What I Learned From Failure

My artwork didn’t get accepted into a juried competition. It’s an experience every writer and artist knows as rejection. It’s not a question of  if, it’s a question of  when.

Over the years, I’ve let rejections destroy my confidence and make me wonder if a skilled PhotoShop user has a better chance of success than I do.  I’ve let the inner critic out of the cage to gnaw on my soul, leaving it half-eaten in the rain of self-doubt.

This is the accordion book I made with alcohol inks. It represents the five seasons in Arizona–spring, early summer, monsoon, autumn, and winter. The length of time the sun is above the horizon is reflected in the length of each piece of art. © Quinn McDonald, 2018.

This time, having worked on a skill that separates creative self-expression from outside judgment, I was disappointed, but only for 10 minutes. And it was disappointment, not crushing self-defeat. I can talk about it without shame. I’m writing about it to see if what I learned (over time) helps other artists who put their work on display to be judged by strangers.

Every artist (I’m including writers, musicians, dancers, performers and every other art form) takes their creative work, tosses it in the air and risks judgment, ridicule, and being ignored.  We are hoping for delight, engagement and maybe a sale.

The skill that I learned, the one that helped me survive rejection, is called non-attachment. I developed it through practice.  Like every other skill, it takes practice to get comfortable with, and then good at, non-attachment. First, non-attachment does not mean not caring, not investing yourself, or ignoring your emotions.

The accordion book laid flat. The white numbers under each panel is the length of time the sun is above the horizon on the 21st of the month in the middle of the season. © Quinn McDonald, 2018. All rights reserved.

Non-attachment is rooted in a simple idea: creators create for self-expression. In my creativity coaching practice, I’ll ask “Why are you writing this book?” (Or painting, composing, singing–engaging in expressing creativity.) Most often, the answer is, “I want to get it published and make money.” That’s where the problem festers.

Yes, artists have to sell their work to pay the grocery, plumber, and mortgage. If that is the primary reason they create, all creative decisions  will be made through the marketing plan and all success will me measured in sales. I’ve been there, and it is a dry, lifeless place of relentless competition and incremental failure.

The reason to create, to practice, to struggle with your creative urge is to express creativity. That’s it. That’s the prime directive of the creative soul–express your creativity. It is the process of creating that lifts the soul, not the price tag.

When you create work that requires your concentration, full attention, joy, fear, satisfaction–that is the reward.

What others think of it is their opinion. You might grow from another opinion, but if you let random opinions steer your creative expression,  you will forever be chasing approval. Your creative expression will no longer be tethered to your idea, it will be tied to someone else’s preferences. That’s an impossible space in which to create.

Here are 10 clear steps to get to non-attachment:

1. Work regularly. Creative work builds endurance and creative muscle.

2. Work relentlessly. Self-doubt? Keep working. Not sure the piece is good? Keep working. Tired? Get some rest, then keep working.

(This stage includes re-writing, editing, overpainting, noodling with those six bars in the refrain, anything that is improving the work.)

3. Work until you are satisfied.  Don’t know if you are done? How satisfied are you? Not sure? Not done. Don’t ask Facebook, Instagram, your mom or best friend if you are done. They are related to your inner critic, not your creative expression.

4. When you have worked hard and made meaning for yourself, you will feel satisfied. Happy, if you give yourself permission.

5. Give your piece a name or title. It’s an ancient tradition that naming something gives you power over it and distance from it.

6. Send it out into the world. Enter a juried competition, put it up for sale, go to a gallery. Because your creative work brought you joy in creation, what someone else says is an opinion, not absolute Truth with a capital T.

7. If you are turned down (the term I prefer instead of “rejected,”) you will still have your hard work, your idea, and your satisfaction. The rest is someone else’s opinion.

8. You cannot live in the judge’s head. They might not like your kind of art. (That’s their opinion.) They may know what price-point sells in their gallery and choose that kind of work. (Their marketing decision.) They may choose a piece that fits a certain space, one that reminds them of the curtains in their childhood home, or something that their dog wagged his tail at–all decisions that have nothing to do with you. Your artistic decisions are complete. What happens next is not yours to control.

9. If you are turned down, you still have your joy and satisfaction. You may feel disappointed that all the unknown decisions didn’t line up right for you, but those decisions were not yours to control. The ones you do control were ones that you were satisfied with. That’s the core of creative self-expression. Once you are satisfied with the quality of your effort and your result, no one can take it from you.

10. Go to the show that didn’t accept you. Enjoy the work, congratulate the artists. Feeling happy for others is a skill that stretches your soul to make it fit more easily.

Quinn McDonald is a certified creativity coach, writer, and artist. She helps artists learn non-attachment.

 

 

 

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Pompeii Comes to Phoenix

The Pompeii exhibit is in Phoenix right now. (Science Center, November 18, 2017 to May 28, 2018). The story of Pompeii was the first chapter book I read when I was about eight years old, and for years I believed it was fiction. How could all those people not have escaped? How come did they find bread and artwork and dogs and people years later? After all that ash and fire?

This colander, carefully cleaned, showed the care taken to create utilitarian vessels and tools. The shadow shows the decorative pattern of the holes Photo: © Quinn McDonald, 2017.

Part of the story is no longer a mystery–the volcano explosion that happened on August 24, in the year 79 CE. It took 1700 years for Pompeii to be discovered. Vesuvius, the mountain that blew up, didn’t just spew ash, it blew its entire top off. The caldera is still active, and today is about 4,200 feet tall. It was twice that height when the volcano erupted.

The ash, pumice and dirt that fell buried Pompeii under 12 feet of debris. It sealed off the city, kept oxygen from deteriorating paintings and mosaics, and made the discovery surprising.

In the exhibit, you can see frescoes, perfectly preserved and in full color. Decorative and delicate, the frescoes show pomegranates (symbol of fertility and abundance) and various gods worshiped at the time. Mosaics, mostly from floors, are also shown. One of the signs said that mosaics were often created to use up marble from bed frames, tables and walls.

Plaster cast of a woman, shown on her back. Originally, she was lying over the child, shown trying to crawl away. © Photo: Quinn McDonald, 2017. All rights reserved.

The story that blew me away was this: As the city was being carefully dug up, archeologists discovered holes. Their irregular shape made it clear it wasn’t bubbles of gas. One of them had the idea that the holes might have once been something else. The holes were filled with plaster of Paris, left to dry, and then the plaster was dug out.

The casts were of people. A mother lying over her child, people climbing a staircase, dogs, a man hunched over, protecting his mouth and nose with his toga. The people had been covered in ash, but over hundreds of years has decomposed, leaving just their imprints in the ash.

Without the casts, it would have been too hard to see the negative space as people. Metaphor alert: Since this post is going up close to New Years Eve, what do we see and not understand as long as it is negative, but makes perfect sense, in fact, tells a story, when seen from the positive view?

–Quinn McDonald is a writer who teaches writing. She also teaches journal-keeping as a healing art.

 

Go With the Flow–Literally

Flow is a magazine I never heard of, and now that I’ve read one, I can’t stop loving it. Halfway through, I realized it was created in the Netherlands, but it is in English and is filled with ideas, stories, articles, photography, sketches, and poems. It is also printed on different kinds of paper, which brings joy to those who love the feel and touch of paper.

The magazine is divided into two content sections: “Feel Connected,” and “Live Mindfully.” The Connected section includes an article in which a designer, celebrity chef, and illustrator are interviewed about current projects and how they fell in love with their work.

There is a full-length article on Julia Cameron and what she is doing today. It’s not a puff-piece (which it could be, considering she’s the author of The Artist’s Way), but a harder look at how Cameron got her start as a writer (Washington Post and Rolling Stone, plus a lot of drinking and drug-taking) and how she grew into the creativity unblocker she is today, 40 books later.

“Meanwhile in New Zealand” is an article about an unconventional couple who live in a wilderness home and are content. (Not a minor thing in today’s world.)

On the Mindfulness side, there is an article about emotional confidence. Not an easy read, but an important one.

The complimentary journal tipped into the magazine is a big plus. And the tip paper used to hold it in place can be recycled in collage.

My favorite article was on my favorite topic–drawing in your journal when you don’t know how to draw.

I caught a fair amount of criticism in both my books on that topic because I am not an illustrator and dared to write about creative expression.

This article is real encouragement about the benefits of private art to capture memories. One of the ideas is that photography lessens our memory retention and blurs details. Drawing, even if we are not illustrators, helps memory recall of details that happened around the time of the drawing.

In this issue, there is a tip in–of a journal. Yep, a five-inch by eight-inch journal with  sturdy, white, unlined paper. And the paper used as the carrier (with removable glue) can be used in collage or card-making. The entire magazine can be recycled, cut up, used over again or kept and well-loved.

The issue shown is one of six published a year.  The Flow website has a subscription rate on it, or you can get it through Amazon. I received a copy of the magazine as a gift from a family member; I received no payment or incentive to write this article.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer and creativity coach. She is also a creativity instigator.

White Pens and Graphite Review

 Sakura Gelly pens have been popular for a long time (they were invented in 1984), but it was not until about five years ago that the quality of the white pens were reliable. The earlier white pens blobbed and wrote unevenly, particularly if you tried to write fast or stored them standing upright. No more. These pens are wonderful.

The paper is a firm-surface black sheet with a hint of shimmer in it. As a result, it doesn’t show up as deep black in the photos. You can see the difference in the pen widths.

My most recent discovery was the 3-pack of fine, medium, and broad-writing white pens that look crisp and snowy on black paper. The pens come in 0.5mm, 0.8mm, and 1.0mm and write easily and smoothly. No blogs, no skips. Changing widths helps you create emphasis and details at will.

At $8.74 for the pack of three (prices may vary), the price is well worth the quality of the pens.

My next discovery was the white graphite by ArtGraf. The piece is the size of tailor’s chalk, about 02.25 inches square. ArtGraf has already made many graphite products–sticks, kneadable graphite, graphite powder, and other colors of graphite (red, blue, yellow) as well as metallics. The white is new. And quite wonderful.

You can write with the edge of the square, scribble, or, (sigh!) use a wet brush and write or draw with it. It dries either opaque or translucent, depending on how much water you carry on the brush.

The graphite is true white. In the photo, it shows as blue, which is another trick of the lighting and my camera. But it has not a bit of blue in it when used, it’s a beautiful, rich white.

Interestingly enough, it also works on alcohol ink drawings . . .for a while. Below, you can see a fresh application of three faux letters looking rich and thick. Which it is. I used a generous amount of graphite and loaded the brush with water. (This is an experimental sheet, so there is writing with various black markers on it as well.)

Ten minutes later, when the water evaporated, most of the graphite vanished along with the water.

You can still see the writing, but it is so faded that I put a yellow arrow on the demo piece so you can see it.

If you want to write on alcohol ink art, your best bet are markers like Micron, Pitt Pens (Faber Castell), or, yes, the white Sakura Gelly Roll pens. If the ink is totally dry, the white stays crisp and bright. If the alcohol ink is less than 24 hours old, a tiny bit of the color leaches into the white gel pen, softening the color. Experimentation is worth the work.

I purchased these products myself. No one paid me to give an opinion.

-Quinn McDonald is a writer and creativity coach who enjoys creative self-expression.

Creativity in Black and White

Black paper is attractive. But applying color is not always easy. Copic (alcohol ink) markers don’t show up. Watercolors aren’t ideal. You have gel pens, acrylic ink, or colored pencils. Twinkling H20s work, too. Still, not a lot of choice.

Today, while I was at a big box home repair/supply store, I found a can of  spray paint. Except it was really not paint. It was Krylon webbing paint. Spray it on hard surfaces for a faux marble approach. I have no idea how you are really supposed to use it, because I used it on black paper. And it gives a lot of different effects.

If you are going to try this, protect the area you are going to spray. This can will “decorate” your walls, floors, and mirrors.

First, I sprayed it quickly across the black page, which is about 6.5 inches by 11 inches, bound on the short side.

Next, I sprayed more slowly, but aiming above the paper, so the paint drifted down. The interesting effect of the paint on the bottom row was a mix of an erratic ECG and a map of an ant exploring a tunnel. Still, really interesting.

Finally, I used gel pens to fill in the tiny gaps with color. Just a few, for effect. Then, because this one looked like a map, I added asemic writing on the left, and a map helper on the right.

This technique is worth exploring more. I hope you do, too.

-Quinn McDonald is a writer and writing teacher, creativity coach and artist who loves mixing words and art.

 

Alcohol Ink on Black Paper

Creativity often happens when we are trying to solve some other problem. Looking for another substrate for alcohol inks (other than Yupo), I came across an artist who used black tiles. (Sadly, I didn’t write down her name.) She said she had used black chalkboard paper as well. That didn’t work for me, but here is what did work.

1. Black, shiny-surface tiles work. I don’t want to store tiles, so I went on the search for black, glossy paper. Not as easy as it sounds. But I did find Stardream in Onyx, 105-lb cover stock. It is lightly coated with a mildly sparkle-finish. I found it at a local Phoenix outlet of Kelly Paper.

2. Use both Pearl (translucent) and Snow Cap (opaque) ink by Ranger. Put both on the paper. Add one drop of Eggplant (Ranger.)

3. Immediately put a piece of plastic wrap over the ink and rub to blend lightly.  Make sure there are strong wrinkles in the plastic wrap.

4. Leave the plastic wrap in place until the ink dries. This takes about 15 minutes in Phoenix, but at 5 percent humidity, it’s not a good measure for other locations.

5. Peel off the plastic wrap. I added the stem and flower base with a paintbrush and Snow Cap.

Quinn McDonald is a writer, a creativity coach, a writing trainer, and an abstract artist who combines writing with images.

Experiments with Alcohol Inks

Alcohol inks are the best color application tool since crayons. They are bright and crisp. Unlike crayons, they are not easy to control. In fact, when I teach a class in alcohol inks, the class hears about control, letting go, happy accidents, and going with the flow long before we start the technique section of the class.

While I’ve loved making landscapes, florals have always eluded me.  This weekend, with enough time and Yupo, I experimented with florals. (You can read more about Yupo and acrylic inks in this blog post. Some landscapes are here.)

First, I selected three coordinating colors for each flower. One drop of the darkest color goes down first. I blow on it carefully with a big-bore straw. That pushes the color out without causing “legs” to form. The second drop goes on next, blown into place with a small cocktail-stirring straw.  I use a small, inexpensive, brush to keep the colors in the same area.

For the leaves, I use the tip of the bottle to shape the leaf, while applying the ink in a slow, even motion. Brushwork keeps the leaves from spreading. Careful brushwork shapes the stem on the far-left flower. It makes the leaf look translucent and adds depth.

The writing on the images? I created the letterforms, but the meaning is left for the viewer to decide. It’s not a code, it’s a graphic addition to the floral.

Quinn McDonald is a certified creativity coach and writer.