Category: Creativity

Your creative treasure chest

Creative block is a topic I keep revisiting because my thoughts on what it is and how to overcome it are always evolving. Creative block is an umbrella term which includes, but is not limited to, creativity fatigue, artist’s block, and the more well-known writer’s block. I’ve read a lot of articles and blog posts on the topic, from people who have experienced it to varying degrees, to people who write about how to overcome it, and I’m still none the wiser on why it happens. What I have learned is there is no-one-size-fits-all approach to solving such dilemmas in creativity. The reasons for creative blocks are subjective, thus the solutions and/or steps to overcoming blocks will also be subjective. The key might have something to do with our own expectations and the solution might require forgiveness.

Lately I find myself in a period of low production. I hesitate to call my current state a “block” because I didn’t stop creating; my imagination is always active and engaged. What I am lacking is motivation. Creative motivation, at least in my case, is mostly intrinsic. Meaning, external motivations, such as financial or other rewards figure very low on my list of reasons for creating anything. They’re nice, but not necessary.

Once I would have agonised over this low level of production. I would have berated myself for it, told myself I was being lazy or defeatist, which could then have led to weeks of pointless self-flagellation. I feel comfortable admitting to this because I know it’s a common theme when it comes to creative flow and most of us have subjected ourselves to this at least once. These days I know the tap hasn’t been turned off, I’m just refilling the reservoir. What is still daunting, though, is that there’s no timetable. I can’t schedule the downtime or the (hopefully) inevitable reboot of the motivation to produce. Even after decades of being a creative and experiencing fluxes in levels of creativity, I can’t give myself an estimate on when this era will be finished. Will it be days, weeks, or months? All I do know is this as a new permanent state of mind.

What is helping now is redefining what counts as a creative outcome and tempering my expectations of myself. Jotting down ideas and making (even ugly) scribbles is still an act of creativity and one which I am content with for now.

Thinking deeply about not much

I am a deep thinker. I enjoy mulling over things I’ve read, heard or seen. But more than this, I love visualising, inventing and reflecting on scenarios or scenes to write and paint. It was said when I was a child that I had an “over-active imagination” and I was a daydreamer – sometimes by teachers in school reports. “She needs to apply herself” was a common refrain in those reports, but there was also an expectation I’d grow out it. Daydreaming was considered puerile and a waste of time. I think a lot of creatives can identify with this.

I didn’t listen. No matter how many times I got in trouble for looking out the window too long or not hearing all of the question, I would sneak away to the corners of my mind and explore. I still love being in my own head and it serves me well in the downtimes.

I wrote a lot of the ideas down over the years and kept them to remind me what a rich resource the human mind is. In this way the ideas, no matter how good or bad, will always exist in a library of potential. They can never be failures while ever they remain there. So I keep them and they keep me. If I could generate income from all the notions alone . . . well, I’d make a modest income because not all ideas are created equal. Some ideas are scaffolding for much bigger ideas, others are nutriments for embryonic projects. Most, though, are fragments of ideas whose function is really just to beget more ideas and to keep the creative furnace burning. There will be many of broken pieces and castoffs, and that’s ok. I am whiling away the hours doing the important work of procrastinating.

Refreshing your imagination

Sometimes you just need to let it happen and trust that your mind is incubating.

Where once it was widely seen as a character flaw, and even an act of avoiding responsibility, procrastination is now finding a niche for itself in the creative process. Procrastination can be seen as a form of creative incubation. It can give you a much needed distraction from the pressures of a project, and importantly, allow time to digest ideas, or mull over problems and solutions without over-thinking. Procrastination is an important state of mind and one we all know how to do intrinsically. Best of all, you don’t need special tools. You might feel like you’re engaging in fruitless daydreaming, but the mind knows where it goes.

Creative people are creative all the time, even when we don’t feel like we are. I have started to envision creativity as a chest filled with treasures. And it is always full. Frustratingly, ownership of the chest doesn’t guarantee me permanent access to the goodies within. Sometimes the lid closes, sometimes I just see a jumble of seemingly useless glitter, sometimes the jewels just aren’t my cup of tea. But there is always something in there. If I can’t identify the objects or I see nothing that interests me, it’s time to close the lid and go and bake. Or read a book, watch documentaries, make sketchbooks, or spend too many hours on Pinterest. The point is to stop looking so hard. Maybe look at something else for awhile. Procrastinate, refresh the imagination.

The act of envisioning the chest might itself be a pathway to breaking down whatever barriers are holding you back. After all, creativity begets creativity.

Big inspiration from small creative superstars

It’s school holidays, cool and wet and unfortunately we had to go in to a three day lockdown in the first week of the mid-year break. My daughter already had some friends over, so we decided to do an art session to keep our minds off the big world out there. I covered the dining table with paper, gave them all some fairly robust multi-media paper and said go-for-it. Without hesitation or shyness they got to work straight away and churned out pages and pages of creative and colourful pieces. They brought a different kind of big world in to my home and that energy is still here days later.

Here are some of their pieces:

It is a marvel how easily children connect with their creative selves. Generally, they’re not afraid to experiment or make mistakes and they are usually proud of their accomplishments. Watching these three young creatives support and encourage each other was as rewarding as the art they created. They didn’t judge question each others art choices and were ready to share their own knowledge. I was glad to be a facilitator for them; it can only lead to more innovation. Days like these make me glad to be a creator and helped generate some inspiration for myself.

Doodling matters

I have a small confession: I am self-conscious about doodling, but I really want to do it.

I can approach many illustrations or paintings with a degree of confidence, but the thought of making a page of doodles makes me balk. Not because I am prejudice against doodling, but because I was convinced I couldn’t do it; that I didn’t possess the skill or imagination to do even a passible job. It is a shyness I’ve found difficult to overcome.

What do I mean by doodling?

Sunni Brown, a creative superstar and author of The Doodle Revolution, which I am currently enjoying, rejects the dictionary definition of doodling as absent-minded scribbling and defines it as “making spontaneous marks (with your mind and body) to help you think”. This definition suits me better too and does go some way to demystify the act.

As much as I love getting lost in tight drawings, becoming engrossed in the fine details of a complex illustration, they can be rather stressful and time consuming. They require a particular state of mind and while they are challenging, they don’t necessarily challenge me to expand my drawing skills, nor do they utilise my expertise in daydreaming. They can be predicable, which is convenient, but lazy.

I picked up Sunni’s book in order to help me overcome my shyness, but it is also helping me redefine my attitude and expectations about doodling. It’s also helping me discover where some of that shyness came from. Unfortunately I grew up in an era when doodling in your exercise book was considered vandalism. These same adults pushed the notion that drawing was only for those with “natural talent” to be executed at appropriate moments in appropriate formats. Basically, doodles were ugly, unsophisticated and a waste of time. Even if I never adopted that belief about other people doodling, I felt I would be judged for my clumsy scribbles and no one would take me seriously. Fortunately maturity has a way of, not only changing the way you see of yourself, but also the way you feel about how you’re seen by others.

In other words, other people’s judgements aren’t my problem.

So I’m going to doodle and daydream.

I started out doodling just with a black fineliner and a black coloured pencil for shading, but felt I was boxing myself in using only one colour. The idea is to be loose and spontaneous. So I tentatively started adding colour without really caring about the consequences. I hope it will be filled with rainbow flavoured connections by the time I’m done with this notebook.

Kermit would be proud.

Good art days and art expectations

I feel like I have’t had too many good art days lately – those days where reality comes close to meeting expectation; when more things go right than go wrong with a piece of art; where you can put down the pencil, pen or brush and be satisfied, even a little bit happy, with the marks on the paper. This is probably because I generally prefer do a lot of detailed art and am always pushing myself to refine and achieve a certain level of work. But art, like most things in life, can become unfulfilling when the frustrations outweigh the positive outcomes. (I hesitate to use “failure” and “success” here as they are both subjective).

Here’s the wonderful thing about the creative mind though: it’s incredibly flexible. There are no parameters save for the ones we set ourselves. With that in mind, I decided to set aside my very limiting expectations, and just have fun. The only rule was that the process was more important than the outcome.

Below are three postcard-sized bits of art that didn’t turn out as expected, but I like them anyway. Mostly my goal was to test some new watercolour paint, use up some scraps of paper and jog my creativity. I had some idea of what I wanted to achieve, but decided it was best to remain flexible about the outcomes. Initially, the top card was meant to be some sort of watercolour blob creature in watercolour, to which I was going to add pen and ink on top. It ended up being a bunch of weirdly misshapen critters that I didn’t know were there. You have to love the brain’s ability to detect patterns in chaos. I especially like the gorilla on the trike on the far right.

The second card was going to be a blob bee, but ended up being a blob-hippo-rabbit-thing. I can also see a rhino-rabbit-thing. Finally, the card on the left was always meant to be a rainbow lorikeet, inspired by the noisy many around my neighbourhood at the moment. I was going for an even more loose looking blobikeet, so I didn’t expect it to look like a bird, much-less a lorikeet. I don’t mind how any of them turned out; they were never meant to be accurate or detailed, rather just a chance for some creativity that didn’t demand much input from the inner over-thinker.

I had a good art day. It was playful, enjoyable and pleasantly surprising. A good art day happens not when my art expectations are met, although those days are important too, but when I accept the unexpected.

A beautifully illustrated chronicle of now by illustrator Vic Lee. Wow!

I came across The Corona Diary, by illustrator Vic Lee while rummaging around the internet looking for illustrated diaries. The video below is a flip through of the limited edition printed book with commentary by Vic Lee himself, found on his own YouTube channel. I am as much attracted to the typography as to the accompanying illustrations. This graphic-novel-style diary seems to be taking the internet by storm, and well it should. It takes a lot of faith to publish a personal account of such troubling times of uncertainty and division. This looks to be an impressive chronicle of six months of the year 2020.

The book won’t be available in Australia until January 2021. Nevertheless, I will be very keen to get my hands on a copy.

The video link is from Vic Lee’s YouTube channel.

Avebury and Stonehenge

Stonehenge and 3 menhirs from Avebury

Everyone knows about Stonehenge, but less well known is Avebury henge, the largest stone circle in the world. A larger prehistoric circular monument, called Marden Henge, located between Avebury and Stonehenge contains no stones, but has massive earthworks. It is much bigger than Stonehenge and Avebury, and is the largest henge in the British Isles. The Stonehenge and Avebury monuments are part of the same UNESCO World Heritage landscape in Wessex, UK, however Marden Henge sits outside the zone¹.

Monuments in the Wessex landscape date back to at least 5,000 years ago. For good reason, they attract a lot of academic and public attention. They are splendid, there can be little doubt of that, but they are also proof of sophisticated cultural and social systems in Neolithic and Bronze Age Britain. They give some insight in to ceremonial practices, as well human relationships with astronomical features of the sky. They provide key insights in to how ancient groups of people interacted with their landscape and changed it, and they are architecturally and technologically impressive works which would have required a great deal of raw ingenuity as well as resources.

Today we have a lot of evidence and a lot more conjecture as to the original purpose of the monuments. Some of the sites are so conspicuous in the landscape, and so awe-inspiring to behold, even after thousands of years, it is impossible to ignore their importance to prehistoric people. Their construction, use, maintenance, and eventually even their disuse, were all deliberate acts that required significant resources and effort. What a sight to behold the landscape must have been to ancient pilgrims.

The mystery of Stonehenge, Avebury and their associated sites endure, and that makes me happy.

References

  1. https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/archaeology/0/steps/15261

Further reading

Red ochre revolution

It’s impossible to put an exact date on when art emerged in prehistory, especially since we don’t know if the first attempts were on rock, or some other, less enduring medium, such as wood, bone, in the dirt, or even on the skins of the makers. At best we know ancient people were using ochre pigment at least 300,000 years ago and that our species was not the first to take advantage of the vibrant colours offered. We can only guess at how and why they were using it. It is still used today in a number of different ways across the world.

The “Creative Revolution” – fact or fantasy?

Much has been made of the “creative revolution” (known as the Upper Palaeolithic Revolution hypothesis), which seemed to want to trace the origins of creativity to a single location in place and time, namely Europe 40,000-45,000 years ago. But looking beyond Europe we can now see that migrating groups of humans inherited the creative spark from much older ancestors, perhaps in a land far away. For example, the First Australian’s were using ochre 65,000 years ago according to recent evidence. By the time we see the earliest evidence of rock art in Australia some 28,000 years ago, it was already developed and distinct, suggesting it was not a young practice even then. Most of the earliest rock art in Australia that survives are petroglyphs (engravings in rock) and these are notoriously difficult to accurately date. Nevertheless, I don’t think it is such a giant leap to say the First Australian’s were making art before they arrived in Australia.

In Indonesia, the oldest known figurative art is about 44,000 years old (hand stencils discovered there could be as old as 52,000 years). In Spain, the oldest art is about 64,000 years old and might have been made by Neandertal’s. In a cave in South Africa, modern humans were creating art on stones of silcrete about 73,000 years ago, and engraving lines in to pieces of ochre at least 100,000 years ago, possibly much earlier. Neandertal’s were using ochre pigment in the Netherlands about 250,000 years ago and in Olorgesailie in East Africa, circa 307,000 years ago, early humans, possibly very early Homo sapiens, were using red and black pigment.

Even if the very first artistic work was discovered and it was recognised as such, there would be little agreement on its meaning or its significance. We might not be able to date it reliably or associate it with one particular species of hominin. Many might not even accept it as the first art. Some will refuse to give up the search for the elusive piece of indisputable evidence of the beginnings of symbolic behaviour. All we do know now, is the prehistory of art and the origins of the human creative mind is much older than previously thought and the idea of a creative revolution is becoming less tenable. No one single group of people can claim to be more related to the first artists. All humans are creative and we have been for a very long time.

Note: Most of the dates listed are based on confirmed dates using reliable dating techniques. Many more ancient sites exist than I haven’t listed, but their dates are either controversial or the exact dates are not able to be reliably established.


Further reading/references

Prehistoric use of Ochre

Australian Rock Art of the Pleistocene

A Journey to the Oldest Cave Paintings in the World

A Radical New Theory About the Origins of Art

Great Southern Land

I acknowledge the traditional custodians of country throughout Australia and pay my respects to their elders, past and present, and extend my respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples today.

I’ve been spending quite a bit of time re-acquainting myself with, and journaling about, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural history. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are part of diverse and complex cultural histories that span at least 65,000 years. I could fill a few sketchbooks with the amount of cultural evidence that exists, but sharing all of it would feel like a trespass on what is often sacred, personal and private – not to mention a massive undertaking, since Aboriginal people across Australia were, and continue to be, culturally and linguistically diverse within and across regions. Instead, I’ve chosen to share three pages of some of the oldest evidence for human habitation in Australia. By no means is this exhaustive, and some things are not included out of respect. For example, I decided not to include sketches of human remains, such as Mungo Man, who has been the subject of much debate, and whose removal from his ancestral home 40 years ago caused distress to local Aboriginal communities. Even though I was trained in forensic anthropology, and I was happy studying old bones during my studies, I am aware of the ethical issues of removing ancient human remains from burial sites. I believe the consideration of indigenous communities needs and wishes should take priority over scientific knowledge.

Point of interest: Mungo Man’s remains were returned to his ancestral home for reburial in 2017 in a casket made from 8,000 year old red gum wood.

Further reading: Two of my university text books from almost two decades ago.

Playing with my favourite pen and subject

Claudia Nice is the first artist that inspired me try working with pen and ink with several books, including Drawing in Pen and Ink. I like to engage fully with what I’m doing and ink requires a level of commitment that appeals to my nature. I like detail and I enjoy how tight and clear I can get with ink. Which is probably why it is a common medium for scientific illustrators, especially botanical. But pen and ink can also be very flexible. True, you can’t rub it out once its on the page, but that doesn’t matter if you’re sketching loose drawings for practice or wanting to capture the shape of a species of tree. Ink also plays nice with a lot of other mediums, especially watercolour. Claudia Nice has also written many books on creating texture with pen and ink, and watercolour.

European silver fir – Abies Alba

The Lamy Joy, pictured above, is my favourite tool for sketching in pen and ink. The nib glides smoothly across the paper, depositing ink evenly and the tapered style feels good in the hand. I use fountain pens for 80% of the inked artwork I create. I use an ink converter, with De Atramentis Archival black ink. I have had no problems with it drying it our clogging the pen.

Make ink and see what happens

In this day and age computers are kind of hard to avoid. I saw my first computer when I was about nine years old. It was a Commodore 64. In those days all you could do was type and print using a dot matrix printer and play rudimentary games. Even then I knew I wanted to write and could see the benefit of typed notes, because I hated my own handwriting. At 12 I commandeered my mother’s typewriter and started hammering out page after page of stories. By 16 I had my first computer, which was given to me by my uncle because he knew I wanted to be a writer and my current electric typewriter had kicked the bucket. It was a time when home computers were still relatively rare so I felt pretty grown up. The computer was bootable from a compact floppy disc and I remember having to insert one disc to boot the operating system and a second which contained all my files. I only had a finite number of space for saving the screeds of writing I was doing every day after school. I was in heaven. Most of the time I would scribble out notes on paper in my own shorthand scrawl, and then type them in long form, checking for spelling and grammar as I went. I have never been without a computer since, but I always kept a free-form notebook too. I now realise those notebooks were where the real magic was, not the pages of printed matter. My notebooks were dogeared, messy and organic, with its pasted clippings, and folded and half torn pages. Nevertheless, at the time I was embarrassed by them and kept them to myself; eventually I threw almost all of them out. Whatever remains is still hidden in boxes of ephemera in the garage.

This way of working served me well when I was younger – I could handwrite for extended periods of time without much fatigue, and most of my essay’s for university were handwritten before they were typed. After graduation I worked as an editor and proofreader for a medical research centre, where everything was digital. From then on it was easier to forgo the notebook and surrender to the speed and efficiency of the computer. I suppose that is one of the computer’s greatest attractions. Unfortunately, quick and easy isn’t necessarily creativity’s best friend, complexity is.

The digital world can be a trap if we let it.

It was only when I took up art that I returned to hard copy notebooks and sketchbooks and rediscovered the magic of the pen. I still don’t keep as many handwritten notebooks as I used to, though I carry a small one with me in my handbag and keep one on my desk for story notes. Nowadays I rarely use paper for doing drafting bigger art pieces. I use Procreate first or a similar app because it saves on a lot of paper and for the very appealing undo button. I keep gigabytes of information in databases, folders and storage devices, all easily searchable and accessible with a few clicks. Admittedly that is one of the greatest appeals of having computers – no untidy filing cabinets or masses of paper, and everything is at your finger tips. It’s all very easy and convenient, but I have to admit, all those files and folders and fancy apps don’t spark joy quite like a book of hand-drawn scribbles or handwritten notes. I’m not an either/or kind of person and believe in balancing digital and analogue, but sometimes I need to rest one and favour the other. This week I decided to rest the computer and show up with my pens and pencils to my notebooks and sketchbooks. Somehow brainstorming feels more organic and thus more gratifying with a pen. It’s a good way to refresh the creative reservoir.

When you have a piece of paper and a pen/pencil and your imagination, you have everything you need. It’s just the three of you. No distractions, no complications, nothing to click. Just make ink and see what happens.