Planning for Flow

In his classic work Flow – The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains the importance of having flow experiences in our lives. These are experiences when we are so involved with what we are doing that we seem to lose track of time and even of ourselves. We leave the cares and worries of our life behind and become engage with the activity we are doing.

Much has been said about flow and artists. Many artists do their best work when they are in flow. This may be true but I am one artist that often finds it hard to get into flow. I am intrigued to read what Csikszentmihalyi has to say about artists and flow.

“The goals of an activity are not always as clear as those of tennis, and the feedback is often more ambiguous that the simple “I am not falling” information processed by the climber. A composer of music, for instance, may know that he wishes to write a song, or a flute concerto, but other that that, his goals are usually vague. And how does he know whether the notes he is writing down are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’? The same situation holds true for the artist painting a picture, and for all activities that are creative or open-ended in nature. But these are all exceptions that prove the rule: unless a person learns to set goals and to recognize and gauge feedback in such activities, she will not enjoy them.” 1

That puts a different bent on the idea of art and flow. According to Csikszentmihalyi, it can be more difficult for artists to get into flow than for other people engaging in physical activities such as playing a sport or rock climbing. He includes reading, which is not a physical activity, as flow because it has clear cut goals and immediate feedback.

Csikszentmihalyi is saying that in order for creativity to be a flow activity, artists need to set clear short-term goals which provide them with immediate feedback. “I think I’ll paint a picture today” may not be as affective as having clear-cut steps to the process of painting a picture.

Here is a list of things a painter might consider:

      1. Decide on my subject
      2. Gather reference material
      3. Gather my supplies
      4. Prepare my ground
      5. Develop design
      6. Decide on values
      7. Chose my colour palette.
      8. Decide the steps for painting this subject

“But this really puts a damper on spontaneity”, you might say. Then ask yourself, “How often has a completely spontaneous work really turned out?” Even fully abstracted paintings require thought in the area of what supplies to use, what ground to use, the design, values and colours to use. So even what may in the end seem spontaneous is dependent on some planning.

The point here is not so much that everything has to be planned but rather that, by setting out small steps to accomplish, we set up a goal/feedback system that will help us to derive more pleasure out of what we are doing.

Once the painting part starts, perhaps taking photos of the painting at the end of each painting session may provide some feedback that is enjoyable and valuable for future work. It is something to think about.

1. page 55 Flow – The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Your Feelings Will Change

Happy New Year to my readers and all the creative people who stop in to read my blog.

It is overcast and snowing here in Edmonton and although we had beautiful, moderate weather leading up to and through the holiday season, it looks like winter is ready to set in.  How easy it is to forget the mild, sunny days when things deteriorate.  Change is always happening.  Kelly McGonigal said that in her opening statements of her book, “The Neuroscience of Change.”  Because change is always happening, then even this nasty weather will change.  It may get worse but it may just as likely get better.  All we know is that it will change.

Maybe you have just finished up a great year with your creative practise.  You set yourself some goals and you reached many of them.  You are feeling really good about the year and looking forward to a new year and all you will accomplish in this year.  Take the time to savour those positive feelings.  This is important because we are often so goal oriented that when we reach our goals we don’t take time to savour that good feeling but are quickly on to the next goal.  I agree that to really feel fulfilled we will find it helpful to be more focused on the journey than the goal.  However, in order to feel successful we also need to reach some of our goals.  If we aren’t reaching our goals, our goals may be too unachievable or too broad.

Today we may feel happy or sad about what happened last year.  If you are happy, take time to enjoy those happy feelings.  If you are sad, that is okay too.  We all feel sad or discouraged at times.  These feelings, just like the happy ones will change with time.  Change is always happening particularly when it comes to our feelings…and the weather!

Creativity Coaching – Art and Flow

Finding Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a wonderful book that I am reading through a second time just to get a better grasp on the ideas that are presented. Although written 20 years ago the book is still relevant today. Chicksentmehi is a social psychologist who coined the term “flow”, a concept that is important to all creative people.

“Flow tends to occur when a person’s skill are fully involved in overcoming a challenge that is just about manageable. If challenges are too high one gets frustrated, then worried and eventually anxious. If challenges are too low relative to one’s skills one gets relaxed, then bored. If both challenges and skills are perceived to be low, one gets to feel apathetic. But when high challenges are matched with high skills, then the deep involvement that sets flow apart from ordinary life is likely to occur.” (Finding Flow p.30)

Csikszentmihalyi examines how we use our leisure time, differentiating active leisure from passive leisure. Passive leisure is doing things like watching TV, reading shallow books, gambling, drinking, etc. Active leisure involves choosing activities that are more likely to get you into flow such as cooking, exercise, fixing things, painting, learning, practising a musical instrument, etc. If active leisure brings us more satisfaction why do we often choose passive leisure over active leisure?

After a busy day or when we are feeling tired it is easier to choose passive leisure. Active leisure, on the other hand usually requires some sort of effort to get started. We may have to gather supplies, get out tools, get to another location, change clothes or similar preparations before we can begin our activity. We need to be willing to invest some energy into this preparation time before we can get into the more valuable activity we want to do.

Interestingly, once we are engaged in our chosen activity, we don’t necessarily feel happier, or at least no more happier than when we are busy with passive leisure. However once we are finished the activity we are more likely to feel fulfilled or proud of our efforts if we engaged in active leisure.

I certainly have experienced that need to put energy into getting over the threshold to start painting. I was away for a week at my daughter’s wedding in Mexico and upon returning found my painting desk covered with various things tossed there as I was busy packing. The mess on my desk needed to be dealt with before I could get to  painting. It just seemed easier to check my email or go shopping for Christmas than to face that mess. Yet in order to do paint I had to get over that threshold. Eventually I got my desk cleared off, finished and framed a painting and got ready to resume another one. Active leisure takes more energy to engage in but is far more fulfilling in the end.

The same ideas apply if your creative practise is also your full time job. You may find yourself procrastinating and putting off getting down to tackling that tricky part of your painting or your novel because it requires getting over the threshold of doing the necessary preparations to move forward with the work. If you view this as normal and recognize it for what it is, you may be more willing to put that little bit of effort into getting over the threshold. You then may find yourself rewarded with a period of flow when you are working at your best, using your considerable skills to meet the challenges of your creative practise.

A Tribute to an Artist

Today I pause to pay tribute to a friend and artist who died on Saturday, November 22, 2014. Carla was not yet 60, still in the prime of her creative life. She had many artistic plans, hopes and dreams and things she wanted to accomplish. All that has been cut short and will now not be realized.

However, what Carla leaves behind may be even more important than what she had hoped to accomplish in the future. She was an active member of several local art clubs. But Carla was never a just a member. Rather she used her considerable stills in organization and financial expertise to take on the jobs such as treasurer and grant proposal chair for these art groups. Often jobs that are difficult to fill, especially among artists, Carla would make sure that all the details were in order and documented in a timely way. She really was on top of things and even had the knowledge to wisely invest club endowments, even through these days of low interest rates, so that the interest could be used for scholarships.

More than that, Carla knew how to be a good friend. She was interested in other people in general and in their artistic journey in particular. Not one to be an extravert, she still had a knack for seeking out newcomers; finding out about their art and making them feel welcome. She also had the ability to size up a difficult or controversial situation and bring kindness and gentleness to it.

Carla also leaves behind a sizable body of work, much of which was sold and some of which has been collected by the city in which she lived. Her art was something she truly loved to do and she poured herself into it. Her paintings speak of her love for bold colors, nature and landscape.

Her interest in and the energy she put into the Artist Run Studio she belonged to has helped to ground that endeavor and to establish it in the community as a valuable asset. Her relationships with many of the other artists were longstanding and important to her.

I will miss Carla so very much; for her art, for her contributions but mostly for the genuine caring person that she was. She knew how to love deeply and in return she was deeply loved.

Peace Can’t Be Taken for Granted

Today we remember those around the world who have fought in wars to protect our freedom here in Canada. My paternal grandfather, Jack Harrowby Harrow fought for England in WWI and my father, Peter Gorden Harrow fought for Canada in WWII. Both were fortunate to have returned home safely to live out their lives in Canada.

As I listen to the Remembrance Day Ceremonies on the radio I think about the many Canadian War Artists who documented the various wars Canada has participated in. I want to highlight two such artists mostly because both have died within the last two year.

Molly Lamb Bobak was born in 1922 and died just this year (2014) in March. She was a Canadian teacher, writer, print maker and oil and watercolour painter. She joined the Canadian Women’s Army Corp (CWAC) in 1942 and became the first Canadian woman appointed as official war-artist and sent overseas to document Canada’s war effort, particularly the work of the CWAC. She served in that role from 1945 to 1946. Molly with her new husband, the artist Bruno Bobak, returned to Canada after the war and taught part-time at the Vancouver School of Art and the University of British Columbia as she raised her family. In 1960 she moved with her family to Fredericton, NB where she continued to teach and paint. Of the 32 official war artists in World War II, she was the last surviving member.

David Alexander Colville was born in 1920 in Toronto, ON. The family later lived in St. Catharines, and then Amherst, NS. In 1942 he enlisted in the Canadian Army in the infantry. He painted in Yorkshire and took part in the Royal Canadian Navy’s landings in southern France. Because he was a fine-arts student, he was made a war artist in May 1944. After the war Colville did a painting call “Infantry at Nilmegen” which represents a platoon of Canadian Soldiers marching along both sides of a road. It is now in the Canadian War Museum. In the painting Colville portrays both heroism and enduring persistence in the difficult conditions of war which included constant danger. The face of the first man in the painting is a portrait of Colville’s father. Alex Colville died in July 2013 in his home in Wolfville, NS at the age of 92. He was the second last surviving member of the 32 official war artists in WWII.

The concept of being a war artist seems so very outdated today in our world of twitter and social media where photos and commentary on world events are broadcast immediately around the world into our phones and tablets. Yet the paintings done by these war artists are an important part of our history and often the viewer connects with the events portrayed in paintings in a very emotional way.

Today we celebrate the relative peace we have enjoyed in Canada over the last 70 years. Neither my husband nor my son haven been called to fight in a war on behalf of Canada. But many of our Canadian soldiers have continued to fight on our behalf and some have given their lives for our freedom. Today may we celebrate peace and remember that peace is not a given in our lives. Peace can’t be taken for granted.

Get Started Today!

This little Downy Woodpecker stopped by our suet feeder at our lake property.

This little Downy Woodpecker stopped by our suet feeder at our lake property.

As a Creativity Coach I help artists get back to doing the things they love to do.  If you are not doing your creative practice regularly you might try experimenting with what it feels like to do so. Here are some ideas to help you get started.

  • Even though you are busy, making a small commitment, even just 30 minutes three times a week, can have a huge impact on what you create and how your feel.
  • First thing in the morning is a great time but anytime that works for you is fine. Just make sure you schedule it into your day timer or smart phone. It would be even better if you set an alarm to remind yourself that it is time to stop and do your creative practice. And then, no excuses!
  • If you haven’t done your creative practice for a while, don’t be surprised if you have to do some preparation, cleaning up your work space and getting out supplies. Maybe you can do that the evening before so you are ready to do your creative practice at the time you have scheduled. You are less likely to be frustrated if you can jump right into your work.
  • Jump right into the hard part. If you have been putting off your creative practice because you are stumped or have come to a difficult part, now is the time to take the bull by the horns. All you have in front of you is a problem to be solved. If you do something so that you can’t salvage the work, is that any worse than never finishing the work? I don’t think so.
  • If you really mess things up, try to figure out what you learned from your errors. As Tall-Ben-Shahar says in his Positive Psychology course at Harvard, ”Learn to Fail or Fail to Learn”.
  • Most of all have FUN. Don’t take the work too seriously or yourself too seriously.
  • And get started TODAY!


Nurture Your Creativity!

Nurture Yourself!


It Makes All the Difference in my Day

One of many reference photos for paintings I took in Penticton, BC in May.

I’ve been really busy these last two months. I’ve noticed in the last couple of weeks that I have been feeling dissatisfied with my life. I really don’t like rushing from one activity to the next without time to pause and reflect. I’ve even been doing stuff I like to do, like babysitting my granddaughter, working on a course for CCA certification, applying for grants, taking in the fall harvest, visiting my Mom in Calgary; things like that. What has really been missing is my creative practice. I still did some framing and getting ready for a show but I wasn’t doing my painting regularly.

Last Saturday I took myself to a coffee shop to do some writing. I found myself wandering off into my dissatisfaction and took some time to figure out what was really bothering me. Once I had identified the problem I also recognized that this was all under my control. So I set aside time this week to work on a painting first thing each morning, before I get busy with all the other things I am doing. No matter how many things I had on my to-do list, I committed to doing my creative practice first thing. And what a difference it makes in my day!

To be engaged in the creative process and lose myself in the painting and what it needs is refreshing and emotionally satisfying. Once I have painted for a while, I feel happy and throughout the day continue to engage with the painting at times when I am in my studio, looking at it from different angles and distances, and analyzing what needs to be done next. Even though I might not get back to actually painting that day, knowing I will be able to the next morning leaves me with a feeling that all is well.

Somehow, once I have painted, the rest of the day falls into place and I feel like I accomplish more because I am more energized. Painting helps me slow down and be less focused on outcome and more focused on the moment by moment process of each activity I am involved in. Energy and focus is a great combination to bring into the necessary activities of the day.

If you are not doing your creative practice regularly you might try experimenting with what it feels like to do so. I’ll give you some tips on how to get started in my next blog post.


Nurture Your Creativity!

Nurture Yourself!

Practise or Work – Which Do You Do?

In the past I have been referring to us creatives as doing our creative work. This is a perfectly fine term for what we do – painting, sculpting, writing, carving, welding, gardening or whatever it is you do to exercise your creativity. But lately I’ve been exploring the use of the term creative practice.

Creative work is a good term because it implies a certain seriousness about what we are doing. It is work. It takes effort and it requires a commitment. We may take ourselves more seriously when we envision what we are doing as work. It certainly takes mental work. In fact, it can be difficult to do creative work for many hours in a row without a break. Our brains consume large amounts of glucose as we think about what we are doing and respond to the problems we encounter. We can be really tired after a day of Creative work. The word work is often equated with receiving money so if you are doing your creative work as a business or to sell your creations, maybe you like the word work.

Creative practice on the other hand has a ring of being a little less daunting. Practicing the piano may take a lot of energy but it is different from the work of preforming. If we see ourselves as practicing our creativity it takes away some of the intensity and may allow us to feel freer to explore and try new things. Creative practice, like creative work also suggests regular commitment. We may find that creative practice is more intrinsically rewarding to us. There is an element of fun to practice as well as a sense of striving to improve our skills. I equate practice with learning, growing and gaining confidence.

I think I’m going to go with Creative practice. Now it’s time to go and do some!

Camera Disaster


The sky really was this colour!  No filter needed.

The sky really was this colour!

Disaster hit last week when I placed my camera on a chair, turned around and heard a crash. My telephoto lens had partly broken away from the camera looking for all the world like a scene in a Bugs Bunny cartoon with springs and broken parts flying off. At that moment my camera became my priority so I dropped what I was doing and rushed over to Don’s Phone to have the damage assessed. The final verdict – Camera seems to be okay. Lens is toast. Yes, I can order a new one, yes at least the camera is fine, yes I was really upset. The real problem is what it costs to replace the lens and restore what I had before the accident.

It is now three days later and I am at our lake property enjoying a golden fall day.  The Black-capped Chickadees are everywhere, along with Red and White-Breasted Nuthatches and Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers.  Today the cost of a new lens doesn’t matters as much as not having a telephoto lens to capture those ethereal Chickadees. Why is that important to me? I have hundreds of photos of chickadees that are waiting to be painted. In many ways, taking photos engages me with my environment. It allows me to look closer, to feel the pulse of nature at a different level. It gives me a goal to strive for – the perfect reference photo. Yet as I gaze up through the yellow leaves and am awed by the colour of the sky, I realize there is value in engaging with the bigger picture, the entire view, not just what I can focus on with my telephoto lens. That’s why painting outside on a day like today brings a freshness to my painting practice that is hard to capture in the studio. We have good days and we have bad days. This is definitely a good day.

Painting Outdoors in September

It is a Saturday in September. I find myself at our lake property surrounded by golden leaves and frantic Black-capped Chickadee. The Chickadees are fighting for time at the feeder to gorge themselves on black oil sunflower seeds. They are arriving about every four seconds, calling and flitting in the aspen saplings and mature poplars that create the backdrop for the feeder.

It is hard for me to concentrate on what I am trying to do. I am getting ready to do a demonstration at a local cultural day event this coming weekend. I have been working in acrylics for the last six months but return to watercolour for this demo. Watercolour is my ‘comfort‘ medium, one in which I have some hard-earned skills. It is just plain easier for me. Still, with either a Chickadee or falling leaf vying for my attention, my concentration is constantly being interrupted. A Chickadee lands close by and I grab my camera.

Now back to my painting, I’m not exactly “plein air” painting although the tern means “painting in the outdoor daylight.” I’m just not painting a scene in front of me. I am working from a reference of a Black-capped Chickadee. I could be doing that in my studio yet, painting outdoors just feels so good. The sun shines on my back and warms me. The leaves flutter down on the table. Colours look more fresh and vibrant. I am surrounded by the colours I’m using in my painting. If only every painting day could be like this!

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