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Not knowing WHAT to draw or paint is one of the biggest obstacles for an artist. Once you know what your subject will be, that turns on the ignition and begins your journey. In order to get over that indecisive hurdle (find your keys), I use these 6 different tools.

1-I Keep an ongoing list of themes or projects I wish to add to my portfolio: a holiday card, a portrait of my daughter, a wall art for my bathroom. I also keep a digital file of photographs I’ve taken that I feel would make great paintings. Anytime I feel I’m at a loss, I refer to my list and go through my “Things to Paint” picture folder and pick whatever jumps out at me that day.

2-I Sketch everyday. I keep multiple sketchbooks. Some artists choose to keep one at a time to document their progress chronologically. That’s a really great way to do it too. However, I have a couple sketchbooks I use for my really nice drawings or paintings when I know I’m going to spend a lot of time on that page. Every page of those sketchbooks are “shareable”. I also have a few sketchbooks of different sizes for my brainstorming, “ugly” drawings. I call them ugly not because I’m insecure, but because that word allows me not to be so careful with jotting down my thoughts. It’s quick little bursts of brain dumping, knowing I’m not showing those drawings to anyone else. Sorry FB friends. They are strictly to sway my brain back and forth out of the mud and get those wheels turning and functional. These sketchbooks are also where most of my project seeds are sewn. So when I am faced with a blank page and don’t know which project to start, I flip through my ugly drawings and there’s usually a drawing in there ready for it’s makeover. It usually begins with, “Ohhhh Yeahhhhhh, I forgot about this one!”

3-I embrace wait times. Inspiration is all around. Waiting at the DMV for my daughter’s permit test, waiting at an airport for a flight, waiting for my 80 year old Mom during her social hour at Dr. Balian’s office exchanging pain, falling and illness stories with all her friends in the waiting room, waiting to talk to my kids’ teachers or the Principal (always for good things, of course…uhum, anyways…).People usually become motionless in waiting areas (they are usually on their phones or depressed about waiting), thus becoming the perfect models for your figure studies.

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Waiting for my coffee
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Waiting for my daughter’s ballet class
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Waiting for a field trip group to move on so I can look at this painting at the Huntington Library.

4- I go outside and become a tourist in my neighborhood. I take my view finder with me and look for compositions through it. It’s amazing how nature has a way of inspiring me. A beautiful succulent plant, all the various trees and flowers in different stages of bloom, birds sitting on wires, chirping about their day (laughing at the artist holding up a view finder), a cute lawn decoration, the dogs of the neighborhood greeting you the same way every time (scaring the bejeezus out of you as they charge towards you behind their gate), beautiful buildings and architecture. Every bit of it is inspiration. All you have to do is look up (or down).

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The result of looking outside my window on a rainy day
Oil sticks
The sky

5- I draw what’s in front of me: my coffee cup, my dog, my art materials, the food on my plate (this one gets difficult because I have a problem looking at food without taking an active part in its main purpose), my shoes, patio chairs, fruit, the tile in my kitchen. Anything you draw is still a drawing.

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My morning coffee
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My favorite art materials
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Caricature of our Christmas tree.
My snack

6- Lastly, I draw shapes. It’s like geometry class that doesn’t end with “kill me now.” I fill my page with organic shapes and 9 times out of 10, they all end up reminding me of something which prompts a new idea. It’s kind of like an ink blot test. What do you see?

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Organic shapes that turned into characters.

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Bottom line is this. If drawing and painting makes your cheeks red and heart beat faster, that is your cue that you must do it more often. Listen to your body’s responses. In order to improve your skills and satisfy your artistic urges and cravings, you need to practice creating EVERY DAY. One of my very wise instructors at Art Center College of Design, Harry Carmean once said, “you have to do 3000 bad drawings before you do your first great drawing.” Every time I was disappointed with the outcome of a drawing, he would say, “hey, there’s one more towards your 3000!” Art is the journey, not the destination. It’s not about getting to drawing number 3001. It’s not about a drawing being bad or good, ugly or pretty. It’s about the excitement you feel during the process. It’s what makes you get up early when you’re not a morning person or doesn’t allow you to sleep when you’re 43 and usually can’t keep your eyes open past 10:01 pm. It’s what boils your blood and zones out the rest of the world for a while (without feeling guilty) and makes you hum to all the songs you love from the 80’s over and over again without minding. It’s a craving that doesn’t make you gain weight and you can feed it all you want!!! It’s what you do like no one is watching and it’s the gift you allow yourself to have which turns out to be the biggest gift you can give back to everyone around you. The more happy people we have in the world, the happier world we have. Practice your passion every day. It’s good for our world.