Bad Habits?

We all know what habits are, but I want to share a good definition I recently came across. Habits are the small decisions we make and the actions we perform — or fail to perform — every day. Our lives are guided by our habits — good, bad, or indifferent — and research suggests that as much as 40% of our behavior comes from our habits.

We begin the day with habitual routines. We brush our teeth. We wash our face. We perform whatever morning ablutions we’ve grown accustomed to. Starting the day is a ritual of sorts. 

Throughout the day, we continue with our rituals. Routine is comforting. We feel secure with the familiar. Is it any wonder that certain habits and patterns of activity become so easily ingrained in our brains?

And so it goes, from the moment we wake up to the time when we prepare for bed, once again following a comfortable, familiar routine before we turn out the lights.

Habits are good. Well, at least, if they’re good habits, they’re good. Habits can also be bad, or, if not bad, at least not helpful. Especially with art, I think, it’s very easy to get into habits that may not be serving us well. For self-taught artists like me, that’s probably even truer than for artists who have had the benefit of class instruction, the guidance of professional artists, the opportunity to develop proper habits from the start. 

Every time I’m in my studio, I become aware — again — of how many bad habits I’ve developed as an artist. I know my faults, all too well.

  • I’m always rushing through projects
  • I don’t take good care of my paints and brushes
  • I don’t clean up my work space from one project to another
  • I don’t follow directions well
  • I don’t have a clear plan in mind when I start a painting or other art project
  • I improvise too much

There are definite problems here, such as my tendency to rush. I’m impatient. I’m always in a hurry. I want to do as many things as I can. When I’m drawing along with a tutorial, I’m always racing ahead, and then I wonder why I have a poor drawing. With watercolors, I’m too impatient to wait for washes to dry, so I end up with blurred lines, bleeding colors, and disappointing paintings. Oil painting? Yes, I rush there, too, always wanting to hurry up and finish whatever I’m working on. 

Not taking good care of my brushes and paints — and other art supplies — is also a truly bad habit, although I don’t worry about it as much as I once did. Yes, cleaning our brushes is something we should do, but I’ve learned that it’s not the end of the world. Especially with my watercolor brushes, I sometimes let them set in water. Not good, I know, but I’m using fairly inexpensive brushes. I’ve ruined more than a few, especially with my oils, but when it happens, I shrug, buy a new set of brushes, and promise to do better. For a while, I actually do work to break this bad habit, but all too soon I’m back to the same old bad habit again. 

Not cleaning up my work space between projects is another bad habit, but I’m getting better. As I showed in a recent post, I’ve recently cleaned and organized the studio — somewhat. It will never be neat, but I am getting better at putting things away when I’m finished with them.

And then we come to a few habits that I call bad… but are they really?  

I don’t follow directions well. 

Sounds like a very bad habit, doesn’t it? I know I get frustrated with our grandsons when we’re doing art projects and they’re not listening and following directions. But then I see myself doing the exact same thing as I watch tutorials or follow along with a demonstration from an art book or magazine. I may begin as directed, but my mind is quickly questioning different approaches. Maybe I could do this? What would happen if I used this instead? I’m not sure I like the colors in the demo, so why don’t I make my own choices? 

It’s part of the creative process. Sure enough, there are times when we should follow directions and use the guidance we’re given. But there are other times when “doing our own thing” can lead us to exciting new discoveries in art. I’m trying to take the same approach I’ve begun using with the grandkids. We’ll do the project twice, I explain. The first time, they need to follow the directions. Then, once they’ve learned the process, they can do the project again with their own creative ideas. 

I don’t have a clear plan when I start a painting or other art project.

Yes, indeed, sometimes this is a real disadvantage. It’s part of my tendency again to rush into things. Usually I think I have a plan, but it’s really only a vague idea. I might know what I want to create, but I haven’t taken time to figure out how to create it. This is especially true with my art journal pages, I’ve noticed. I have ideas. I have images in my head. But instead of taking time to sit down and make decisions on materials and colors and techniques — mixed media is still a bit overwhelming — I just start slapping paint on the pages, all the while with no real idea of where I’m heading artistically.

The result? A lot of art journal pages that aren’t really meaningful, pages that don’t truly reflect who I am, what my life is all about, pages that don’t actually even express creativity. That’s what my journal is all about, you see. It’s a place to play, to practice, to learn, to grow, a place to try out all the new art goodies in my studio. 

So… well, wait a second! If I am trying new things, then I am being creative, and that’s good. That’s beneficial, right? Results aren’t the issue here. It’s all about the process. If I’m exploring new techniques and experimenting with different methods, I might end up with questionable results, for sure. But is that a bad thing, really?

Sometimes it’s good to wander a bit, to not always be following a road map, a tutorial, a demonstration. Sometimes we discover fun new things. Sometimes we don’t. At least, I don’t. Sometimes all I end up with is a sad-looking page where nothing really fits together, but other times I’ve ended up with a journal page that is better than anything I could have planned out. 

I improvise too much.

What does this mean? It means — once again owing to my impatience — that I’m always trying things when I’m not really prepared. Maybe I don’t have exactly the right brushes, the right type of paper, the right tools. Who cares! If I’m wanting to do a project, I’m apt to jump right in with an “I’ll find something to use” attitude. Naturally this sometimes leads to paintings and projects that go horribly wrong. Some things — while similar — can’t necessarily be substituted for something else, and make no mistake about it, using the right tools and the right materials can make a big difference in the quality of the finished product.

All the same, is this really a truly bad habit? It leads to disappointment at times, but it also helps me learn about the materials I’m using. It allows me to be creative — improvisation is a huge part of the creative process — and it gives me a chance to put more of myself and my personality into projects.

Many of the choices made this way relate to personal preferences. If I’m following an art journal tutorial, for instance, and a certain stencil is used, I don’t have to have that exact same pattern. I can search through my stencil collection and choose one that I like. I make good choices now and then, bad choices at other times, but again, it’s all part of the process.

In browsing around this morning, I’ve learned that there are sixteen habits often considered essential to success in life. These habits are broken down into five specific areas: 

  • Healthy development
  • Academic and life readiness
  • Positive mindsets
  • Perseverance
  • Independence 

I think we can apply these concepts to ourselves as artists at any stage in our growth. Our application of these principles may be slightly different from how they’re usually viewed, but here is how I see it.

Healthy development is all about the development of fundamental skills in art. It’s the foundation upon which we build, a strong support for all of our creative habits. It involves learning the essential elements of art, developing basic skills, and recognizing the need for on-going practice.

Academic and life readiness is the point at which we broaden our knowledge and create habits of consistent learning and practice. This is where we begin to personally connect with art, the point where we begin to actually see ourselves as artists.

Positive mindsets are exactly what they say. Positive thoughts. A good attitude. A desire and determination to improve our art. Yes, positive thinking — in art as in all of life — is a habit that we can develop. Creating “art routines” that help us work efficiently is a good approach here. Understanding what inspires us and making time for ourselves can be important elements of our artistry. Think about it. Develop habits that make you feel good, habits that make you happy. 

Perseverance. Habits can definitely play a big role here. Our ability to keep on keepin’ on is based in large part on the habits we’ve developed. Practicing art every day is a first step. Finishing the projects we start is another. We are what we do. If we want to be better at art, we need to do more art.

Independence. Here is where habits can be tricky, I think, and this is why we need to build that good foundation beneath us, otherwise our entire concept of art — and of ourselves as artists — can come tumbling down when we set off on our own path and stumble. And we will definitely stumble! 

There are lots of fine lines here, as I’ve discovered. Following directions can be good; not following directions can also be good in a creative sense. Using the right tools and materials can help us produce the desired results; improvising can lead to exciting creative discoveries and unexpected results. Having a clear plan in mind makes it easy for us to proceed; having no clear vision or plan allows us room to play, to explore, and to see unlimited possibilities.

So, yes, habits can be good, but sometimes maybe we need to take a closer look at our habits and see whether they’re truly helping us or hindering us. For me, I think it’s more important to focus on developing positive creative habits than to worry myself too much about breaking what I perceive to be bad habits

Okay, so, yeah, I do need to clean my brushes better. Putting things away between projects might be a good idea too. I’ll try. I promise.



    1. I found it interesting to see how our art “habits” can have a good side or a bad side. It’s helpful now when I start being critical — I can just “flip the coin” over and look at the other side. Instead of criticizing myself for being too impatient, I can praise myself for being adventurous. LOL. I know there are lots of areas where I can improve, of course, and I think now I can focus more on the real problems and not fuss at myself too much for some of the other flaws. 🙂

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