An Artist’s Guide to Surviving Major Life Changes

tiny baby feet cradled in his mother's hands

The title of this post is slightly tongue-in-cheek, but I feel that it provides an accurate context for everything that’s happened within the past year. Simply put, I’ve been busy. Since my last post, my wife and I have moved to a new apartment. I was very excited about the move because we would be gaining an extra bedroom and I had lofty plans for an office/studio setup in which I would be able to be more productive with my artwork and this blog. Shortly thereafter, we found out that she was pregnant. Being a first-time dad, I immediately became obsessed with how to generate more income to pay for another hungry mouth and launched into an all-consuming job search. My career is in graphic design and I spent many late nights building and tweaking my portfolio site to show to potential employers. All told, I probably sent my portfolio to over 200 design companies and advertising agencies. By the early Fall months, I began having success in booking lots of interviews until eventually I found the perfect fit and was given an attractive offer. By this time, the baby had grown exponentially and we began attending a myriad of childbirth and infant care classes. My dream of having an office/studio gradually faded as my desk and easel were replaced with a crib, changing table and numerous stuffed animals. Actually, my major dilemma began with my wife’s pregnancy. Most oil paints, mediums, and solvents are toxic and should not be used around babies or pregnant women. The close quarters of a two-bedroom apartment only make the chances of exposure worse. So, with a heavy heart, I packed all of my painting supplies into some large storage totes and put them away for another day. Even using charcoal is somewhat risky due to the amount of dust it produces. Clearly, I had to make some major decisions about how I was going to proceed. To that end, I present what I feel is a solid approach to handling unexpected life changes, whether they be art-related or not.

1. Make a Realistic Assessment of Your Situation

There is no greater foolishness than living in denial. When change occurs, it’s best to step back and take a wide-angle view of your situation in order to understand what you’ve got to work with. So a baby requires a lot of attention, right? Obviously, that’s going to cut a big chunk out of my free time, so I had to face the fact that my output will be slower than in the past. Toxic chemicals are out the window, so no oil painting for a while. Vine charcoal creates a lot of dust in the air, so nuts to that for a while, too. So, until my wife decides to take the baby on an all-day outing, what non-toxic options do I have? I have great respect for watercolors, but they’re really not my thing, and I feel that acrylics don’t really conform to the mission of this blog which is traditional techniques. Therefore I arrived at the decision to study the finer points of the pencil (no pun intended).

2. Set Goals

Simply put, without setting concrete, realistic goals, you’re on the fast-track to failure. Goal-setting speaks to our general approach to daily life. Are you living purposefully or just drifting along, hoping that things will magically work out for you? I hate to burst that bubble, but without hard work, focus and determination it’s very unlikely that you will ever achieve your dreams. One of my goals is to keep this website up and running with fresh content. Even with the changes that have occurred in my life, this is still entirely possible. All I need to do is take my realistic assessment from Step 1 and figure out if I need to re-structure my goals or set sub-goals within the main goal of keeping the site updated. My new sub-goals are:

  1. Consistency with updates – a new post at least every two weeks. This is a realistic time-frame given the other demands for my time, yet still aggressive in continuing my studies.
  2. Focus on using less toxic materials.

Ok, I understand what I want to accomplish. Now I just have to figure out how to make it happen.

3. Develop a Plan of Action

Now that I have tangible and well-structured goals, I can develop a specific plan to accomplish them. This is the great benefit of being specific in the goals you set. It makes it much easier to plot a course toward achievement. I’ve already mentioned that I want to post an article at least once every two weeks. This means that I will need to complete at least one drawing or painting session within that time frame, so I will have to consider time-management. I have to be able to set aside one weeknight or weekend afternoon with minimal distractions. In other words – after the baby goes to sleep, or when my wife can watch him. Secondly, I want to use less toxic materials for a while. I’ve decided that pencil work is the name of the game, so I began looking for some good, in-depth books on pencil technique. Sometimes we artists take the simple pencil for granted and never consider the creative potential locked within it’s tiny wooden barrel. One of the more interesting books I found was the classic “Rendering in Pencil” by Arthur L. Guptill. This 270-page, early 20th Century volume really opened my eyes to the variety of techniques to be found in such a humble tool. I plan on using it as a guide to help me figure out the best way to approach a given subject. On a simpler note, I can just as easily use a soft pencil to continue my Bargue drawings as well, so no progress will be hindered on what’s become the cornerstone of my studies. Well, I’ve taken stock of my situation, set realistic goals and developed an action plan. Now what?

4. Execute, Execute, Execute

Simple enough. Now comes the arduous task of holding true to my word and doing all of this. This is a critical (and especially dangerous) step in the process. It’s easy to use willpower for a few days – maybe even a week – and get started working toward achieving our goals. The hard part is keeping up the momentum after the willpower subsides. The will works much like a muscle, in that it eventually gets tired and needs a break. Therefore, we cannot rely on willpower alone. Self-discipline is what will keep us going when it gets tough. When we don’t feel like studying or doing another boring exercise. When we would much rather watch three mind-numbing hours of late-night television rather than expand our minds or increase our skill. Good thing I’ve got you folks to look after me and keep me on track, eh? This brings me to my last point – accountability. We’re all human. We’re all prone to mistakes. It’s much easier to eat the whole damn bag of chips than to get up at 5 a.m. and go for a run. That said, it’s much easier to have some folks willing to rally around you and encourage you to keep going when you’ve hit a wall. And you will hit a wall if you take on any kind of long-term endeavor. Be sure to have someone you can trust to hold you accountable to carrying out your plan of action, and always remember the good things awaiting you at the end of the long road. Tired as you may be, why stop and settle with the house made of tin when there is a gold mansion waiting for you at the end?

I hope some of these ideas will help you on your own journey. Unfortunately, I’ve got to end this now. The baby is crying…

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