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Filling the Well: How to Find Inspiration When There’s No Time to Create

During my years of working full time and painting when I could, I noticed that my skills kept improving even when I hadn’t picked up a paint brush for awhile. To my great relief, I was disproving the idea that improvement comes only with steady practice.

I pondered my habits to understand why this was the case, and realized that even when I’m not painting, I function in the world as an artist—taking in colors, feelings, and information to store in an inner reservoir. Then unconsciously, I tap this inner well as I paint and draw.

For instance, I love trees and light, but I struggled with greens when learning to paint (and still do). Perhaps that’s why I still remember one autumn afternoon in particular as I was driving home from work on a narrow country road. . . the sun was low in the sky, and shadows were everywhere. Suddenly, as I rounded a curve, peach-colored sunlight slashed across the road and struck the deep green of fir trees before disappearing into the shade.

The image lasted only a moment, but it took my breath away and challenged me. My imagination started playing with ideas for how to capture the richness of those colors using paint on canvas.

This type of experience happened “behind the scenes” nearly every day. I soon realized that, like Olympic athletes who practice their entire routine in their mind’s eye, I was practicing my painting skills as I moved through my daily life.

As an artist, getting the supplies I need for my work involves more than buying brushes, paint, canvas. I have to make sure the inner well is also full.

The books and magazines I read, the movies I watch, the conversations I engage in, where I choose to spend my time, and how I choose to look at my environment are all parts of filling myself with good material. This rich resource is what I tap when I finally pick up my brush.

Now that I know this, I must pay attention to what I feed myself visually and intellectually. Horror and violence don’t support the powerful, harmonious experience that I love to feel while painting.

A good painting session is fed with good observation (“soft looking” as I’ve heard it described) as well as reading of the lives and habits of successful artists and looking at art that capture qualities I aim for in my own work.

I may find myself thinking about Renoir’s brushstrokes, the beautiful surface of Michael Workman’s paintings; the delicate blue eggs I bought at the farmer’s market, or my white seashell collection. All of these are nonverbal ways of asking myself good questions and nourishing my inner artist, even when I’m not in the studio.

So what are your habits as an artist?

I recommend looking for the beauty around you in the simplest moments. Read about others who are ahead of you on their artistic journey and let them help light your way. Look at paintings that capture qualities you want to incorporate into your own work.

Study the difference between “copying” another artist’s work, and absorbing the essence of what inspires you about their work—and always aim for that essence.

Fill yourself with a steady diet of the best, and then when you’re able. . . begin the work, the play, the joy of making art.

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A recent drive to the mountains took me through some awe-inspiring territory.

I saw everything you'd expect: blue skies with dramatic thunderheads promising later rains; sweeping valleys dotted with horses, cattle and freshly cut hay; and ever-taller trees the further north I drove. The mountains themselves layered back into purples and blues for hundreds of miles.

What I. . . read more

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