My Version of a Gratitude Journal – Giving and Receiving


[I wrote a first version of this post 7 months ago but I never felt I explained things well.  This rewrite brings some clarity.]


I have a hard time sticking with a “traditional” gratitude journal.   You know – that list of 3 or 5 things that we should to write down each night so we can stay focused on the positive so we can manifest amazing things in our lives.  The Law of Attraction is powerful.

My lists tend to look something like this

  • my daughter had a friend over and they were silly.
  • I saw a double rainbow :)
  • dinner was really yummy.

I get bored with it.

How many variations of “my kids”, “my cats”, “my friends”, “nature”,  “my house” and “my dinner” can I really come up with each night?

It ends up feeling forced and inauthentic after a while.  I run out of things to write.  It becomes a rote exercise for me verses a way to tap into positive energy. Basically – it is just not me.

And I’ll be honest – it stresses me out.  I feel guilty for not doing it because this has some how become the thing we need to do to have a beautiful life.   Anxiety is not exactly the point of the exercise.

Narrowed Focus

My solution…  I do my daily journalling with a slightly different focus.

I use my nightly writing time to reflect upon the giving and receiving for my day.

My gratitude journal has two categories:

  • Affirmations – acknowledging all the gifts sent my way
  • Accomplishments – acknowledging what I am giving


This is a list of everything that came my way during the day as an affirmation I’m on the right track.  This list helps me to notice all the awesomeness that comes my way.

My list might be things like this:

  • Someone buys my art.
  • Someone smiles at me.
  • My work is accepted into an exhibit.
  • I get an email thanking me for my workshops.
  • I get a thank you from a collector for adding beauty to their home.
  • A friend gives me a compliment.
  • A gallerist shows interest in my art.
  • My workshops fill.
  • My artwork receives an award.
  • I over hear a friend telling someone my artwork is awesome.
  • They said YES!

This looks a lot like a gratitude list – I know.  I am indeed grateful for these things – I just find it easier to not get bored when I use different words to describe what I put on the list.

And it is more than that.

These are all the things I need to to open to receiving.  Really receiving – not just brushing off as a given.  Which can be far too easy to do.

When was the last time you accepted a compliment without discounting it?


In addition to the affirmations I also keep a list of my daily accomplishments.  This isn’t about crossing things off my todo list.   It’s a focus on what I am giving through my actions, talent and skills.

In addition to acknowledging my giving – this list is a fabulous reminder that I am taking the necessary actions to move forward towards my dreams.

Some days the list is big and impressive:

  • I worked in the studio five hours on work for my upcoming exhibit
  • I wrote two blog posts
  • I helped two artists during our coaching calls – one had an aha moment about what is blocking her.
  • I updated the sidebar of my blog.
  • I handled a challenging email exchange with grace.

Some days the list is less active:

  • I took a day of self care to rest – I got a massage, a pedicure, took a long walk in the sun and bought some tickets to go see my favorite performer.  I did think of a great idea for a blog post which I wrote down and I’ll write it another day.

Three Universal Laws

Writing my lists of affirmations and accomplishments helps me recognize daily that I am indeed in control of my world.  I have the power to create whatever I want.  My thoughts and actions mater.

Another way to think of it – I’m tapping into what three universal laws that I find are always working…

Law of Attraction – Demonstrates how we create the things, events and people that come into our lives.  Our thoughts, feelings, words, and actions produce energies which, in turn attract like energies. Negative energies attract negative energies and positive energies attract positive energies.

Law of Action – Must be employed in order for us to manifest things on earth. We must engage in actions that supports our thoughts dreams, emotions and words.

Laws of Giving & Receiving – In order to receive you must first give. In order to give you must also receive.

Wrap Up

One of themes I see over and over in my coaching is clients that have trouble connecting to their own power.

They tend to focus on what went undone.  What failed.  The rejections.  They lack confidence.

When clients start focusing on their actions and the affirmations they are receiving the result – they gain confidence.  And with that confidence – they become unstoppable.

How do you stay connected to all the good coming your way and all amazing things you are doing?



Imperfect Action is Better than No Action


Five Months – No Art

My life the last 5 months:

  • April and May – packing up my house in Denver and putting it all in a container headed to New Zealand.
  • June – exhibiting at my very first art fairs in New Zealand and packing up my apartment in New Zealand.
  • June/July – 3 weeks in Australia teaching
  • July/August – the container arrives from Denver – six weeks unpacking and moving into my new home on the beach on the Kapiti Coast of New Zealand.

No studio time!

And really, since I arrived in New Zealand in April 2015 I have no had a regular studio practice.  I spent most of my free time traveling and relaxing.

Getting the Habit Back

I miss being an artist on a daily basis.  It is a core part of who I am.

Yet there has been some fear around getting back to my practice.  What if I can’t do it?

What if I forgot how to make art???

I always  think that after a break from the studio.  It’s really rather silly, yet the thought seems to always surface.

I used it as an excuse to set up my kitchen before setting up my studio.

I walked on the beach vs set up my studio.  I sorted out my spices vs set up my studio.

I needed a nudge to get moving.

100 Days Project

Then I heard about the New Zealand based 100 days project.  Do something every day for 100 days – then post it to the group website – every day.  Could be art – could be anything.

What a perfect way to get back to a regular studio practice. What if I committed to making a completed artwork every single day?

  • It would force me to get my studio set up.
  • It would provide an external deadline (I love deadlines!)
  • It was long term, so my regular studio practice would be re-established.

It was perfect.

But I had just days to get the studio set up and that seemed rather daunting.

So I thought about doing something really easy and quick that didn’t require my studio so I wouldn’t fail.  Because failing is no fun.  Especially publicly.

I also thought about skipping it and just waiting until next year – when I could do it right.

Making a Commitment

And then that part of me that wants the best for me. The part of me that makes the right decisions and isn’t afraid of risk – she  jumped in and committed to making a completed 6×6″ textile painting each day.  For 100 days.

A commitment of 2-5 hours a day.  For 100 days.

That’s all I needed.   A commitment.

Result – I got my studio set up on time.  I posted my first completed textile painting on Day 1 on time.

By getting clear on my intention – “return to my regular studio practice by leveraging the 100 day project” – I was able to take action.

Imperfect Action

Almost.  The afternoon of Day 1 I left town.  For 5 days.  A bit of an impromptu vacation.

So I immediately fell behind.   Which was okay.

Because that smart part of me is smart, I committed to make 90 out of the 100 days.  I told people I was aiming for imperfect action.

At least on paper.

Upon my return from vacation I tried to catch up before I posted any more days.  Because I didn’t want to actually be imperfect.

Result – I just got further behind and I started avoiding the studio.

Fortunately the part of me that got me into this in the first place, she stepped in and said “embrace the imperfect”.

The goal is rekindling my studio practice – not proving to the world I am super  human.

And so here I am on day #20 with 9 completed textile paintings (only 6 posted online).

Which is excellent – because I’ve been working in my studio 2-3 hours a day.  Most days.

And that was the goal.  Will I catch up?  Will I make 90 out of 100 completed works of art?

It doesn’t matter.

Imperfect action is getting me exactly where I want to be – in the studio, rebuilding my  studio practice.

Learning and Growing Imperfectly

I find I often skip taking classes and seminars for the same reason – because I know I can’t do it perfectly.

Classes that I really really want to take.

Years go by without signing up because I’m sure the time will be better later.  Because next time I’ll have time to listen to every single recording and do every single exercise.

And of course next time I’m busy with something else because the reality is I will never not be busy.

Inspired by my imperfect studio action, last week I signed up to learn from someone I’ve been wanting to work with for over 8 years.

  • I won’t be able to attend the live event. I signed up anyway.
  • I’m likely not going to be able to do all the homework.  I signed up anyway.
  • I’m going to miss things as my mind wanders off while listening to the content.  I signed up anyway.

Why sign up if I’m not going to get 100% out of it?  Because that isn’t the point – to be the perfect student.

What is the point?  The point is that I want to move forward with adding more coaching into my business and this program is going to help me to that.

Right now I feel like I’m treading water with my business.  It’s time to get it moving forward.  One imperfect step at a time.


Wrap Up

Where might you accept imperfect action in exchange for moving towards where you want to be?

I invite you to become a fan of MakeBigArt on facebook where I share additional tips and comments about thinking big about your art.



PS – Registration is now open for 3 workshops starting soon in September and October – Working in a Series, Advancing the Series and Finding Meaning in Your Art.  Learn more here.

Are you stuck on the Okay Plateau?

Lou Ann Smith
Flying from Santa Barbara to Denver
©2013 Lou Ann Smith
Lou Ann’s website

How Do We Get Better

Have you ever thought about why you never getting better at typing even though you might spend hours a day practicing this skill?

They say practice makes perfect but if that were all it takes I should be an outstanding typist given that I spend 8-10 hours a day at a computer.  Right – just think of all those blog posts and facebook updates I type.  I should be blazing fast!!!

According to this test I type about 60-65 words a minute, which is above average, but it’s not exceptional and I’m pretty sure in high school I was typing about the same speed.

Basically I’ve not gotten better in – well – a lot of years.  How fast do you type? When was the last time you got better at it?

Turns out to get better, we need the right kinda of practice.  Just doing every day typing isn’t going to get me faster or better. Although if I were to spend time doing drills and focusing on increasing my typing speed, I would get better.  I would need to be intentional in my practice.

The same concept applies to being an artist. Just making art is not all it takes to becoming a better artist. We could spend years churning out the same average artwork over and over unless we take the time to practice our artwork with the goal in mind of becoming better.

The Okay Plateau

This phenomenon is sometimes called the okay plateau. When we are learning new skills we get better at it for a while – until we reach the place where we are satisfied with our level of achievement.

Once we reach this plateau – we essentially stop getting better.

This is because when we learn new skill, we go though 3 phases:

  • Cognitive – considerable conscious effort is required.
  • Associative – some parts are controlled, some parts require conscious effort.
  • Autonomous – we’re on autopilot.

This is fine for typing – at some point we are good enough.

But for most of us, this isn’t what we had in mind for our artwork. We don’t want to get stuck at “okay” – most of us would much prefer to make art that results in people saying “wow”, not “it’s okay”.

Moving Beyond the Plateau

So how do we do that? How do we get better at our artwork?

The trick is to stay out of the autonomous phase. You must consciously work at getting better.

Here are a few suggestions on how to do that:

  • Musicians get better by practicing scales – not just playing the same song over and over. What are you doing to improve your design sense?  Do you sketch?  Do other design exercises?
  • Study yourself failing. When things don’t go well, do you take the time to evaluate why and formulate a plan for improvement? Treat your artwork like a scientific study – create a hypothesis, test your theories, tweak your methods to obtain the desired results.
  • Work outside your comfort zone. Are you consciously thinking about design? Or do you just work intuitively all the time?  What do you do to shake things up?  Where are you trying new things?
  • Get critical and immediate feedback on your artwork. Learn to give yourself valuable critical feedback. Surgeons get better over time because they get immediate feedback to their work. Interestingly radiologists reading mammograms do not get better over time because they do no receive any sort of immediate critical feedback on their work. It can take years before their mistakes are discovered. This idea of critical and immediate feedback seems to be key in improving our skills.
  • Study what those that you feel are more successful are doing. What can you learn from them?

Working in a Series

To become a better artist, I believe rigorous practice is what is needed. And this is one reason I work in a series.

It provides me the structure necessary for improvement.

I view myself as a student – each piece in my series is simply an assignment to learn something. To improve, to try something different, to test a theory about color.

If you are ready to move beyond the okay plateau in your art and would like some guidance and feedback on your artwork, I’d love to work with you in my upcoming Working in a Series online workshop.

If you are ready to turn the “okays” into “wows” this is the workshop for you.

Details and Registration

Lou Ann Smith

“Lisa’s class was truly extraordinary. I have been taking art classes all my life, and have never had an experience quite like this.

Lisa provided a varied list of artists whose work we considered through the course, along with material to think about regarding design and process every week through email on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. This, along with her one-hour lecture on Sundays, provided a rich coursework with plenty to think about without it becoming overwhelming.

Lisa’s assignments were clear and her critiques every week of everyone’s work was extremely valuable, thorough and insightful. I think I got the most out of her critiques of my work and her assistance helping me critique my own work. She helped me see my work objectively and continue to improve things that didn’t work in the original composition.

For me, working on a piece a week created a nice flow of design. Her class offered me a new way to work in a series by offering new ways to pursue the concept I had originally envisioned. I feel that I have a better perspective of my work and my process after completing this course.”

~Lou Ann Smith (artwork above)
Goleta, California

Janice Stevens

©2014 Janice Stevens
©2014 Janice Stevens
Art Quilts
Janice’s website

“Becoming an artist is a journey with many barriers in its path, some from outside of us but most from within. Most of us struggle with questions of whether we have anything to say, whether we have anything original in content or style, whether we are good enough.

In our quest to find answers we often do course after course hoping to find the magic answers that will give us a direction, a voice and the confidence to dare to try.

In the Working in a Series course with Lisa Call, I found all of that and more. She didn’t provide us with magic answers because there are none but she guided us through ten weeks of intensive work that gradually gave us insight into how to be an artist.

The tri-weekly emails gave us information on design principles, introduced us to a large number of artists and helped us develop more efficient and productive work habits, all of which were invaluable, but for me, the most important thing that I learned was how to believe in my artwork and to trust my own voice.

The way that I learned this was by learning to critique each of my pieces for myself. This is not as easy as it might sound but is an invaluable skill to have if you want to be able to follow your own vision rather than being unduly influenced by other people’s opinions.

The decisions and discoveries I made were reinforced by the weekly group feedback sessions which also improved our ability to critique other artists’ work.

I had never really understood the benefit of working in a series and tended to make unique pieces as one-offs and then proceeding to a new topic. As the course evolved I began to see how this working in a series gave me ideas that would lead into the next exploration of my theme in an almost seamless way. This saved a significant amount of time in searching for a new subject, a new approach, a new design; I was therefore able to produce seven quilts in seven weeks which is an unprecedented pace for me.

Discovering these things about myself greatly improved my self confidence in my ability which then allowed me to start a new phase in my art development. As Jasper Johns once said “I am going to stop becoming an artist and be one.”   This course is impeccably organized, extremely well taught and invaluable for those who want to take that next step on the ladder.”

~Janice Stevens
Koh Samui, Thailand

My Interview on Working in a Series (and other topics)



A while back I was the guest over on Creative Insurgents. I’ve know Cory Huff for several years and was honored when asked to be on his show.

Of course the topic turned to my thoughts on working in a series and artists studio habits in general.

If you are curious about the content of my online workshops this video will give you a glimpse into what they are all about.


Antzee Magruder

Antzee Magruder
Aerial views of the Delta
©2012 Antzee Magruder
Fabric, Fiber and Paper
Antzee’s website

“Have you ever looked at your artwork and a nagging voice asks “what is missing?” Well that was me. I would hang my artwork in my co-op gallery and look at it wonder why I did not feel like it was complete. I had a great collection of well matched pieces much like a well coordinated outfit but they did not that cohesiveness that I needed.

I found Lisa Call’s workshop through a Twitter post and immediately knew this was the next step for me. Lisa is a professional and every aspect of her course is planned, informational and motivating. I am very busy and my time is limited and the schedule of the course allowed me flexibility to complete the work.

I have completed this course and now I feel like I have the information to take my artwork to a new level. Take the course, do the assignments and enjoy the results. It is so worth it.

~Antzee Magruder
Memphis, TN


PS – I’m now enrolling for my next session of working in a series. I’d love you have you join us!


Additional testimonials.


Introducing the Master Class Monthly Art Exhibits


Master Class Art Exhibit

Each month the participants in my Master Class hold an online art exhibit.  I invite you to check out our June exhibit here:  Masterclass June Exhibit.

The artists in the master class set their own goals for the year long class and spend a lot of time organizing and building systems for their art careers.  There is also much attention given to building a strong foundation of health, community and environment because we don’t create art in a vacuum.

To help keep them focused on making art, because above all else if you are not making art you are not an artist, there is a monthly deadline to complete new work that can be included in the exhibit.

Each month I’m incredibly impressed by all that they get done.  It’s an honor to share their work here on my makebigart website.


And this is just the first stage in making Make Big Art more of an active online community.  In the next couple of years (I’m being realistic in my time frame with all I have going on) there will be more opportunities for all readers of my blog and students in all my classes to participate in group activities here on the website.

So stay tuned!  Because I think community really matters.

To the studio!



PS – if you want to stay up to date on all the news from makebigart  you can sign up to receive email notifications.  There are 2 types of email – the first are my periodic updates that are sent via email only (the Dispatch – the first one to be sent in a couple of days) and the second is that you can also sign up to receive all the blog posts via email.


Subscribe to MakeBigArt Communications


I’m interested in…



Three Reasons to Learn Abstraction

Abstraction Assignments
©2015 Mary Beth Thorne


Why Learn About Abstraction?

Once a year I teach a 10 week intensive workshop on abstraction.  Why might you want to learn about abstraction?

1) I admit…  when I started out making abstract art I really didn’t know exactly what “abstraction” meant.  Which made it really hard to know if I was really doing it “right”.

Non-objective, pure abstraction, cubism, abstracted landscapes – it was all muddle in my head and I could never really define it – for my self or for others.  By spending hours and hours studying and doing extensive reading and looking and seeing I was able to finally sort it out.

Had I just taken a class (well duh!) I would have figured it all out sooner.   One of the fun things in my class is students get to try out a variety of types of abstraction to find the style that suits them best.  We are all different and most all students have a preference for how they work abstractly.

[As a bonus along the way students get to try out different ways of planning their art and as a result they tend to build stronger studio habits once they sort out how they work best.]


2) To speak intelligently about our artwork we need to understand where our artwork fits into the history of art.

The history of abstract art in the Western world is only about 100 years old.  While abstraction appeared in other cultures long before, it wasn’t until the early 1900’s that anyone was bold enough to claim a big black square was fine art.  How did that happen?  Why?  How did it evolve?  Where along that 100 year timeline does your work fit in?

When we understand what came before us, and why and most importantly – what were they trying to say – I believe it is much easier for us to explain the same things about our own work.  Why abstract?  What does it mean?  What is meaning in abstract art in the first place?  Once reality is removed – is there meaning?  What role does the artist play in the creation of abstract work?

I could go on and on here – I find these sorts of questions fascinating and I love that by studying the history of abstraction I gain great insight into why I’m doing what I’m doing and how I fit into the world of abstraction.  It makes it infinitely easier to talk to others about why I’m doing what I’m doing and what it all means.

And why it is a legitimate form of art. Do your friends and family members look at your abstract work and wonder what it is?  By learning the history of abstraction you can help them better understand what you are doing and why it has value.


3) Not working abstractly?  Doing landscapes but which you could put more of yourself into the work?  Abstraction doesn’t necessarily mean there is no relationship to reality.  For many the process of abstracting reality (either a little or a lot) is where they find the sweet spot and it is often the key for making realistic work more personal.   I find abstracting reality hard – yet incredibly gratifying as it is about sorting out what matters to me and exposing it in my art.

We learn a lot about ourselves and our preferences when we start to abstract reality in our art.

So to compliment this exploration my abstraction workshop includes a lot of mindset explorations – we’ll look at personality types, perfectionism, vulnerability, confidence and a biggie – limiting beliefs.  All of these can help us better understand our world which results in making better art.


My Online Abstraction Workshop

The 2016 session of Abstraction begins June 5.

There are a total of 8 assignments of the course of 10 weeks.  And there is a built in catch up week midway through the workshop.

Details and Registration are here:  Abstraction.

See more work and read form students thoughts about Abstraction here:  Alumni Directory – Abstraction.


Mary Beth Thorne

“While paintings of the Impressionists were my first love, studying the many Abstract Art movements showed me how each new movement was a reaction to the previous one/ones. I called my own painting style “fuzzy realism” which was simply blurring the lines and shapes of a realistic object. I wanted to develop more complex pieces of art, but I had no idea how to do it.

Lisa’s Abstraction class gave us the opportunity to study many ways to abstract objects and ideas and then to practice doing them. My favorite exercise was recreating one of Kandinsky’s paintings. I became deeply involved with his shapes, colors and the placement of them.  Critiquing his painting helped my identify the elements and principles of design in his work, as well as in other abstract artist’s work. This led me to a greater appreciation of modern art in general.

I found the huge variety of abstract styles to be both freeing and a little daunting.  But, becoming familiar with them and creating my own pieces in those different styles gave me the confidence to be creative in ways that I previously could not have imagined. It has now been several months since I finished the Abstraction class.  My mind must have been busy behind the scenes because I recently put together two painting ideas with a new awareness for abstracting them. The result was my most complete, complex and finished painting!  It is still recognizable as mine, but it is so much more interesting – perhaps a “reaction” to my previous style.  Now, I can’t wait to start a series of these paintings.

Lisa’s classes are like taking a challenging college course in a subject that you love, and doing it in your own space with your own tools on your own time-schedule. Combined with lots of valuable contact with Lisa and the rest of the online class, what could be a better situation?”

~Mary Beth Thorne, Hot Springs Village, Arkansas

Does all that inspiration actually do anything?


…And What They Did Next…

You can’t shake a stick on facebook without hitting a link to an inspirational article or video of some type.

Many of them with click-bait titles along the lines of…  and what they did next will surprise you!!

We to go watch the video, we click like, we might take the time to type out “love this”, and if it’s really cool we might even repost it on our own wall to inspire others.

And then what?

What do we do next?

Do we ever do anything with that inspiration?

Does it change our mindset?

Do we take action?

Are our lives improved?

Or o we move on to the next cute cat video and forget we saw the video?


Research suggests that we are likely doing the later with much (most? all?) of those inspirational videos that we watch (along with everything else on facebook).  Information overload results in most of what we see online not being stored into long term memory.

Try this – write down (don’t just think about) a summary of the last inspirational video clip you watch on facebook.

Now ask yourself – what did you do with that information?  How has it changed your life for the better?  Did you take a concrete action to change your life?

The Regret Video

The last video like this that I watch was the above video about regret.  Someone on one of my coaching facebook groups posted it.  It was indeed inspirational.  Many people wrote a short comment agreeing the video was excellent.

[Quick video summary…  They asked people to write down their biggest regret.  Most everyone mentioned something they didn’t do.  An opportunity lost, an action not taken.  It was about not taking risks, not following dreams.]

What did I do with this information? Nothing personally.  I didn’t take any risks, I didn’t follow any new dreams.   I just thought “yep – I should do things”.

It didn’t change my life in anyway.  I just went back to facebook and read another post.

For some reason this video got me thinking.  So I asked on that facebook thread what it was they all did with that information.

It was coaches – we know all about learning and taking action and transformation – so I figured if a group was going to actually do something with the inspiration it would be this group.

Only  1 person answered my question – the person that posted the video. She took the inspiration to go deeper into a workshop she was creating.

I’m not sure if other people didn’t answer because they thought I was being obnoxious (questioning the value of inspirational videos is probably an un-coachy sort of thing to do) or if they did nothing with the inspiration who wants to admit that?  Or more likely we are pretty much all to busy to have conversations on facebook and it’s better to just click like and move on.

Making it Personal

So I’m left with my thoughts on these sorts of videos and here is the conclusion I came to.

These videos add about the same value to our life as cute cat videos.  They are fun, they make us feel good and surrounding ourselves with positive, happy things is a good way to remain happy.

Why do I think they don’t add much value?  If you are stuck and don’t have the tools to implement the messages from these inspirational posts its kinda hard to do anything with the message.

Yes – to avoid regret we need to do things and not miss opportunities. But how can you take risks if you are too afraid to take the leap?

Inspiration is excellent – tools to put that inspiration into practice are even more excellent.

And because everyone is different (what blocks me from taking the leap is likely different from what is blocking you) we need personalized tools.  Help in taking the leap and also help in identifying the right leaps to take.

And that is where coaching comes in.  Coaches provide the tools needed to help you move forward.  To take the risks that you want to take.   And it is personal.

It certainly has been my experience.  It wasn’t until I started working with a coach that I was able to start creating exactly the life I wanted.  Finally the inspirational message meant something personal.

Wrap Up

What do you think? What’s your experience with these sorts of videos and articles?



PS – my co-active coaching services for artists.

“The opportunity to receive coaching from Lisa Call is the gift that keeps on giving. Her coaching enabled me to reach beyond my fears and step into a more bountiful art practice. I went from thoughts of self-doubt to being empowered to perform to my own standards above all else.

Lisa’s coaching was the pivotal “Aha-moment” for me.  Since then, I’ve achieved several career milestones including a commission from an international hotel, a competitive artist residency, an unsolicited invitation to teach at a well known fiber conference and have been curated into a premier textile art exhibition next year.”

~Christine Mauersberger


Design is the Foundation

Mary Beth Thorne
Design Elements Exercises
©2015 Mary Beth Thorne

Why You Need Design

“How do I know if my work is any good?”

“I want to learn how to critique my own work.”

I’ve heard these comments many times from fellow artists.  They want to make better artwork.  They know that learning to look at their work objectively is part of that path.  They need to know what isn’t working so they can fix it.

They ask me how they can learn this skill.  My answer is very simple:

Step 1) Learn design.  Practice design.  Eat, live and breath design until it is second nature.

Step 2) Get clear on the meaning of your artwork.

Step 3) Make a lot of art, evaluate it based on what you know from #1 and #2.  Make the next one better.  Then the next.

Step 4) Repeat steps 1 and 2 through out your career.

How to Learn Design

Learning the vocabulary of design is easy.  Just google design elements and design principles.  Read the wikipedia page.

So why take a workshop to learn what you can google in 5 minutes?

Great question – for some people reading is enough.  They can then take the information and apply it to their own work.

For others learning in a classroom environment is better.

Design is about learning to seeing a different way.  It’s about learning to look at the parts and the whole in a more intentional way.

Doing assignments and getting feedback is a great way to provide structure, motivation and integrating your learning.  I personally believe that design classes are never a waste of time.

You are Never too Old or too Good for Design

I am starting another session of my Design Elements workshop in a few days.

I feel I am at a transition point in my artwork.  What’s next?  I’m not exactly sure, but I’ve decided to take my design elements workshop right along with my students.

Part of my workshop is reviewing older artwork in terms of design.  I have no doubt that is going to be a huge learning for me.

Mary Beth Throne

One of my alumi from Design Elements has this to say about the value of learning design:

“Thanks so much for the really encouraging words on my latest assignment!  But I do realize that the reason for your good words is you and this class.

I have thought many times that you tailored this class for me … with the content, the logistics, the assignments and studying my own paintings and other artist’s paintings in detail.

I really hope that all your students feel this way because it feels great!  My biggest “”aha”” is that contrary to thinking that brushes, paint and paper were my tools, the real tools are the elements of design.  I had only a basic idea of what could be done with them and this class has given me the opportunity to explore the range of options that each element has available to me.

My other classes focused on the Principles of Design and were wonderful, but this class gives me the tools to follow the Principles.

So thank you again and again!”

~Mary Beth Thorne, Hot Springs Village, Arkansas

Wrap Up

What is your experience with design?

Ready to increase your comfort with design?

Learn more about my upcoming design workshop

It starts June 5, 2016.


Art Biz Systems – Challenges and the 2016 Master Class

Moody Blue
Note to Self

©2015 Helen Conway
Mixed Media Textiles

The Master Class and 2015 Challenges

Once a year I open enrollment for what I call the Master Class – a year long coaching/consulting/support group workshop.

I’ve written about how coaching works and it’s relationship to the master class. Today I want to share another aspect of the workshop.

While much of the focus on the master class is on the individual life and art coaching, there is also a consulting aspect with a monthly group call where every can ask me art biz questions.

Mid way through the 2015 master class one of the participants asked if I could look at everyone’s websites and give some feedback during one of our monthly group consulting call. They had all been saying they wanted to update their websites and thought this would be the perfect way to inspire them to do the work.

I immediately agreed – it seemed like a really good use of our consulting call.

I also knew it needed to be focused on them doing the work prior to the call. So I created a simple worksheet for them to fill out – they evaluated their own websites and figured out the changes they wanted to make before we even talked. For those without websites, it was an opportunity to start thinking about what they wanted from a website.

The call went well, much learning happened.

And from there – the master class challenges were born.

They’ve been a bit ad hoc as I didn’t have a big picture plan for them when the class started but they’ve been a nice addition to the class.

We’ve covered websites, blogs, newsletter and our final challenge will be social media.

Bigger and Better

As I was reformulating the master class for 2016 I wanted to expand on the challenges to be the mechanism providing a solid structure for participants take action.

Master classers are looking for transformation. Coaching is a huge component in making that happen – we focus on dreaming, getting clear, getting unstuck, and making plans during our calls. It makes the work very personal.

But without action, transformation is just a concept. The challenges provide a structure for some of that action (the art biz related things) because often the issue is not really knowing what steps need to be taken.

The 2016 challenges will be step by step checklists of action items to take to build/create/achieve specific goals. They are, of course, highly customizable, because we are individuals.

Essentially I am taking the systems I use to run my own art business and sharing them with my master class students. These isn’t just theory. These checklists work. And they come with lots of references to learn more about each topic.

[Not sure what systems are?  They are repeatable steps for things we do in our lives – sort of like habits.  I’ve been talking about using systems for our art careers since 2010.  This talk I gave in 2010 is a quick introduction to systems.

All challenges are optional AND you can work on them in any order you choose. Whatever you need for your specific career – that is what you work on.

The challenges do not require my feedback. They are systems that you can put in place at any time.

For some participants that might mean you are focusing on your studio most of the time. For others you might focusing more on marketing. Or building your website. Or focusing on health (which has a strong connection to our art).

The challenges are also quite complex and comprehensive – they all cover more material than anyone can do in a single month.   If you are focused on your art the studio challenge could keep you occupied for months.

With the individual coaching call, you learn to tailor your work to your values and dreams. You work on the challenges that fit your dreams and leave the others on the table for another time (or never.)

The 2016 Challenge Topics

While the challenge are always available to provide structure, each month I will provide feedback on a specific topic during our consulting call. Why?

Because we love deadlines. Yes – you can do the challenges at any time and create your art biz with these systems. AND by having a deadline it can help you do some work you’ve been procrastinating on.

Every challenge is optional so there is no pressure to participate. And even if you don’t, there is much learning that happens during the consulting calls.

Here is the tentative schedule of topics for 2016:

March – I’ve Got a Plan
– Planning
– Goals
– Systems
– Time Management
– Operations Manual

May – My Art and Studio

April – My Health and My Support Crew

June – My Foundation – The Art Artifacts
– Art inventory
– Resume
– Bio
– Artist statement
– Business cards

July – Sharing My Art – Building a Foundation
– Purpose / Big Picture
– Headshot
– Mailing Lists
– Editorial Calendar

August – My Beautiful World

September – Sharing My Art – Website

October – Exhibits and Sales

November – Sharing My Art – Newsletter

December – My Money and Other Numbers

January – Sharing My Art – Blogging

February – Sharing My Art – Social Media

Helen Conway

Helen’s website

Helen has been in the master class for a few years. Here are some of her thoughts on the experience:

“If you want your art career to take off, participation in the Masterclass is like you being a pilot of your life with air traffic control and a supportive cabin crew working alongside you.

If you are at the very beginning of your art journey, maybe not even sure where you are heading, Lisa as coach will help you prepare your flight plan, set your goals, find your guiding core values. Each coaching call helps you take the next step from ‘ chocks away’ to the gentle taxi to the runway and the gathering of speed as you open up the throttle.

You put in all the work, but Lisa acts like a traffic controller helping you find a clear route and allowing you to see and avoid obstacles. Then you remain accountable to her checking in as you need to keep you on course.

The individual calls to Lisa in ‘the tower’ are personal and tailored to the destination you set for yourself.

The class calls and material are like generalised information for all artist-pilots equipping you to fly high and safely.

And you are not flying solo but are supported by a close community of others all working in their own way to take off in their own art careers. There is daily support, sharing and socialising via the Facebook group. For classmates who left after the first year that has continued on a more occasional level on an alumnus group.

When you reach your first destination the process can be repeated, stopping you crash landing but rather guiding you to refuel and regathering and take off again for even more exotic climes.

In the two years I have been in the Masterclass I have been supported and equipped to go from wanting to be an artist to being taken on by a gallery for my first solo show. I have learned about the business of being a professional artist and I have been aided to overcome significant obstacles. I cannot now countenance being without a coach and my classmates.

~Helen Conway, UK

Wrap Up

Do you have on operations manual for you business?



Enrollment is now open for the 2016 master class (through end of February – or until it is full).

Learn more about the master class.


Art Education – Form and Content – It’s time for Content!


Form and Content

Art is a combination of form and content.

Form is the physical manifestation of the artwork.  It answers these types of questions:

  • what is it made out of (the medium)?
  • what techniques are used?
  • how were the design elements and principles used?
  • what is the style (abstract, impressionistic, etc)?

Content is the essence of the artwork.  It answers these types of questions:

  • what is the subject/theme?
  • what is the context?
  • what is the meaning/intention?
  • why was this artwork created?

Art Education

Most artists seek out instruction and education to hone their craft.  Outsider artists are an exception – they are truly self taught and have no formal education.  Of any kind.

The rest of us – we look for help.  Some artists attend formal education and obtain a degree.  Others (myself included) take workshops and night classes and do a lot of reading.  We patch together an art education with bits and pieces.

The majority of workshops and classes available outside of the formal education system focus on form.

A large portion of independent workshops teach medium/technique.  Indeed, if you don’t have the skills and craft to make your artwork, you can’t begin.  These classes are essential.

Another focus of these workshops is style – learning to make landscapes in a certain style, or learning how to create abstract artwork.

A smaller portion of these classes focus solely on design.  Design elements and principles are an essential tool for a visual artist.  They aren’t a set of rules on how to make art – they are insight into how artwork is viewed.  And once you understand how your choices on the canvas impact the way your art is viewed – it is much much easier to make impactful artwork.

Teaching Meaning

What about content?  Where are the privately run workshops that focus on the meaning of your artwork?

I’ve never found such a workshop although in our post-impressionist work content and meaning are a strong focus in formal art degree programs.

The topic of content is most often assumed in private workshops.  The subject matter in technique classes is generally a given:  the subject is a landscape, or a still life or an abstract.

But where is the why?  Why are you doing what you are doing?  And what does it matter to know why?  What does it even mean to ask why?

I’ve decided it’s time to teach such a workshop.  One that addresses the content side of art – Finding Meaning in Your Art – Find Your Voice.

This workshops will cover some of the formal aspects of content and its relationship to art. Be prepared for some powerpoint presentations – I do believe in rigorous university style lectures where you learn something (I used to teach computer science at the university level – back in my graduate student days.)

It will also explore the more personal side of content.  And this is where my training as a certified coactive life coach will be leveraged.  This class is about you – not just art theory and history.

The assignments include both studio work and self exploration.

Are you looking to go beyond “I do it because I want to – it has no meaning” or “I just like making beautiful things”?  Do you want to find a deeper meaning behind your artwork?  Do you want an artist statement that talks about your ‘why’ and feels authentic?

If so please consider joining us in my latest workshop – Finding Meaning in Your Art – Find Your Voice.

Wrap Up

Do  you know your why?  How did you discover it?

I invite you to become a fan of MakeBigArt on facebook where I share additional tips and comments about thinking big about your art.



PS – Not sure that knowing your Why can bring to your art?  Check out this video – it’s pretty amazing what the right Why can do for you.


Learn more about Finding Meaning in Your Art – Find Your Voice.