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Cultivating Your Studio Practice- The Power of Starting- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Cultivating Your Studio Practice- The Power of Starting- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Cultivating Your Studio Practice: The Power of Starting

Starting is probably the greatest challenge of all creative enterprises. Zero to one, from nothing to something.

Why is it so hard sometimes?


The nature of things is resistance to change, while the nature of process is resistance to stasis.

William Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways: A Journey into America


Perhaps it helps to break it down into pieces.

There’s more to starting than starting itself. It’s all the good things that come from being able to start, rather than for its own sake.

Getting at those rewards is about developing consistency in starting.

The most reliable key to satisfying creative impulses is having a consistent response, namely to start do do something about it rather than defer or ignore it. This hurdle needs to be made a low as possible so overcoming it becomes automatic if not effortless.


Consistence, Persistence, & Resistance


I define consistence as persistence against resistance.

If you want to make perfect mashed potatoes, you have to beat them a long time until they’re velvety smooth, and what is beating but persistence against resistance to get a perfect and delicious consistency?



Creamy Mashed Potatoes


At face value, this sounds like a lot of work. Why should I seek resistance instead of taking the easiest path?

I once saw a poster (at a National Laboratory, of all places) that said, “First thing in the morning, eat a live frog. Nothing worse will happen to you all day.”

That is one way of being consistent and starting, but there are better ways that do not involve decimating the already endangered amphibian population.



Frog – Not on the Menu


A Productive Exercise of Self–Deception


Since we are the world’s experts at deceiving ourselves, better than anybody else, we can use this sometimes dubious capability to our advantage.

We call this “psychological plea bargaining.”

The challenge of starting plays right into this concept. It works like this:


  1. I don’t really feel like creating art today, but I’ll poke my head into the studio because I promised myself I’d do that every day.
  2. I’ll just gesso over that old painting in the corner that I don’t know what to do with so as to have a blank canvas for later.
  3. Since I’ve already made a mess now and will have to clean a brush anyway, might as well mix some paint for later.
  4. I suppose I could see how those newly mixed colors look on some little rectangles of canvas.
  5. Ooh, that’s interesting. I’ll add some contrasting color here and some line over there.



Oil paints


We are simultaneously nudging ourselves into activity while knowing that we are doing so, an interesting duality.

If this seems strange, think about reading fiction or watching a movie with a fictional subject.

We suspend our disbelief about the fictionality of the story to become involved in the emotional dynamic of the film or story, though we know the creation is not “real.”


The Character & The Script


So now you’re the character in the movie and you are writing that character’s script at the same time.

You are the Nudger and the Nudgee. This has a kind of Buddhist flavor to it, taking advantage of the insubstantiality of the ego to be on both sides of the interaction and to lightly leap over the fence between subject and object.


No Shortcuts


Why can’t we cut to the chase without all of this starting?

It is like the saying about the secrets to a perfect marriage: “There are three secrets to a perfect marriage, but nobody knows which three those are in advance.”

There is no substitute for doing the experiments, making the starts, persisting against resistance.

Mindset can make it easier and practice can make it become natural, but there is no way around, only through.


With gratitude from our studio to yours,

Nancy & Bruce


P.S. We offer a free workshop: Three Massive Mistakes Even Professional Artists Make on Tuesday, Sept. 20 at 10 am PDT. Register HERE.

In October, we release The Artist’s Journey® Masterclass for the last time in 2022.

If you desire to go deeper into your art this is a great opportunity to join our stellar group of artists and take your art somewhere new.

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