Today, I chat with Karen Winters, a creative whirlwind of a woman. Prior to transitioning into a hectic art career, Karen was an Emmy award-winning producer and writer for the ABC news program 20/20, PBS shows, and hundreds of corporate, sales and marketing programs. She is the author of “Teach Yourself Photoshop (Holt),” “Your Career in Advertising (McGraw-Hill),” and other books about the creative life.
Her tips on creating regularly are flavored with sound advice. Note especially her comments on maintaining creative “flow”—they are as apt a description of what it takes to build up creative momentum as I’ve ever heard!
Tell us about your creative pursuits, paid and unpaid.
Winters: I’m a professional artist, painting in a variety of media. Primarily I prefer oil and watercolor, but I also enjoy creating in acrylic and pastel. I sell my work through gallery shows, but also at special events, small group shows, and through my website and my daily art blog.
I paint to suit my own tastes and interests and I especially love plein air painting outdoors in California. But I also enjoy painting on commission and creating images that bring joy to others. Other than fine art, I continue to write and design graphics for our video production company.
Do you have any formal training in your creative discipline(s)? Do you feel training is important in creative development? Why/why not?
Winters: I have a masters’ degree in journalism from UCLA, which was useful for the writing and producing projects I’ve done for the past few decades. An undergraduate minor in art history was the beginning of my formal art education, which I have pursued in a more hands-on way with classes and workshops with some excellent professional artists. I am a great believer in lifelong learning. It’s one of the best investments a creative person can make.
What habits do you cultivate to facilitate your creative “flow”?
Winters: I’m consistent and disciplined: I make a habit of drawing or painting every day, with few exceptions. I may lose a little time over a holiday weekend or unforeseen circumstances such as illness, but as a rule I’m either drawing, sketching or at my easel 7 days a week. I’m a member of a small but growing group of people who call themselves “Daily Painters” and I usually post about three finished paintings a week.
Because I’d rather paint than do just about anything else, I’m an early bird and often at the easel by 6 or 7 a.m. working on anything from a miniature oil painting to a full-sheet watercolor.
I keep my focus: When I’m not painting, I’m likely watching instructional videos or reading art books, visiting museums or galleries or otherwise immersing myself in art. I often browse an art magazine with morning coffee and look through an art catalog before I turn out the light at night.
I never give up: Although I am occasionally not accepted in a juried art show which I have applied to, more often than not my work is selected. If I don’t get into a show, I don’t dwell on the rejection. All judges have different likes and dislikes and you can’t please them all. The same goes for a painting that doesn’t turn out the way I may have envisioned. That’s not a setback, it’s a learning moment and it gives me the opportunity to study it and find out why it didn’t work.
Painting is a little bit like being a scientist in a laboratory. Our work is often experimental and the failed experiments are as valuable as the successful ones if we have the wisdom to see it that way. For the same reason, I don’t throw away my old sketchbooks. I want to see how my work has evolved and to reflect on errors I used to make. (Now, I make new and different mistakes!)
Because I work like crazy, stay focused and don’t give up, I generate a constant source of input, reinforcement and growth and those three things all facilitate getting into the state of “flow.”
What advice would you give to a “blocked” artist in your discipline to free up their creative energies?
Winters: Get over your fear of failure, whether it’s failure in the privacy of one’s own mind, or failure in public. Be brave and dare to make all the errors that come with learning. If you don’t, then each new challenge will loom as something ominous and ego-threatening — something to be avoided. That’s what a block is. The more you practice and study and bravely work through new challenges, the less likely you’ll be to avoid them.
I think it’s also important, for the reasons above, to “prime your pump” with a constant stream of inspiration. Read, go to museums, see great art, talk with fellow artists. Keep a journal of ideas. You’ll never be at a loss for a new idea.
Which artistic project that you are working on excites you the most right now?
Winters: Right now I’m getting ready for my first solo exhibition from May – July 2009. I need about 30 paintings and I am planning the right mix of paintings that have yet to be created and paintings on hand which have never been exhibited.
I’m also the featured artist in December 2008’s Newport Beach Magazine, and have been working on a series of paintings of Southern California’s southern coastline. I’m also doing a lot of holiday commissions, which are always fun for me.
How do you select your creative projects? What elements of a potential project tend to intrigue you the most?
Winters: I am greatly influenced by nature, the seasons, my travels and the needs of specific themed shows, so those are definitely some of the factors. Right now I’m working on a series of paintings of autumn in the eastern slope of California’s Sierra Nevada. Some of these are based on plein air studies, sketches and other references. Two of the series have already sold, others are completed and I’m at work on several more. Painting something or someplace new is always attractive because it prompts me to solve new problems and not fall back into formulaic painting of subjects I may know too well.
Any other advice to artists to help them create more effortlessly?
Winters: Choose your friends wisely. Don’t hang out with whiny, negative people who will tell you all the reasons that people aren’t buying or judges are capricious or any other reason why their careers are flagging and their work “doesn’t get no respect.” Being with nay sayers is a sure way to stifle your flow.
Study constantly and push through blocks until you get to the breakthrough. Be generous with your help and encouragement of others. As they said in the ‘60s, “what goes around, comes around,” so the more creative energy you put out, the more will come back in unexpected and rewarding ways. Love life and cultivate joy – it’s the lubricant that turns a creative trickle into a torrent.