Cultivating the Creative Habit

Being creative is hard, being creative every day is a near impossible thing. I can sit in front of my canvas for what seems like hours unable to begin, completely distracted by the little things in life that we all have to deal with. Recently, I’ve been thinking about what I do (and can do better) to keep my mind in a good place artistically and not have to wait for the eureka moment of inspiration to hit before I decide to pull out my box of paints. I would like to share the idea that both creativity and our attentiveness are both finite resources that we as artists must spend carefully. I’ve never liked the idea that Creativity is a trait that only those with natural talent possess, rather it comes from a combination of hard work and the desire to improve. The following are some of the things that I do to develop Creativity as a habit.

Cobalt by Dustin Adamson
Oil on Panel – 2020

Source book

With platforms like Google and Instagram, it is so easy to tumble down the rabbit hole and be pulled in so many different directions creatively that I can feel distracted for hours. I think this is because my attention span is a finite resource that I can easily exhaust by viewing art digitally. 

Since I have a short attention span when it comes to anything digital, I find that having something tangible is the best way to focus myself. With that in mind, one of the first steps of any project is the creation of a source book; a collection of images that inspire me. I search for inspiring images that I can print a hardcopy of and collate into different binders that fit different themes and ideas that correspond to different projects. The process of organizing images into different binders helps me to think about what I want each project to say and the best way to express that.

In a Brown Study by Dustin Adamson
Oil on Panel – 2020

Beginning the Workday

Creativity is the artist’s resource and it requires careful nurturing and cultivation, the same as any other skill would need. Every day I look forward to picking up my palette and setting out my paints, acclimating to the beautiful colors and the intoxicating smell of the linseed oil. I mix my value string for the day before each session and that moment alone is what helps me slough off the distracting thoughts of the day and put myself in a good place mentally for the rigors of painting. Thinking of creativity as a habit, beginning the workday with a simple routine is a good way to get the ball rolling.

Example of a color study for an interior, 2019

Color Studies

Painting can be a hard and complicated process, so at every turn, I try to simplify that process. For myself, painting becomes difficult when I get to the middle stages of the project without having a clear idea about what I want the finished work to look like. This is when I start to paint in circles and rely on tricks to get out of it like more chroma or more texture, sometimes it works but sometimes it doesn’t. All I know is that this is the point when I realize if a work will be scrapped completely or be deserving of a frame.

One of the ways that I keep from stalling during the midgame is I make myself a roadmap. Starting off each project with a color study allows me to explore different color relationships and compositions in a very experimental and immediate way. It hurts way less to toss a failed color study on oil paper than an 18×24 inch canvas. The study is not about drawing well or putting any detail into it, it is about trying to distill what the artist sees into a composition. When things do go awry, and in my experience, there will always be those moments, I can always look back to my studies and see what jumped out to me about why I chose this subject to paint.

Example of the artist’s value string

Value String

After developing a color study, I have a general idea about how to mix my value string, a single local color that is then broken down into incremental values from light to dark. In my personal experience, having a value string removes the obstacles between observation of nature and my brush gliding along the canvas. If I know that the project I’m working on will take a while to finish, I will sometimes mix a large amount of each value and store them in empty paint tubes that you can get from the art store, this really saves on time and waste.

Ruminations by Dustin Adamson
Oil on Linen – 2018

No matter how things are going in your day to day life, maintaining the habit of creativity will help keep you anchored. Being kind to yourself and your finite creative and attention resources will truly help you from being pulled in a thousand different directions while fraying at the seams. You don’t have to do any of the previous things to be a good painter, rather having a simple pre-painting ritual like listening to music and drinking a cup of coffee works wonders if it clears your mind of the distractions and gets you focused on the canvas in front of you and the brushes in your hand. 

Upcoming OPA Events

30th Annual National Juried Exhibition 30th Annual National Juried Exhibition
The Thirtieth National Exhibition and Convention will be hosted by the California Center for the Arts, Escondido Museum, located in Escondido, California, from April 9 through May 16, 2021. Learn More!
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