Mercado de San Miguel

The San Miguel market is located in the heart of Madrid’s tourist center, right next to the Plaza Mayor. Completed in 1916, it is the only surviving iron structure market in Madrid today, having been rescued from abandonment and disrepair by a group of investors in 2003 who restored and reopened it in 2009 and adapted it to the the 21st century. By day, the market is a bustling venue for vendors offering fish, produce, cheese, bread, pastries, and cafes to enjoy a mid-afternoon cortado. By night….correction, this is Spain after all:  By day and night – it’s a collection of beer and wine bars where one can enjoy tapas such as tortilla española, fried shrimp, and tuna while sipping your beverage of choice.

At any time, the mix of locals with tourists makes for some fantastic people-watching, and the overall experience is overwhelming as you squeeze (or in my case, push) your way through the crowds and go station to station ogling the food and sampling the tapas, all while trying to figure out a plan of attack to try everything and see everything and stay on budget. The experience engages all the senses: the smells of the food, the noise and bustle of the crowd, the sight of the beautiful produce, the feel of the water droplets in the air (green A/C), and the taste of the jamón ibérico.

I give you this backdrop because my close friend P, who has so far inspired five of my paintings with his incredible photographs, captured a very different view of Mercado San Miguel – a calmer, more peaceful one that reminded me how beautiful the light can be in Spain. I don’t know what time of day the photograph was taken, but the light is strong, coming from a high position in the sky. The shopping rush is over and it’s not café or tapas time either. I’m guessing the photograph was taken soon after lunch (la comida, at 2 PM), around 3:30 or 4:00 PM.

Image

Mercado de San Miguel © Paul K. Brookshire

I wanted to paint the scene not just for the different view of Mercado de San Miguel that it represented, but also because I knew I needed more experience working with such strong lights and darks (value). I faced three challenges in translating this beautiful photograph to the canvas. First, the photograph depicts a clear foreground, middle ground, and background. To depict that with oil, I would need to ensure correct use of shades within my chosen palette in the correct places on the canvas. Second, I had to be patient to build up the bright light in the background so that it wouldn’t just be a stark white glob. Third, I entered a period of intense creativity, tight deadlines, and a hectic travel schedule at my day job that made consistent studio work difficult.

Image

Mercado de San Miguel – Oil on Canvas, 24″ x 36″

The process of bringing P’s photograph to the canvas was interrupted and inconsistent over a three-month period, but I am pleased with the results. I think the long breaks between working on it may have even helped, as they gave me time to think about my subject and study my progress to understand what I had to do the next time I made it to the studio. It also gave me time to reflect on my memories of the lazy Spanish post-comida hours, that sleepy, relaxed time when Spain slows down so much it is unrecognizable from the morning bustle. I hope, dear readers, that you enjoy this piece as much as I enjoyed creating it and thank you for letting me share it with you.

 

7 ways to enjoy your finer things

Once a year I pull out my “finer things” for the festivities that lie ahead.  From the linens and flatware that adorn the table, to the menus I plan and the food I cook, to the clothing I wear and the care I take to look my best, I put in the extra time and effort to enjoy my finer things and do unique things for my family and me.  And by “finer” I don’t necessarily mean “expensive.”  I mean special. As the holidays came to end and I was putting everything away, it hit me that, aside from the Christmas decorations, I could continue to use and enjoy my special things and keep some of the pleasurable acts in place.

Over the last few days, I have done exactly that, and my middle school-aged daughter has told me that these changes make her feel special.  One of her friends came over to visit recently and said, “Your house smells like roses and fanciness.”  I think that’s one of the best compliments I’ve ever received.  Some small changes have brought us so many distinct moments of pleasure that I wanted to share my list of ways to enjoy your finer things. Here’s to making 2014 a little more special and interesting than 2013!

  1. Use a teacup and saucer for coffee.  Men might find this a little harder, but ladies, I feel more elegant using my vintage teacup and saucer set for my morning coffee.  This is one of the “finer” things that is not expensive, as I bought the set at a garage sale years ago for $5 from a lady who either didn’t realize what she had or didn’t care. Another perk (no pun intended) is that vintage teacups are smaller, so two cups of coffee is really just two cups, not four if you’re using a Texas-sized mug.
  2. Use cloth napkins and your best silverware every day.  I don’t think I will ever use paper napkins again.  Meals feel more special now and the extra effort to launder is nothing compared to the feel of a nice cloth napkin in your lap and the environment-friendly act.  Using my good silverware has been easy (dishwasher safe) and has elevated every single meal.
  3. Use serving platters.  On weeknights I would serve dinner directly from the stove, oven, or grill onto the plates.  I’m now taking the time to put everything on platters or in serving bowls and lay the food out on the table.  This simple act has resulted in more conversation about the food we’re eating and each person has more control over the amount of food they serve themselves.
  4. Use the nicest parts of your home.  Many American homes have a beautiful formal living/dining room that goes unused 90% of the year.  Guilty.  All the rooms in my home are used daily except that one, and it’s the largest room in the house. There should be a fine for that. I’m now using the formal dining room for weekend meals, and the adjacent formal living room for reading.  I’m writing this blog from there right now, without the distraction of the TV in the family room.
  5. Use candles and arrange flowers.  I have a drawer-full of candles that have never been lit, and every time I go grocery shopping I longingly eye the flower arrangements in the floral department but continue to make my way to the next aisle without stopping to smell and buy the roses.  While this isn’t something I can or want to do every day,  I am going to start pulling out the candles more often and buying flowers to mark special occasions.
  6. Use the pretty soap.  With more time on my hands over the holiday, I was able to indulge in longer baths and showers and use the pretty soaps, salts, and scrubs that dear friends have given me over the last year or so and that I was saving and displaying rather than using.  It’s been a true pleasure to use these gifts, something I’m sure my friends will love to hear when they read this. 
  7. Eat dark chocolate. Every day. Just because.   

This was a fun post to write to start off the year, so I hope you’ll share your ideas for how to make 2014 more special than last year.  I’ve got a finished painting to share, another one close to completion, some great insights from an art book I’m reading, the second professional seminar in the UT Human Dimensions of Organizations Smarter Thinking series coming up, lots of exciting things happening at work, and much more to share with you over the coming weeks.  Thank you so much for reading my blog, and I wish all my readers a happy and prosperous 2014!

How I became a better presenter, thinker, and problem solver

In my last post, I described how I learned about UT Austin’s new program Human Dimensions of Organizations and why I was investing my personal time and money in the professional seminar series.  I attended the first seminar, Maximizing Mental Agility, on November 13 and have been applying the insights ever since.

Lewis Miller, HDO’s program marketing coordinator invited me to guest blog about my experience with this first seminar in the Smarter Thinking series certificate, and I wanted to share that post with you.  Please visit HDO’s blog In the Loop to read my guest post, and feel free to comment there or here at Where’s my Paintbrush.

Human dimensions of organizations

I recently decided to make a financial and time investment in my education in a topic that I’m very interested in, one my alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin, so brilliantly calls Human Dimensions of Organizations.  For the last five years, I’ve seen some negative changes in business culture that worry me.  Knowledge workers are treated more and more like factory workers, layoffs have become an ordinary occurrence, and employee engagement is at an all-time low.

On October 8th, Gallup published its State of the Global Workplace report, with the mind-blowing statistic that only 13% of employees worldwide are engaged at work – only 1 in 8 workers.  Actively disengaged employees outnumber engaged employees nearly 2:1.  The vast majority of employees worldwide reported an overall negative experience at work.

Gallup states emphatically:  “Business leaders worldwide must raise the bar on employee engagement.  Increasing workplace engagement is vital to achieving sustainable growth for companies, communities, and countries – and for putting the global economy back on track to a more prosperous and peaceful future.”

The same week Gallup published its report, I was attending Gartner Symposium in Orlando, Florida, and two of their ten opening keynote predictions unsettled me:

  1. There will be such a reduction in labor by 2020 that social unrest and a quest for new economic models will have to emerge.  They cited bartering as a potential “new” model.
  2. Machines will make executive decisions.  Gartner predicts that mandatory use of non-override-able “smart systems” – such as automotive assist – will approach 10% by 2024.  They not-so-jokingly said Skynet (Terminator movie) is coming.

Just a few days later, I received an email from UT Austin that said “Be an outlier. Applications now open for UT’s innovative new Human Dimensions of Organizations program.”  Any communication prompting me to stand out rather than blend in always gets my attention.  This was one of those synchronicity moments for me as I’d been wanting to dive deeper into these topics to be able to speak on them with expertise, not just opinion.

UT Austin’s Human Dimensions of Organizations program is a new type of executive education program that brings together some of its finest researchers in the Humanities and Social and Behavioral Sciences to educate the rising generation of leaders in the business and non-profit communities. What is so fascinating about this program is that it is developed and offered by the College of Liberal Arts, with collaboration on a few topics with the business school.  There are two paths one can take:  a full Master’s Degree or a Certificate Program.  I’ve chosen to pursue the HDO certificate program, which is designed to help leaders become internal consultants who understand specific human, cultural, and communications aspects of business.  In a nutshell, it’s about being well-versed in methods for understanding the people around you in an organization so you can identify and solve problems, drive innovation, and boost productivity.

A total of four seminars must be completed to earn a certificate in each category.  There are currently three categories:

  • Thinking Smarter
  • Language and Leadership
  • Organizational Improvement

I’ll attend my first seminar in the Thinking Smarter certificate next week, and the remaining seminars take place in January and February.  My hope and prediction is that an exploration of the human condition at the level of individuals, organizations, and cultures will enable me and my classmates to further develop thought processes and unleash our creativity in ways that drive leadership in this era of rapid change.

If you’re interested in learning more, just hover over the links provided.  There’s an information session tonight on the UT campus at 5:30 PM; please reply if you’d like to attend and I’ll post the information.  I look forward to sharing my experience in the certificate program with you and how I’m applying the learnings in the workplace. I’d also love to hear about any continuing education opportunities you may be pursuing!

Onward

I write about the creative process and its importance, but, I have to say, stepping back from a completed painting is such a joy.  In my post Confronting a disappointing piece, I described how I was determined to get my painting mojo back during the summer by taking a break from a difficult work that wasn’t going very well to start a new painting.  Last week I finished Onward, a 24″ x 32″ oil on canvas landscape, inspired by a photo taken by my friend P on a recent trip to Chiloe, Chile.

Onward, oil on canvas, 24″ x 32″ © 2013 Teresa de Onis

I was asked two questions about this painting:

Chiloe, Chile – © 2013 Paul Brookshire

Why did you pick that photo?  First, the composition of the scene is beautiful.  The scene is quite pleasing to the eye as your gaze moves from the grass at left, to the boat and jutting island on the right, up the mast, and then to the upper left. The dawn light in the photograph was also very beautiful, and I felt that it would be a challenge for me to paint the way the light reflected off the water.  I was also very eager to paint mountains for the first time.  I found painting the water quite easy, but it was a challenge to make the mountains appear further away.  I struggled a little with that, until Michael, my instructor, suggested I use purples for the mountains.  I squealed with delight because Michael HATES purple, and I was FINALLY going to be able to get to use it after three years of studying under him with no purple allowed.  It was a great decision that worked.

In addition to the opportunity to continue to learn technique, I was drawn to the significance of the boat.  It looked like it wanted to be on the water, as if yearning to launch, to move forward, to just “go”.  I tried very hard to convey that emotion, the desire to get out on the water, to move forward with purpose, with my brushstrokes.  The day I focused on painting the boat was one of my best painting days to date.  I felt so confident and sure of myself as I worked that part of the painting.  I painted the mast at the very end, which brings me to the second question I got asked last week.

How did you know it was finished?  I think artists get asked this a lot.  The answer for me on this painting was that I knew it wouldn’t be finished until I put the mast in, but I couldn’t do that until the painting was completed.  I guess the best answer is “you just know.” Michael has taught me to step back from my paintings often while I’m working.  As you step back and your eye wanders, you can see which areas need work and which don’t.  I stepped back from the painting on Wednesday and couldn’t really see anything that I needed to change or enhance, so it was time to put in the mast.  I think the mast makes the painting. It would have been incomplete without it, from a composition perspective and from an emotional perspective.

I will return to class tonight and don’t know what I will undertake there yet.  The irony of the title Onward is not lost on me as I debate whether I will move forward with the difficult painting I had abandoned, or whether I will continue to let it sit unfinished a while longer and start another new one.  I have a few hours to decide what “onward” means for me today.  Stay tuned and thank you for reading!

The lost art of sewing

Before the wonderful TV show Mad Men made us conscious of how we have exchanged sophistication and “dressing up” for casual comfort in our clothing in the last forty years, I had felt for some time that something was “off” with clothing design and quality.  Buying modern, unique, quality clothing at mid-range prices has been a struggle.  In her excellent book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, Elizabeth Cline goes as far as to say that compared to decades ago, middle class Americans are walking around in what then would have been considered rags.

Sewing

The coat I’m wearing in this photo was my mother’s.  It was constructed in the 1970’s in Spain in a beautiful, heavy wool that still looks new.  The hems are finished with blind stitching and the buttons were personalized by the tailor.  Forty years later, the coat still looks and fits like new, despite years of wear by my mother and then me.  The coat cost $200 in today’s dollars, about what you would expect a middle-class wife and mother living on two teachers’ salaries would invest in a winter coat.  Today, this coat would be prohibitively expensive and probably available only at a high-end department store or boutique because of its construction quality and details.  

Why?  And why can’t we find high-quality clothing at middle-class prices?

Source: Huffington Post, “7 Ways Your Grandmother Dressed Better than You,” 8/28/13

This is a tough one, and I want to be careful to not come across as a clothing snob, because the answer lies in the democratization of fashion, something that sounds good and noble. Fashion should be available and affordable to all. After all, it used to be.  Sears was a middle-class clothing retailer that offered high-quality clothes at affordable prices in the 1950’s.  What changed?

Cheap manufacturing overseas and technology have enabled  the rapid creation and replenishment of small batches of trendy clothing at retailers.  The goal is to lure consumers into the stores often (every two weeks versus once each season) to make more frequent purchases, with the guarantee they’ll find something new and on trend in limited quantities for very little. These so-called “fast fashion” retailers (Forever 21, H&M, and Target are examples) create consumer craving for newness by copying designer fashions and making them available at very low prices. Buying into styles cheaply and quickly has made clothing disposable, either because it falls apart after a few washes or is so trendy that the look is outdated within six months.

Mid-range retailers, such as J Crew, Banana Republic, and Nordstrom, are struggling to compete, so we’re starting to see downgraded quality there also.  When I compare my J Crew day coat, whose quality seems just fine, to my mother’s coat, I start to see firsthand how the new paradigm has altered our perception of good design, quality, and presentation in our clothing. Our clothes don’t quite fit right, the fabrics aren’t great, and high-quality clothing seems more expensive than it should be.  Sometimes, a high price tag doesn’t guarantee high quality:  picking on J Crew again, see their “Collection” line, which is overpriced for what you get and is marketing run amok.

I believe a backlash is looming. Americans’ closets, both men’s and women’s, are bulging, yet there’s a constant “I have nothing to wear” lamentation.  The ethical and economic sides of this dilemma are incredibly important but would require a much longer post, so I’ll recommend Cline’s book for those who want a deep dive into the topic and will focus my thoughts on the creative aspect.

Fashion is an art form, and it’s really the only art form I can think of that is experiencing a decline in creativity and quality construction.  Designers today don’t have to know how to sew.  A designer can draw a picture and email it to a factory with specs.  Real, good design considers not just the drawing, but the construction and appearance of the final product.  In other words, how a garment is made is just as important as the design on paper.  Isn’t this true of all art forms? The creative process becomes compromised when corners are cut in the construction of the design.  If I start with a great sketch, but then sloppily apply paint to a hastily assembled canvas, my final painting won’t be that great. Because most of us don’t know how to sew, we don’t know what workmanship to look for in well-made clothing, elements such as blind hems, French seams, and linings. 

So, what is the solution? It’s hard to know if we can overcome the economics (the race to the bottom on price and disposability) and questionable ethics (the loss of the US textile industry and the exploitation of overseas cheap resources) of the fashion and clothing industry at the individual level, but we could take some cues from how we’re overcoming the influence of the food industry: think Supersize Me and the move away from fast food and genetically modified food to organic and local sources.  

The lack of mid-range quality alternatives has sent me to three places:  

  1.  The sewing machine.  My daughter went to sewing camp this summer and learned the basics.  We bought a sewing machine and together we are learning.  Yes, it is an art. It is painstakingly slow when you’re learning, but we’re on our way.  This weekend she (and YouTube) will teach me to sew a pouch and an apron with pockets.  From there, we’ll tackle the first big project, pillows for the benches on our deck.  With practice, we’ll work our way up.  I see the trend, too.  I casually mentioned this in a meeting at work the other day, and a gentleman proudly proclaimed he was learning to sew and loves it. I have a fantasy where I am wearing something simple in a beautiful fabric, someone asks me where I bought it, and I say I made it. Added benefits are the quality time I’m spending with my daughter, branching out of my comfort zone, and feeling like I’m doing something ethical and worthwhile.
  2. eBay and consignment stores.  I was late to this wonderful party, but thanks to a dear friend, I am now a big believer and thrilled to have discovered both.  I have found mid-range designer clothes from seasons past by Elie Tahari, Diane von Furstenberg, and Milly (all American designers, most of their lines made in USA!) on eBay – most with the tags still on – for a fraction of the retail cost.  Recently I bid on and won/bought a NWT (new-with-tags) beautifully crafted Elie Tahari dress from the 2008 collection for work, retail priced at $398 for just $73. The key here is to pick designers who you know fit you well and to choose classic cuts that don’t go out of style. Know your measurements so you can compare to those listed to ensure a good fit.  Buy up a size if in doubt so you can have garments tailored.  Older vintage is still available but wise shoppers are gobbling up what little is left, so speed will be essential if you want a garment from the 50’s or 60’s.
  3. My own closet and tailor.  A friend recently said “cheap shouts, quality whispers.”  My closet now whispers.  Go through your closet and be ruthless about what fits and feels great.  It’s better to have a few pieces that look great on you and make you feel great than a bulging closet full of clothes that don’t.  Have things tailored to fit you better and change out simple things like buttons to make clothes unique.  Raid your mom and dad’s stash of vintage clothing.

Clothing has always been a reflection of our personalities, so it’s sad to see what has happened in the fashion and textile industry. What do you think?  Do you think mid-range quality clothing is on the decline and that the art of fashion and sewing has declined with it?

What I did on my summer vacation

As I began writing this post, my daughter was looking over my shoulder and asked me if it was about how our summer vacation inspired me creatively, referencing the progress I’ve been making on a large painting since our return.  The answer was “yes, but…”

School started last week. As the parent of a child now in middle school, I rejoiced.  I have no idea where the summer went, but it feels great to be back in the familiar and predictable routine. I have written posts on the importance of ritual and routine in the creative process, and today I want to back up a bit and take a look at the role of planning in the creative process and its relationship to routines and habits. The start of school represents a fresh start, a time to set goals and look forward.

Unfortunately, words like “routine” and “habits” and “planning” sometimes have a negative connotation when associated with creativity, especially during the free-spirited days of summer.  We’ve been led to believe that creative inspiration should just strike, but the truth is that prior to every big idea or insight, there is planning and there are many hours, days, months, and even years of grinding routine effort.

We escaped the Texas heat and drove to Santa Fe, which is nestled in the Sangre de Cristo mountains of New Mexico at an elevation of 7000 feet.  It was a blessing to spend two weeks in the cool, mountain air.  I wish there was a way to bottle it and bring it home, because high altitude clears the head.  I did a lot of reading, morning pages, and thinking and planning. As a loved one joked, I did more thinking and planning about my work and art on vacation than I do when I’m actually at work or in the studio.  Even though I was in a beautiful place that has inspired many famous artists to create, I didn’t paint.  Instead, I was inspired to assess where I was on my creative journey, both at work (synchronicity that it was mid-year review time) and in the studio. I want to share my discoveries with you.

I was armed with two books to help me assess my progress and determine next steps: Kathy Caprino‘s Breakdown, Breakthrough and Peter Bregman‘s 18 Minutes.  I recommend both without reservation.  Let’s start with Caprino’s book.  She writes specifically for women, and her book resonated deeply with me.  One passage stood out:

“Honoring our creative longings is vital; it is a positive and essential aspect of a satisfying life.  But it’s critical to honor these longings all along the way, with conscious thought and empowered action.  Following our desires can turn destructive if we end up becoming a servant to them.  Balance is everything.  Creative and spiritual longings are within us from the beginning, but we often ignore them.  When disregarded, these desires finally break free and demand urgently to be addressed.  But urgency begets imbalance.”

She goes on with more specificity:  “When following our dreams, it’s important to address the other needs in life through balanced action – paying your bills, saving for the future, protecting your health and welfare and that of your family, and so on.  The goal is to honor your creative and spiritual longings in balanced ways while addressing your other needs so you feel secure.”  As a single mom who is having trouble carving out time for my art in the midst of a busy career in marketing and personal life, I took comfort in her words.   The book’s exercises and real-life stories of other women helped me solidify what I long to do, what I must do, what I will say yes to, and the major steps I’ll take to get there over the next year.

I then dusted off 18 Minutes, a gem of a book I read a year ago but hadn’t quite been able to put into action.  Bregman is like a gentle, wise guide who helps you build a ritual to focus on what matters most and ignore the rest. He does not give advice on how to get more done; rather, he helps you get strategic about what you choose to do and what you choose not to do over the course of a year.  He recommends creating a theme for the year and then offers the 18 Minutes daily ritual to keep you focused on your top priorities.

I struggled with my theme but knew it had something to do with letting go of perfection.  In more Artist’s-Way-synchronicity-fashion, that same week a guest pastor delivered a Sunday message at my church (I watched online) on that very topic, articulating that we’re trained to think about the outcome of our talent, rather than the process and the essence of our being. (That’s why this blog is about the process, not the outcome, of creativity.)  Then he said we’ve been trained to think of great as more important than good, a belief I had firmly held and that Caprino’s book had shown me has a dark side that was holding me back. It became clear that my theme this year should be:  “It was good.”  My thought was that I would shift my focus from striving for perfection every day to accomplishing good work every day.  Now, this is not the same as “good enough”.  Those who know me know I disdain mediocrity.  This is about intention, a determination to do good work every day, without the pressure of perfectionism.

So, now that you know my theme, here are my focus areas for the next year, the ones I will want to review at the end of each week and say “It was good.”  (By the way, I do believe that the ability to say “it was good” every day – that repetition – translates into greatness over the long haul.)

  1. Build beautiful messaging and deliverables that tell stories.
  2. Paint on the road to mastery.
  3. Help others unlock their creative potential.
  4. Create and nurture healthy relationships and connections.
  5. Nurture my spiritual, physical, and financial well-being.
  6. General life maintenance (should be only 5% – things like getting your state inspection sticker and running errands)

Bregman provides detailed help to translate your list into action through the 18 minutes daily ritual:

  1. Morning minutes (5):  Plan your day based on your top five priorities.  Put tasks on your calendar and don’t take more than three days to check them off.
  2. One minute of reflection every work hour (8):  Once an hour stop (set your smartphone to beep you) and ask yourself if you’re doing what matters most.
  3. Evening minutes (5):  Review how your day went, what you learned, what you would do differently tomorrow, and whether you need to thank, interact with, ask a question of, or update anyone.

My theme has become my rally cry, my focus areas list has become my compass, and the 18 minutes ritual has become a deliberate reminder of both every day. The last two weeks have been the most productive and fun at work and in the studio in a while.

The back-to-school time of a year, with its return to routine, is a great time to take another look at the goals and habits you may have set back in January.  What is your theme for the year?  What habits and routines will you create so you can focus on your priorities?