How to Awaken Creative Flow When Time is Tight

Confession: I’m feeling pretty frustrated with my art practice this summer. As much as I want to dreamily move through World Watercolor Month in a watercolor-induced euphoria, my painting practice right now is scratched out in the margins of motherhood, bracketed by grocery lists and orthodontic appointments. There’s no sense of inspiration or rightness to a creative practice that feels like a postscript. And I’m supposed to be a professional artist; a role model for aspiring artists and a full time painter. This scrabbling for time amid the noise of life feels like my dirty little secret.

And yet, even as I write this (feeling guilty that I’m not using this time for painting), I see across my painting table a huge stack of paintings, evidence of productivity and time invested in art. There might be a hundred paintings there, proof that consistently showing up is more important than meeting some ideal of the perfect artist’s life.

If I’m scraping up minutes where I find them, can I similarly dig up inspiration for those scattered abbreviations of time between motherhood’s demands? There are studies that show that creativity is more accessible for different people at different times of day, but I have no idea whether I’m more creative and productive in the morning, afternoon or evening. I have to take what I can get when the opportunity appears. When time is limited and the golden hour of creativity can’t be set aside, how does an artist tap into flow?

I believe that no matter how much (or little) the time I have to paint, I paint best in a safe space where my creativity can thrive, and over the years I’ve developed habits that help me find a space of flow even when time is short.

Routine/Ceremony/Practice

It’s called a creative practice and if it’s a practice, are there habits you can establish that will form a framework to remind your body and mind to open up to creative flow? Could an artist structure a routine that prepares you to paint?

My creative starting process doesn’t really look very intentional, but it is! Because my creativity killer is my tendency to be a rule-follower, my creative flow is awakened best through play. I need to start with a reminder that in my art space, I get to do whatever I want. When I enter the studio, I don’t start painting right away. I meander in and poke around for a bit. I rarely clean my studio at the end of a painting session, rather, I start a session by tidying up some of the messes from the last time I painted. I fill my paint water cups with clear water, creating a symbolic fresh start for my brushes and my mind. I review recent paintings with curiosity, trying to avoid judgment, noticing instead the parts I like, techniques or colors that feel inspiring. I make a cup of coffee and choose a playlist or podcast to listen to while I paint. Rather than setting a big intention, I try to listen to my inner sense of what I might want to achieve in today’s painting session. Do I want to start a new project, or am I intrigued by the possibilities in an unfinished painting? Do I need the mood lift of a purely playful color exploration, or the safe space of painting something I know well and can successfully complete? Am I excited about taking risks in my paintings, or do I need the comfor of traditional and familiar techniques?

My pre-painting routine often feels haphazard, even lazy because I don’t rush into the studio and start work immediately. But even though this wasn’t initially intentional, I’ve realized that my body knows best, and this lackadaisical beginning is my way of reminding myself that my art practice is for me. My creativity feels most uninhibited when I offer myself self-indulgent freedom, when I let time fall away and take the pressure off of my own productivity.

If you’re an artist who thrives under intention and structure, perhaps your creative starting ceremony might look like entering a space that is clean and clear to welcome your ideas, with your beginnings planned out. Perhaps you are a very physical person whose inspiration will flow best when you’ve warmed up your body with yoga or breathing exercises. Maybe you are keyed toward language, and your creative flow will be awakened through journaling before you paint, or reading poetry.

My creative habits didn’t feel like a starting ceremony at first; they felt like bad habits. I was quick to shame myself for not diving into painting as soon as I entered the studio, for not being more focused and driven. But I’ve realized that in letting myself start slowly and meander, I’m opening doors for inspiration, easing into my painting process, and it’s freeing to my artist self.

What are you doing today that helps you settle into your own creative flow? How can you create a start-up tradition that cues your body and mind to feel more free to paint like you? Leave a comment below and share what works for you! 

Recommended4 recommendationsPublished in World Watercolor Month
14 Comments
  1. Irene Hynes 3 weeks ago

    It’s so nice to see that I am not alone in procrastinating! I had great intentions of daily painting this summer at our trailer by a lake. We ended up selling it and had to move all of our stuff quite quickly.
    I got a couple of plein- air paintings in, but now I will reset myself in my art room, and
    Take portable tools when I go anywhere to get more plein-air in.
    We always have to adapt. It makes life interesting.

  2. Monica De Wit 3 weeks ago

    Knowing you Angela, you will use this time for increased awareness and application. You deserve a break! Our summers are so short, it’s nice to get out and garden etc….You’ll always be my hero.

  3. Sandra Strait 3 weeks ago

    Thank you, Angela! I tend to be the kind of person that shuts down with faced with many different projects that need to be done. I’m certain your tips will help me jump start my brain when I do this.

  4. Aletha Kuschan 3 weeks ago

    Perhaps changing the way you describe what you’re doing might help. If you’re labeling the various actions in your thoughts as having or lacking inspiration, then you evaluate the process and your emotions rather than the artwork. (And evaluation of the art happens across time in an editorial sort of way.)

    I don’t really even know what inspiration is. I just draw or paint in chunks of time. Last night — or should I call it this morning? — was an unusual but very compelling example because we had to drug the dog in order to cut his nails. All day we tried keeping him awake, but he really only got quiet when we were going to bed.

    I woke at about 3am, just woke no reason. I immediately began looking for the dog. Soon I was fully awake — he was trying to sleep — and I was seeking those chances to snip his nails. To keep myself alert, I pulled a book on Cezanne off the shelf, with a notebook and some neocolors, got on the floor with the dog and started drawing to pass the time, copying some Cezanne apples. Got a nice drawing out of it and snipped two of the dog’s nails. Dog nail time: it’s a process. As of noon, thought, his nails are looking much better. And I’m still drawing.

  5. Walter F Pierluissi 3 weeks ago

    Well frustration is part of the creative process… Even the Eternal in times have been frustrated… His creation possibly is turned to be something that was never intent to be…. But the issue is that frustrations always have some surprising knowledge in the background, just need to discover them….and there is the true journey….

  6. Deanna 3 weeks ago

    Wow! Amazing and very helpful article Angela. Even though I’m in my “retirement” years I find myself now trying to find a balance—demands of a house on acreage that needs to be cared for, having a toddler grandson, other relationship responsibilities, etc. Your words have given me places to jump start my creativity in the small windows I have available during the summer season. Thanks for taking the time to share your wisdom!

  7. Liz Strange Savage 3 weeks ago

    I admire artists, like yourself, who seem to have the self discipline or organization to work steadily at their goals. It’s a mental thing for me, and I’m finding less is more. If I have too many options, I get diverted from the real goal. While we were away this summer though, I completed two watercolors about which I felt pretty good. I limited my supplies, my palette and just painted while I was on the beach. Those two paintings are probably the freest, yet most deliberate work I’ve done in a long time. Which reminds me, I need to downsize my studio. Too many distractions in there right now.

  8. Judy McKenzie Daniels 3 weeks ago

    Accepting that life ‘happenings’ may dictate or limit what time and ‘space’ there is available for creativity can go a way towards being gentle with oneself. At the moment health issues are a priority, yet keeping a small stash of materials close at hand, rather than entering my Studio Space, is keeping me connected to a very “thin” art practice. Charcoal stick, a watercolour brush or two, a few colours and a sketchbook are my survival mode. I keep them in view on a desk in our living space. For now, a dedicated Studio practice is beyond my energy. I am learning to be at peace.

  9. Robyn Canning 3 weeks ago

    Thank you once again Angela for your honest thoughts and for sharing your process! I’ve had a similar week with frustrations, indecision and lack of time to create – I find I’m much happier creating art and it was quite disconcerting when I couldn’t paint! I sketched in front of the TV (if I wasn’t too tired!) of a night and at least I thought I was getting somewhere. I also tried to do a very loose, quick flower watercolour sketch each day in an old paperback book I have been using for play and that was also quite satisfying. By Thursday, when I had time to think more about what I wanted to create, I had time to play with gouache on a canvas and created a Still Life painting that I’m really proud of! I guess what I learned this week was – never give up, you can always ‘do’ something to keep the creative flow alive!

  10. Janet 3 weeks ago

    Hi Angela, I feel your angst for sure. I have been a funk for awhile, painting but not how I want to paint. To detailed. A lot of company to get ready for (had to completely clean out my studio for a queen size air mattress) then a lot of work to do after they all went home and so on. No chance to keep on painting at that time. It was my birthday and I am at an age where I want to start counting backwards. Then my time finally came, my head was clear and I could put paint to paper and get “brush miles” added up. What a great feeling. What I am working on now is loose and atmospheric and I love it. It’s where I want to be. Anyway, thank you for your words as always, it’s nice to know even though you are well known in the watercolor world you are in fact human. Warm hugs. ❤️🎨

  11. Sandra Thyssen 3 weeks ago

    It is like you were describing my situation to the tee! The only difference is that you are a professional and I am just a beginner doubting myself or with little confidence. I was very hard on myself but after reading your article, I feel so much better that it is not just me! That this things happens and had nothing to do with me being not cut for this… Thank you for sharing your frustrating times with us, it gave me much of renewed hopes!

  12. Irene Taylor 3 weeks ago

    Ditto to so many of the comments above! And my advice is…play, play, play! I, too, struggled with time management while raising a family, working, moving, etc. Now I’m retired and have all the time I want. But creative painting is so unlike other tasks. I can’t always turn it on like I did for my former commercial art jobs. I used to keep a detailed time sheet for each project. That sure won’t work with my current watercolor endeavors. I don’t call it procrastinating…I call it percolating.

  13. Annamaria Taudel 3 weeks ago

    Angela, whenever you put your thoughts and feelings to paper, I nod my head and say – yes, exactly. We know you and you know us. Which is why, for me, I value and trust you. You took this time to do what needs to be done. No need to pressure yourself. Your family supports you! Be kind to yourself and refresh!

  14. Fascinating read….and informative tips, Angela!

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