Overcoming Fear of the Blank Canvas or Studio Resistance

Humans in Space Youth Art
Humans in Space Youth Art

I had to adult for about a month in ways that kept me out of the studio. Things One, Two, Three, and Four on How I turned over my ignition to get rolling again, and how you can, too.

But first, Dr. Julie Vargas is an American educator who just happens to be the daughter of the late, great psychologist B.F. Skinner. She is an educator and behavior analyst. The painting was created on cradled birch board, with oil, cold wax, and gold leaf. Quite fun to make! This painting is available in my studio, and you can see her at my online gallery! Be sure to contact me if there’s an artwork you’d like to commission.

There’s a risk when you have to step away from the studio for an extended period. Getting back to work can be hard, even if you want to get back to it. It’s one thing when you return to the office, cooking line, or construction site after a vacation. There are immediate pressures, like a boss or a deadline, that make you get back to work even if you don’t really want to. You can whine all you want and practice your favorite filthy curse words (silently, of course), but you’re going to do the work. But when you work for yourself, and you don’t have specific appointments, if you’re not careful, you can be tempted to go easy on yourself. Especially if you were out of the office for a no-fun reason. I was out of the office because my husband’s two-part surgery. He takes care of a most of our house chores these days, and I didn’t wanna. Then I had a health thing, and you know. I felt strongly drawn to the couch.

During this time, I was working on a couple of side-hustles. Side hustles are our friends when they bring in money, but mine can interfere with my art-mind. One of them is very much science-mind stuff, and takes a whole different set of mental muscles. So my art muscles got a bit soft and confused.

I planned the side-hustling so that when I could get back to the studio, I could close the door and BE in the studio. I had one day this week that was a studio day. Today I’m back out of the studio for a side-hustle webinar on dog aggression that I’m leading this evening, and then I’m back in the studio tomorrow, and hopefully daily until Christmas weeks when my sons will be here. (Squee!)

When I walked into the studio yesterday, I was ready, until I wasn’t. I looked around and realized I’d left the studio in a really fine mess. I hadn’t cleaned my palette. I had an excuse. I had hoped to find bits of time here and there to work while the paint was still wet. No such luck. Cats had knocked things over. I had stacked things on my computer table.

Thing One:

The first thing I needed to do was just lean into my disappointment about not being able to just start painting. I turned on an audiobook, which is really interesting:

The audiobook was a pacifier. Something to entertain me while I faced the fact that I had some cleaning to do before I could get my paintbrushes painty.

Thing Two:

Little baby steps, you see. Baby steps are such hugely important steps. You can always do a baby step. If you can’t do a baby step you need to make your baby steps smaller. Fetus steps. Embryo steps. Or egg or sperm steps. Although sperm are pretty vigorous, so maybe just take egg steps. Eggs don’t go far. And if you still can’t do the smallest possible egg steps, you have something else going on. Eat a sandwich, or see your therapist, or something. (I can teach you how to meditate in a way that actually helps. Maybe I’ll write about that one of these days.)

In behavior analysis we call these successive approximations. They’re little things you can feel good about doing as you work your way up to doing the big rewarding thing, your art.

My first baby step was to just take my scraper and start scraping dried paint from my palette. I have a nerdy mental place for this activity. It’s kind of cathartic. But it hasn’t always been that way. I was actually dreading this, and had it become a big ass deterrent to painting, the right thing to do would have been to just start by scraping off the reds. Or if the all reds were too much, just scrape off the vermillion. It’s okay to just scrape off vermillion and come back for the rest of the reds later.

I used to fret about the wasted paint. Now I just consider it support paint. I also resented being made to be a grown up and clean it. But it creeps me out to see big mounds of dried paint on other painters’ palettes, so it has to be done. (If you’re a paint mounder, that’s cool. That’s your palette. It probably saves you a ton of time. No, it doesn’t, but it’s your palette. You get to pick your comfort thing.) For me it is cool to watch it curl and clump away and to see the clean glass to show up where it was. And it doesn’t take long. I know I can do it, because it’s a little baby task. And baby steps are the best steps to correct reluctance and procrastination.

After that I evaluated what I was up to. Could I put away the crap that had accumulated on my computer table? It turns out I could because it was bringing me one step closer to starting a painting.

Thing Three:

Don’t do your favorite thing first. Don’t. Do. It. If you do your favorite thing first you’re going to be annoyed by the things you didn’t do that needed to be done, and they will annoy you every day as you come into the studio. Your crusty palette will creep you out (unless you’re that person I talked to in Thing Two) or the random items stacked on your desk will start tipping over. Or you won’t be able to find your vermillion paint. WHAT IS IT WITH VERMILLION PAINT TODAY??? The next day you will resist coming into the studio because you won’t want to deal with all the things that aren’t painting.

You can prevent this by starting with a less-fun-than-painting thing that will get you to a happy painting place. This is called the Premack Principle. It means that behaviors that get you closer to a fun behavior will become more common by making it more likely that you get to do the fun behavior, painting.

Thing Four:

Stop painting while you’re still having fun. This sounds so counter-intuitive, but trust me. If you paint until you’re sick of painting, the next day you’re going to have a twinge of unpleasantness when you thinking about getting to the studio. Each day it will get worse until one day you have an excuse not to go in there at all. Don’t do that to yourself. You don’t gotta. Stop while you’re having fun, and you’ll be so eager to get back into the studio, you’ll love it. The next day you’ll go in there and you’ll be in the middle of something you were enjoying doing, and BOOM, you’re instantly in the flow.

One way I quit while I’m having fun is by setting my quitting time at 4:30pm. I quickly get to a stopping point on my painting. Not a finishing point, just a place where I can clean off my brush. Then I use the next 30 minutes to put together a little video with my VivaVideo app on my phone. The video is of any pics or videos I took of my work that day, or of myself blabbing about something I thought about while painting. I’ve gotten pretty fast at putting them together, but although I’m not being paid by VivaVideo, I really love their phone app. It has tons of options all up in there and ways to create short, sweet videos. There is a fee, although I forget what it is, but it’s worth it to me. The biggest problem isn’t inherent to the app, it’s just that videos jam up your memory, and you have to dump your phone quite a bit.

So, I got my studio jam back into gear, and had to take one little day off, but tomorrow, I’m back in there with fresh paint, clean brushes, a clear workspace and tons of time to just enjoy myself.

What do these Things look like for you? How do you break things down and put them in an order that gets you closer to your creative work?

Onward and Upward!

Aunt Kellie

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