How I Went From Artist's Block to Making 50 Paintings in 50 Days
In January of 2016 I came up with a weird idea.
We (Luke & I) had just come from our first court date in our ongoing custody case. We had, not surprisingly, just received the (incredibly detailed, pages-long) bill from Luke’s lawyer. Since basically nothing had been accomplished in the court proceedings (objection . . . objection . . . you get it), they had gone ahead and scheduled 2 MORE full days in court.
Can you imagine the lawyer bill from that?
Not to mention that at the same time, I was dealing with my own separate family legal issue, plus both Luke and I were working, taking care of our family, and trying valiantly to remain positive and relatively normal for our kids’ sake and our sanity.
One day, as I was racking my brain for an idea for a way to help ease some of the burden on us (part time job, yard sale, selling my soul), the artist in me had a thought. “I know! Why don’t I create an art project in the midst of all this turmoil that will put added daily pressure on me to complete paintings, something I have not been able to do consistently for my entire adult life?”
Uhh, let’s try this again. What I meant to type was, “that will help me break through my long standing creative block and hopefully help us in some way with our finances.”
I have struggled against my creative side for many years. To boil it down to the simplest explanation, I longed to be an artist and writer but have fought battles against my own insecurity (you’re not good enough to be an artist) and other people’s (admittedly mostly perceived) expectations of me (You can’t be an artist. It is a neat little hobby, though).
I think, looking back on everything now, that the final piece that sent me over the edge, (or to be incredibly cliche: the straw that broke that camel’s back), was when I found out that my writing, art, and social media was being turned in to the opposing side’s lawyer and I was subpoenaed by the opposing side’s lawyer - to testify against my own side!
It didn’t take a genius to put two and two together to equal, “This is horseshit! They want to use me against . . . well, me!” What the hell?
So in a big old, “Screw you, I’ll show them,” move, my creative muse finally had enough and kicked me in the shins to get my attention. If they wanted to take my art and creativity and use it against me, let’s give them something good to use!
After that initial fury, the idea came into my brain almost completely formed.
I counted the days from that date until our next scheduled court date. It came out to roughly 50 days, with a few extra in there to get the project set up.
I decided I would paint 50 paintings in 50 days.
They would have to be small, because my project rules (that I had just literally made up) were that I had to complete the painting by the end of the day, in order to scan it, post it to my blog, and put it on my socials (Instagram, FB, Twitter and Tumblr).
I had read many times that in order to do an artist series, you must have a few criteria that each painting must meet, some constraints that would encourage creativity but also help with focus, so here’s what I came up with:
- Each painting had to feature a skull, which led me to start referring to the project as 50 Skulls in 50 days. I chose a skull because I love anything skull-themed, and it seemed that the opposing lawyer was particularly interested in my "artistic" skull fascination to use against me.
- Each painting would be 6 inches by 6 inches.
- Each painting would be completed and posted by midnight each day of the 50 days.
Once I had my project defined, I went to the art supply store to get my canvases. They had 4 packs of the 6x6 size, and they were on clearance so I bought every one they had. I ended up going home with a total of 32 small canvases. This was it, no turning back now.
I had created a little sketch in my sketchbook of a female skull figure, and since I had (imaginary) time pressure on myself, I decided to go ahead and choose her for my painting subject. Day 1 was completed and posted on February 1, 2016. I named it Skull Lady & the Curtain.
After that, I sat at my desk and completed a skull painting every day for the 50 days, just like I said I would. Every painting was completed and posted by midnight.
Pinterest became my new BFF. I found so many ideas and inspiration by searching through Pinterest, I probably could have done 100 paintings or more.
I varied my style, my techniques and my materials, but I stuck with my original “rules.” Once I created my skull, I also made some rules for her and stuck with these consistently throughout the project:
- She has long black hair
- She has green eyes.
- Her “bone color” is a mix of metallic blue, parchment and white paint.
- She has only bone, so any of her exposed areas would have to be skeleton.
- She is vaguely old fashioned, so most of her clothing is from the 1800’s to early 1900’s.
As the 50 days progressed, life didn’t stop. I had just as much to do as before. But I found something strange happening: Mostly, I spent my working hours looking forward to getting home so I could sit down at my desk and create a new painting. I couldn’t wait to look for ideas, rummage through my materials, and start picking out my colors and collage items. Some days I used straight paint, but some days I used paper, dried flowers or insects, metal pieces, gel, ink, glitter, stencils, and anything else that sparked my creativity.
50 days went by in a rush.
At times, it seemed my family’s life revolved around “Jaime painting in her office.” The kids would hang out on the steps beside my desk or at the computer desk. Luke would sit on the floor and watch shows on his tablet. I created a Pandora station that I played while I painted and I became slightly obsessed with the songs Pandora was sending my way.
(If you’re interested, it’s “Prayer in C (Robin Shulz Remix)” radio, with music by Robin Shulz, Halsey, Milky Chance, Lana del Ray, X Ambassadors & Glass Animals, to name a few).
Sitting down to paint was the highlight of each day. When I reached the end of the painting, (and sometimes I wanted to fuss over portions of each one but I had to firmly tell myself, “That’ll do, pig, that’ll do, because you have to finish this before midnight.")
I made sure it was dry (enough) to scan, then I cropped it, adjusted the color, saved the jpeg, uploaded it to the blog, Instagrammed that shit, and sent it to the other socials, and then clicked off my lamp, ticking another day off my list.
There was only one day I messed up, and it was because I had decided to load my painting up with a bunch of heavy gel and metal pieces and the dang thing wasn’t able to dry enough for me to put on the next layers of paint. So I ended up taking a photo of it with my phone, half-finished, and sharing the fail instead of the finished piece. The next day, I finished that painting along with the daily one I had scheduled.
Before I could even believe it, I was at day 50. In my office, above my computer desk, I had hung up every painting except day 18, which I had sold and mailed out.
I found as the days progressed, so did my paintings.
I was surprised that I loved all of the paintings, but by the time I reached day 50, my paintings were better executed and more sophisticated than they were in the beginning.
After I posted my last painting, there was the obvious feeling of “I did it!” I was really proud of myself. However, an unexpected feeling crept up on me and it shocked the hell out of me.
I was . . . sad.
Like saying goodbye to a friend who is moving sad, or leaving a job, or letting go of something you’ve been holding on to. I was still proud, and kind of relieved, but mostly sad to see this project end.
I hadn’t expected that.
Now, it’s been several days since the end of my 50 Skulls in 50 Days/Skulls for Macy & AJ Project. This is the part where I have to do two things:
- Decide what to do next.
- Decide how to keep this project moving.
It’s obvious that I need to keep painting. But it’s also obvious that I need to keep promoting my project so I can find these paintings some new homes. I’m very new at this part of it so, like the rest of this project, I will learn it as I go along.
I do also think I will do some minor tweaks on a few of the paintings. One, my “Vintage Skull Lady” I love…but to me her neck looks like a scorpion tail and it throws off the whole painting for me. I will repaint the neck so it more accurately represents a spine, not a creature from Beetlejuice. Another painting that I felt had an obvious flaw was Day 7, Skull Lady & Candelabra. My proportion is way off, so my skull figure came out very cartoonish. I won’t be happy with that one until I fix that.
I learned 3 surprising things from doing this project, and I will pass those along here, for those of you who would consider doing a project or tackling a task that seems huge or scary:
- I absolutely loved every minute of doing this. I looked forward to it like it was chocolate coated chocolate that I got to eat every day. This was so unexpected to me, because while I have always felt a need to create, more often than not it was an immense struggle. I don’t know if I can pinpoint exactly why this worked when so many times before I had failed, but I think it is the combination of a public deadline plus a loose set of rules to follow. This made the previous hurdle of sitting there wondering “what to paint,” completely disappear. Instead, I sat down every day with the question of, “What is my skull doing today?” and I was off tracking that answer down.
- They’re all right, you guys. Those “experts” who say things happen when you attempt to do something big and bold and scary. Things happen! Those experts are experts for a reason, and every time they have written, spoke, podcasted, or YouTubed that advice, what they were really saying was, “If it scares the shit out of you, do it! Do it right now!” Completely, totally, 100% correct, they were. Me before this project: Complete a painting every day? Hahaha, ha ha. Really, that’s hilarious! Me after this project: 50 paintings completed in 50 days? Done. Check mark applied. It’s exactly as Elizabeth Gilbert wrote in Big Magic, which I read just a few months ago: "Fear is allowed to come along for the ride, but fear is not allowed to touch the radio."
- Sometimes when you create something using your heart and soul, it’s really hard to see it end. You can always tell when you’ve gotten to the end of something you HAD to do, because you’re thinking, “Thank God THAT’s over.” But when it’s something you were really excited about and enjoyed and are proud of, the end almost feels like a major letdown! And that’s why people move on to the next project. Let yourself feel that sadness or the unmoored drift, but don’t wallow in it. Get to work creating your next great thing. That’s what I’ll be doing.