How I killed my art practice — then brought it back to life

I started painting regularly a little over four years ago. My depression and anxiety disorders had spun out of control, and in addition to adjusting my meds, my psychiatrist urged me to pursue something for pure enjoyment. A “hobby,” he called it.

Very little came to mind.

“What do you do for fun?” he asked. “What brings you joy?”

I couldn’t think of anything. What is this word “fun,” Doctor? “J-O-Y?” Please explain while I try to remember how smiling works.

Then I remembered: I had always enjoyed drawing, sketching, painting, doodling, whatever you want to call it. Art stuff. I had built up quite a collection of art supplies over the years, thanks to my dad. My dad is a talented amateur artist who loves watercolors, and he was always impulse-buying paint and paper and unloading the extras on me. (Paint and paper that I now realize are incredibly pricey. Thanks, Dad!)

Occasionally I would haul out the supplies, have a hell of a time creating, wonder why I didn’t paint more often, then put them all away and forget about them completely. Now that my doctor was basically forcing me to, however, it was time to take fun a little more seriously. (Also it was this or a tap class, and I was too depressed to be seen in public, much less attempt a time step.)

So I got out my supplies and began sort of halfheartedly, muttering thissuckthissucks as I tried to render whatever was in my line of sight. But after I was done, I came back to the drawing and stared at it. And stared some more. I had made a thing. I had felt useless and terrible, but I done gone and made a thing.

From my sketchbook, 2012

Within days I was painting and drawing every night. It was as if a switch had been flipped. I wanted to paint all the time. The experience was satisfying in a way that nothing else was. It was like meditation except in the end you had something to show for it.

As my adjusted meds were taking effect and my new hobby was providing bonus joy on top of the stabilized mood, my output increased. I was enjoying the process, and also feeling increasingly pleased with the end results. I began sharing my work with my blog readers, and a few of them suggested that they might want to purchase said work. I began selling prints online.

Royal, 2012

Once I started doing that, I also began to compare my work to the work of real artists: you know, the professionals. I saw the huge gap between where I was and where I wanted to be. I studied their work. I felt inadequate. I bought books about watercolor and drawing; how to mix colors, draw people who looked like people, etc.

The books showed me how much I was doing wrong. I tried to follow the instructions in said books. I enjoyed what I was doing a little less. But if I was going to do something, I thought, I might as well do it correctly, so I kept at it. Now I wasn’t painting for fun; I was painting to prove something. I pushed myself to paint larger pieces. Work with new techniques. I felt increasingly frustrated.

(Please note: I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with books. Books are great! I wrote one. But using books as a way to beat yourself up instead of a source of inspiration and guidance? No. That’s painful and silly. Don’t do that.)

Just like that, painting wasn’t fun anymore. Whatever magic I had found was dead— just like that. I had killed it. It was like falling out of love. What had I ever seen in painting? We had fun once. Hadn’t we had fun? Was there a way I could get the magic back?

I tried over the next few years. But nope: it only frustrated me. I put away my art supplies and returned back to my regular, art-free existence. Oh, sure, life was okay. But something was missing.

Then my co-host Deanna and I interviewed A’driane Nieves for our League of Awkward Unicorns podcast. I’d been fascinated by Addye ever since I discovered her work via mutual friends. She’s a talented artist who’s completely self-taught. She writes about mental health, like I do. She uses her art as part of her therapy, like I used to do. I told her how I had ruined my practice by reading too many books, and she laughed at me. (Kindly, of course.)

After our interview, out came all the supplies, again. I decided this time I’d start small and abstract. No more trying to render realistic portraits of elks or whatever: now I was just slapping paint around, making shit up, using watercolor-paper postcards that cost a couple of cents each. If they sucked, so what?

They mostly sucked, but whatever: slowly, I was having fun again. I was painting ten cards at a time, thinking about different color combinations and experimenting while the layers dried. I didn’t care what the end result looked like. They were only postcards. I mailed them to some friends. I felt like I was spreading around the joy I had rediscovered.

Untitled Watercolor, 2016

Then I joined the #100DayProject on Instagram. I pledged that I’d do an abstract…something a day. A painting, a sketch, a doodle, whatever.

And I’m doing it! I’m more than halfway through. I’ve got paintings and sketches piled up: some of them I like, some not so much, but I’m still really proud of my output. More importantly, the love is back.

For years I’ve told my writing students to value quantity over quality in their work: practice every day and don’t worry about the end result. When it came to painting, I forgot all about this. I took myself way too seriously, and it shut me down. (That part of me, anyway.)

What I’m proudest of: this is a fraction of my output in the last couple of months.

I’m not letting that happen again. Whatever I do, I have to value enjoying the process over anything else. Making art obligatory and joyless does no one any favors. The moment I feel pressure, I run (or paint) in the other direction.

If I can share my work with people, if I even sell them, that’s great, but I don’t have to. I’m not painting for anyone else. This is just for me. If you like it, fantastic. And if you’re inspired to try something just for fun, too? Just because it brings you joy? Even better.