Seven Small Sketches: Art in the Time of COVID-19 (and other disasters)

It’s been a few months since I last posted, and a lot has happened in that time. The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in devastating death tolls in some countries, along with basic freedoms many of us take for granted – like being able to go to the gym or socialise with large groups of friends at the pub – being taken away as governments bring in various restrictions to try to curb the spread of COVID-19. Schools have closed and a lot of jobs have either been lost or been forced to make a rapid transition to online in order to stay afloat. Here in Australia, these restrictions seem to be working, with very few new cases reported each day and a relatively small number of deaths, but it’s still early days, so we can’t afford to become complacent, and it will probably be a while before things go back to the way they were.

With many of us suddenly finding ourselves at home with (theoretically) a lot more time on our hands, it’s not surprising that we can feel pressured to get more work done, to take up a new hobby or put more time and effort into mastering an existing one. I say “theoretically” because, as I’m sure most of us have discovered, more time at home does not equal more time to work, especially when we live with other people who also can’t go out anywhere or do anything. It’s really difficult to get things done when you are being constantly interrupted; I have a hard enough time trying to work with a 2-year-old German Shepherd constantly demanding cuddles or barking at the postie, so I can only imagine it’s ten times harder for people trying to work from home with children (especially if they also have to supervise those children while they do classes online). Not to mention the constant worry at the back of our mind at all times, about whether someone we love will get sick, or that money will become tight, or the general frustration about not being able to go out or have time to ourselves. No matter how much you try to put it out of your mind, it’s still always there, gradually sapping your energy.

I should add a disclaimer that I’ve been fairly lucky with regards to the shutdown in that it has not affected either of my jobs (and therefore, my income). My teaching job for uni has moved online, and my retail job is busier than ever. So while there have been a lot of things I’ve found stressful about the shutdown, money isn’t one of them.

On top of that, I’ve still been struggling with my own issues from last year. I’m still angry and upset about having to discontinue my PhD and the likely prospect that I’ll never be able to finish it, while the health issue I developed last year is still progressing (albeit slowly), and though I have a tentative diagnosis, I’m still not 100% sure what it is, let alone if it can be treated.

Even before Semester 1 started back in March, I feel like I did very little of anything worthwhile. I only did one or two drawings and I didn’t do any fiction writing. Once uni kicked off, I quickly became busy with class preparation and assignment marking, which didn’t diminish after we were suddenly forced to change from on-campus classes to online delivery because of the coronavirus. I also got put on a contract at my retail job at the same time, so I’ve gone from doing one shift there every week or two, to doing three shifts every week. This has been good for my bank account – and it’s also been the one thing that gets me out of the house – but it’s left me with little time for any of my creative hobbies, and when I have had time, I’ve generally not had the energy or motivation, so I’d end up just faffing around in Animal Crossing for several hours, and then feeling guilty and ashamed when my Switch’s low battery indicator came on because I’d spent the time on video games rather than doing anything useful.

I think it was while I was obsessing over where I was going to move my fruit tree orchard and how I would arrange the villagers’ houses in Animal Crossing that I had a thought: wouldn’t I be better off putting this creative energy into something where I’d actually have something to show for it at the end? Now, I understand this isn’t an entirely healthy mindset (see my note below), but it also got me thinking about how I could do something creative when I just really couldn’t be bothered.

Disclaimer number 2: while it’s important to try to do what you can and keep yourself busy, it’s okay to not be as productive as normal or to not finish everything on your to-do list every day, or even to have days where you just can’t do anything but survive. These aren’t normal times, so for a lot of folks, the best they can really hope to do is make it through until some semblance of normalcy returns; anything you manage to achieve on top of that is just icing on the cake (and if ‘wasting time’ playing video games helps you maintain your sanity and take your mind off how crappy life/the world is, even just for a little while, then the time wasn’t wasted). This post isn’t meant to guilt trip anyone into trying to be productive when they’re not physically, mentally or emotionally up to it; it’s just supposed to provide some ideas and encouragement for people who do want to do something creative but maybe don’t know where to start or have limited time and energy.

In light of this, I sat down and actually started to make lists of creative things I thought I could do that wouldn’t require too much time or energy. I considered trying to write short stories, but my writing muscles seem to have atrophied somewhat in the years since I did my writing and editing course (I have been re-reading the novel I was writing to try to immerse myself in the world again, but haven’t managed to do much more than bash out a few sentences in the manuscript). I thought about finally starting on a painting I’ve had an idea for since late last year, and doing it in steps, but I realised that anything that would take me more than one or two sittings to complete is probably something I won’t complete at all. None of the ideas I came up with seemed workable. It wasn’t until I was doing my annual desk clean, during which I clear away piles of notes and excavate lost stationery, that I found a rectangle of watercolour paper I’d cut from a larger piece and then clearly forgotten about for some reason. The scrap was rectangular and about half the size of a credit card, and although I couldn’t remember why I’d cut it out, it occurred to me that it was probably big enough to do a miniature painting.

Thus, Seven Small Sketches was born.

Seven Small Sketches
As is the case with most skills, art is something you have to practice regularly if you want to improve. Regularly churning out large drawings or paintings isn’t feasible for me (or a lot of people) most of the time, but doing regular small paintings is something that much more achievable. The painting I attempted on the watercolour paper scrap was a disaster, but instead of being discouraged as I usually am when I mess up a painting, I didn’t really care because I hadn’t put that much time or energy into it. I got out a small pad of watercolour paper that was almost used up and used masking tape to create 8 small rectangles. To help myself achieve the ‘regular’ part, I set myself a goal of doing one small sketch each day for a week.

This was what I ended up with (references for the photos I used are at the bottom of this post).

Even though it was a fairly small challenge, part of me still expected to fail, so I felt a genuine sense of achievement when I got to the end of the week and actually had seven new piece of art to show for it. Yes, they’re only small, but they’re still paintings and drawings that didn’t exist before. Completing this challenge has also given me the motivation to keep trying to make art, even if it’s only small pieces like this, rather than feeling bad about the fact my art supplies are just sitting in my drawer unused.

Tips and Ideas
If you want to have a go at your own Seven Small Sketches challenge, here are some things to consider before you get started.

Medium
You’ll need to decide what medium/s your small sketches will be created with. Depending on your art goals, you might choose to experiment with a different medium every day of the week, or to focus on one medium. The medium you choose will also influence the surface you’ll draw or paint on, so if you’re going to do what I did and use one piece of paper (or canvas) for the whole week, you’ll need to plan ahead. Otherwise, you can just use separate miniature canvases or pieces of paper for each piece.

Subject/Style
As with mediums, you may decide to paint or draw a different subject every day, or to do the same subject but from different angles, or different variations of the subject. As a compromise, you could do a themed week of different subjects that are somehow related, or perhaps do several different paintings in a new style (like impressionism or abstraction) that you haven’t tried before.

Experiment
Depending on how much time and energy you have, you may still be doing full-sized art works as well as your Seven Small Sketches. These sketches can be a useful tool for developing ideas for those larger pieces, as you can use them as a practice run or try out different ideas, colour schemes or compositions. This has the bonus of removing any anxiety about trying something new on a larger piece, because if you make a mistake in a small sketch, nothing has really been lost.

Time
If possible, try to allocate a particular time each day to work on your Seven Small Sketches. Pandemic or not, it can be hard to find time for art, especially when we’re busy with work, but if you can set aside even half an hour a day, that should be enough time to create something. One advantage of the Seven Small Sketches challenge is that it’s contained to a single week, so if you know you’ll have a week where you’ll have a bit more time to yourself, you can have a go at doing it that week (similarly, don’t take on the challenge if you know you’re going to be really busy with work or family or whatever, as you’re likely setting yourself up to fail).

Supplies
It goes without saying that you’ll need drawing or painting supplies, but it’s worth thinking about how your choice of materials may affect how you work on your sketches. Because these are supposed to be small and hopefully fairly quick to complete, it’s best if you use supplies you can set up and put away as quickly as possible (including cleaning up). If you already have a studio space set up with your paints, brushes and/or pastels etc at your fingertips, this is less of an issue, but for me space is limited, so I have to put all my supplies away when I’m not using them. This is why I didn’t use oil paints or soft pastels in my Seven Small Sketches challenge; I figured I’d spend more time setting them all up and having to clean it all up afterwards than I’d spend on the actual drawing or painting. It’s up to you, of course, but I chose to use small tins of pencils rather than getting out my full-range sets of Derwents or Caran D’Ache, and rather than digging through my box of watercolour tubes, I used my little Expeditionary Art Toolkit. If you’ve got any of those ‘sample size’ sets of supplies that are often thrown in as freebies with art orders or sold cheaply to introduce new customers to a product, this would be a good project to use them on.

Annotations
At the end of your Seven Small Sketches challenge, make a note of the date you started and completed it. Similar to keeping a journal, this will help you monitor your progress and over time, you’ll be able to look back at your collection of sketches and see how your skills have improved.

Forgive
Sometimes life will happen, things will go wrong and you won’t be able to complete the Seven Small Sketches challenge. And that’s fine. Doing seven drawings/paintings a day for a week is a goal to aim for, but the art police aren’t going to come and bust your door down if you miss a day because you were sick or tired or just too mentally/emotionally drained to pick up a brush. Pushing yourself to create when you’ve got nothing left only exhausts you more and it usually doesn’t result in good work (and even if it does, is it worth it if it leaves you so burnt out afterwards that you can’t function for a week?) so you’re better off taking a couple of days or a week to recharge and then pick up the challenge again when you’re ready. Even if you don’t do art for all seven days and only manage four or five? That’s still four or five pieces of art you didn’t have before, and it’s still time you spent improving your skills. Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t finish a challenge. Just pick yourself up again and try when you’re ready.

I hope this somewhat rambly post has given at least some people a bit of encouragement and motivation to get out their art supplies again. If you do decide to do your own Seven Small Sketches challenge, I’d love to see you post your creations using the #SevenSmallSketches hashtag on social media so that other artists can follow along with your progress.

References
Day 1: Indigo bunting, based on a photo by Michelle Cassandra Vincent (watercolours).
Day 2: Ladybird, from imagination (coloured pencil).
Day 3: Mountain landscape, based on various photos by Joe Price in the Photos for Artists group on Facebook (gouache).
Day 4: Waterlily, based on a photo by WthrLady in the WetCanvas Reference Image Library (oil pastel).
Day 5: Pumpkins, based on a photo by dancinghen in the WetCanvas Reference Image Library (acrylics).
Day 6: Lighthouse, based on a photo by Alice Hoagland Burghart in the Photos for Artists group on Facebook (crayon).
Day 7: Fox, based on a photo by Paul Green in the Photos for Artists group on Facebook (ink).

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