Roundtable: Quality

Back to a somewhat contentious topic: Quality. What is quality? What part does quality play in artwork? And since it’s handmade artwork, should quality even be relevant? This is a fairly complex topic and it corresponds to our Discovery Challenge #5. Enjoy these very different conversations about Quality and what it means for us as creatives. Thank you everyone for your thoughtful commentary!

Session #1

Session #2

Convo with Ana Belchí

Ana Belchí is a Spanish polymer clay artist and teacher who is known for her clear, colorful designs, attention to detail, and enthusiastic rapid-fire delivery. You’re in for a treat with this wonderful interview.

Ana shares her thoughts about the design process, about making quality work, about seeing your work in a new light. It’s a fascinating conversation that you don’t want to miss.

I had trouble sharing during the video, but here are photos of Ana’s work. Enjoy! Many of these projects are available as a free tutorial on YouTube or as a paid tutorial on Etsy. Either way, I strongly recommend Ana’s tutorials. She’s a master of detail and you will learn so much more than you expect. Thank you, Ana, for sharing time with us. You’ve made our world a better place!

Learning to See

Originally published in the Winter 2018 issue of The Polymer Arts Magazine.

Right now, while you’re holding this magazine and reading the words on the page (or screen), I want you to play a little game with me. Without moving your eyes from these words, shift your attention to the rest of the page. Can you see the page number in the lower corner? Even if you can’t entirely focus on it, you can see that it’s there. Until I mentioned it, however, you didn’t see it. Because you focused your attention on reading these words, you weren’t taking in anything else. I’ll bet you didn’t notice what was beyond the page, either. Now notice, again without moving your eyes, exactly how much you can see of your surroundings. You didn’t see all of that a moment ago, but it’s obviously there. Isn’t it stunning how much you can see with your peripheral vision?

The information from our five senses continually bombards us. Notice how many sounds you can hear right now. Feel the pressure of the chair cushion, the tightness of your clothing, the temperature of the room, the smell of your shower gel. If we brought all of these sensations to our full attention, we’d be overwhelmed and stressed, unable to separate the relevant from the extraneous. Can you imagine the cacophony inside our minds if we perceived everything at once? Our brains, ever so helpfully, allow us to focus our awareness on the sensations which are most relevant to what we are doing at the time. We tune out the rest.

Mental Gymnastics

It’s great fun to play with this selective perception process. We’ve all seen the Rubin Vase Illusion. (It’s the one where you see two face profiles, nose to nose – or you see a vase.) You can easily visualize both versions, but you can’t see both at the same time. You must shift your perception from one to the other consciously. We do this mental “flip” all the time. Have you ever stood in front of a shop window, checking your reflection when suddenly you realize that a person inside the building is looking out at you? Your brain first saw your image on the surface of the glass. But then your mind flipped somehow, and then you could see beyond the glass, into the shop. It’s important to remember that we can control our perceptions. But first, we have to be aware that there are multiple realities.

Rubin vase illusion
Rubin vase illusion

Learning to See in Art

What does this mean for our art? How can perception biases, our conditioning, and our choices shape how we create? Well, it’s perfectly obvious once you see it. (See what I did there?)

Preconceived Notions

Before we can learn to create with authenticity, we must first become aware that what we see is shaped by our preconceived notions. Here’s an example. Look at the photo of the still-life on this page. See the white backdrop sheet? What colors would you use to paint this scene? Most people would automatically respond that they’d use white and they’d add some black to make the gray shadows. But look more closely. Are the shadows genuinely colorless? In reality, the light reflects from the objects, from the room, and from things outside a nearby window. The sheet is reflecting many colors. How often do you assume what something looks like without really seeing it?

Notice how the sheet is not really white. See how the light reflecting from the objects changes the color of the sheet.

We all have ideas of what we’re “supposed” to see. As children, we didn’t learn to draw trees by copying the trees in our yard. No, we mimicked the lollipop-shaped trees that our friends made.  In fact, I’ll bet that if I asked you to draw a house, it would be the same house you drew in third grade. It wouldn’t resemble any house you have ever known or experienced in the real world. Even though we’re now adults, we still use this same strategy and look to others for an idea of how we’re “supposed” to see, and therefore create.

We need to learn to see the world for what it is. Not only do we get a more accurate view, but we will be more able to appreciate and capture the subtle features that are powerful and compelling. We must be capable of seeing our work and be able to evaluate it accurately. If we can’t honestly see our work, we can’t adjust and refine it.

We Get Confused

Because our reality is flexible, evaluating your work with objectivity can be difficult. We can be overwhelmed with all the possibilities. We see the good and the bad (and everything in between) and wonder which is accurate. Are we capable artists doing inspiring work? Or are we talentless hacks without an original thought in our heads? If you’re not able to see your own perception biases, you will not see your art and how it fits in with the world around you.

Seeing Sunsets

Another aspect of learning to see is that we just don’t look. One evening my husband and I braved the annoying and harried world of Walmart to buy groceries. When we walked outside, grocery bags in hand, we were thrilled to see that the sky was on fire in a brilliant sunset. We stopped in our tracks to enjoy the show. It was one of those breathtaking sunsets that makes you glad to be alive. As we walked to the car, I saw that other people in the parking lot weren’t also stopped to enjoy this incredible display. They were intent on doing their shopping, lost in thought and frustration as they battled cranky children, wobbly shopping carts, and pedestrian traffic. How could they miss this? It was right there! But miss it they did. They didn’t see.

How much do you miss by not looking? Nature is just one part of the world, however. Did you see the colors they painted on the top edge of that old building when you went out for dinner last night? Did you notice that the mailman was wearing a necklace with an unusual pendant? Do you see design themes in the packaging of food products when you go shopping? The world around us continually gives us clues, ideas, and inspiration for our art. It’s up to us to see it.

Humans are Trend Followers

Because humanity is tribal, our cave ancestors needed to conform to survive. We are hard-wired to conform to society’s expectations. This conformity, of course, is the reason why it’s so easy for us to become limited by our preconceived notions. It also means that we’re very good at absorbing and incorporating what’s around us. Are you surrounding yourself with good design and aesthetics? Feed your creative self with proper “artistic nutrition.”

As tribal followers, we also tend to make the same things everyone else does. Conformity is the enemy of originality. Make a point to look at your creations and determine what your influences are. Are you happy with the way you’ve expressed these ideas, traits, and features in your work? Be careful that you’re not doing the same things others do just because it’s safer, more comfortable, and an unconscious habit. We may be tribe members, but we are not automatons.

Sometimes, choosing to follow trends is a wise option. It’s important to see the patterns so that you can make that choice intentionally. If you sell your work, being aware of the trends means you can create artwork that people want to buy. It’s necessary to make things that fit in with the aesthetic of the people in your target customer base.

Training Yourself to See

As you can see, learning to see the world around you can significantly improve the originality and quality of your artwork. But how can we train ourselves to see? Here are some ideas.

Use Your Camera

Have you ever taken a picture and been disappointed that the photograph was nothing like the scene you saw? This happens because the camera is merely recording the light reflecting off the objects as they are. It’s purely objective. The camera sees the harsh shadows, the electrical wires, and the tree sticking out of your subject’s head. You didn’t see these things, as we’ve learned because your brain chose to ignore them.

Get to know your phone’s camera and start taking photographs. Consider joining one of the 365 Days daily photo groups on sites like Flickr. Clayer Syndee Holt shares her 3×3 photos on Instagram. Why not do something similar? Pay attention to the features that make a good photograph. As you start looking for scenes that would make good photos, you will begin to notice details you would never have seen before. You’ll also start to see things as they are, as the camera would see them, rather than with your biased, human eyes.

Seeing Colors

Above, I pointed out that a white sheet isn’t white. This is true for most of the colors that you see in front of you. Our brains assume that leaves are green, skies are blue, and clouds are white. But that’s just a broad generalization and an often inaccurate one at that. Get some old magazines and choose a few pretty pictures. Home decor and travel magazines are perfect for this. Describe and name the colors in each photograph. What colors or paint or polymer clay would you mix to create each spot of color and shading in the scene? Look around you and notice the exact color of shadows and highlights; see the way light plays on an object.

Examine magazine pictures and use your clay to match colors. Notice how the colors you’ll use are not what you thought you saw at first.

Seeing Light

The way the light changes because of seasons, time of day, and weather can be breathtaking. Find a scene that you pass several times in your day and make a note of how it looks at different times. In particular, notice the color of the light and how harsh the shadows are (or not). What, exactly, is different about the light when it’s cloudy versus sunny? Use your camera if necessary to study how light changes. Morning and evening light are particularly lovely, and the way a thunderstorm changes light can be awe-inspiring. What else do you notice?

Notice how the light and colors change constantly throughout the day.

Counting Games

As a child, did you play the license plate game on long trips? The goal is to write down all the license plate numbers, collecting those from as many states as possible. This game made you notice every license plate for years to come, right? Play a little game with yourself and choose something to count each day. Maybe it will be blue doors, mailboxes, or graffiti on fences. Soon you will have trained yourself to be more observant, changing the way you see your world.

Never Stop Learning

Hopefully, you’ll never stop learning to see. There’s always more to see, understand, realize, and learn. Even after we become aware of our preconceived notions and perceptional biases, there’s still more to see. We can eventually learn to see through others’ eyes, perhaps understanding the biases that color what they see. There’s always a subtext to reality. And reality looks very different in a new light, both literally and metaphorically. Never stop learning to see.

Burned Toast Thinking

There is a story out there about mothers eating the burned toast so that their family has good toast. It’s become a metaphor of sorts for putting yourself last. For not feeling that you deserve something better.

I’m not going to get into the whys of this. I suppose some of it is the way our societal roles were modeled by our parents. And it’s only natural that we want the best for our children when resources are limited. And it’s not just parenting. We’ve all done without things so that someone we love can have something nice, even if it’s just toast.

But I want to suggest that we might still be doing this unconsciously, out of habit. Even when it’s no longer necessary. Even when there’s no good reason.

Yesterday, I donated all my plastic drawer units to Habitat for Humanity ReStore. Those drawers were a godsend when I found them at a garage sale many years ago. With three kids and a tiny house, I was working out of my bedroom and space was a premium. With both of us out of work at the time, money was also a premium. Those drawer units came at a perfect time in my life and served me very well!

But even when I could afford better, and as my storage needs expanded, I bought more plastic drawer units. And then I bought cheap particle board bookcases to put them into. Soon, my studio was a hodge-podge mess of plastic drawers and boxes patchworked together into a maze of incomprehensible storage, teetering on the edge of collapse.

I remember looking at issues of “Where Women Create” magazine and being jealous of the wonderful studios that were visually pleasing, not chaotic, and functional. I remember thinking, “well, that’s good for them, but I could NEVER do that.” Somehow I felt that it was just too indulgent. Too much. Like eating the nice toast or serving yourself first. I dreamed of someday having a nice studio, but always felt like it was for other people. That somehow we didn’t have the resources, we couldn’t spare the money, I couldn’t take the time, or it wouldn’t be worth it. (You might call this sour grapes.)

Then the pandemic happened. Suddenly I was using video and had no place to put lighting or another table. And no backdrop. Every inch of my studio looked like a disaster. I sat with my husband and considered the options. Build a shed? Expensive. Add on to the house? Even more expensive. Rent an art studio in town? Not in this town. Convert the living room to a video studio? No. The only alternative was to re-do the space. So I sat down with a tape measure and the IKEA website and planned a new studio. You know what? It didn’t cost nearly as much as I had anticipated. Seriously. (Plastic drawers and cheap cabinets are surprisingly expensive, btw. Compare this IKEA Alek unit to an Iris plastic unit. And the Alex unit holds tons more.)

Once I was done, I looked at it and thought, “What took me so long?” Turns out, the big holdup all along had been my own perceptions. I thought my husband wouldn’t “allow” me to spend the money on my studio (a concept which flabbergasts him…he would gladly give me the moon and stars). I figured we needed the money for other things more than little ole me. I thought it would be seen as selfish to spend money on my studio. You know what? That was burned toast thinking. And I didn’t even realize I was doing it. Even when I no longer had limited resources, I was limiting myself.

Do you have burned toast thinking? Not just in studio finishing, but in such things as quality tools, nice brushes, good art supplies? What about good lighting, a comfortable chair, and heat/AC in your creative space? And what about finding time to create? Do you only do it after everyone in the house is occupied only when nobody else needs you, or do you put your creative time first?

You don’t have to eat the burned toast. You can make your toast the way you like it!

NOTE: Nicer things don’t have to cost very much money. IKEA is inexpensive. If you’re in the Midwest, look at Klëarvūe Cabinetry from Menard’s. And don’t forget about buying used. Most areas in the US have a Habitat for Humanity ReStore which sells donated building supplies, furniture, and more. Stalk your local ReStore often and you’ll find things like glass work surfaces, storage, countertops, sturdy tables, office furniture, etc. Thrift stores and garage sales are another source of magic. If you’re outside the US, I’m sure you have similar types of things…feel free to post if you have a good resource.


We’re not trained to talk about art

In a recent thread in the Community Forum, Phyllis Cahill and I went down a rabbit hole about illustrator N.C. Wyeth and how he treats light and value. I started that thread because watching the documentary “Wyeth” sparked much conversation here at home and hours of thought as I considered the paintings and what was/is unique and significant about these paintings and body of work. I could geek out about this for hours, and not just about the Wyeths. Don’t get me started on Edward Hopper. 🙂

The rifle came down through the empty air. Like the wind itself, the silver queen shot into flight (1916) by N.C. Wyeth

That little foray got me thinking about how we talk about art. Not just “fine art”, but our own art, too. I think most of us appreciate fine art and do enjoy a wander through a museum. But I think that our appreciation of art tends to focus on our enjoyment of the emotion or the decorative aspects of the art. Do we know how to talk about…do we even have the words to discuss…the deeper layers of the way light, value, narrative, historical influences, allegory, trends, etc. affect us? And when we don’t have words to discuss them, and therefore the inability to compare impressions with others, do we even see them?

Winter, 1946 (cropped) by Andrew Wyeth

I don’t want to start a rant about our education systems. But my goodness, why didn’t we learn this in school? I had an excellent art education as part of my regular education, so I consider myself blessed. Plus my mother made sure I was immersed in this stuff (more on this later). But even so, my education centered mainly on how to use art materials. We tend to think the most important things to learn about polymer clay are things like baking, paints, and sealers. But what about light and how it changes the meaning of something? What about learning to see layers of meaning?

Morning Sun (1952) by Edward Hopper

These art masters have much to teach us, and not just about the obvious. I would love to dive into it, but I’m not sure how. I’m not sure I have the words to share my thoughts about things that are so intangible and subjective.

And what is my point in bringing this up? I think it’s just that there are layers of our own art and creative process that we most likely don’t have language and development to talk about. I mean, how can you describe a dream you had to another person? Some things we just don’t have the language for. Most of us most certainly were not brought up to have the skills to do what we’re doing as we pursue our artistic growth.

EXERCISE: Compare these three paintings, all of which are quite representative of each artist. Look at the way each artist handles light, the way they use value to separate the figure from the background, the way the background is textured to make it unimportant (yet provides context). Look at the way each shows motion (or lack of motion) and how that makes you feel. What role do the shadows play? And finally…what lessons do these observations teach us about making our own art? How would this translate to a brooch, for example?

Where does this come from?

Humans are complex. We often feel more than one way about things and have conflicting voices in our heads. It’s normal and common to have little idea why we feel the way we do about things and self-introspection can be a difficult process.

I got my finished pottery pieces from the kiln today. I excitedly inspected each one, hoping I’d like it. For the self-critical perfectionist like myself, pottery gives a lot of opportunity for self-flagellation. There’s the throwing, the trimming, the glazing, and the overall design choices. With pottery, the glaze firing step always has an element of randomness to it, as well, adding to the chances for things to go awry.

I didn’t like any of them. Sure, I was pleased with how well I did in a beginner class. I put in many hours of practice sessions, so my skills advanced rapidly. It’s great work, for a beginner. And really, what more could I expect? I AM A BEGINNER!

But I wanted a piece to love. I wanted the seas to part and magic to happen. I wanted all of the pieces to be worthy of using in our home, giving as gifts, or displaying as art. Somehow, looking at all those average beginner pieces made me feel naughty. It somehow felt self-indulgent to spend the time, money, resources, and space to make things that aren’t “good”, (whatever that is). Things that are nothing more than a “report card” for how well I did in the beginner class.

My husband reminded me that I’m learning, I can’t expect to be perfect, that I’m doing great for a beginner, that I learned a lot, and I’ll learn even more in the intermediate class. That every pot teaches me something. (Yada, yada, yada.) Of course, he’s right. And I already know that. But I still feel guilty.

Ten years of writing The Blue Bottle Tree and communicating with students who are at this exact stage in polymer clay development has taught me that these feelings are common. We feel that our artwork should be better than it is. We feel insufficient when it’s not. Like it’s a character flaw to not be fantastic like in the movies. Plus, we feel that our beginning efforts are only valid if they have a purpose. We feel that it’s somehow self-indulgent to make things for no reason.

Where does this come from? Our upbringing? Our culture?

I don’t know. But I do know one thing. It’s a script we’ve been programmed with. It’s not real. And we can choose to ignore it.

I’m going to take intermediate pottery in January and I will make another batch of average, flawed, un-magical pots. And I will love every minute of it. Because pottery is fun. That’s enough reason right there.

Material vs Medium

Lately, I have fallen in love with the material of polymer clay. That seems like a funny thing to say, especially since I’ve been working with this stuff since 2001. And what do I mean by material? Isn’t that the same thing as a medium? Well, yes and no. Let me explain.

Medium. It’s a word that means “the middle one”. Not large and not small. But there’s also another meaning of medium. Here are the definitions from

• an intervening substance, as air, through which a force acts or an effect is produced.
• the element that is the natural habitat of an organism.
• surrounding objects, conditions, or influences; environment.
• an intervening agency, means, or instrument by which something is conveyed or accomplished: Words are a medium of expression.
• one of the means or channels of general communication, information, or entertainment in society, as newspapers, radio, or television.
• Biology. the substance in which specimens are displayed or preserved.
• Bacteriology. a liquid or solidified nutrient material suitable for the cultivation of microorganisms.
• a person through whom the spirits of the dead are alleged to be able to contact the living.
• Fine Arts. Painting. a liquid with which pigments are mixed.
• the material or technique with which an artist works: the medium of watercolor.

What all those definitions have in common is that a medium is a carrier of the important thing. You could also say that a medium is the carrier of an idea.

Looking at it that way, the medium that you choose to use for creating art isn’t as important as what you make with it. The medium doesn’t define what you create. It only allows you to give it form. Works by famous artists are usually recognizable no matter what medium they used to create them.

The medium of polymer clay is what you use to create your earrings, creatures, vases, or journal covers. It’s what carries your ideas forward and what you use to give your ideas form.

But the material…that’s a totally different way of looking at it. It’s the substance of polymer clay and the unique qualities that it has. Like concrete, glass, wood, or even water.

We all know what water or glass or concrete looks like. But what does polymer clay look like? What are the qualities of the material, itself? And what features do its unique qualities impose onto the things you make with it?

We are used to thinking of polymer clay as a chameleon that we use to make other things. We don’t think about the material, itself. In fact, we spend a lot of time trying quite hard to camouflage the features of polymer clay, such as plaques, fingerprints, air bubbles, sanding scratches, flexibility, etc.

In my recent vessel series, I’ve enjoyed exploring what I can make from the material of polymer clay rather than what I can imitate with polymer clay. It’s a very subtle shift in ideology, but it has certainly changed how I see what I’m doing.

And I can’t help but think, what else can this material do that we’re not trying (yet)?

Asymmetrical Growth

My daughter is the one who prompted me to take a beginning pottery class. She took two semesters of ceramics at university and is taking the intermediate class at the local craft studio. We’ve been enjoying practicing together during open studio time.

One day we were discussing our frustrations with throwing pots. I mentioned a recent epiphany that I’d had about pulling up the walls and she had no idea what I was talking about. She had not yet had that epiphany. And she mentioned something that she had recently realized but I had no idea what she was talking about. I hadn’t yet encountered that understanding.

Here we were, two different people with vastly different experience levels with pottery, and we each knew things the other didn’t know.

You’d think that growth is linear. First you learn step one, then two, then three. But in real life, it doesn’t usually work this way. We might figure out an advanced step when we’re still really loose on the beginning skills. I think this asymmetry is particularly common in the arts because we grow on both technical and psycho-emotional levels.

What does this mean for us? It means we can learn SO MUCH from each other. As we’ve found out in our Studio Drop-Ins, pros and newbies learn together, each adding bits and pieces to the other’s experience. Just as it’s foolish to assume that you know it all, it’s also foolish to assume that you know nothing and have nothing to offer because you’re new. What you know may very well be the little nugget that another, more experienced person needs to know!

Convo with Lyne Tilt on Self-Care

Our very first guest convo in Insiders was with Lyne Tilt where she spoke to us about the idea of being mindful with your creative process. She’s back again this month to continue the conversation. Lyne is both an artist and a teacher and her former work in pastoral care has positioned her well to speak about this month’s topic of Self-Care. This was a fantastic talk!

Lyne is from Brisbane, Australia, and runs Studio on Brunswick in Fortitude Valley (Brisbane).

Links and Resources

The books mentioned in the video are:

Which part of Lyne’s talk resonated with you? Was there any point that jumped out at you and made you think twice? Share your thoughts on self-care below, and let’s continue the conversation here…

Roundtable: Self-Care

The month of December is always hard for creatives. There are so many expectations (meals, gatherings, gift-buying) and we have to join so many events (company parties, family do’s). And you know how it goes. The minute things get crazy in our lives, our creative time is the first thing to go. Plus, many of us feel obligated to make gifts for our most beloved people, which adds to the stress. So I thought the topic of self-care would be quite welcome this month.

Here are our talks on self-care. If this topic interests you, please also consider watching the talk that Lyne Tilt shared with us as well. In addition, Jennifer Summers has a column in the Community called “Create Well with Jen” that speaks about Self-Care as well. There are many more resources shared in both of those places.

Session #1

Session #2

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