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Why a creative review of the year is so valuable

One year since 'quitting the day job', it seems like the perfect time to look back and reflect on how the last twelve months have gone. I have recently joined Alice Sheridan's Connected Artists group and was directed towards a resource she refers to as a 'Creative Audit'. This encouraged me to focus, not on sales or income but on my experience as an artist - what I have achieved/learned and how I have developed creatively, the circumstances that aided or prevented this at different points in the year, what inspired me and what I want to take forward into my next year. I found it a really useful process and thought summarising my findings in a blog would be a nice way of cementing my insights from the process and helping other artists see the benefits.


My key insight from this process

Artist 'side hustles' can be a direct source of development and inspiration

One of the biggest frustrations I experience as an artist is creating circumstances where it is possible to prioritise the actually making of art. Most artists have additional sources of income rather than relying on sales of artworks alone. Whilst still in the role of 'artist', these additional jobs are often time consuming and require a lot of creative energy in themselves. For me, this has been working one-to-one with young people as a creative mentor through The Mighty Creatives charity and delivering arty parties to groups of adults. Alongside the other demands of family life, these aspects of the business take up huge proportions of time in terms of planning, preparation, delivery and marketing. Trying to make space for art making is a permanent battle.

I asked myself at which point during the year did I manage to create new artworks that excited me and that I was proud of. The paintings that immediately sprung to mind were those from my 'Heart in a Vase' series when I allowed myself, for the first time ever, to work purely through accidental mark making and my own imagination, without photographic or concrete references.

I was proud of these, and really happy with the frames I found for them. They sold too, which is always a bonus! What made them successful I think, was the level of personal expression and experimentation. When I ask myself what circumstances allowed this expression, I realised that having a 'floral' theme for one of my arty parties played a significant part. I had researched various contemporary aproaches to flower painting and obviously this more formal investigation that I had done on behalf of my party attendees had sparked something within me. It was directly after preparing some more formal images for the party that these unplanned, expressive paintings emerged.

My other income stream from creative mentoring had also played its part. I am endlessly impressed by young people's ability and desire to paint or draw or make without using references. I've noticed how it makes work so much more personal and means that the resulting art is more clearly an expression of the artist's personality than if it has been copied from a photo reference, or even from life. So, what a happy realisation - to discern that the arty parties and creative mentoring are not just taking up time in my diary that is devoted to other people's creative expression, they are playing a significant role in the development of my own.

It also became apparent, in a review of my own creative expression across the year, that some of my most exciting discoveries had been sitting alongside those young mentees. For example, a time when a mentee had soaked a piece of watercolour paper with condensed watercolours to such a degree that when she drew something on a piece of paper resting on it, it served as a giant ink pad. We had fun tracing images using this method to get lovely effects. Another mentee decided to scatter the coloured dust she had created through vigorous use of chalk pastels by scattering it onto a dribbled scribble of glue (I wish I had a photo of the image when it dried - try it - it's fascinating). Another decided to use acrylic pens on top of a cyanotype we had created together. None of these processes were things I would ever have considered doing but they will now remain in my own artistic repertoire.

I also realised that in my casual thoughts about my artistic production during the year, I had discounted the numerous images I had created as sources of inspiration for my arty party attendees. Below is a little gallery of some of the images I produced for that purpose. They were not created for the purpose of adding to my own body of work but as images for demonstrations/examples. They are images that I could support someone else in producing but they were only 'easy' after hours of trial and error to find the best approach. Here is a little gallery of the images I painted for this purpose. These hours of studio practice might not have led to series of artworks that I wish to sell to others but they have developed and honed my skills in the use of acrylic paint.

Identifying where risks and challenges paid off

Another question I was encouraged to ask myself as part of the audit, was where had I challenged myself this year. I think my biggest challenge was the live painting event I did for the King's Coronation event in Whetstone. I have written a blog about that experience that you can find here but I realise now looking back that what made that image special to me was that I again let go of trying to reproduce something exactly from life or from a photo, instead taking elements of the event and painting them in a much more naive and illustrative way than usual. People seemed to really respond to the almost childlike painting method I used to express the characters I met or observed on the day. This image has similarities to a commission I painted last September and a gift I painted for my son's football coach at the end of the season. What they again have in common is that the scenes never existed exactly as I portrayed them - they are my expression of what I have pieced together with reference to numerous photos , memory, discussion and from my own emotional experience.

Realising that artists don't have to offer every possible service all at once

It was also worth asking myself what had NOT really worked for me this year. The commission I referenced above, and one I did at Christmas were a source of great stress. The time they consumed to try to 'perfect' them far outweighed any financial or creative benefits. It is clear to me, looking back that the commissions actually disabled me from other creative work at the same time, rather than sparking ideas like the arty parties and the creative mentoring do. My decision at the beginning of this calendar year not to advertise or seek out commissions for a while seems to have been a good one in that it seems to have made space for pursuing my own artistic goals. I certainly prefer the idea of painting from my soul and hoping that it speaks to the souls of others in a way that makes them want to buy it rather than trying to create something at a customer's request. When you really think about it, the chances of creating something from scratch that truly expresses what the customer wants are probably quite low. Perhaps that is something that will come with more experience, and with a more consistent style (so that the customer has a good idea of what they are getting) but for now I am happy to remove commissions from my list of 'services' and only accept them when I really want to do them. I removed the commission service from my website some time ago and haven't missed this aspect of my practice. Perhaps I'll reintroduce them at a different stage of my career as an artist.

Understanding the ebb and flow of the creative tide

It has been interesting to notice the rhythm of my year and how closely my artistic productivity is still linked to school terms despite my children being 12 and 18 - so not needing such close supervision as they did when they were younger. There was a clear break in productivity across Christmas and Easter time whereas the summer seemed to provide some inspiration due to travelling to new places. This will help my planning for next year when I will schedule 'holiday' time for Christmas and Easter thereby allowing me to enjoy that quality family time without any sense of neglecting my art career. In addition, I can rest assured that time taken out for travelling is a valuable source of inspiration so anything lost in income is gained in ideas and imagery!

Seeing the value in face-to-face selling

I did manage to bring my work into several contexts where people could see it in person across the year. This included application to and acceptance in two formal exhibitions - the Leicester Open and the Love Art Exhibition, as well as the art market in Leicester as part of the Open Streets initiative and three lovely art and craft market style events organised by fellow creative Bonita Keay. I learned that I get a lot more out of these events than just sales (although the sales are obviously always a bright silver lining when they happen!). I love the opportunity to speak to people about my work, to see and hear their responses to it. It's also often a chance to promote my arty parties, meet other artists and hear about other opportunities. I will continue to build such events into my calendar.

Focusing your goals for the next year and embracing the reciprocity of art and life

My goal for the next year is to keep increasing my studio time. The knowledge that arty party preparation and creative mentoring feeds directly into this will help me feel less torn between my own personal practice and those activities. In other words, a couple of hours spent designing an image for use at an arty party can be considered 'studio practice' and will add to my sense of achievement in this area.

The process of looking back on the year has been really motivating. Despite some huge life events including the tornadic arrival of a puppy into our family...

and a daughter going through the important and stressful process of choosing a university and doing her A-levels, it has allowed me to focus on what I have achieved. Here's a reel on social media (better with the sound on) created to reflect as much of it as possible. This is in contrast to my more typical tendency to focus on what I have not achieved. Obviously its useful to consider that too - for example it has been useful to see my order of priorities and where some areas of my life have been neglected, such as areas of home improvement. It is clear to me, having also completed Nicholas Wilton's Creative Visionary Programme this year, that finding happiness and satisfaction within my life will have a direct impact on my ability to be satisfied with my art. Perhaps in the year ahead, my daughter going off to university will create some space to allow me to direct some of my creative energy towards ensuring that my immediate environment, and my activities outside of work inspire, excite and nurture my artistic soul.

75 views2 comments


Such a fascinating read, Hayley. Your self reflection and insight is really impressive. You are clearly following the right path for yourself :)

Hayley Stokes
Hayley Stokes
Aug 21, 2023
Replying to

Thanks so much for taking the time to read it Emma! I wrote it mainly for my own benefit but figured it might be interesting to others too x

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