Say 'Yes' to Flow

11 Apr 2011

Flow happens when you've got a clear idea of where you want to go
with your painting and let it unfold naturally. All works by Jennifer King.
With a deadline looming for a May group show of flowers and gardens, this past Saturday seemed an ideal time for me to create something for the exhibit during my first plein-air painting session of the season! Daffodils are already blooming everywhere, and the weather was perfect for a day of painting outdoors. It was like nothing could go wrong. But, in a word, my efforts were disastrous! After two hours of battle producing one ugly painting, I scraped down the canvas and went home for a nap.

What went so wrong? Trying to analyze where it fell apart, I began to think back to a conversation I'd had earlier in the week with a bunch of my artist-friends about the idea of "flow." It's that magical circumstance when a masterful painting just seems to paint itself in an instant. It is being "in the moment, performing without self-consciousness." Do you know what I mean?  My friend Marcia wondered if we can deliberately force ourselves into flow by establishing the right conditions, which would certainly be fantastic if it were possible. It prompted me to reflect on the times I've felt "in the flow" to see what they had anything in common, and I arrived at three things:

1. Focus. Distractions--both physical and mental--really mess with my flow. Plein-air painting is notorious for its many interruptions, which is why I try to pick a quiet place to paint and always bring along my bug spray and water. It's also why I only paint with other serious plein-air painters, not social, chatty people who may want to talk more than paint. As for mental focus, consciously giving myself permission to paint really helps, but if something urgent awaits, it's usually best for me to attend to that first.

I Witness and Wait, oil, 8 x 16.
2. Clarity. The second thing I've noticed about being in the flow is just how clear I am about the content of my painting. From the get-go, I know exactly what that particular painting is about, whether it's something concrete I want to explore, like a color scheme, or something more abstract I want to express, like a mood or story. Pre-planning with thumbnail sketches and a solid block-in also works wonders for gaining that clarity.

3. Release. For me, the most important flow factor is letting go of the outcome before I begin. That's where I went wrong on Saturday. I put all kinds of pressure on myself to complete an outstanding plein-air painting for this upcoming show when I should have just relaxed and enjoyed those daffodils.

You can't push yourself into flow, and you shouldn't necessarily wait for it to arrive before you start your plein-air painting. We can only take those moments for all they are worth when they happen. But just maybe we can set ourselves up for flow by paying attention to what leads to the magic, so it will come around more often than not. What do you think?


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Donna McGee wrote
on 14 Apr 2011 8:28 AM

Great analysis, Jennifer. I agree with you -- these seem to be my issues, too. I have noticed that if I can squeeze in some quick sketching before I go out to the plein-air session (such as sketching an apple at breakfast), it loosens me up and helps me go into my space (as I call it) easier.  And taking it easy on the caffeine helps as well!

Donna in Pierrefonds, Qu├ębec

Monica Anne wrote
on 15 Apr 2011 6:44 AM

You really hit the mark here, no truer words could be spoken; Focus, Clarity, Release,  are three words every artist should reflect upon prior to beginning any painting.  I know  this will change how i address my plein air sessions. thank you.


KatPaints wrote
on 18 Apr 2011 4:25 PM

To me flow has absolutely nothing to do with magic rather the result of lots  and lots of practice, knowledge and a willingness to respond to subtle moment-to-moment changes. I mentioned elsewhere in Artist Daily that a gymnast spends years learning, making errors, falling, maybe spraining and breaking a few bones. She gets back up and learns to tweak her position, focus on a muscle, try it again with a subtle change. Everything is in preparation for the performance. We all see the Olympic results - some are overcome with nerves and are still nursing an injury, while others are feeling healthy, strong, and confident. The subtle slip is overlooked because the final performance is breathtaking. At times, she scores perfect tens and we see the ease, acknowledge "magic" and forget the decades of work, hardships, heartbreaks, and torn ligaments. I recall reading either here or on a blog of a plein air painter who commented to a would-be buyer's remark over the expense of a painting done relatively quickly -- This painting did not take me three hours, it took me thirty-five years and three hours. (Not sure of the exact time and wording, but you get the idea.)

Sometimes the weather is just right, we ate well, nothing aches, our timing is right. We focus in in blocking in our painting, we know what we want to create, and then the branch falls, Oops! so then we re-evaluate, hmm maybe I can change this... and it works, We accidentally pick up a little of a wrong color and we decide to adapt the area and it works out well. Yes responding does require a positive attitude and putting self-judgment aside.

I like your focus, clarity (intention), release of judgement, but I'll add respond and lots of practice. Here I am rambling on again..... to shorten my comments - It's not magic -----it's work work work and lots of experience turning a flaw into something beautiful. You've got to peddle uphill if you want the fun glide downhill.