Step away from the painting

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“Step away from the painting” – My art teacher’s mantra

In this week’s blog, I want to talk about the need to remove oneself in order to see things in a different light. This is true of so many areas of our lives and something really worth working at. Not that I always get it right. Far from it, but I do try to step away, take a moment and then return to the issue.

When I lived in the USA, I had a horrible but brilliant oil painting teacher.  She never liked me and, frankly, I wasn’t impressed with her either, but I endured her often brutal attacks on me and my work, simply because I quickly recognised that she was an excellent teacher.

At every lesson we would have to go through the ritual of being made to “step away from the painting” and then walk around the room and look at what everyone else was doing. We were then firmly encouraged to critique each other’s work before being allowed to continue with our own. The last 30 minutes of every class was a critique session, and she was brutal with all of us. Many students never returned the following term, but I learned so much and I grew a fairly thick skin, too.

It always felt as if you had just found your flow and she made you stop – which was a nightmare – but it worked. The problem about being “in the flow” is that you don’t always take stock of what is working well and what isn’t really working at all. You are too close to the work.

By being made to take that step back we were reassessing our work with fresh eyes; and with the comments of the other artists around us to hopefully improve the outcome.

I still do this all these years later. Sometimes I will set an alarm to remind me when to stop, but often I will play music and at the end of each song I physically move away. Standing up to produce art makes this much easier, but if you work sitting down, having strategies to make yourself get up are really worth the investment. I had a bad back injury a few years ago which meant that I couldn’t stand for lengthy periods. Sitting down was my only option so I know that it is very easy to forget to move.

The USA class was a strange setup and only four of us turned up to take her classes consistently, something I did for four years. I was a glutton for punishment, but it taught me not only how to deal with the artwork I produce but also how I approach my entire art business.

I am super busy: I write a monthly newsletter; I write this weekly blog; I produce my own artwork, paintings or prints; I make leather journals; I teach journal-making and printmaking classes; and I post daily to Facebook and Instagram, not just for myself but also for Ginger Cactus Art (GCA), an art group I run. I run at least three exhibitions a year for GCA and I take as many classes as I can fit in. Investing in myself and my knowledge is crucial to my ability to teach others well.

On top of all that I have a house to run. We moved in 2021, buying a huge pile which needs work. Our thinking was that our two sons would be living with us and would be able to give us some help, but they, quite rightly, have moved out to pursue their careers and we are left trying to fix up this house, which is not easy at our age. You don’t realise how quickly your ability to lift heavy items disappears in your 60s.

It is just as important that in all of these areas of my life I stop and step away from each one so that I can come back with fresh eyes and make a more considered decision. But what is the best way to make this happen?

Well, my strategy is fairly simple. Timetabling. I make sure that I divide up my day so that I only tackle small elements of each activity at a time, and I timetable them.

For instance, the first thing I do on a Monday morning is to complete my diary. I use a bullet-style journal and I set out all the things I need to achieve that week and the days on which they need to be achieved. I also write the first draft of my blog, first thing and then later in the day I check it and send it to my editor to proof-read. This normally happens on a Monday but sometimes a Tuesday fits both our lives better. He then takes a few days checking and re-checking it before sending it back to me on a Friday. Meanwhile, I have stepped away from it and started on the next thing on my timetable.

Even though I have sent it to my editor I will take another look at my draft on a Wednesday just in case there is something I realise should be included. He hates it when this happens, but thankfully it is not too often. But I get to review what I have written with fresh eyes. When it comes back to me on a Friday I will read it again, still with fresh eyes, and much to my editor’s annoyance I will often sneak a few changes in at the last minute. I often make mistakes when I do. He is, of course, perfect in his role of making sure what I write makes sense.

I do the same with other elements, too. I allow an hour for posting to social media for both myself and GCA; I put aside an hour for research and writing up reports for the group; have time allocated to do my business admin and another tranche of time put to one side for making art. In order to make art and step away I will often spend 20-30 minutes after I have completed my bullet journal to add paint to my art and then I walk away and do everything else until the end of the day when I have put aside another 30 minutes to review it again and make changes.

Breaking up the things I need to do into small, bite-sized chunks means that I have in effect done some work, stepped away, come back with fresh eyes but still managed to be effective and get everything done as well.

I am not perfect. Recently I have been unwell, so everything has slipped. When this happens, everything goes wrong all together at once. I can see the system slipping away and chaos ensuing. But no one has died so I tend not to get so upset about it these days.

And what always happens when you are in that panic/chaos mode?  Everything else stops working properly. I used to just keep going. Now I walk away, let the dust settle and regroup in my mind what I need to do to make sense of everything.

My e-mail files were corrupted, so I lost my online calendar and all my email contacts’ names and addresses. A nightmare.
I didn’t allow myself the time and energy to get upset. Yes, I was upset but there was nothing I could do so I went to visit a friend to put it all out of my mind and become grounded. When I went back home I did eventually manage to get on top of things without getting upset, by simply accepting that this kind of thing happens and I just need to put safety nets in place. So, now instead of relying on the 3.00 am back up, which failed, I do a full manual back up on my computer to an external hard drive, once a week. By stepping back, looking at how I can make things work better, I avoided making myself unwell and now have an even better system in place.

The moral of my story and, I hope, an inspiration to you dealing with potential overwhelm, is to get some structure in place such that you deal with items in a way that you can ‘step away’ to give you the ability to see things differently when you return to them. I promise that it will really help.

A footnote about the teacher in the USA.  Every week she would tell the other students how well they were doing but she didn’t ever say anything positive to me. I took it that I needed to work harder and improve and didn’t say anything to anyone else. I just tried harder.

I also didn’t tell her or the other students that I was moving back to the UK as I figured they wouldn’t bother with me, but literally three weeks before the end of my last set of classes with her she looked at the piece I had been labouring over and said: “Mmm. Good. I would hang that on my wall.”

The other students cheered and clapped. I was stunned, as was the teacher. “What’s all the fuss about?”, she asked. One very brave lady, who was very obviously the teacher’s favourite, said: “That is the first time you have ever said anything positive to Alison.”  They had all noticed but didn’t want to say anything to me for fear of upsetting me more or getting in the teacher’s bad books.

The teacher had the good grace to apologise. I don’t think she was sorry, but whatever. I won’t ever forget her. She taught me so much and maybe if she had been nice to me, I wouldn’t have learnt the lessons.

As for that painting, (see above) I will never sell it.


And if you would like to join one of my classes in my purpose-built studio then either email me at or head over to my website and check out the booking form for scheduled classes.

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