Selling Doesn’t Make You an Artist

When I saw the Sephora bag being packed in the store, I thought, “this could be a journal.” (This is what happened when I got too eager and didn’t plan enough.) Accidentally, I spoke that out loud. The sales associate lit up. “How would you do that?” she asked. I folded the bag to show her.

hand-paited bollard

Photograph © Quinn McDonald, 2018

“That would be so cute!” she gushed. “And you could sell them on Etsy and make a lot of money and be a real artist!” There was so much in that comment to understand and come to grips with. In real life, I smiled, took my purchase and left the store.

In my head, I began to wonder how we got from being an artist, to being defined as an artist if we sell our work. Make a living. Get rich. That’s the American business model–develop an idea, monetize it, get rich. Success!

Years ago, I wrote a book called Raw Art Journaling. It was for people who wanted to do art for themselves. To heal. To making meaning in life, instead of chasing meaning. I believed every word of it then, and still do. Art is a way to express yourself creatively, and it has nothing to do with selling and making money.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s great if you are a working artist and successful. For years, I did support myself with my art. I found it hard work and the joy of art left me. So I left the field of money-making artist. And I became a meaning-making artist.  It is not mutually exclusive–making art and making money. But for me, I chose the making art–making meaning path. I’m happy with it.

Much of my art is weird. Much of my life is weird. It becomes clearer to me, makes more sense, when I make art out of it.

I can start a piece and not have to choose what frame I’ll use first.

I can decide to use a paper that is not archival, simply because I like it.

I can experiment without wondering how much I can charge for it.

I can make mistakes and take a long time to decide how to change the work without worrying about time management.  In fact, I can make mistakes and decide to leave it just the way it is because I understand more about it now.

Art and money are not necessarily linked. I do other work to take care of my family. Work I love, but different from art. Being an artist is exploring the dark, interesting, funny, odd, hard, difficult parts of your life and seeing what you can discover about it. For me, that’s valuable.

When people ask me if I’m an artist, I generally say, “I do creative expression.” Sometimes I’m asked if I make money, and all I say is, “I decided not to sell my work any more.” It’s all I need to explain about my deeply important art.

Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach who helps people cope with the creativity they don’t know they have.

Box of Colors

Storage sheds. We all know about them, we all need them.  Most of mine have had a jumble of broken items, tools, spiders, toads, snakes and rust in them.

Today, I found a shed clearly planned ahead and carefully. It’s in an older neighborhood in Phoenix, but as so often happens, once the updating started, almost everyone on the block got into the updating swing.

I love this box because it is not what you would expect. It does not hide itself. It stands, colorful and proudly offering its services while also brightening a front yard.  Being different isn’t easy, but it can be beautiful.

–Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach who is working on a book about the Invisible, Visible World.

Blown By The Wind

Haboobs, or dust storms, roll into Phoenix regularly during monsoon. High winds push balcony furniture back and forth across the balcony, roll potted plants down the street, push birds into trees, and dirt into just about anything.

One of the nice parts of the storms is seeing the unusual places trash comes to rest. I’ve seen a Coke can in a tree, a hat stuck on a cactus, and a cat collar with no cat, hanging on a street sign.

This morning, I saw a vinca blossom, stripped from the plant, and stuck in a fan palm. This delights me for the unusual combination of color and shape. I also found the delicate palm fiber almost calligraphic as it held the blossom in place. Art is in front of us. All we need to do is enjoy it. My art to draw in my journal to remind me that I’m safe from the storm. This time.

Quinn McDonald is a writer and creativity coach who helps people get unstuck and dare to be happy.

Smiling Over Spilled Milk

During my morning walk, I came across some spilled ice cream on a sidewalk. In another city, or in another time, a rain may have washed the spilled milk away. In Phoenix, it dries in place. Fast. Which made it the perfect image to photograph.

While the lines and dots in the sidewalk were beautiful in their own right, I loved the way the melted ice cream ran into the safety portion of the sidewalk.

It seems that when we spill out our life, it can create art for people to see hours later. But only in the Invisible, Visible World.

–Quinn McDonald sees accidental art on her morning walks through Phoenix. She calls this temporary art part of the Invisible, Visible World. She’s working on a book about it.

Praying to St. Paraphernalia

Looks like a piece of marbled paper, but it’s a rock. If I could have carried it off, I would have, but it was about the weight of my car.

Collage involves paper hoarding. In fact, often collage is just an excuse to make hoarding seem virtuous.  Working with a friend, I had piles of collage papers piled up and so did my friend. Completely different piles. Different colors, sources and looks.

My friend’s work looks sacred and regal. “I pray to St. Paraphernalia,” she said, by way of explanation.

“I’m not Catholic,” I answered, unsure of what she meant.

“Oh, I’m not either, I just love the beautifully illustrated lives of the saints, and the candles, and gilt-edge books,” she added.

I smiled, having misunderstood her to say that she loved Saint Paraphernalia, and assuming I misunderstood one of the names in the panoply of Catholic saints.

Now I’m thinking that Saint Paraphernalia needs to be the patron saint of multi-media and collage artists.

"Wisdom," by Jane DeRosier. I love the collage presentation; and wisdom is needed for a Saint Paraphernalia. Image link below.

“Wisdom,” by Jane DeRosier. I love the collage presentation; and wisdom is needed for a Saint Paraphernalia. Image link below.

We pray to her to help us sort through the boxes to find that little corner with that color or design that fits right here, that we need now, that can’t be found.

Saint Anthony, patron saint of lost things really isn’t what we need. We need someone who loves color and texture, little found pieces of art. She values order but knows that order isn’t the answer to storage problems. Remembering what the order we chose to use is the important thing.

And then there is remembering what we finally threw out last week and need now. Followed by leading us out of despair. A perfect saint for those who deal in small, treasured objects.

—Quinn McDonald thinks she needs all the divine help, of any kind, she can get.

Image link to Jane DeRosier’s original artwork on Juxtapost.

Giving Away Your Work and Benefitting

Note: Thanks to all of your thoughtful comments about the poetry class. I’m mulling over your suggestions and will let you know about the class as soon as the details are done. And the winner of the T-shirt will be chosen on Friday. Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

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If you are a freelance writer, artist or have a talent, offer a service or product, you will be asked to give it away for free. Often it comes with the promise of “getting your name out—good marketing.” I’ve talked about avoiding false marketing schemes, but today the issue is different.

Donating your work for free can be a gift to you. . .

Donating your work for free can be a gift to you. . .

A good way to get your services, company’s name or your own name in front of people is to donate your product or services in a way that it will get seen by your target audience. The key is, as always, the right audience. Let’s assume you are fielding requests from several good organizations, all with your target audience.

The request involves both your time and materials, which have a value. They also require time and effort, which has a financial worth–part of the price. (Price and value are two completely different things.)

. . .or you can feel like a garbage truck is sitting on your chest.

. . .or you can feel like a garbage truck is sitting on your chest.

How much should you give away? How much free time is too much to give away? Don’t get angry at people for asking you. It’s a sign they think you will generate traffic for them, so it is flattering. Be smart when you make donating time, services and product part of your marketing budget. (You don’t have a marketing budget, do you? OK, I know. But this will still work for you.)

1. Treat the request as a real job. Never give away something sloppy because you aren’t charging for it. If you are contributing, it represents you, so it has to be your best. Many requests will try to make the request look smaller by saying “just send anything.” Don’t do that. What you send represents you to your potential audience. Send your best.

2. Limit your time and costs. Not by being fast or sloppy, but through smart time management. Instead of starting from scratch, re-write a good article for this specific audience. Make new art, but not with a new technique. Create something you already know how to make, but in a new color.

3. Know when to say ‘no.’ Ask about the deadline before you agree. Most requests for “free” also come with tight deadlines. Don’t be afraid to turn down a request if the deadline doesn’t work for you. Know your limit for “free.” A good rule of thumb is between 5 percent and 10 percent of your non-committed time in any quarter. That figure includes all charitable work–from volunteering to producing. And count in all of your production–planning, buying materials, production.  (Check with your tax person about how much of these donations are tax deductible. It’s much less than you think–your time isn’t tax deductible in most cases.)

4. Plan out the project. Let’s say you offer to write an 800 word article. Use your calendar to block out the time for research, writing, re-writing, proofreading, as if it were a real assignment. The entire block of time is now not available for any other charity work. Putting it in your calendar is a handy reminder to do the work, but also a good reminder that you can’t do any more volunteer work at the same time.

5. Understand your motivation and stick to it. Most of us get in trouble because we want to be nice, friendly, helpful and loved. So we don’t say ‘no.’ We say ‘yes,’ become resentful, rushed, and do a bad job. And inadvertently become not-nice, cranky, a problem and hated. The opposite of what we wanted in the first place. You cannot accept work to be loved if you don’t have time to be loved.

6. Know how to say ‘no.’ Saying ‘no’ doesn’t have to be a rejection of the person who asked.  Here are some ways to say no that are both clear and kind–and that’s the real key to turning down an offer. Be clear and kind.

Say ‘no’ to now, but offer a time that’s realistic for you. “Thank you for asking for an article, Mary, I’m honored you want me to be a guest blogger. I’m booked up for the next two weeks, so tomorrow doesn’t work for me. I could get you something in three weeks from Thursday. Would that work for you?”

–Say ‘no’ because you have booked up all your volunteer time. This shows you are already loved and booked. “Thanks for asking, Mary, but Carlos asked me last week, so my volunteer time for March is already booked. I’m honored you asked.” Delivered with a smile, this feels good and is clear.

Point to another source. This will make you a valuable resource and not cost you future work. “Thanks for the offer, Mary, normally I’d jump at the chance. I’m booked right now, but you might want to ask Haji. He’d be great for your project.”

Free work, handled like real work, can be a good marketing idea. Or it can be the project from hell. Either way, it’s yours to accept or turn down. Don’t create your own hell, I learned that lesson the very publicly embarrassing way.

–Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach who has to say No to things she would love to do. Choosing is always going to be hard.

Images: Giftbox from, garbage truck from

Saturday Creative Stroll

146-250Serena Barton has a just-released book on one of my favorite topics: wabi sabi. The Japanese esthetic honors the worn, the old and the weathered. Her book is on making art that honors wabi-sabi. It just arrived in my mailbox, so I have just glanced at it, but I’m already happy I ordered it.

You’ll find a nice selection of her art on her site, including some collages, encaustics and mixed media pieces.

Elizabeth LeCourt lives and works in London, creating quirky illustrations and some interesting fashions. After a fashion. She constructs dresses out of antique maps, and that’s always fascinating to look at. And wonder about.

One of Daniel Barreto's houses embedded in a tree.

One of Daniel Barreto’s houses embedded in a tree.

If you like small houses, you will fall in love with the art of 21 year old Boston, MA based illustrator Daniel Barreto. His houses are carved into hidden  trees deep in the woods. Their windows, glowing with light in the snowy forest night is mysterious and haunting.

If I thought I had trouble ginning myself up for a head shot, Wes Naman must have scared his subjects out of their wits. Naman is a photographer, and for this series on faces, he wrapped his subjects in Scotch tape, wildly distorting their faces before he grabbed the camera. It looks like collage of plastic surgery gone wrong, but it’s compelling. OK, just a teensy bit creepy, too. Art’s job is to upset the apple cart, not re-arrange the fruit plate.

Hong Yi works in . . . coffee. She does  detailed, realistic portraits in coffee stains. Prefer tea? No worries, she does those, too. Her name, Hong, sounds like the word Red in Mandarin, so her website is called Red. From her website: “Red is a Malaysian artist-architect.  She also loves how a colour can stir up conflicting emotions – one of love and passion, and of danger and sacrifice.” She has a big variety of art on her website.

Have a creative weekend!

–Quinn McDonald is at the Women’s Expo in Phoenix this weekend, demoing art projects for Arizona Art Supply.

Book Review: Imaginary Animals (and a giveaway)

Book Winner: Carla Sonheim generously donated a book to the winner of today’s drawing so I could keep the book–I was so pleased! But there were so many comments, I decided to give away my copy, too, so there are TWO winners!   Joy Moore and  Leah Boulet–Congratulations!

This is Carla Sonheim’s second book. The first, Drawing Lab for Mixed-Media Artists covered drawing many different subjects in both realistic and stylized ways. This one concentrates on Carla’s fun, stylized way of working–from her imagination and with humor. The giveaway is at the bottom of this blog.

Book cover

Title: Drawing and Painting Imaginary Animals: A Mixed-Media Workshop with Carla Sondheim.

Author: Carla Sonheim

Details: Quarry Books, softcover, 144 pages, $24.99


  • Just Messing Around (Blobs and Sidewalk Cracks, Photos and Life, Memory and Imagination.
  • Mixed-Media Projects (Oaxacan Dotted Elephant, Imaginary Animals, Junk Mail Creatures Book, Watercolor Transfer Animals, Doggone It!, Animals in Tape, Creatures on Wood, Go Fish!, Wrapped and Tied.
  • Artist’s Gallery of Inspiration with Featured Artists.

What I Like: I’ve taken classes from Carla and I like her casual, easy style. The book follows that non-anxiety-producing style. When you read the book, you can hear Carla talking to you. With 250 illustrations, you can follow what Carla does, step by step. You can also strike out on your own, if you prefer.

There are a number of international contributors and the examples make the book more interesting. There are also 3-D animals and instructions how to make them. There’s a lot going on in the book, all of it fun.

Not all the animals she draws are real. They may have real elements, but because they are imaginary they are easier to create, more mistake-proof, and more vivid.

The book shows you how to use a scanner/printer to make duplicates of beginning sketches on art paper, then turn them into a variety of different animals. You’ll learn  clever and interesting techniques that are achievable—big plus! You’ll be guided through a variety of shading, cleaning up and adding color to get artistic results.

What I Don’t Like: Not much. Again, the first lines of the chapter are in gray, not black, ink. The instructions are in sans-serif type, and when the tips are printed on a shaded block, I find it hard to read. If you don’t use glasses or just reading glasses, you’ll adjust. If, like me, you hold books a bit farther away to get them into focus, the type is a bit small. It’s a minor thing.

Disclosures: I received the book from a publicist for free. I enjoy Carla’s style and her classes.

Giveaway: I’m giving away the book. Leave a comment and I’ll have a random drawing on Thursday afternoon, September 27, 2012, at 5 p.m. Phoenix time. The book will ship October 6.

Quinn McDonald is a writer and a creativity coach. She reads a lot. She is working on her second book.

Brave Artist as Inspiration.

You know the feeling. You are working out an idea–on a book, a painting, a textile piece of creative work, and you begin to doubt yourself. “Who will ever think this is worthwhile?” you think. Maybe a friend or relative looks at your work and sighs. “Do you really think this is art?” they ask. And you begin to doubt yourself. Your work. Your life choices..

Haze, a sculpture by Tara Donovan. Made of plastic straws.

Most artists go through this, and many cave when faced with serious criticism or doubt. They move to something more acceptable. More popular. More understandable.

The artists who inspire me the most, who give me the biggest soul boost, are the ones who stick with their work and perfect it. They let the criticism and doubt stay with the person who feels it–while the artist sticks with the creative work.

Which is what I love about Tara Donovan. The art on this page is hers. She works in plastic straws, Styrofoam cups, and steel pins. She tended bar and waited tables for six years while working on her art. She heard people laugh and suggest “real” art work. Maybe event a “real” job. But she didn’t do that.

Tara Donovan's sculpture made of Styrofoam cups.

She graduated from the Corcoran School of Art in 1991, got a MFA from Virginia Commonwealth in 1999 and kept her day job till 2003, when she had her first solo show at the Ace Gallery. In 2008 she got a MacArthur Fellowship, often called a Genius Grant. And she still works with pins, straws and cups.

I find this dedication and constantly renewed creative energy incredibly inspiring. She knew what she wanted and she kept working at it. How many times do you think she heard jokes about tending bar and stealing straws? And she kept going.

It’s a good story to remember when you begin to question yourself.
See more of Tara’s work.

Quinn McDonald is a writer and creativity coach.

When the Desert Smells Like Rain

It doesn’t rain often in the Sonoran Desert. If we get eight inches in a year, it’s a lot. Compare that to New York, which gets 45 inches a year.

Imperial sand dunes, Arizona. © Quinn McDonald, 2011

When you don’t get a lot of rain, the sun bakes the surface of the earth and hardens it. You can bend a shovel trying to dig a hole in your yard.

When it rains in the desert, you can smell it miles away. The scent is a mix of dust and wet asphalt. There is the oily smell from the creosote tree and the brittle snap of ozone that lightning leaves in the air.

Sometimes the rain never touches the ground. But monsoon rains bring downpours. The water hits the earth, bounces up, loosening dirt clods and gravel. The ground is so hard it can’t absorb the rain. The rain runs off into lower areas, dry creek beds called arroyos, fast and thick. The ground can’t absorb the water, so the arroyo runoff pushes debris ahead of the force of water. The power of the water is unbelievable, just eight inches of depth will push an SUV off the road.

Planting the hope of rain © Quinn McDonald 2011

When you smell the rain, you go out and water your yard. The hose water holds down the dust. The dust holds down the grain of sand, and the small rocks won’t bounce away when the rain comes. Yes, that’s exactly what I said–you water your yard so the rain can soak in. If you don’t do it, your yard will be pitted with gullies, and your plants won’t be soaked, they’ll be bare-rooted. Water will tunnel around them, expose their roots, and they’ll die.

Why is this important if you live in an area of regular rain? Because this story is not just about rain. It’s also about ideas, imagination and creativity. If you wait for the occasional brainstorm, you will know it’s approaching, but you won’t benefit from it. The ideas will flash across your mind, bounce off your consciousness, and run off the surface of your imagination, leaving you without nourishment. Leaving your barely established ideas bare-rooted. You’ll have a hundred pages in your art journal, all very nice, all with a clever saying or layers of color, but with no connection. With no unifying idea. With no body of work.

To allow the brainstorm to sink in, to nourish, to create groundwater that forms wells of ideas, you need to water the surface of your creativity regularly. How do you do that? By working on a creative project regularly, even if you don’t feel like it. By spending time in your studio, even if you don’t create anything specific. By experimenting and having aimless fun, which is another name for practice.

A regular creative practice prepares you to make the most of the big idea, the powerful brainstorm. When the desert smells like rain, ideas are blowing in. Go out and water your lawn.

-Quinn McDonald lives in the Sonoran Desert and waits for rain.