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February 2004


by S. E. Chambers, associate editor

As we are faced with completing works for submitting to journals, magazines, portfolios, the scrutiny of our superiors, and so on, we are also faced with the tantalizing " must-do-before" temptation. Meeting deadlines isn't within our nature. We like to do things on our time, with our own pure enthusiasm and motivation. When someone tells us that this must be done by such and such date, we feel controlled. Being a procrastinator is such a bad aspect in anyone's personality that it is no wonder we feel terrible every time we decide to catch up our favourite TV program or write emails instead of concentrating on what needs to be done.

Now let us go back to the time when artists worked from commissions that specified the subjects for their paintings. (Doesn't seem that far back does it?) Imagine someone coming up to you in your private workspace and saying, I want an episode from Ovid's Metamorphoses with Diana and Actaeon (followed by a lengthy discussion of the contract). What are you feeling at that moment, as the patron gives you a deadline and then takes off, leaving you holding your crayon and looking at your blank easel loaded with clean paper. You read the commission requirements that have been written up for you and you realize that you don't really know the story of Actaeon. So you go off and do all kinds of extraneous research, and every time you put your crayon to the paper you feel compelled to look up that reference one more time. You attempt it again. The excuses go on until you are faced with the deadline in three hours! You rush through the final product and hand it in with vague lines and references. You didn't give it your best shot...You lost the commission. Or you get the commission, but now the patron is breathing down your neck, reading the contract word for word to you to make sure that you understand. Either way you are aggravated and you want out!

When completing an art work on a one-week deadline, I felt extremely stressed and forced to get the creative juices going. I analysed the situation at hand it terms of " have to" , " need to" , and " must do" . I must look at the live model since I only have two hours. I have to get this sketch in since it is the last time the model is coming and I need to come up with an interesting background. Can my imagination work under pressure? Employers would like to hope so: If not, you are fired! But no, mine can't. My imagination works at 3am, in the shower, right before I go to sleep; it is unpredictable. But all these quirky moments have something in common: my mind is relaxed and feels secure. At the same time my nagging side is working over time, with comments like " you don't know that much on this subject" and " you could have been done with it if you came in earlier" or " you should work faster while it is still fresh!" So instead of relaxing and allowing my imagination to take the reins, I get tense, and there are more pauses than usual as the time leaks away. I go to the library and look up the masters' approaches to background (reminder, this is the section of the painting that is supposed to be imaginative, why am I researching?), we have furniture, antique landscapes, gloomy landscapes, abstract shapes, mathematical divided space. I have managed to waste valuable creative images while listening to my nagging side say " well that is adventurous" and " you are still an amateur" or my favourite " you don't have that much time!"

In the end, it gets done. That is the moment we have been looking forward to and that is the moment we all remember. We don't want to remember the mini breaks or research for references because those were moments of false productiveness. Or were they? When I procrastinate, I am enjoying the time doing the research because I see the way another artist managed to handle the same problem of filling up white space, and it is inspiring. I am immersing myself in the work of other creative people. I am seeing their finished products and they are sharing their stories of inspiration—the inspiration that comes during those unexpected, procrastinating moments. Those moments when your mind takes a break and goes off into a day dream. Those moments when you surf the net and the images are popping up and merging in a pattern that you catches your eye.

Those are the moments that we all live for as artists. They are moments of intense discovery and deep reflection. You find out things that you never knew about yourself or about a subject, and it takes you on a journey. There you are, inspired. Run with it...straight to your canvas at three in the morning and get it down. There! You step back...it is magnificent! You check the time and realize that it is due in three hours! You double check it and your nagging mind comes back into action, tearing the new work apart with self-doubts. Tell it to shut up! The best works are done at these moments. These moments of intense inspiration!

© 2004 S. E. Chambers

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