Life as an artist. Some things I've learnt.

Don’t be a good girl. Do embrace your weirdness. Jealously guard your time to create. Don’t iron your shirts. Feel scared and get on with it.
— Helen Wells
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I read a lot about creativity, what it is and how to nurture it. I have so many books on the subject. I'm fascinated about the creative process and find myself frequently reading about it. Recently, as I've started to develop my online class on Expressive Sketchbooks, my reading on the subject has reached fever pitch. And today I was thinking about whether this excessive reading was helpful and why I felt the need to read every single book, ever written on the subject...

It dawned on me that I was doing what I know a lot of women do and what we have been conditioned to do. I was being good and diligent. I was over preparing. I was hiding behind research. I was being a good girl. I was wanting to know all the theory to feel equipped and confident and in charge and in control. I was hiding behind collecting and collating other people's ideas.  I was unconsciously thinking...if I read just one more book, one more article, it will make me a better teacher, a better creativity coach, more informed, less vulnerable and it might do these things...  

Then I gave myself a talking to....the truth is I've been running sessions on creativity, and teaching people creativity techniques for 20 years, I'm a professional artist, I literally create new art works every day. I have a story to tell and I don't need to tell somebody else's. I have my own thoughts on this subject, I don't need to collect everybody else's to validate mine. 

So in the spirit of not telling you what other people think, today, I thought I'd shake myself out of good-diligent-over-prepared-researching-not-doing mode and just write a blog post, off-the-cuff about what I've learnt as an artist. I'm just going to get on and type and see where it goes. No preparation, just honesty. Here goes:

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1. WEIRD IS WONDERFUL

There is no such thing as normal. I've done my fair share of people pleasing and trying to fit in. But now, rather than trying to straighten out my quirks, I realise that my weird bits are perhaps the most interesting bits about me. My lifelong obsession with patterns (I can still remember all the carpet and wallpaper patterns in a house we left when I was five), that fact I think that some smells have colours, my highly sensitive personality, my all consuming love affairs with random items from the natural world, (shells, feathers, pine cones, leaves, seaweed, fish scales)... all these things are the things which come out in my art. Rather than suppressing them, I am trying to embrace them, celebrate them, utilise them.

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2.SET BACKS CAN HAVE SILVER LININGS

I was once rejected from a prestigious London Art School because I was useless at talking about my work. I heard after the interview that they would have enrolled me on the strength of my work, but that I was terrible in the interview. They had a point, I was terrible in the interview. I think I was actually crying as I zipped up my portfolio case and left the interview room. The interview was brutal and left me feeling bruised and humiliated. But hindsight is a wonderful thing, I would have hated studying at that particular university.  I've probably been more successful and happier because I've followed my own wonky path and forged my career on my own terms. 

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3.ONLY COMPARE/COMPETE WITH YOURSELF

Social media has made it so easy for us to compare ourselves, our lives, our creative output, our artwork with other people’s artwork. Or so we think… in my experience we tend to compare our very worst bits with someone else’s best bits. I've now learnt to stop comparing my artistic journey with anyone else's. I believe that comparison is the thief of joy. I now only want to compare my work against my work. Am I learning? Am I developing? Am I expressing myself? Am I connecting with others? Am I doing my best work? Am I feeling fulfilled by my output? Am I pushing myself?

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4.CREATIVITY IS A PRACTICE

Creativity takes practice, it is not about innate genius, or talent necessarily, it's about doing, and doing some more. I'm a great believer in the power of starting. The power of taking some action and going from there. Turning up at the page and just starting. We can spend out lives thinking... and planning...and pondering... and ...considering. Sometimes this thinking and planning can be especially valuable, but we need to guard against it stopping us from progressing. See above.. I'm as guilty as anyone. So rather than thinking about starting and unproductive procrastination, sometimes we just need to give ourselves a good push up the bum, count down from five and begin, five...four...three...two...one.. and we start. And then we respond to what we have done. And then we edit and refine, but we take some action...we are progressing.

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5.MAKE AND FIND TIME

Life is hectic. There is always too much to fit in. I get it. But finding and making time to nurture my creativity and explore my ideas has been life enhancing and life changing. I am often guilty of playing the too busy card, but when I find time to play and experiment in my sketchbook I always feel more alive, more inspired and more connected to myself. There are always other things I should be doing, but I now don't iron a single thing and my life is better for it. I draw whilst watching television. I always carry a notebook and write down ideas whilst on the train or at the bus stop. I take photos of interesting patterns on the way to the Post Office. I bung food in a slow cooker before breakfast and dinner miraculously makes itself. I turn off my phone and paint. I sometimes cancel social engagements because I want to make art. I have become better at jealously guarding my creative time and carving out space.

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6. FEEL SCARED AND GET ON WITH IT

Insecurity, anxiety and fear will always rear their heads. In the past I have let my internal negative monologue stop me in my tracks, in fact it stopped me creating and drawing for years.  I’m sad that I let that happen, but I’m making up for lost time now. I still fear scared, I still feel uncertain, but I just get on with it and the 'doing' makes me feel so much better than the 'not doing' ever did. 

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HOW TO NOT 'GET IN THE WAY' OF YOUR OWN CREATIVITY

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Creative people are curious, flexible, and independent with a tremendous spirit and a love of play
— HENRI MATISSE

You are a creative powerhouse! I know that sometimes it may not feel like it, but I believe we are all innately creative with a massive amount of creative potential.

Sometimes we get in our own way and in the way of this potential.  I certainly have.  

Here is what I have learnt along the way about the creative process, or as I’m being snazzy today “Seven ways to develop your creative courage”. I hope it may resonate with you and your experiences.

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1. LOVE THE PROCESS.

Whether it’s creative writing, or drawing, or making music, a big, important part of the joy of creating is the process itself or the ‘doing’. 

We often get hung up on the result, without remembering that the 'process' that got us there is just as valuable. 

I used to be a crazed perfectionist when it came to my art. So much so, that I let my negative judgement get in the way of my enjoyment of the activity. 

For many years in my 20s I didn’t draw anything at all, because I was so critical of what I did draw. I stopped making art entirely because I always thought the end results were, quite frankly rubbish.  I found it easier to not do it at all. I let my own criticism get in the way of something which I just loved to do so much. 

So, now I try to not be so attached to the outcome. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that “life is a journey, not a destination” and perhaps this also applies to our creative endeavours. If we can love the 'doing' and learn from the process, then the outcome isn’t EVERYTHING, it is just part of the magical mix! 

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2. BE KIND NOT CRITICAL.

Apparently, our beautiful brains create up to 50,000 thoughts a day (that's quite creative) but unfortunately up to 80% of them are negative. Not so helpful when we are trying to ignite our fledgling flickers of creativity. Negative self-talk or chatter is just part of being a human and we can’t stop it. We can’t eliminate the “critical radio” that is broadcasting constantly in our head. I don't think trying to replace negative thoughts with positive ones works. What we can do, is remember that our thoughts are just thoughts. They are not necessarily true. 

 If we keep playing the same thought on repeat, it can be helpful to unpack it. I find it helpful to ask:

•    Is it true? 
•    Is it helpful? 
•    Is it kind?

Sometimes when we probe our self-critism in this way it can take the sting out of its tail.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t assess or critique our creative output – but self criticism is only helpful when used as a positive tool, not a weapon.
 

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3. DON'T LET ANXIETY AND DOUBT STOP YOU CREATING.

Insecurity and anxiety about our abilty/skill level or artwork hinders our ability to create. I let it stop me in my tracks and it stopped me creating and drawing for years.  I’m sad that I let that happen, but I’m definitely making up for lost time now. 

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4. SPARE THE COMPARING.

Comparison is the thief of joy. Creativity is about being the glorious individual that you are, it’s about expressing yourself, it’s about allowing your song to be sung and embracing your own wonderful weirdness. 

Social media has made it so easy for us to compare ourselves, our lives, our creative output, our artwork with other people’s artwork. Or so we think… in my experience we tend to compare our very worst bits with someone else’s best bits. So don’t get side tracked by someone else’s journey, get focused on yours own.

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5.  DEFINE YOUR OWN SUCCESS CRITERIA.

The wonderful thing is that we are all in charge of making up our own rules when it comes to defining our success criteria. Success is a personal thing and should be unique to us as individuals. For some, success may be being represented by a gallery and super 'rock and roll' famous, for others it may be showing a painting in a local cafe, for others it may be trying a new type or paint, or drawing in a sketchbook for the first time. Don't let other people dictate your success criteria, we are all different and have different motivations, so don't let someone else's definition of success be yours by default. 

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6. FEEL LIKE AN IMPOSTER AND DO IT ANYWAY.

Impostor syndrome is definitely a thing.  It is the feeling that you're a fraud or that any day now you'll be exposed. Apparently it is, in part, due to being unable to internalise success, or take credit for your own achievements. When I started out as an artist, I thought every success was a fluke, every achievement was a happy accident. I still sometimes feel like this. When it happens I label it as "oh you're feeling that imposter thing again', acknowledge that I'm feeling it, do a mental run down of all my successes to remind myself I'm not really a massive fat fraud and I carry on regardless...

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7. BE PLAYFUL AND BIN PERFECTIONISM.

I once heard that there is no such word for creativity in the Tibetan language and that the nearest translation was ‘natural’. I like that. I like the idea that creativity is a natural and innate way of being. When you look at young kids you have to agree. They can turn an empty box into an amazing adventure...I think that having a playful approach to our own creative endeavours can be so helpful. If you're playing, you're not obsessed with perfection. When you are playing  you are free to mess about a bit, try things out, it removes barriers and restrictions. When you are playing there are no rules, just experimentation and joy. When you are playing there is a lightness and an innate curiosity. Playing is fun, perfectionism is not.. 

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WHERE AND HOW I FIND INSPIRATION

About my work

My artwork is intuitive and intricate and often features ideas and imagery from the subconscious. I use expressive mark making to create abstract pieces which feature repetition and rhythm, layers of complexity and organic abstract imagery. 

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Responding to materials 

I’m fascinated by the interplay of colours, shapes and patterns. My paintings are rarely envisioned but develop over days as I respond to the materials and the marks on the page, creating complex illusionary landscapes.

My artworks have been described as having a magical or other worldly quality, although I am very much fascinated by the magic and wonder in this world. I’m mesmerized by the beauty, colour and pattern in our natural world. I’ll frequently have a love affair with something where I become obsessed with it for a while; from snow flake structures, to patterns on shells, or the colours and patterns on fish scales, or antique Indian textiles, or bird feathers or butterfly wings, or the patterns on maps… I also have some magpie tendencies and am rather drawn to the glittering and glinting, iridescent or luminous… 

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Influenced by the sea

Many of my abstract paintings are influenced by living by the sea. It strikes me that there is a powerful connection between the inspiration and the medium watercolour paint, which comes alive because of how it combines with water.Most of my work is painted in watercolour. There is something about the unpredictability of this kind of paint which I find alluring and magical.

I love the way the paint and colour mixes with the water on the page and creates unexpected patterns. I love the transparency of it, the ability to build up layer after layer of paint. There’s a slight wild-childness about watercolour, it doesn’t always do what you want it to do, and I love it all the more for that.

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My workspace

I am very lucky to have two rooms at the top of our house in Hastings. I’ve painted the walls and floor white to maximize the light. Having painted wooden floors also means I can roll back the rugs and make a real mess without any worries. I love rugs and have them everywhere, bright bursts of colour and pattern that sing to me. So, although the walls and floor of my space are white, the space is far from minimalist. 

I love collecting weird and wonderful objects and picking up old or unusual objects in junk shops. My place is scattered with old tins, patterned ceramics, pebbles from the beach, old books and interesting textiles.  

MY FAVOURITE ART MATERIALS

I love art materials and experimenting with different products and techniques. Here are some of my favourites:

Watercolour paper

I mostly use watercolour gummed blocks. These are paper pads which are gummed on all four sides so that the paper remains taught and entirely wrinkle free. They tend to feature a little gap in the glue so that the painting can be sliced from the block with a pallet knife once completed. 

These types of pad allow me to use a large quantity of paint and water and for the paper to remain smooth and beautifully flat. They do not require pre stretching.  I use different types of paper finish depending on the type of painting. I will use 'hot pressed' paper when adding pen detail as the paper is super smooth and allows the pen or pencil to glide along, and I will use rough or cold pressed paper if I want the finished paintings surface to be textured. I mostly use Arches Aquarelle with is aside and chlorine free and made of 100% cotton fibres for strength and stability. 

Contemporary watercolour by helen wells

Contemporary watercolour by helen wells

Watercolour paints

I use two types of watercolour paint, either Winsor & Newton Professional Watercolour Paint or Daniel Smith Extra Fine Watercolour paint. Sometimes I use tubes and sometimes I use pans (small cakes or pigment which are placed into a metal box allowing you access to several colours at once). 

Watercolour paints

Watercolour paints

Sketchbooks

I have used lots of different types of sketchbook over the years. I often have a small moleskine notebook in my pocket or bag.  My favourite larger sketchbook thoughis a Fabriano Venezia, it has thick 200gsm paper which handles wet paint and ink really well. They come in a variety of sizes, I often use the 23cm x 30cm one. You can learn more about how I use sketchbooks here.

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Ink pens

I use black ink pens regularly in my work. I most frequently use a Rotring Isograph pen which has a metal nib and and a refillable ink reservoir. They come in different thicknesses and deliver a high definition and precise line which allows for fine detail work.  

Artworks by Helen wells

Artworks by Helen wells

HOW I BECAME AN ARTIST

I often get asked how I became an artist, so I thought I might share my story. In some ways I have always been an artist. As a child I was always drawing. I loved nothing more than spending hours creating elaborate patterns and playing with coloured pencils. I used to collect little pieces of coloured and brightly patterned paper so I could create crazy colourful collages. My love affair with coloured pencils, paints and beautiful paper has been a long and satisfying one.

HOw I became an artist

HOw I became an artist

I became an artist later in life

So if being an artist is an approach or someone who creates because that is just what they do, then that is what I have always been. As a profession though, well that's a different story. I took a rather circuitous route to get here and it is perhaps all the sweeter for it.

As a child, I was always drawing. I loved spending hours creating elaborate and intricate patterns from my imagination. I used to get through so much paper that my dad started to buy me large rolls of wallpaper lining-paper to keep up with my insatiable demand for more paper.  I used to have a large box in which I collected shiny and patterned papers, from sweet wrappers, pages torn from magazines, bits of shiny wrapping paper. I loved my “special paper” box, I used to like tipping it on the floor and seeing how the different patterns and colours combined with each other. So, drawing and painting was something which came innately me as a child. But I only became a full-time artist later in life. I took a rather circuitous route to get here as a profession and it is perhaps all the sweeter for it.

A Ten year old me...

A Ten year old me...

 

When I was 18 I gave up studying art and I can't really understand why. I do not really believe in regrets, but this lazy decision by my teenage self is one I have questioned many times over the years. I gave it up to concentrate on more academic subjects and blithely altered my career trajectory with little thought at all.

Art was a passion not my profession

I went off to study Journalism and then completed a postgraduate degree. And then for over 15 years I had a great full-on career, working with great people in PR agencies and charities with my art and creativity as something I did away from my day job. I went to art class, after art class to help satisfy my passion. I studied printing, textiles, ceramics, collage, drawing I then completed a three year part time Fine Art course which i found so stimulating and satisfying.   I thought that was enough. I was happy. I was successful in my job. I'd met and married a wonderful and inspiring man. Everything was just fine. Art was a passion not my profession.

A lightening bolt I could not ignore

Then in my 30's out of no-where a thought occurred to me that I couldn't ignore. A thought that would change my life and my career. It was early morning in winter and I was off to meet a client for an early breakfast meeting. As I waited for my train on the still dark platform, a voice in my head said "You’re on the wrong path and you need to be an artist.” It sounds bonkers, even to me now. No one thinks like that, in the third person. But that is how it happened, it was a bit like someone was talking to me. A weird yet absolutely wonderful lightening bolt. And that was it.

Taking action 

It was such an overwhelming sensation that I couldn’t ‘not’ do something. So I did do something. I changed-up my life. I handed in my notice at my company, where I had worked for a decade and hoped a path would become clear. I jumped without a safety net. I took action.

 

Becoming a professional artist 

And I started off on an amazing artistic-rollercoaster of a journey. I started painting and put some paintings online. I was astonished when I had sold one within a week. I found a  new job, that was two days a week rather than the six I was working before. It gave me space and time to create, explore, experiment and make art. It also meant my husband and I could move away from London and head for the seaside. And I kept taking small yet decisive actions which together created big life changes.  

 

At The Saatchi Gallery London

At The Saatchi Gallery London

Photo credit: Jim Holden

Photo credit: Jim Holden