There are some days when you are just too tired to paint. Days when you are achey and not quite right, when every brush stroke is wrong, when every colour you mix is just slightly off. You know those days? On those days I retreat back to my research, to digital mock-ups and YouTube techniques. I sketch, create prep sheets and play with composition. This is still advancing my art. It’s not as fulfilling as feeling brush on canvas, but it’s still important work that will benefit me in the long run, so that when I am energised enough to paint, the brushstrokes will matter, be better placed for the research and time taken to think.
I often get asked in person and online how I find the time to get so much art done, while caring for two children under the age of five. The ‘pram in the hallway’ is a well know expression for the death of creativity and time needed to paint/write. Many women struggle – not just with the life-changing transition to parenthood, but against a culture often stacked against us. Society assumes that you will be the primary carer (not always true), that you will want to strive for the perfect balance of having it all (again – not always true). Artists opportunities are often ‘artist residencies’, which if you are a primary carer are impossible to do. I could write a political post on the struggles female artists have, particularly artists who are mothers, but I won’t – we all know that the prejudice and barriers exist, so let’s focus on practical things that we can do to get our art done and out there, while acknowledging the unique additional challenges that parents have.
Being a parent has changed me as an artist and as a person. It’s turned everything up to eleven, and not just because of the loss of my first child. I suffer more, love harder, cry more often and am quicker to laugh. At the grand old age of 38, I’m at a funny time of life. I’m sometimes isolated, but never alone. My days are spent busily, but in circular routines, achieving a lot by keeping things the same (tidy/ clean/ cooked/ washed). I exchange ‘Hellos’ and ‘how are you’s’ with strangers at school gates. Go to playdates with parents of my child’s friends. But sometimes, I am able to create. I carve out a little time most days, and that sustains me.
So how do i find the time? I don’t think anyone has the whole answer really. I certainly don’t have all the answers. I don’t know what will work for you, but if you don’t know either, you may find trying some of my methods will help. I’m also a bit obsessed with my art, and think about it all the time, which also helps. My advice is all based on my own experience. For context, I’m a stay at home parent to a 4 and a half year old boy and an 18 month old girl (at time of writing). In Wales, it’s common for children to start nursery school aged 3, so for the last year and a half I’ve had one child in full time school and one full time at home. So – here goes:
Not just the type in your clothes (though we could all do with more of those), but pockets of space and time. It’s all about using the small pockets of time to push a little further on with your art. While the baby is occupied in emptying a cupboard of its contents, or happily up to her arms in a sink of warm soapy water and bath toys, I can watch her play and also let my mind wander to my current painting, latest compositional problem or what product to list on my Etsy store next.
Technology has made using pockets of time easier than ever – waiting at the school gates I can research the open-top sports-car I want to feature in a future painting. I can read up about Magritte and how his anonymous bowler hat ended up being his most iconic and recognisable image. I once used a half hour in the car before the afternoon school run to trace a whole page for the comic ready for inking – just by pinning it to the drivers side window.
Pockets of space are just as important. Having a dedicated corner of the bedroom to create art in means it’s always out – ready to go, reminding me that I can sit down and get started without wasting time setting up. Portable pockets such as a small sketching kit or mini painting setup (pochade box) mean your art doesn’t stop just because you are away from your studio. Pockets are wonderful, create as many as you can.
One of my very favourite quotes regarding this evergreen issue is from Clarissa Pinkola Estés:
“I’ve seen women insist on cleaning everything in the house before they could sit down to write… and you know it’s a funny thing about housecleaning… it never comes to an end. Perfect way to stop a woman. A woman must be careful to not allow over-responsibility (or over-respectabilty) to steal her necessary creative rests, riffs, and raptures. She simply must put her foot down and say no to half of what she believes she “should” be doing. Art is not meant to be created in stolen moments only.”
I’ve developed a house rule for myself – I never, ever do housework when the baby sleeps. Ever. That time when she naps is as precious as gold dust and I try to make every minute count. If you need to rest when the baby does, then do – it is time well spent and your mental health will thank you for it. If I do get to do art when she naps, I sometimes pop onto social media to make myself accountable and remind myself it’s possible to squeeze art into the small pockets of time in the day.
As for ‘stolen moments ‘ – I use those as much as I can, but also have an agreement with my husband that every Wednesday night is my art night. Time that’s not stolen, but given exclusively to my creativity. Simply knowing I always have this time is very comforting and takes some of the (often stifling) pressure off me as a time poor artist.
I learnt early on when attending conventions and getting to know writers and artists, that the single worst question you can ask them is “Where do you get your ideas/inspiration from?” Notable authors like Pratchett and Gaiman have ready answers for this – from writing to a little old woman in the middle of no-where to finding them always at the desk. My answer is Sarah. I’ve personified my muse and by doing so, I have accepted that inspiration is as independent and free-spirited as a person can be. Sarah – my imaginary muse, is fickle and filled with wanderlust. When she’s around it’s great and I make the most of it, but I accept that sometimes she’s off on her travels, and that’s okay too. By learning to accept that, it helps me to cope with the times when she’s away, knowing that when she decides to return and stay for a bit, she’ll have some wonderful stories to tell me about her travels.
Any parent, whether working inside or outside the home will know how torn in a million directions you are. It’s like being a big pie. You give pieces of yourself to everyone – your kids, your partner, your job, your family, everyone has their share. All I ask is that you save a slice for yourself – lest you forget what flavour you are.
Don’t be so faithful to one project that your art as a whole suffers. Setbacks and changes will happen – accept them. Have more than one interest on the go – switch between them as the mood and time allows. Keep a few canvases knocking around that you can quickly prime in an interesting colour if you have 10 mins to spare. Print out reference photos while the baby empties your pen drawer for the umpteenth time. Keep your eyes roving and your heart open – who knows what stardust will settle there. You can be unexpectedly inspired if you aren’t focussed on one project to the exclusion of all others.
My next project is a series of 7 portraits, but my model got sick, so couldn’t make the photoshoot. I’ve switched to the second project I had planned for this year, and will switch back again to the first one when she’s free to model for me. All forward progress is good – even if it’s not quite in the order you had planned. Embrace the chaos – enjoy the time with your family and your art, whichever happens to have focus at the time.
Anyone who knows me will know that I’m not a naturally aggressive person, but sometimes you’ve got to stand fast and fight for your artistic beliefs. Not all of my work is defined by being a parent or a woman. I mentioned above the prejudice and politics and urge you to keep creating. Defy the stereotypes and push through people’s preconceptions – change the world by challenging them and yourself through your art.
So, those are my personal strategies for getting art done. If you agree or disagree with any of the above, please comment below – I’d love to hear your views and your own tips for the balancing act! If you like my work and want to support me by buying some of my art, it’s available at Etsy and Fine Art America.