Knowing When It’s Enough

When are you done? When is the art complete? When do you quit? All good questions, and all with similar answers.

This weekend, I was working with ink on watercolor paper. It’s a new technique I’m puzzling out, and the most critical element is knowing when to stop working. It’s incredibly easy to overwork the ink, and once it’s overworked the piece simply looks like a clean-up towel.

Here’s the first step:

Which actually can be left alone. But I wanted to add another layer. The next step promptly overworked it.

So why didn’t I know that? Because I was willing to see what would happen if I tried another layer of ink. So the first reason you don’t quit is curiosity–seeing what will happen if you continue. When the urge to continue is  more interesting or compelling than the need to quit, you push on. If I had been perfectly satisfied with the results, I could have quit.

Another way to know you are finished is when the elements of design you had in mind are all in place. On this paper, I worked  in three stages. When working with ink pieces, it’s important to let one layer dry completely before the next one is started, or the ink will blur. Waiting allows time to make the decision to continue or decide the design is fine the way it is.

In the case of this piece, the black and gray sections were complete, but there was not enough contrast in the overall page. I added the yellow, which was interesting, but still not enough of a contrast. So I added the orange-red over the yellow, allowing both colors to show.

I knew I wasn’t done when the yellow didn’t achieve the purpose of contrast. I knew I was done when the branching edges completed a pleasing design. In other cases, you would continue when you cannot explain how your work is complete.

Ink on watercolor is a fairly tricky medium. You have to balance not being in control as well as controlling color choice and water amount. The medium doesn’t allow erasing, covering with gesso or not clicking “accept” and starting over, as you can with digital work in steps.

It was a mistake to add gold to this page. Not only was the choice in the yellow-green-gold color range, of which there was already too much,  but the eye can’t find a resting place, a catch with everything in one tone. The ink on the upper left looks like a three-legged blowfish sticking out its tongue. The lesson: knowing what you are doing and why. Here I knew why, but the what was a bad choice. Had I given the choice of shimmering ink more thought, I would have realized that I should have stopped after the background was still wet when I applied the second layer.

In this case, the shimmer worked far better.

It was right to choose the shimmer because there was a large, dark center that needed more definition. I left the lower right hand corner (which I love) alone, but did not expect it to carry the entire piece. Adding the shimmer ink gave the middle section texture and made both colors–the blue/gray and the violet, more visible. Knowing how strong (and how much space) the strongest part of a visual piece can carry is a way of knowing when the piece is complete.

These same decision-making questions work for other “should I quit?” questions, too. If one small and excellent part of a relationship can’t carry the rest of it, it may be time to add something to the relationship. But you have to know what and why.

Discovering that art answers are a bigger part of life is one of the reasons I do creative work. Because (you already know what’s coming) it makes meaning out of part of my life.

-Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach who is exploring the relationship between ink, water and paper, along with the rest of her life.

Extracting Honey from the Wax Comb

Honey is a complicated thing. I don’t much want to think about how it’s made, because it will destroy my fantasy of happy bees making liquid sunshine while clover and wildflowers wave nearby in a fragrant breeze.

Honey comb in plastic clamshell containers. I brought it home from Wisconsin. Security did not tell me it was a liquid and confiscate it. I am grateful.

I purchased two squares of honeycomb from a beekeeper. The honey that’s taken from a honeycomb tastes better (to me) than honey that’s been strained, boiled, and pasteurized. When we were both younger, my brother concocted a taste test, and both of us could easily detect the comb honey taste. I remember saying it tastes like wax candles.

Use a sharp, clean knife and do not press, but slice, the honey comb.

Honey may taste better fresh from the comb, but you have to get it out of the comb first. Eating the comb along with the honey is not a joy for me. But how to get the honey out? First, cut the comb in half so you have two flat squares. That opens all the compartments.

Pieces of comb in strainer, in pot.

Next, place the compartments, face down, in a strainer and put the strainer in a deep enough cooking pot to allow the honey to drip through the strainer. The room should be about 80 degrees to let the honey flow freely. Do not put the honey outside in the summer to warm it up faster. The phrase “you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar” was invented by someone who tried that.

You can turn the oven on “warm” for 10 minutes and then slide the pot and strainer in. Do not leave the kitchen while the honey is in the oven. Your spouse will come along and turn the oven on 350 degrees. This will melt the wax into the honey where it was before, and also the plastic handle of the strainer onto the pizza stone you keep in the oven.

Burned strainer handle melted onto pizza stone.

If this does happen, leave the strainer in the pot and place the pot on a trivet until the whole mess cools down, about two hours. Once the pot is no longer hot to the touch, put in the the fridge, complete with strainer, for an hour.

Do not roll your eyes or say, “I told you the pot was in the oven,” because this will not un-ruin the pizza stone. One of the secrets to a long marriage is not saying everything you think.

Removing what’s left of the strainer will leave a bottom-of-the-strainer size hole in the wax.

When the wax is cool, but before the honey hardens in the fridge, pull the strainer containing the was impurities out of the pot, skim the wax off the honey (if the honey is stiff, this won’t work) and rinse off the wax to make a candle.


Decant the honey into a small container and enjoy it on hot toast, cold yogurt, or in tea.

-Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach and still married to KentCooks, whose pizza stone got ruined in the process of extracting the honey from the wax. The link to his website will take you to a yummy recipe for salmon with fruit salsa.

Simplifying a Complicated World

The world is not easy to navigate. It’s complex and drains a lot of energy from you. Complicated connections. Pull one thing and a whole lot of others come apart, too.

Lots of tangled wires, all connected.

Sometimes, when we don’t do anything except witness–watch and wait, take notes before acting or jumping to conclusions–we get more information. That step–being a witness instead of a fixer–holds the space for learning.

Choosing to be a fixer means we rush in with an answer, a suggestion, a solution as soon as we sense the connection is complicated. We want to simplify it, cut it apart, all before we are sure what  the problem really is. Because solving problems gives us a shot at being a hero. If we are a witness, and wait for information, well, time could be lost.

It’s a twisted fence, ugly from this view. Complicated, too.

Time doesn’t get lost. We do, but time does not. Time knows exactly where it is. When we stand still, stay calm, witness, take notes, don’t give advice till we know what we are doing, we catch up with time. We gather information. We don’t take on work that isn’t ours to do. We see what is ready to resolve itself without our help.

A simple pattern evolves.

And then, in the sharp shadow of understanding, the information becomes not only clear, but beautiful. Sometimes without our getting involved at all. The shadow of the fence on the sidewalk shows, not the complicated twisted pattern, but a simple light and dark outline of connections.

The other side of complicated is not simple, it’s waiting. So we can learn more.

Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach who learns on her walks every day.

Less Abundance is Enough

The negative self-talk gremlin was in full voice before dawn. I got up because the animals needed out, and my first thought was “It’s 4:45 a.m., and I did not get enough sleep.” Feeling sorry for myself before 5 a.m. isn’t a sign of a full-energy day. I fed the beasts and let them out, and while I waited for them to come back in, I staggered to the computer. it was not quite 5 a.m. and after looking at my to-do list for today, I thought, “I don’t have enough time to get all this done today.”

Agave blossoms on a stem . . .

And then I stopped. I had been up less than half an hour and I was already focusing on what wasn’t there, what I didn’t have, what wasn’t enough. The gremlin was in full voice, singing opera.

One of the emails on my laptop was a seminar on abundance. It promised increased money, respect, happiness, sexual pleasure and satisfaction in life. Not a lot was left out. They were targeting people like me, who wake up and are unhappy before they get dressed. And the word “abundance” seems like the answer to everything you lack.

“Abundance” has become a commodity–something we need to buy and own to make a good life. It’s dangled in front of us like a sale on shoes. Abundance is the new bag or car or something you are missing and you have to pay a speaker so you can get your abundance from someone else.

. . . can be too abundant, too much of a good thing.

And although I am not the sharpest tool in the shed at that hour of the morning, I had two really sharp ideas.

First: No one can sell me abundance. I have to make my own abundance. All by my ownself, as my boy used to say when he was three.

Second: Abundance isn’t a fixed amount of money, or a set salary. It’s not measured in cups, pounds, or bushels. If you ask just about anyone what amount of money it would take to make them feel they have “abundance,” they will pick a number far above the amount they have. Because “having abundance” translates to “more than I have now,” or “I don’t have enough.” Abundance is now seen as lack. And that’s the gremlin’s territory.

I looked at my to-do list. “I have enough time to do what I need if I choose the most important things to do,” I said. Then I made a list of all the things I needed to do so it was clear. Next, I made a list of the three most important things to do. That was my new to-do-now list. Until they were complete, no other work would get done.

And about that lack of sleep? The beasts had come back in, I closed the door, re-set the alarm clock and got another hour of sleep. Still plenty of time to take the morning walk and then get down to work.

When we allow ourselves to classify abundance as what we lack, what we don’t have, what we are missing, we will never have it. We strive for what we don’t have, measure ourselves by what we lack. The gremlin owns us, we are miserable.

When we define abundance as what we already have, and thrive in that standard, then the world shifts. We don’t strive for what we can’t reach, we suddenly have the time we thought we didn’t. When I woke up again at 6:30 a.m., I felt better. I had enough time to achieve the high-priority items. I felt better, calmer, and grateful that I’d had another chance at abundance. Because this time I had it.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer and certified creativity coach who has enough and is enough. At least for this one day.

Filling Those Empty Journal Pages

Open an art journal, and you are likely to see beautiful art–collage, mixed media, watercolor sketches. But few words. It always makes me a little sad when people are so fast to turn to images in their journals, but often leave out words.

Masu box with magic words made by Suzanne Ourth.

Most people fear writing down what they are thinking. The same people who are cheerfully transparent on Facebook, become shy in a journal. I get that. It’s a throwback to the times when we believed what we saw on a page–and the responsibility is huge. At least in your mind.

In a few weeks, I’m going to be at the Great American Scrapbooking Convention in both Arlington, TX and Chantilly VA. And the scrapbookers who want to experiment creatively with intuitive writing, well, I hope they show up.  We are going to open a creative door that will let in words and ideas and sunlight and joy. The door will open, and a path of merry footprints will run across your journal pages.

You won’t ever have to wonder “What should I write in my journal?” You’ll have a small masu box at hand (we’re making it at the convention), and it’s packed with your own ideas. Ready to use. Any time.

No long essays are necessary. After class, and with your box, you will have access to ideas that will braid their way through your book.

I’m teaching the new One-Sentence Journaling. We will make a masu-box of magic words. You will learn several different ways to use them. Your intuitive talent will be set free. Some of the exercises are funny, some are thoughtful.

And then, just because you can, you are going to make a folder out of braille paper, to hold your new pages.

If you want to explore your scrapbook pages, your art journal pages and explore the words that hold memories, inspire you, comfort you, please join us in Arlington, Texas on May 31 through June 2, or in Chantilly, VA June 22 and 23. I designed this class just for scrapbookers who want to step into a new area of creativity–into Raw Art Journaling, or into intuitive writing. You’ll discover that making meaning in your scrapbooks and journals will feel new and exciting. There are fewer rules, and while you might still want to be perfect, you can put it down at the door if you want.

I’m looking forward to seeing new faces!

-Quinn McDonald is a certified creativity coach and a raw art journaler who believes that meaning-making is fundamental to art making.

Phoenix at 110 Degrees

It’s been hot early this year–while we generally hit 100 degrees for the first time in April, this year’s 106 and 107 in mid-May seems a bit early.

Frying an egg on the sidewalk–it works better in a pan. I’ve done it, and it does cook, but it doesn’t sizzle.

So how does one adjust to such high heat? If you live here, make the most of it. Toss your sweaty pillows out on the patio and let the sun bleach and freshen them. Don’t leave them outside for more than an hour, though, or they get dusty.

Have a desk chair mat? One of those plastic things that always turns up at the corners where it hits a desk or cabinet? Toss it out on the patio, and leave it for 15 minutes. The hard plastic softens and relaxes. Drag it to a shady spot before you bring it in. The heat makes it off-gas.

Dry your towels outside. OK, so they are a little stiff, but fabric softener makes towels resist absorbing water, and sun-dried towels smell great and dry you off better. It takes about 30 minutes for towels to dry completely. I once raced the dryer and with a light breeze before Monsoon Season starts (mid-June), the outdoor-dried towels win.

Still have plants in pots? You optimist, you. Starting now and going till September, water them twice a day, before dawn and after the sun is not longer directly on them. They’ll die otherwise, there just isn’t enough water-holding ability in potting soil. And if your plant pots are glazed and dark colors, they won’t make it past June 10. The roots cook if the pots are in the full sun.

While you are out early in the morning (after first light and before full dawn), change the food in the hummingbird feeders. Every day. At that heat, it sours in a day. The birds die quickly from consuming old hummingbird food, as it also grows mold.

Busy day? Core an apple, stuff it with bread drizzled with olive oil, a spoon of honey, a few raisins . Rub with flaxseed oil or olive oil, wrap in foil (shiny side in) and place in box in trunk of car when you leave for work. When you get home, you have a baked apple! (No cream or butter though. Hot car cooking requires some food-poisoning precautions.)

The Gladiator fire has decimated 10,000 acres of land that won’t come back for a generation.

Summers are tinder dry in the area, and brush fires easily get out of hand. The Gladiator fire has scorched 10,000 acres, and the land won’t be able to hold plants for 20 years. Unlike the East Coast, where a fire is good for the forest, our fires destroy landscapes. Please be careful with campfires and don’t play with fireworks, which are legal here. Legal and “good-idea” are two different issues. This fire was started by an unsupervised child.

–Quinn McDonald loves Phoenix any time of year, but not when it’s a dry hate. There is much healing to be done anyplace in the world, but she was called here.

Workshop, Playshop, Passion

More and more artists aren’t teaching “workshops” anymore, they are teaching “playshops,” because work is so odious that we don’t want to be involved with it in our free time.

I love play. It feels freeing and effortless. I also love work. Work results in some sort of good, or change, or results, often interesting or at least useful. Calling a day of learning “play” instead of “work” seems to diminish both terms.

“Set a table in your garden,” Quinn McDonald © 2012, watercolor pencils on paper, collage.

Work is honorable and doesn’t have to mean suffering. Work indicates that the results are not gained in a way that is fast, fun, or free. Work is best done deliberately, with full concentration and effort. It requires an investment of energy and time. That’s what makes it satisfying.

We often say our work is our passion. And while we think of passion as unchecked emotion, the Latin root word of passion is pati, which means suffering.

Sometimes work is hard, sometimes it causes us to suffer. But that doesn’t make it bad. Some of the hardest times of life finish up with some of the best learning, best results, and best ideas. Hard work, both physical and mental, can feel painful while it feels like growth.

So I’m going to continue teaching workshops. Where people show courage by working intuitively, writing deeply, and speaking their truth. We’ll also laugh and be astonished at the results, because hard work feels good.

-Quinn McDonald is a certified creativity coach who loves her work.

Who Are You, Really?

When I made one-of-a-kind pieces of jewelry and sold them at art festivals, the big question in any conversation was “are you a full-time artist?” It was a badge of authenticity to make your art bear the burden of supporting the family and fueling your creativity. The day I realized that all my creative decisions were approved through my marketing budget, I quit. I vowed I’d never put my art in a straight jacket again. I returned to my roots as an art journaler (before it was called that) and worked with people to challenge their inner critic.

Some of the many hats you can wear.

To support my creativity without weighing it down with spread sheets, I expanded my business to include creativity coaching, freelance writing, and developing and running business communication training programs. Oh, and I design and celebrate people’s sacred ceremonies–weddings, commitment ceremonies, new home blessings–almost anything that has to do with change and growth. I like to be busy.

Each of the pieces of my business have different cycles, and with some hard work and planning, some parts are busy when others are not. So far, ten years into running my own business, I’ve never hit a patch where all the businesses slowed down at the same time. Knock wood.

About two years ago, I made the decision to have one website instead of two. For a while, I was worried that my business clients would not understand the creative side and would be afraid that I was too far out of the box.

Interestingly enough, my business clients are fine with me being an artist. It’s something they are familiar with–artists have to do other work to be able to support their creative projects. For the corporate world, that’s a no-brainer.

What is surprising to me is how many artists frown at my business side. “Oh, so you aren’t really a full-time artist are you?” Sometimes I say, “I’m creative all the time.” Sometimes I ask, “How do you define ‘ full-time artist’?” It’s as if my creative side is tainted because I design and teach writing and communication training programs.

One of my biggest creative challenges is teaching grammar to business people who never learned it in school. Without knowing the difference between a subject and a predicate, it’s hard to explain why it’s always “between you and me,” and  never “between you and I” and why you should tell your dog to “lie down” and not “lay down.” Making up rules that don’t include grammar requires a lot of inventiveness and imagination. I find it challenging and, yes, fun.

It’s also sad for me to hear artists make up rules about who gets to claim the title of artist and who doesn’t. Or to deny business people the right to be artists. Nowhere is creativity needed more than in corporate America.

What bothers me is that artists, who know a good deal about being labeled and stereotyped, are doing a lot of that themselves. Being an artist does not demand that you sell you art and live from that money alone. Being an artist means that you face life creatively and work at the intersection of the world’s need and your determination. So yes, I’m a full-time artist. And a full-time business owner. And a full-time writer.

–Quinn McDonald is many things. She’s happier that way.

What Gets in the Way is Important

“Look where you want to go,” I often say to my coaching clients. “Without looking at what you want, you won’t recognize it when it’s in front of you.” Sometimes I even say, “Unless you have a dream and know what it looks like, you can’t create it.”

Opposite ends of the day: SunsetDawn by Roshni Kakad, from her blog:

And yet, as a coach, I think that failure can be important to self-reflection, discovery and change. We can learn from failure. The important thing we can learn is “What gets in my way?” Is it poor planning? Is it fear? Is it a feeling of “not enough”? What gets in our way in one part of our life that repeats. And repeating is not something we are easy with.

From childhood on, we are trained to be fixers. To get rid of bad habits, bad friends, bad ideas. “Just say No!” we are told. And fixing isn’t enough. We also have to make mistakes only once. “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” Make the same mistake twice at work, and we hear, “I’ve warned you about this before.’ We not only have to develop excellent memories, but perfect behavior. And that’s why we hate what gets in the way.

Because we are so afraid of repeating our faults, we do three things when we hit what gets in the way:

1. We deny it. My cats, getting older, and having fallen in the pool several times while chasing birds, now pretend they don’t see them. Yesterday a dove waddled five feet in front of my biggest bird-chaser. He turned his head and closed his eyes. See no evil. We do the same thing. By denying what gets in the way, we don’t have to risk falling into the shame pool if we don’t get it right.

2. Run the other way. If we don’t stumble across the things that get in our way, well the, we aren’t tripped up by them. Except navigating routes around our faults make the route longer and more circuitous and doesn’t teach us much except how to avoid and how to run. We don’t like to be uncomfortable, we don’t like to think we didn’t fix that problem.

3. We take an action once and claim the victory. The next time we run across the same problem, we are shocked and appalled. “That was supposed to be fixed!” we fume, and drop back into the shame pit.

Brene Brown, author of The Gifts of Imperfection, tells us that the difference between shame and guilt that shame is about who we are, and guilt is about what we d0.

That definition is what makes it so important to know what gets in our way as we work toward a satisfying life. Most of our mistakes don’t go away, and we gain courage when we notice what gets in the way and wrestle with it. Pema Chodron reminds us that we will face the same problems and character flaws over and over again in our life. The first time I heard her say that, I broke into tears of relief.

What gets in our way is the thing that needs attention. Not once, but every day. It is facing it every day, making choices about how to handle what gets in our way, that makes us courageous, strong and . . .awake to our lives.

-Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach and art journaler who teaches what she knows.


Competitive Peer Pressure

Klout sent me a notice. Klout, if you don’t know, is a program that tells you how much you influence your Twitter followers. The notice warned me that I was “falling behind” some of my “peers” in the popularity numbers they make up.

Mean, but popular, girls.

I thought about this a while, wondering what they expected my reaction to be. After all, who cares about an imaginary score, based on arbitrary ideas of influence? A lot of people, I discovered. Three of my friends encouraged me to take some of the steps suggested to become more influential.There’s a nightclub in Manhattan that won’t let you in unless your score is a certain minimum number.

That baffled me. Why would I want to trade some of my privacy to gather non-existent points to pretend I am influential to my Twitter followers? I already know how popular I am on Twitter by how many people come from Twitter to read the blog by clicking on a link.

That need to be told you are popular appears on Facebook, too. There are any number of posts that give a fact, then a challenge. For example: I’m checking to see how carefully you read Facebook. Share if you read this. I know 99% of my friends won’t do it, but I hope you will.” I have no inclination to share those posts. I feel vaguely bullied by them. But not enough to share them. All they are missing is some dire threat of bad luck if you don’t comply.

FourSquare, the annoying program that posts where you are all the time (I don’t care if you are at Joe’s Gas ‘n’ Grill in Seymor, N.J) because it has made you think your friends (and Twitter followers who live in another state) care. Most likely, they do not, unless you are a new driver and the person who cares is your parent.

Of course you have many close friends on Facebook, and if one of them didn’t post, you would call them and ask if they are OK. No? What? You might not notice? Well, there goes your Klout score. And you’ll never be the Mayor of Farmville on FourSquare. I remember when I felt sorry for the people who thought their Twitter friends meant as much as real friends.  Now real isn’t enough. We’re competing with them for attention.  Me? I’m heading to the studio. I feel productive there.

Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach who helps people with re-invention and change.