Creative Process

The Barn and the Beast

One of my greatest artistic idols is the web cartoonist The Oatmeal.

He’s witty. He’s bold. He’s profound. I read his work to laugh, but even more so, I read it to think.

Credit, The Oatmeal, from the comic "Making Things"

Credit, The Oatmeal, from the comic “Making Things”

Which is why I devoured his most recent interview with the Seattle Times. With the headline, Hardworking, ticked off, “driven by rage and anxiety”: The Oatmeal isn’t who you think he isthe article provides thoughtful insight into Matthew Inman’s (The Oatmeal) life as an artist.

What stood out to me the most was this paragraph:

“I enjoy things most when I suffer beforehand,’’ he says. “I like to suffer, suffer, suffer, and then you get to enjoy something.” It’s why he took up distance running — not just marathons or triathlons, but those absurdly punishing races that push people past the point of endurance into the darkest parts of their psyches.

More on this later.

This week, I finished my most challenging painting to date. It was a photo of my parents’ hobby farm property, shot from the back of the house on a misty morning. There was a low fog drifting around the back fields, so I grabbed the SLR and shot this from the back of the house, looking out on the barns. Those barns are no longer there; they were in danger of collapsing, so my parents elected to have them torn down instead of restoring them. Due to the value of barn wood in restoration and upcycling projects, we had no issues in having the wood dismantled and taken away, and I am even going to be getting a harvest table out of the wood, which will be handcrafted by a carpenter as a wedding gift for my partner and I. So, in a Something From Nothing kind of way, the barn itself will live on in, reincarnated as beloved furniture.

Relics Compressed

This is why I titled the piece “Relics” (2016, 22″ x 36″, oil on canvas). The Google definition of a relic is: “an object surviving from an earlier time, especially one of historical or sentimental interest.” The barns, by this definition, are relics, silent observers from a bygone era, when cows still roamed the fields and tractors zigzagged lazily across fields of hay.

Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? So idealistic, so nostalgic. Perhaps the knowledge that this was painted in a studio makes you think of it being peacefully and lovingly crafted. I’ll give you the image I had visualized back when I dreamed about having my own studio: picture an airy room, with the sunlight streaming in and quiet jazz playing from a radio in the corner. There’s a mug of tea sending steam swirls into the air as I paint calmly. If I had my way, there’d be a studio cat, napping in a basket.

I can’t even write anymore, because aside from the jazz (I’m partial to Big Band music), the rest is a load of tosh. And this freaking barn painting nearly sent me over the edge; not once, but multiple times.

My creativity is not a sassy lady in a toga à la Disney’s Hercules, or a loving friend who gently passes me ideas via mental notes.


It would be so awesome if my creativity was like this…

No. My creativity is a raging torrent of fear, anxiety, mania, and insecurity. It is a beast, and it lives inside of me at all times. It forces me to fixate on minute details or mistakes that I have made, often obsessively, often late at night. It says I am not good enough, I don’t work hard enough, I’m not skilled enough. It keeps me from moving forward by creating unnecessary plateaus. It creates montages of all my inadequacies and displays it on repeat.


This is unfortunately the preferred shape of my artsy-ness.

This barn. Took me six weeks. Six. Frigging. Weeks. It has nearly every single colour in the rainbow. The fence alone has over ten different colours in it. The barn has been painted over approximately five times, because each time, something just wasn’t “right” (Barn 3.0 was probably the best, but Barn 5.0 is pretty darn close). The Beast absolutely loved this piece because there was so much for it to attack.

Let’s go back to The Oatmeal and the concept of suffering.

Back in 2012 when I was in training for my Ironman 70.3, I spent well over ten hours a week running, cycling and swimming (which, by triathlon standards, is quite light). I used to cycle the 80 km between Toronto and Hamilton in a morning, and return on a GO Bus. On weekends, I’d take my bike out to Caledon or Muskoka, and cycle hills for 5+ hours. Cycling was my favourite, because it’s the closest I’ll ever get to being able to fly.

But there’s a bizarre strength that comes when you’re hurting. I’m currently reading Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild, and she nails it on page 95, “…hiking the PCT [Pacific Crest Trail] was hard in a different way. In a way that made the other hardest things the tiniest bit hard. It was strange but true.”

When you’re a creative, and you take up part-time residency in the land of make-believe, it’s sometimes a bit of a gauntlet run to get past the Beast prowling the conduit between worlds. Pretty much every artist I know has a method to cope, but mine is to do something even scarier and harder. Then, in comparison, making a whoopsie while painting doesn’t seem so bad.

I may not be able to slay the Beast, because it’s a part of who I am…but I can outrun it.  

So here’s what all of this is leading towards: in the summer of 2013, my beloved Cervélo triathlon bike was stolen. I haven’t done long-distance cycling since. I’ve decided that I’m going to try and get a nice bike on sale at the end of this season, and get back into the only thing scarier than art: triathlon.

Doing the Ironman 70.3 opened the door to incredible transformation in my life. When you can drag your body across 70.3 miles (113.1km) of water, metal and pavement, you feel a deep sense of power. If I can swim 2km, cycle 90km, and run 21km, I can do anything. It’s what gave me the push I needed to make tremendous, positive life changes, leading me from Toronto to North Bay.

I don’t know what distance of triathlon I’ll feel ready to tackle next year. But all I know is that I’m ready to fly again. From Toronto to Niagara Falls, all over Muskoka, I’m ready to connect my feet to the pedals and just go as far as I conceivably can. Sometimes distance training hurts, but that’s almost the point.

Beast/rat/artistic ego…you’re in for a drubbing. Or at the very least, I’m going to take you and turn you into a bird.

Bob Ross 2

Two Studio announcements:

First, I’m hoping to make the space as close to zero waste and plastic free that I can. That means weening out the plastic bottles being offered during Paint Nights. But don’t worry, I’ll keep you hydrated: I’m going to get one of those neat, oversized mason jar water dispensers along with glasses to use. Just don’t put your paintbrush in (it’ll happen, guaranteed).

Second, if you want to receive advanced notice of classes being offered in October, please write to me via the contact me page. I can’t put my email directly here because then I’ll receive spam mail from robots, but the form is easy to use.

How Bad Do You Want It? Attempting to Go Pro

One of my favourite motivational videos of all time asks, how bad do you want it? Accompanied by a spoken word sermon by Eric Thomas (AKA the Hip Hop Preacher), the footage showing Giavanni Ruffin training in the NFL off-season gives insight into the pain, suffering, and overpowering desire to succeed that professional athletes must bear.

I watch this whenever I need a boost for my motivation, because this desire to become proficient in any field comes with a similar level of both sacrifice and hunger for success. It doesn’t matter if you’re an athlete, a contractor, or a creative; the struggle is real.

I have this crazy dream, that one day I’ll be a professional artist and arts educator. In this dream, I’m able to travel all over the world with my camera – shooting landscapes, people, and wild animals – and bringing the world back into my studio to translate it into a painting. In this dream, when I’m not traveling, I’ll be teaching, working with local groups and schools, helping students find that same sense of satisfaction and empowerment that I feel whenever I realize that my painting is actually going well. Bob Ross

This month, I actually took the leap to make this dream a reality. I found a space, rented it, and spent the past few weeks painting and preparing so that it feels like a professional art studio. When I walk into my studio, it feels calm, serene, and so beautiful.

Despite this, on the first day that I was going to go in to work on a painting, I was gripped with anxiety and fear. What if I had put in all this effort to create a studio space, only to realize that I’m actually a terrible painter? Had I overestimated my abilities? With the acquisition of a studio, failure was no longer an abstract concept; it was very real, and very possible. Until I had taken the leap to pay for my own space, there was no real risk to my art practice if I didn’t sell any paintings or book any commissions. But now, if I don’t keep income steadily streaming through the door, I will lose my studio.

So that morning, I pushed against the desire to stay at home and stew over my worries and cycled to the studio. There are few things in the world that I cannot solve after a bike ride, although some problems require longer distances than others. As a grounding method, I highly recommend it.

Upon arriving, I sat in front of my easel, and tried to calm myself. I can’t screw this up, I can’t be bad, I can’t have put all this effort into perfecting the space only to be terrible…

Athletes train their bodies so that when push comes to shove, instinct takes over, and their muscles fire on their own. Artists can do the same, and this is precisely what happened. A little voice, which sounded suspiciously like Olaf Schneider’s, started to take over and tell me what to do.

You’re wasting time. Time is commission money. Stop fussing and start mixing your colours. Take the time; get them right. Hm, that’s too purple, lots of chroma in there. You need to tone it down, add a little burnt sienna. Closer. Good. Keep your brush clean. 

I let autopilot completely take over. To be honest, I don’t remember a lot of what happened over those two hours. Part of that was due to the fact that I was listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers on audio book (more on this later), but I zoned out and painted in a state of flow, guided by instinct and training. And my god, it felt good. Rather than worrying, I switched the anxiety-ridden part of my brain off and simply worked for two hours. I gave myself permission to enjoy the process.

Malcolm Gladwell asserts that in order for anyone to find true mastery in their chosen field, they must put in 10,000 hours of conscientious, good practice. However, most people are unwilling to devote that much of their lives to study, as 10,000 hours broken down works out to be 20 hours a week over the course of a decade. I myself am perhaps around the 500 hour mark. But for comparison’s sake, I want to show you two paintings, separated by 14 months. The first was painted using dollar store paints, and the second was a commissioned piece using Golden acrylics.

Pink Asiatic Lilies (2014) - 16" x 20", acrylic on canvas

Pink Asiatic Lilies (2014) – 16″ x 20″, acrylic on canvas

Morning Meditations (2015) - 18" x 24", acrylic on canvas

Morning Meditations (2015) – 18″ x 24″, acrylic on canvas

Anyone with eyeballs can see the level of improvement. But it’s not just the hours that I spend in front of the easel. It’s also the time I invest training with professionals (Arlie Hoffman and Olaf), while positioning myself so that opportunity can be seized. This is critical to Gladwell’s theories of success; talent and genius are not enough, decisive action and self-positioning are critical to reaching peak potential. Even so, innate ability isn’t necessary to attain success; even someone of ordinary ability can push themselves to reach elevated status in their vocation through hard work, practice, and a willingness to learn. I find this completely reassuring. It’s so easy to look at professional artists and credit their success to their talent, which makes their work appear effortless. But talent is random, part of the genetic lottery we all play while in utero, while the hard work and dedication that leads to mastery is not.

At the end of the day, it all boils down to the question, how bad do you want it? Badly enough that you’re willing to train, slog through the tough projects, put in the time, face the prospect of failure, and endure the critics?

My answer to that question: yes. To achieve mastery in visual art is a dream, one I’m willing to make sacrifices for.

500 hours down, 9,500 left to go. I can’t wait to see where I am in a year. 

Are you working towards achieving mastery in your field? I’d love to hear your thoughts and stories. 

Discipline = Happiness?

When I was training in Toronto with Olaf Schneider, the first thing I noticed was how disciplined he was. Every day, without fail, Olaf takes a break from the canvas to go work out for an hour. He credits it with keeping his energy and focus levels high. After spending the week in his studio and accompanying him on these exercise expeditions, I would completely agree. I’d usually be soaked with sweat, and mentally complaining the entire time, but the endorphins and subsequent focus was worth the exertion.

Over the past three years, I have lost a fair amount of the discipline that I’d developed while living and working in Toronto. In the city, I worked a 9-5pm job, trained for a Half Ironman on the side, and maintained an anonymous personal finance blog that had started to gain some serious traction. I lost a minimum of an hour per day just to commuting, and yet somehow managed to squeeze everything in.

All of that changed when I went backpacking from April to July, 2013. For four months, I went wherever I wanted, stayed as long as I felt, and went through the slow and organic process of self-discovery through late nights, early mornings, and the cliché walks on the beach. There was no need for discipline. Instead, I just wandered.

Before: when I rocked a disciplined lifestyle to achieve my dream of completing a 70.3 Ironman

Before: when I rocked a disciplined lifestyle to achieve my dream of completing a 70.3 Ironman

My time as a hopeless wanderer in Southeast Asia; discipline, what discipline?!

My time as a hopeless wanderer in Southeast Asia; discipline, what discipline?! I just want to eat, sleep, and explore.

Going back to school in North Bay after feeling the full weight of adulthood in the big city was exciting. Depending on my Bachelor of Education class schedule, I could sleep in, or simply do a few hours of school and head home to watch Game of Thrones. Of course, there were the 12 weeks I spent as a student teacher in Toronto, where I’d be out the door by 7am to get my hour-long commute underway, but when I returned to North Bay I’d relax into being a Lululemon-wearing, Tim’s-drinking student. I got my exercise by exploring nearby trails, but rarely visited the gym.

It got worse when I started my Master of Education. Despite being in the same city as my university, the entirety of my classes were online. I could’ve done my entire degree in my pyjamas and no one would’ve been the wiser. I allowed this to torpedo the last remaining dregs of my discipline; sure, I painted, but sometimes it was out of loneliness and boredom. I often felt unproductive and housebound, yet lacked the motivation to do anything about it.

Fast forward to now. I’m busier than I’ve been in a very long time. I am working both full and part time, and am being trained as a volunteer for the local sexual assault crisis centre. I’m in the final stages of preparing my studio space for use and teaching, and I’m healthier than I was when I was doing endurance sports, thanks to an improvement of diet and a renewed commitment to the gym and training. And even though I’m running around like a madwoman, I’m happy. 

That’s right. I’m not chasing it. It’s not some weird, elusive state of being that will only be achieved when I obtain X material good, or have the Y experience, or Z happens in my career.

I’m happy.

Sure, I have challenges in my work, and there are many days when I come home exhausted, cranky, and irritable. But I’m at peace with being a supply teacher for next year. I like the flexibility it offers and the opportunities I can create for myself when I’m not working. I’m excited about the possibilities that will evolve out of my new studio space. I’m optimistic about building a sustainable career as an artist. I delight in being able to volunteer and contribute to my community and its people. I like my apartment. I love my fiancé.

It’s not mindset alone. I’ve noticed that on the days that I drag myself out of bed early to hit the gym before spending 11 hours between my full time teaching job and part time piano teaching job, I have a higher degree of energy. If I was disciplined enough the night before, I’ll have my healthy lunch packed and ready to go. Between ensuring I’m eating healthy, exercising, sleeping enough, and mapping out everything I need in advance, I can essentially run on autopilot while also feeling like a boss for being able to accomplish so much in a day.

I feel happiest and the most satisfied when I’m accomplishing challenging tasks. I love the feeling of finishing a painting, or completing a race, or teaching a lesson that was out of my comfort zone. Basically, I like to spend as much time as possible fulfilling the upper echelons of both Bloom’s Taxonomy and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.


Funnily enough, before I got into the habit of being more disciplined, the bottom end of these pyramids completely disinterested me. Cooking for myself? Boring. Cleaning? Bah, I’ve got more important things to do. Even my friendships would tend to suffer; many of my friends can attest to my vanishing act that occurs whenever I get busy on projects. Now you see me, now you don’t.

Bloomtaxonomy I’m happy to say that I’m getting better at taking care of my basic needs. From a mechanical perspective, it simply makes sense to take care of the machine that’s carting your brain from place to place. But it isn’t easy to set aside time for basic body and relationship maintenance when there are other commitments constantly tapping your shoulder and demanding your attention. Who has time for healthy eating when you’re hauling butt to get from A to B? Just grab some take-out and mow down as quick as you can.

My housekeeping also isn’t nearly as strong as it could be; I frequently get frustrated by my less-than-sparkling home after a long day, but I often collapse into the couch and watch reruns of Buffy the Vampire Slayer instead of fixing the problem. Never mind that an extra 10 minutes of tidying would make a world of difference on my mood when I woke up. Once I’m even more settled into my routines I’ll be working in designated housekeeping time. Being in a tidy home makes me happy. It’s worth investing the time in.

My commitments forced discipline back into a central role in my life, but my god, it’s been wonderful. I’m actively working on so many dreams at once; my dreams of having my own studio, my dream of being a teacher, my dream of being so fit that I could reasonably expect to join the cast of Buffy (nerd alert, but come on, who wouldn’t want to be a vampire slayer?!). If that means getting up early, extra meal planning, more trips to the gym, and ignoring that needling voice that whispers, wouldn’t it be more fun to just veg and watch Netflix? so be it. I have the exact same amount of hours in my day as so many of my heroes who are out there living the dream.

With discipline, I’ll keep living my dreams too.

Get Thee a Mentor: Why Mentorship Matters to Creatives

“Marianne, honey, you have to get lower.”

The instructor is hovering, shaking her head. She thinks I can do better, which is nice, I suppose.

I don’t think my legs have ever hurt so much. I’m halfway through a weighted Pilates class, and am clearly the wounded animal at the back of the pack. There is a woman to my left who I have decided to nickname Abs. Abs is having no problem whatsoever. This must be a typical morning for Abs. I, on the other hand, am shaking my head with disbelief whenever the instructor (who is Toronto glamourous, instructing with exquisitely coiffed hair) demonstrates the next exercise. She executes each movement with grace and fluidity, despite the numerous Tiffany bracelets that adorn her wrists.

I am a hippo compared to these people.

“Show ‘em how they do it in North Bay!” My mentor shouts encouragingly. He’s in the corner, with strap-on ankle weights for the extra challenge. He looks like he’s having a wonderful time, smiling and joking around.

If I was thinking straight, I would’ve said, I just want to say for the record, my performance in this class is not representative of the population of North Bay. We are a strong, noble, rugged people.

Instead, I say, “Gwwwwwwuuuuuuuuh.”

Welcome to what I have decided to call Art Bootcamp – 2016.


If I could give one piece of advice to any budding artist, regardless of what form that art takes, it would be to go out and find a professional mentor. Find a person whose work you admire, contact them, ask questions, and learn. Doing this is what led me to Mississauga two weeks ago, where I studied one-on-one with one of my favourite working artists, Olaf Schneider. You can see his work at

I first noticed Olaf’s work on the walls of the Wolf’s Den hostel on the edge of Algonquin Park. In April 2015, I took a solo trip to Algonquin, and stayed in the hostel while I wandered the trails that were just starting to emerge from beneath the infamously massive Muskoka snowdrifts. On the walls of the hostel I noticed a painting that was simply signed “Olaf”. It was ridiculously beautiful, and I stared at it for a good fifteen minutes, because sometimes it looked like a photograph, but then it was back to being a painting again. Just insane.

Long story short, but using the magic of Facebook, I managed to track Olaf down, and asked his permission to become his Facebook friend so that I could see updated works as he posted them. He generously agreed, and after a few more chats, we arranged for a weeklong workshop at his home studio in Mississauga. Below are a few of my favourite pieces that he’s created.

"Remember When" (36" x 60") by Olaf Schneider

“Remember When” (36″ x 60″) Oil on Canvas, by Olaf Schneider

"Breath" (40" x 60") Oil on Canvas, by Olaf Schneider

“Breath” (40″ x 60″) Oil on Canvas, by Olaf Schneider

"July" (30" x 40") Oil on Canvas, by Olaf Schneider

“July” (30″ x 40″) Oil on Canvas, by Olaf Schneider

Seriously, isn’t he insanely good?!

In one week, I learned more about painting than I possibly could have with years of self-taught trial and error. I learned how to stretch canvases onto custom-built frames, prime them, and lay down the image onto the canvas. I learned colour theory, different techniques, and used new tools. I saw the difference a proper easel can make, learned how to look at print outs of images and interpret colour into the piece itself. I could examine pieces close up, and learned how to harmonize pieces through careful touches here and there, that allowed the eyes to do some of the work of blending, and walking that line between literal photorealism and individual interpretation of a subject. I emerged with a wish list a mile long, and a commitment to shift the majority of my practice into oil painting.

The primary difference for me between acrylic and oil is the ability to blend, and the amount of stress that this reduces. In acrylics, you’re racing against the clock. Even with mediums added to your paint to slow the drying time, a skin starts to form on your paints after only five minutes of being on the canvas. Disturb that skin and you get accidental lumps. It’s like what happens when you heat up milk without stirring, and you get a skin on top that affixes itself to your stirring spoon, and is slimy and gross. However, acrylics are easy to clean up, odourless, and are more affordable than oils (even Golden, the crème de la crème of acrylics, are cheaper than oil), making them very accessible and easy to use.

With oils, your paints are workable for days; I even have to add a speeding agent to them to ensure that they would be mostly dry after sitting overnight in front of a fan. When I sit down to paint in oil, I can get up and walk away for several hours before returning, and it’s not a big deal at all. The paints that were put onto my taboret (which is a fancy palette setup) remained moist for almost the entire time that I was there. Sure, there are exceptional acrylic artists who have figured out how to work through the time limitations, but oils immediately eliminated many of my weaknesses in acrylics, allowing me to rocket ahead and learn buckets of new knowledge.

The major drawback with oils is that they stink. After a week in the studio I’d grown immune to it, but I remained sensitive to the odours of liquin (the drying agent) and turpenoid (the brush cleaner). Olaf has methods for containing the smells of both, but it’s not something I could do from the comfort of my two bedroom apartment; when I continue with oils this summer, I’m going to need to find a well-ventilated studio space. Fortunately I live in North Bay, so while studios may not be abundant, they are much more affordable than Toronto.

This is not to say I don’t love acrylic, or that one medium is better than the other. This is simply a matter of personal preference; ultimately, I think oils align better with my passion for Canadian landscapes. I’m not throwing acrylics under the bus, and I’m looking forward to continuing my work with them, but I am very excited for new possibilities with oil.

"In the Glowing" (11" x 14") Oil on Panel, by Marianne Vander Dussen. My first oil painting!

“In the Glowing” (11″ x 14″) Oil on Panel, by Marianne Vander Dussen. My first oil painting!

The workshop started between 8:30-9am every morning. Typically, it went until 5-6pm. We took an hour break every day to go exercise, a practice he maintains as part of his workday and wanted to include as part of the experience, demonstrating how he remains focused and energized. But aside from food breaks and gym breaks, it was constant. It was intense, and towards the end I was starting to crumble a bit, from being so overwhelmed with new information. But by Friday, I was holding a beautiful still life that I had painted, and was about 25% of the way through a lovely 22” x 35” painting of my parents’ farm, on a canvas that I had stretched myself, based on a photograph that I took a couple of years ago.

And that is how I wound up sweating in a beautiful Pilates studio surrounded by sculpted bodies that had no problem with the bazillion burpees expected by our fabulous instructor. Daily exercise is not a luxury; it’s a necessity for creative people. My productivity increased, my focus improved, and it got me out of the house, away from the canvas, so that I could be more present when I returned. But for someone not used to the rigours of long hours in the studio combined with challenging classes on a daily basis, I was absolutely exhausted by the end of the week.

Will I continue this kind of intensive exercise on my own once I resume painting? Absolutely. I’ll need to work up to it a little more, rather than jumping straight into the deep end, but now that I’ve lived the lifestyle, I understand its value. Same with shutting off distractions in the studio; friends can wait, social media can wait, everything else can wait. If I’m getting distracted, either determine a way to eliminate the distraction, or head to the gym and return after I’ve burned some of my nervous energy. Simple and effective.

The learning was challenging, but I loved it. I was pushed, guided, and helped towards unlocking new abilities and ways to read images. It was singlehandedly the best thing I’ve ever done for myself as an artist. I came back buzzing with energy, anxious to be in front of a canvas again. Unfortunately, the time has come to go into seclusion mode and hunker down on my thesis. I am getting closer and closer to finishing and am frankly desperate for it to be over with. The faster I get it done, the faster I can make use of all my new skills in oil painting.

Speaking of, the thesis is calling. Back to work.

Theme of 2016: Live Your Values, Part One

Yowza. It’s been a long time since I sat down to write for this blog.

The ultimate goal of this blog is to document and explore creativity, whether it’s sharing my own creative ebbs and flows and utilizing the blog as a reflection and growth tool, or interviewing another creative person who is making a go of their craft.

Due to an insanely busy January I’ve been unable to write either. Although the next few months are set to be pretty busy, I’m still hoping to make time to reflect on my artistic and creative practices via this blog while sharing stories of artists and creative movers and shakers. It’s a pleasant excuse to do some non-academic writing, and to unwind my thoughts from the tight little tangle of complex, and at times pompous language that forms my thesis.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how I want my 2016 to look; in addition to graduating from my Master of Education program, I’m hoping to make this an amazing year for my art business, and hopefully earn enough to take a sizeable chunk out of my student loans so that my sweetheart and I can look at buying a home. But more importantly, I want to make this year matter; not just in terms of ticking off some goal boxes, but also in terms of making some important adjustments that bring me to be more in line with my values.

Live Your Values

Why Living Your Values Matters

When I was working on my recent painting, Sarah’s Sunset, I listened to the audio book of The Compound Effect by Darren Hardy. The book was recommended by the blog Un-Fancy, which is one of my favourite blogs of all time. Darren Hardy is the publisher of SUCCESS magazine, and has made his living both studying successful people and applying the principles of success in his own life. One thing that successful people have in common? They live their values.

When I sat down to plan out my 2016 and all the projects I want to take on, as well as all the life adjustments and changes that I’d like to make, I thought about ways I could alter my habits to be in better alignment with what I believe. Creating change is a work in progress; regardless of whether I’m tinkering with a painting or making major shifts in my behavioural patterns, there’s always something to tweak. Here are some of the goals I’ve set for the year to come.

Life Principle One: Quality over Quantity, aka Live More with Less

love this concept. I have read countless books on the subject. Now, I just have to live it.

Living in a society where our collective livelihoods are dependent on capitalism and consumerism, it’s rare to ever feel enough. There’s always something missing, a product that can fill the gap in your living room, your driveway, or in your beauty routine, that will somehow bring happiness. Obsessed with attaining peak levels of whatever, it’s unusual to hear someone say, I have enough. I am enough. I have enough things. I am healthy enough. There is abundance in my life already, I don’t need more.

Since September, I’ve been working diligently to eliminate the clutter from my life and replace multiple items that I sort of like with one item that I really love. Rather than feeling dissatisfied with many items, I sought to become very satisfied with fewer objects.

It started with my closet; I went on a purge and got rid of a huge portion of my clothes. I’m slowly replacing them with staples that fall into the guidelines of a capsule wardrobe, or a French wardrobe. The idea is that you have a small amount of clothes, but they are all relatively neutral, match with everything, and fit well, taking all the stress out of deciding what to wear every morning while guaranteeing an elegant, polished look. From a mathematical perspective, one item that looks fabulous > five items that are too loose/tight/see-through/whatever. See an example below, taken from Un-Fancy:

Photo Credit: Un-Fancy

Photo Credit: Un-Fancy

Last year, I went in an entirely different direction. I thought that I would try to live in alignment with my belief that we as a society place too much of an emphasis on physical appearance. I believed that this would make me a better person; after all, I was transcending our image-obsessed culture, and forcing people to look past my appearance to see my positive qualities. I allowed my highlights to grow out and my grey hairs to grow in. I didn’t put on makeup. I wore old t-shirts with silly messages on them, sometimes at the same time as my pouffy orange cotton pants that I picked up while backpacking in Indonesia.

No one took me seriously. And really, can you blame them?

My new philosophy is dress how you want to be treated, and less is more. Truth be told, I’m not that great when it comes to fashion, so turning to a capsule/French wardrobe just makes sense. In addition to the above link to Un-Fancy, I strongly suggested checking out The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo, and taking a look at Pinterest’s results for “capsule wardrobe.”

Of course, this doesn’t only apply to clothing.

This applies to pretty much everything, which is why I consider it to be a core value. Fewer friends, but richer relationships. Fewer objects cluttering up my home, but each one has a purpose or brings me joy. Fewer projects, but each one is more meaningful and receives my full attention.

This week, I sold a bicycle rack that mounts on the back of a sedan vehicle. Four years ago, I bought it for $300. I haven’t owned a vehicle for three years, let alone a racing bike that I’d want to transport with it. Never mind that it no longer served any function whatsoever; I had paid good money for it, and therefore I felt that I had to keep it. Until I realized, hey, I’m being ridiculous. I sold it for $75, a fraction of what I’d paid, but put the money I received into a jar to go towards a new watch. Rather than having something useless take up space in my closet, I now have the means, in cash, to buy something I’ll love.

I took the same principle and applied it to my decor. I moved into my current abode 7 months ago, but the walls are still mostly empty. Rather than cluttering them up with posters and knickknacks, I’m taking the time to select pieces for my space that are in harmony with my vision. It’s a slow process, but I’m in no rush. I’d rather have a proverbial blank canvas primed and ready to go for when inspiration strikes than allow something mediocre to serve as a placeholder for the extraordinary.

This goal has everything to do with art

In 2015, I fell into being an artist. It didn’t happen on purpose; up until January 2015, I had simply painted for the joy of it. Suddenly, I found myself negotiating commissions and getting paid for my work. With more paintings equalling greater income, it seemed natural to want to squeeze more work into my schedule. Before I knew it, I wasn’t doing art for fun anymore. Although my projects were each uniquely enjoyable to work on, I no longer had time to create for myself, or to experiment, or to have a margin of error.

So, when I set up my schedule for 2016, I kept that in the forefront of my mind: quality over quantity.

I could realistically squeeze in another commission or two this year, and work solidly until Christmas. But to what end? My walls are still empty, and I feel that they are nudging me now to fill them with new work. And so long as I’m unable to experiment, play, and dabble in other media, I face a sincere risk of stagnation.

As an artist, I crave growth. But if my practice becomes an assembly line, then I may as well give up and go get a desk monkey job. Heaven knows I’d likely be making more money as an office worker, so as long as I’m dedicating myself to art, I may as well be an artist in the sense that each piece requires mastery, patience, and vision.

I gave myself permission to take a break from art, and to include time in my schedule to work on non-commissioned pieces for my own enjoyment. I’m training for a week in Mississauga in oils, which will open up whole new possibilities for work. But most importantly, I’m allowing myself to focus on my thesis, to get it out of the way, rather than splitting my focus between school and art. Right now, school comes first. When it’s done, art will take over. Each discipline will be the better for it in the long run, and the quality of each piece will ultimately be higher.

Which is in alignment with my value of quality over quantity.

Which fits the very definition of success; growth, quality, satisfaction, and joy.

Which means happiness.

Which means a life well lived, the best any of us can hope for.

I have a few other core values or life principles that I want to develop this year…I’m excited to share them in subsequent posts. 

And if you haven’t already, you should definitely check out The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. 

Creating an Acrylic Painting – From Start to Finish

Ever since I started painting two years ago, I’ve been documenting the entire process from start to finish. It can be a little nerve-wracking sharing photos of paintings in progress, particularly because the final product looks completely different from the first colour block, as demonstrated below.




As you can see, there’s a considerable difference. My painting style is multiple layers building on top of each other to create a sense of depth and detail. The first few layers look terrible, and I always go through moments of panic. By the end, the piece just always somehow manages to fall together.

I’m working on two major commissions right now, both landscapes. One is a 24″ x 36″ painting of a sunset at a cottage, and the other is an 18″ x 24″ surprise that I have been sworn to secrecy over. A recurring pattern I’ve observed is that my clientele usually fall into one of two categories; they either want to stay out of the process entirely and be surprised at the end, or they are massively curious about the process and want to see every step of the journey. I’m happy regardless, as I believe in full transparency as I’m working. I want to ensure that if the client sees something that they’re not happy with, they have time to intervene. I’m always happy to take feedback and work it into their piece.

After a few requests, I decided to start a series of posts documenting my process from start to finish for creating an acrylic painting. I’m not worried about putting myself out of business by sharing my trade secrets; my style is my style, and it can’t really be replicated, any more than I could copy another artist. I can take inspiration, and people can be inspired from how I do my work, but I’m comfortable with pulling back the curtain and showing you the process from start to finish. My hope is that readers may feel motivated to pick up a brush, and my past and future clients can see the level of work that goes into a piece from beginning to end.

Painting in AcrylicsIf you are entirely new to acrylic painting, I strongly recommend “Painting in Acrylics: the Indispensable Guide” by Lorena Kloosterboer. I bought this book after I’d already started doing commissions, and it really is as indispensable as advertised. You can find it through Amazon or by ordering through your local, independent bookstore.

Step 1a: Negotiating the Commission

Probably my least favourite part of the process, but a necessary evil. Your time as an artist has value, and you are investing more than just your time. I work with Golden paints and Liquitex professional heavy body (as well as some leftover Grumbacher Academy paints that I have kicking around after my stint as a painting instructor at Michael’s), which are top of the line, highly pigmented, and expensive. An 8oz jar of titanium white, the least expensive colour on the market, is about $20. My 8oz jars of cobalt blue and cadmium red cost $45 each. For a full palette (around 6-8 colours as a start-up), you’re looking at about a $200 investment. However, this does last a while. I am still building my palette, but aside from my Burnt Umber, I have yet to need to replace any of my paints yet, and I’ve completed 5 since investing in the higher quality stuff.

I also use a variety of acrylic mediums, such as glazing fluid ($20), gloss gel ($20), flow-aide ($20), high quality gesso ($20), slow-dri blending medium ($20), and more. It adds up. Then there’s the canvas. I order my canvases from Curry’s, because they’re Canadian made, independently owned, and have the weird combination of being both the highest quality and the cheapest available. My 24″ x 36″ canvas for my most recent commission cost $39.99 before tax.

My stash of supplies, minus my brush collection.

My stash of supplies, minus my brush collection.

Already before beginning my work, I’m several hundred dollars out of pocket, which is not uncommon in any business. So now I need to set a price that will help me recoup a little bit of my investment, while appropriately compensating me for my time.

I’m poor at estimating time (especially because I always underestimate how long it actually takes me to complete a piece), so I tend to begin with price per linear inch. I think this is ultimately better than pricing per square inch, because your prices would skyrocket exponentially as the piece gets larger.

Pricing per linear inch means I add the length and the width together for the total, and then match that with a pre-determined amount. For example, an 18″ x 24″ is a total of 42 linear inches. If I charge $14 per linear inch, that’s $590 all in. At least $100 right off of the top is going towards supplies.

As a side note, I used to charge $14/linear inch, but I’ll be raising this in the future due to an increase in demand. I think it’s easier to start lower and then move your prices up than it is to go the other way around. If a client finds out that they overpaid, they will not be happy. As a result, I definitely undercharged for my first few paintings, which I don’t recommend, but it also meant that I was working and getting my name out there. The way I saw it, it was free advertising, and at least someone had my work on their walls. I have yet to determine my new price per linear inch, but it will be active starting January 2016. 

Should I ask for a deposit up front?

I support that depends entirely on your comfort levels. I personally don’t. I offer my clients a 100% satisfaction guarantee. If they aren’t completely happy with the painting, they are under no obligation to take it. That removes a high level of pressure from me. I don’t have their money, therefore I feel more comfortable when I’m working on those first layers and am horrified by how amateur it looks. There has only been one time where I’ve accepted payment in advance, and that was from a client who preferred to pay me for the painting in instalments. I let her know that regardless, the money was fully refundable, but for her financial situation she preferred doing it in gradual amounts.

If the client agrees to my pricing, and I don’t need to add on any rush fees for completing it within a particularly short period of time, then we’re off to the races!

Step 1b – Choosing the Right Canvas Size for the Commission

I called this step 1.5, because in order for me to proceed with a price, I need to see an image and know which canvas size to use. This is an incredibly important step, and too often overlooked. Take the image below as an example:

Sarah Sunset

This is a 4″ x 6″ photograph originally, which means it has an aspect ratio of 2:3 (or, because it’s landscape instead of portrait, 3:2). Meaning I have to find a canvas size that honours that, otherwise I’ll have to crop it. An example of a 2:3 canvas would be a 12″ x 18″ (which reduced to its simplest terms, is 2:3). I’m very fortunate that this client wanted a 24″ x 36″, which is also a 2:3 ratio, otherwise I’d have to crop this image to make it fit a canvas with a different aspect ratio. A 16″ x 20″ canvas has a 4:5 ratio (reducing both numbers to their simplest terms). This means I’d have to cut off some of the sides of this image, which would be a real shame. So before I the commission price is settled, I need to know what size of canvas I need. However, if the client has their heart set on a specific size because it will suit their space, then we’ll need to have a chat about cropping. I created a YouTube video below to help you see how important this stage is.

If the client agrees to the size, and to the price, then I have the green light to proceed.

Stay tuned for the next few posts in this series. Next up, I’ll share how I prepare the canvas, do swatch tests, and perform initial studies. From there, I’ll show you how I do each layer based on the sunset painting, and common challenges I encounter.