As an adult, I’d lost the artistic soul of my youth. Could a 12-week art challenge help me reclaim it?
My artistic career started five months ago.
One frosty November 2020 morning, I challenged myself to a 12-week plan to awaken the artist within. The 12 weeks came out of nowhere as I needed a deadline. As a 35-something mom of a young child, I thought it must be too late for me to start a new hobby. Especially a creative one. But then I thought — what do I have to lose, really? Apart from sleep. Which is overrated.
I promised myself to create something every single day: be it a drawing, a sketch, a painting, or a journal entry about my artistic adventures. And, with just one rule to follow — whatever I created, I had to enjoy it. The desire to partake in the activity had to come from within, from my heart.
I stuck to my 12-week challenge and emerged with a rewarding and ongoing practice of making art. I learned a lot along the way.
“You have to do stuff that average people don’t understand because those are the only good things.”
― Andy Warhol
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been telling myself that I am not the artistic type. But there is proof at my parent’s house that once upon a time I was — boxes and boxes of proof. I’d somehow forgotten about it. My life choices gently led me on a different path — one that did not contain bright and messy colours, imaginative experiments, and unruly flights of fantasy.
Then my toddler, who wasn’t aware of my self-imposed handicap, started asking me to draw her favourite farm animals: pigs, ducks, and dinosaurs. So I had no choice, you see? I had to produce something.
And I started drawing using pencils and Crayola baby crayons. This simple creative endeavour would make my husband roll on the floor with laughter. But those same drawings would delight my daughter. She would run around the room shouting, “Duggy! Duggy!” after I managed to semi-accurately portray her favourite cartoon character from ‘Hey Duggy.’ The heart-melting experience of watching her tiny features enveloped by delight helped me realise that I actually enjoyed producing Duggy dogs looking like ducks, and vice versa.
But I also realised that I enjoyed the spontaneity, nativity, and silliness of my creations. I didn’t need to think about something being anatomically correct. I, honestly, didn’t care about the likeness (or the lack of) to the object I was trying to capture. This realisation made me feel extremely elated and liberated. It made me happy, and I wanted more of it.
So I decided to explore this new endeavour a bit more. Yippee-yay!
But let’s be honest, deciding is not the bugbear that sabotages our best intentions. We all make new year’s resolutions only to break them the very next day. No, the decision is a simple part.
The question of ‘why.’
I think for the new hobby to stick, you need to understand the most important questions: ‘Why?’ Why do you need a new hobby? What’s wrong with your life without this hobby in it?
You need to be honest with yourself and spend some considerable time looking for those answers. But be careful if your answers sound like these:
- I would like to show off in front of my friends.
- I would like to prove my school art teacher wrong. (This is my case.)
- I would like to show my ex what he’s lost.
What do you think about those answers? Can you spot what’s missing? Something simple but essential — the personality of the decision-maker.
These answers will surely do one thing: please, satisfy, or annoy someone else. But they won’t fulfill a deep need of your soul. As a result, those who start a new life, a new diet, etc., with a ‘why’ concentrating on others — won’t succeed. Because in order to succeed, you require the will of a bull and a motivation of a deluded fairy. And the only way to ignite our stubborn will is by going after our heart’s desires. Not someone else’s. Sorry.
So, in my case, I had to dig deeper. Why do I want to draw/paint/create:
- It relaxes me.
- It brings me joy.
- It makes me happy.
- It connects me to my child and my inner child.
- It’s meditation.
- It’s something new I’ve never done before.
- It’s freeing and makes my heart do a funny flip
So in the end, my one-liner started looking like this:
- I want to express myself creatively to have more fun in my life and learn a new skill.
That’s much better, isn’t it? Not perfect, but who is?
Now I needed a plan to make sure I stick with this new hobby and don’t quit after a day or so.
At first, I wanted to go all-in and try this for a year. But my track record for planning, goal setting, and sticking to my plans are nothing to write home about. I read somewhere that planning to do something new for a year might overwhelm our inbuilt system, which will try to sabotage us. It is because the results are so, so far away, and the goal seems unattainable. Then I remembered this book about getting more done in 12 weeks than 12 months, and the idea excited me.
I could do something new for 12 weeks, couldn’t I?
But with a toddler, a job, and other responsibilities, I knew my free time was precious (cough, virtually non-existent). A thought crossed my mind that I should give it up. Who was I trying to fool? I wouldn’t be able to do it. As you can see, my inner critic is a gentle and supportive creature. Not. So I agreed with myself to spend as little as five minutes on doing something creative, but every day.
How would I know I succeeded? As long as I picked up my sketchbook and marked it with a daily entry — my goal was complete. I could then treat myself to a nice cup of tea. Or have a nap.
“Graffiti is one of the few tools you have if you have almost nothing. And even if you don’t come up with a picture to cure world poverty you can make someone smile while they’re having a piss.
― Banksy, Banging Your Head Against a Brick Wall
Fear of something new
Starting anything — be it a new skill, a hobby, a new challenge, a workout regime, or a new fancy diet — is tough because it’s an enormous change to your daily routine.
The trick is to persevere with all your might and passion and get over the initial hurdle of the first week or two. But once your new hobby stops being new — it becomes easier to continue with it. I promise. As you will have some results, you can look back at. That feeling of going through your sketchbook, page after page — it’s priceless. But remember not to criticise or judge your own creations. You are here to have fun.
Discipline your inner critic
“I’ve been all over the world and I’ve never seen a statue of a critic.”
― Leonard Bernstein
Your inner critic or some might call it ego, will try to sabotage your decision to learn something new. And not because it’s an evil monster that feeds on failures and negative emotions. Not at all. Our inner critic does not like it when we fail or struggle. Because it’s not nice to fail, is it? That’s how our ego protects us. If we do nothing — we cannot fail. Simple.
So it tries to suggest things we already know. Because an old and well-known habit takes up less effort than a brand new unmastered skill. Your ego will always lure you into following the path of least resistance, the path that you know very well. What is this path? We call it a comfort zone.
Your job, if you are serious about mastering a new skill, is to discipline your ego. My ego will not even stir if I am doing something for a short period. That’s why I started my challenge by doing daily five-minute bursts of drawing, doodling, or painting. By the time I increased it to ten minutes, my lazy inner critic didn’t even blink, as it thought we were born with this hobby.
“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.”
― Maya Angelou
Starting something new is beyond exciting for me. The possibilities that one simple hobby or a new daily practice might create are endless. I believe that anything new could nourish your soul. Because it helps you to move forward. Because it protects you from stagnation. But there are a few rules you need to follow that I discovered on my super long (not) journey towards becoming a beginner artist.
- Know your inner triggers.
- Be able to tell the difference between good and bad triggers.
1. Know your inner triggers, and use them wisely
Tell me what ticks you off, and I will tell you what makes you tick.
— Lloyd John Ogilvie
This step is the most important one.
As a budding creative person or an artist, you need to know what excites you and helps you to kick start your creative processes.
- Do you feel inspired visiting museums?
- Do you get the itch to create after watching an inspirational video?
- Do you feel like painting or writing after taking out the bins?
Whatever it is, if you feel that excitement running through your veins, that jittery feeling of butterflies in your tummy — remember it. You need to know what sets your creative genie off.
2. Good trigger vs. bad
“If a composer suffers from loss of sleep and his sleeplessness induces him to turn out masterpieces, what a profitable loss it is!”
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Night Flight
There is one trick, though. Whatever excites you need to make you want to act as well. As long as some sort of action follows your excitement — it’s the right sort of excitement; it’s a good trigger.
Let me elaborate on why it’s important.
Imagine you love scrolling gorgeous inspirational Instagram feeds. You spend hours online, exercising your fingers. Then you ‘wake up’ and realise that it’s bedtime. Your to-do list is offended, as you haven’t touched it in weeks. Your dreams are still in the dream world, waiting to be materialised. Your scrolling activity has not moved you closer to anything tangible. Then you might as well flush those hours down the drain because you have wasted those hours. The chosen trigger is a mindless time-eating zombie. Kill it!
But if after scrolling, you have this burning desire to create something — then continue and enjoy. You have a keeper here.
I’m having an insight, but it’s a minor one.
― Gil Pender, Midnight in Paris
Once I started drawing every single day, I remembered something from my childhood. I remembered why I stopped drawing altogether at a very young age. It was because I didn’t know what to draw. My imagination works in a funny way. I can imagine and create an elaborate world in my head. I can then string it together, word by word, and force it to come down on paper. But I cannot conjure up images to draw or paint.
I am extremely lucky that nowadays, thanks to the interweb, there are so many sources of inspiration. People like me don’t need to worry about not knowing what to draw or paint.
So, here is my treasure chest of sources of inspiration.
Social media to the rescue
Prepare to be inspired and voluntarily sucked into the world of creativity! At the beginning of my self-inflicted challenge, I started looking for inspiration — because you cannot develop your artistic talents by constantly drawing the ‘Hey Duggy’ character. Or maybe you can, but it’s a different challenge, I suppose.
As I didn’t know any artists or painters, I started with hashtags (#) of what interested me the most: watercolour, gouache, and mixed media. That’s how I’ve discovered a few people that I now follow, copy, and admire, not necessarily in that exact order.
On Instagram, I follow cecile_illustration for her adorable and cute illustrations of animals. Colorsbysue is another inspiring artist, and I dream of one day being able to create flowers as full of life as Sue’s.
I’ve created a collection folder called ‘Art inspirations’ within my Instagram account. I enjoy studying my favourite illustrations and drawings. Some of them I even try to recreate.
Beginner artists are encouraged to take part in myriads of paid and free challenges that are available within Instagram and other social media platforms. I have not tried that yet, because my time does not always belong to me. But I’ve heard so many good things about things like #100dayproject, #100daysofdrawing, and others.
But before you commit to anything paid, check out the freebies that artists offer to make sure their style resonates with you.
You could choose from courses offered by Instagram influencers, Skillshare, Domestika, and many others. Not to mention various YouTube channels, including Bobb Ross: The Joy of Painting, which I am really fond of even though I am not into oil paintings myself.
I chose Adolfo Serra (Domestika) to show me the way. His course blurb promises to cure your fear of blank paper. And he did cure mine! Adolfo encourages his students to try different things and treat the drawing process as a game. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed regressing into a carefree child during my 10-minute classes. There was something about Adolfo’s work that lured me in: the choice of colours, the whimsical nature of his creations, the simplicity of his approach.
Check out various course providers and teachers and go with the one that you like, as there is no point in learning from someone that does not excite or inspire you. We are not at school.
There are myriads of podcasts to choose from to feed your inspiration or motivation. I stumbled upon the Art Juice podcast by accident. While I was researching Design Thinking for my work, somehow, Spotify spat out this podcast as a suggestion. It’s a podcast run by two artists, and they share their thoughts on the creative process and their struggles. As a newbie artist, I find their conversations refreshingly fascinating.
Read up on the theory
Boring, I know, but the theory is a foundation for everything, including hobbies and passion projects. Why? Because once you have even the slightest understanding of basic principles and concepts, it will be easier for you to go further and learn even more. It’s like building a house brick by brick. Unless your foundation is solid, the walls might not survive.
Things I found useful to read about:
You don’t always feel like scrolling or learning, do you? So how do you feed your creative genie on those days? I’ll tell you, as I’ve discovered a few unusual ways to stay motivated without taking too much time out of my life for artistic research.
Below, you will find a few thoughts on how to keep your finger on the pulse of the artistic world.
Write with your left hand.
I am right-handed, just like most of the population of mother earth. To get me out of the rut or routine and engage my inner fire, I write or sketch using my left hand. The results will never see the light of day, but the boost of inspiration it gives me makes my childish scribbles worthy of the paper they appear on.
Writing or drawing with your other hand might offer you an unusual view and perspective on mundane things. It will feed your creativity as the entire process requires a bit more brainpower than usual. If you want to learn more about this idea, try Lucia Capacchione’s “The Power of Your Other Hand: Unlock Creativity and Inner Wisdom Through the Right Side of Your Brain.”
This one was not my choice. But as my toddler started watching cartoons, so did I. Watching ‘In the night garden,’ or ‘Peppa Pig’ helped me understand a few things.
Cartoons are manifestations of someone else’s creativity. But they are mainly for kids, aren’t they? So the storyline is less realistic, which helps our unconscious tap into areas that our mighty brain’s been neglecting, forgetting, or refusing to go to until now.
Cartoons and fairy tales help to illuminate something mundane or even banal with a touch of magic. Access your magic through cartoons and fairy tales. Interact with your inner child along the way.
Pay attention to product packaging.
One of my colleagues recommended I draw inspiration from looking at the packaging. But instead of simply seeing letters and colours, she encouraged me to see the design rules, such as colour contrast, spacing. And instead of judging everything as ‘I like it/ I don’t like it,’ she suggested I evaluated how the packaging design team might have achieved this or that treatment.
If it’s a success — why is it so? How did they do that? If it’s a failure? Why do you think that is? Have they not followed some rules? Have they followed too many rules? By conducting this simple research, we, wannabe artists, will train our eye, our brain, and our imagination to see and notice new things.
So many people talk about consistency. So many explain how nice it is to be disciplined, to have a good solid routine around your daily activities that will bring you closer to your goals. But as with many time-management-related things, consistency and discipline do not sound that sexy. That’s why our brain labels them as boring and does not want to engage with them.
You: ‘I need to paint every single day.’
Your brain: ‘No, it’s boring. Let’s watch TV.’
You: ‘I want to journal every morning.’
Brain: ‘No, I’ve just woken up! Let’s do something fun and exciting instead. How about mindless scrolling of an Instagram feed?’
Instead of achieving your goals, you are achieving someone else’s. So you need to kick that brain of yours in the metaphorical butt.
Start small and start slow.
Trick your brain by starting super slow and small. Instead of doing a full-blown painting — take a piece of paper and doodle a bit. Instead of writing a note — draw it. Use the ancient pictorial language of our predecessors. If they could do it, I am sure you can as well. It might help ignite your creativity. It might lull your brain into thinking it’s fun or so trivial that it’s not even worth fighting with you about.
Once you are happy doing something small but every day, increase your time and try creating something bigger.
Step by step, turn this new adventure into a 30 minutes’ daily practice. But don’t push too hard, so you don’t freak out your brain with the new routine.
Let me tell you a few things that come to mind when I think about receiving feedback of any sort:
- What if it’s too bad, I won’t be able to handle it?
- What if they like it? Will I be able to do it again? Or am I a one-trick pony?
- I am so bad at failing. I hate it when people criticise me.
Hence I invented this exercise with the sole purpose of being bad at whatever I am doing.
Failing intentionally takes courage. But it might teach your resistant brain to have fun during the arty process. No one likes to fail, and no one dreams of being judged. If what we are doing is for our eyes, only criticism should not even come into the picture. But it often does because it’s nosy and because you take it everywhere with you.
Create something bad and look at it. Sit with it for some time. It’s tougher than you think. Accept it for what is it. Something bad. But it’s also a step towards new knowledge. It’s like watching babies when they learn to walk. Their first uncertain and shaky steps are far from being perfect. But give them a few weeks, and they will run faster than you.
The same applies to your new hobby. Allow yourself to be super bad at it. Create hundreds of pages of something bad. Then turn the page and move to create page hundred and one, which will be equally bad.
It might sound silly, especially after talking about having a hobby just for pure indulgent enjoyment. But it would not hurt to dream big. As long as this dream does not interfere with the enjoyment part, it’s fun to imagine becoming someone within the artistic industry one day.
But having a dream at the back of your mind, or being open to opportunities that might appear out of nowhere — that I call magic.
So, here you have it.
My challenge is complete, and my 12 weeks are up. But guess what? I haven’t stopped creating. This has truly turned into a life-changing habit.
I still pencil draw or doodle all the time, during meetings, while waiting for a kettle to boil and when I see something that is worth capturing. And I paint using watercolour or gouache predominantly in the evening when I am not too exhausted, so I could have at least 30 minutes to lose myself in my art.
And the biggest realisation of all is that I now have something I can turn to when I am sad, bored, happy, or excited. Because creativity — be it painting, drawing, writing, or doodling — can help you express whatever feelings you are feeling. And it’s a companion that will always be there for you, which is super cool, as I know I have something I can always lean on.