in the effort and spending time seeing the intricacy revealed when you spend time in careful study.

A special joy comes when I create something of my own. Even if it turns out terrible, during the moments that I’m totally absorbed in writing or painting or singing, I feel outside of time. Completely focusing on how to make something work is a joy of its own.

Several of my illustrations. I love some of them and don’t love many of them. But they are mine.

It feels like the joy of solving a problem or putting together a puzzle. It’s that moment when you put another piece in, and it fits. There are many more pieces left to go, but in that moment when you realize that this one piece is in just the right place, there is that “aha!” of recognition. “Ah, I see. This is how it goes. I thought it did, and I was right! What is the next piece?”

I love to go to concerts. I love to look at artwork, even when I don’t have the slightest idea of where to begin to recreate it. I love feeling inspired. There is so much joy in finding loveliness in the world, and you can find it in so many places.

Yet there is a special joy found in participation. I think it enhances my appreciation of art when it’s my turn in the audience again, because I’ve learned to look and listen more closely. If I’m in the audience next year, I’ll probably enjoy the choir numbers much more than I did last year. But, after the hard work and practice I put in this year, I honestly hope that next year I’m in the choir.

Have you found joy in participating in art? What do you enjoy doing? Do you think it helps you better appreciate the work of other artists?

Taking Breaks

Sometimes, I get sick. Or life gets crazy busy. Or I’m feeling really overwhelmed. Life has its ups and downs, and that’s okay.

But, when it takes me a lot longer to do less, and adding one more thing to my schedule seems impossible, something has to give. Knowing my limits is important. Otherwise, I can burn out and that takes a lot longer to recover from than a yucky cold or a few busy weeks.

There are two difficulties when I decide to take a break. The first is deciding how much to put on hold. The second is keeping the break temporary.

If I have to take a break, it’s usually not just with my art. In many areas of my life, there are things that can absorb neglect better than others. I can put off doing laundry for a week if I have to. I can’t imagine skipping brushing my teeth unless I can’t move at all.

Some things I just don’t feel comfortable skipping. I will continue posting to my website, even when school is starting or just before Christmas. I will continue drawing a face a day and doing my other drawing practices. However, I may put off my art studies for a week or two if I need to. I might put off copying cartoon ideas from my various notebooks into the appropriate sketchbooks. I might not read any art books or watch art videos.

Sketches from Christmas break. Everyone is enjoying some relaxing time off around here.

And even though that isn’t skipping much, taking something out of my schedule seems huge. I feel like the rest is so much more manageable.

And when crunch time ends and I’m struggling to recover, I may wait an extra week to put things back in place. Recovering isn’t easy. There’s so much make up work to do. Dishes, laundry, emails, phone calls…

But when I feel like I have my schedule back without feeling like I’m constantly scrambling, the break is over. It’s time to pick things back up. If it’s hard to do, I use the methods I wrote about a few weeks ago for finding motivation.

What do you do if you pushed too hard for too long and you feel completely burnt out? When you just can’t get yourself to start anything at all?

My advice is to be gentle with yourself. It’s going to take a lot longer, and you’ll have to start smaller. Instead of trying to jump back into your old schedule, find something you can do. If you can’t paint, can you sketch faces? Can you doodle? Can you color in a coloring book? Can you go to a museum? Can you go on a walk and look at fall leaves or interesting clouds or flowers or birds?

Find something that sounds fun and do that. Then do something else fun. Can you do something fun once a week? Once a day? Give it some time.

Are you still feeling burnt out? It may be time to redefine your goals. Are the goals you used to have what you really want to do? Does something else sound better? Really imagine what it would be like to achieve different goals.

If you have a goal that you really want to achieve, how will you get there? What skills do you need to develop? How will you develop those skills? What do you need to practice?

Now, try to find motivation, like I talked about in my post a few weeks ago. If that doesn’t work, go back to finding simple, fun things to do. Try again later.

Recovering from burnout isn’t easy. Instead, take breaks when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Set aside enough tasks that you can feel the relief of letting those things go temporarily. Then, when you’re ready, pick them up again. Take care of you.

When you return from your break, things might not come as easily. Things you draw may look funny and wrong. Go easy on yourself. It won’t take long to get back to where you were if you stay consistent. You’re just a little out of practice, that’s all.

If you feel like you need someone’s permission to take a break, you have mine, for what it’s worth.

Sloth from my story, “Sloth Picnic,” published on 12/5/18.

Do you sometimes take breaks? How does that work for you? Have you ever felt burned out?

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As I mentioned last week, sometimes I have a hard time with perfectionism. Today’s post includes many of my imperfect drawings. A lot of the time, right after I write or draw or paint something, I feel like it wasn’t very good. It’s easy to see all the mistakes and want to just throw it away and pretend it never happened.

Cross hatching in grass wrong. Tenniel from Annotated Alice p.26 1-5-18

Giving it a few days usually changes my mind, and the mistakes seem less obvious or critical.

Her head is too big. redo? 1-9-18, Tenniel, Annotated Alice, p. 31
Well, it’s a little better, 1-10-18

Sometimes, I’ll write or draw or paint something and I’ll feel pleased with it right away. By some happy accident, it will turn out better than I expected. Did I do that? I feel a sense of wonder. Sometimes, weeks later I’ll return to these happy accidents and they aren’t as good as I remember. That feels rather like being crushed. Ouch.

Arms too close to face. Argh.
There. Not as careful, but her proportions & spacing are better. 1-4-18

Sometimes, years later, I’ll read something I wrote and it is funny or interesting and surprises me. Wow. I did that? Maybe I’m better than I thought. Am I still that good?

What can you do if you feel like you have no way to objectively judge your own work? Especially when you really want it all to be perfect but never feel it quite hits the mark?

Gesture drawings of people around the neighborhood.
I do them very fast to practice embracing imperfection.

My solution is to keep moving forward, trying to finish things, even when there are terrible mistakes, and it feels like I should just abandon the whole thing. I try to be consistent with my practicing, even when I feel discouraged and want to abandon it all.

head at wrong angle. Rt. arm too high.
Tenniel’s “Annotated Alice” p. 58, 1-23-18

You’ll have fun if you just start, I tell myself. And afterwards you can have a peanut butter sandwich. And call your mom. And maybe you can take a nap.

(I always promise myself naps. I never take them. Someone I admire recommends twelve-minute naps to increase productivity. Maybe I’ll try one after I write this. I told myself I could. Maybe.)

So, that’s what works for me. Any suggestions from other perfectionists? Anyone know any good rewards that aren’t related to food? I eat too many peanut butter sandwiches.

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My DIY Art School

I like to draw and paint, and I want to improve my technical skills. I cannot go to art school right now, and I’m not getting any younger. So, rather than waste precious time, I am trying to do what I can here and now.

I am lucky. I have access to lovely, helpful books and people to guide me in my studies. This year, each Saturday, I will share some of the work I’m doing and the things that have been helpful. If anyone has any advice or suggestions, please add them to the comments.

I’ll begin with two different activities that I believe have really accelerated my growth as an artist:

My first drawing teacher was probably the book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. I did all the exercises in the book many times over the years, challenging myself to complete them again every five years or so. Each time I get to the end of the book, I can see the improvements I’ve made. It requires an investment of time, but I think it’s worth the effort. You can check out Betty’s website at http://www.drawright.com/.

Second, I see a lot of growth through consistent drawing practice. Right now, I draw a face a day from life and one from a magazine.

Sketches of two of my kids, 10-17-18 and 10-18-18

Sketches of people going to General Conference from the November 2017 Ensign Magazine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, sketched on 8-31-18 and 9-1-18. You can access this magazine at https://www.lds.org/ensign/2017/11?lang=eng. Bonus points if you can tell me which page of the magazine these two sketches come from!

I also draw something from the yard. Sometimes I do gesture drawings of kids running around and playing. Those almost always turn out terrible, but I think it’s good practice.

Sketches of various plants found in my backyard between 6-25-18 and 7-13-18

All of the above are easy to do and take maybe a half hour total. I draw in pen so that I don’t obsess and give in to my perfectionist tendencies. I draw what I see, and when I make a mistake, I just move forward. Even if the drawing won’t end up perfect, I learn something from drawing it, so I finish anyway.

I also do a study from artwork by an artist I admire, trying to copy it as best as I can. Some I always do a pencil sketch first, others I just dive in and see how it goes. This takes about a half hour to an hour. When I finish, usually all I can see are the mistakes. A few days later, if I look back, I usually think it turned out okay. Some of the artists I consistently study are Chris Riddell, Stephen Cartwright, Bill Watterson, Skottie Young and Quentin Blake. Often, I’ll just copy a piece of an illustration.

When I do a study from a published illustrator or draw a person from a magazine, I always write down the reference next to the picture. That way, I always know what is mine and what is not. Right now, that’s mostly pretty obvious, but I want to make sure I’m honest.

Any questions or comments? I’d love to hear from you. What has helped you as an artist? Who are your favorite artists? What do you wish you had the resources and time to do, and what’s stopping you from doing it?

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