What I Learned from Creating One Painting a Day for One Year

In early 2014, I grew frustrated with the lack of time I had for doing visual art. I’m a novelist and run a book coaching business. I gave up an international journalism career to pursue a literary and artistic life, and felt like a child stomping my foot when it came to not having time to do visual art. How could I be an artist if I wasn’t doing art. I only had time on Sundays to get into my art studio (a converted goat shed on the property) and sometimes I was too exhausted even to do that.

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.

Aristotle

I have long lived by Aristotle’s quote. I believe I am what I do every day. If I write every day, I am a writer. If I paint, I am a painter. I felt like I was losing my artistic self I’d fought so hard in my 40s to regain.

And so I had an idea. I would paint one painting a day for one year come rain or shine. I paint on canvas with acrylics, but decided to use watercolor and paper because it would be easier to transport to wherever I happened to be. I would call it Operation 365, one painting a day for one year. I knew the process would also help me to paint fast, and paint hard, to let go of control, and to better find the  uncontrolled artistic voice within.

Little did I know that within a couple of months, I would find a publisher for my first novel, Earth, and I’d have to keep doing the paintings with the added workload of working with Book Managers, Page Designers, Editors and Marketers on the book.

And so I began. I often had only 20 to 30 minutes between clients to come up with an idea for the painting, to sketch it out and to paint it. I’d run between writing clients to an art table and tape the edges of the watercolor paper, pick the first image that came to mind, sketch it out and throw watercolor paint onto it.

Each day, I posted the result on Facebook, no matter how bad it was. I’d go through phases where a week of paintings would be around the same theme, farm animals, life-drawing nudes, botanical illustrations, etc. I did the paintings while on business trips in hotel rooms, while on vacations on the beach, while staying in a cold yurt on the rainy Oregon Coast. I did one the day I moved house. I did them every single day, no matter how utterly exhausted I was.

In April 2015, the year ended. I want to share the 10 things I learned about myself and art during the year-long process.

1. The less time I had, the faster I had to go, the more I was able to let go of control and find my voice.

2. If I focused on how I was really feeling or what was going on in the world right then, the painting would go more quickly and with greater ease. The women falling from the sky in the above video came to me after the plane was shot down over Ukraine. If I stayed in the moment like this, the paintings had real vibrancy.

3. After intense therapy sessions, I would feel really horrible. The paintings always seemed to be more vibrant in this raw, bad-feeling place. In other words, I didn’t have to feel good to do a good painting.

4. Sometimes I would be so exhausted after a 13-hour day, I would’ve rather crawled over sharp rocks than have to come up with a painting and execute it. Every single time, in the midst of the art process, I would feel so much love for my life. When I found visual art, I found my “bliss” and I felt this so deeply — even when I was exhausted beyond reason.

5. Really bad art came out of me when I used my head and my hands to paint. If I sat bent forward and used my brain and tried to be technically good with the hand holding the brush I sucked. When I stood back and let my whole body dance the painting, when I engaged my soul and my heart, every line seemed to be filled with magic, and the painting rejuvenated me.

6. I’ve long had problems with perspective. Halfway through Op365, I was driving and saw horses in front of a house on a hill in the distance. I realized to me the horses were three times the size of the house. I realized that I saw “energy” more than I saw “form”. It transformed my art. I let myself fall into the energy and worry less about form….but what happened was I also got better at perspective in all the human and animal forms I painted.

7. I felt intense pressure as a child to give up art, because a brother and a sister were already the family artists. My style was also much more alternative than theirs — which meant the way they did art was more accepted in mid-Missouri. Painting every day helped me break through all those inner critics from childhood who kept screaming at me that I wasn’t an artist. I realized how much of my power I gave away to other artists, thinking I had no right to be one. You’re one. I’m not. I broke through some of that with Op365.

8. Perfectionism ruins the artistic voice. Painting fast and hard and sloppily helped me get around this boring inner perfectionist, helped me overcome the only bad marks I’d get at school for “painting outside the lines”.

9. If your mind is too much engaged in whether a painting will sell it ruins the creative flow. I wasn’t planning on selling any of the Op365. It wasn’t about money. In the end, a few of them have sold, which makes me giggle with joy. But if I’d painted them for the marketplace, I wouldn’t have let myself explore and I wouldn’t have grown as an artist.

10. The process helped me learn more about what I truly love. Through painting the goats and sheep and other animals around my rural Oregon home, and painting the dogs and cats I have and those of friends, I realized how much I profoundly love animals, which has helped lead my life in other directions. Through doing botanical illustrations during the process, I grew to understand how deeply I connect to plants and has led to a new 30 x 40 foot garden, and plans to learn to can my own vegetables.

Although I was happy to see the year come to an end — I felt like I crawled utterly spent over the finish line — and even though I’m so excited to now have time to spend days, weeks or even months on a single painting, I am finding that I’m going through art withdrawals. Really, though, the only issue I have now is how and where to store more than 300 paintings!

Caroline Allen is a novelist and visual artist. Check out her site at www.carolineallen.com. 

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