The Shift from Fear to Joy: Making Art, Part 1


In my last post, I mentioned that making art can often be a meditative and calming activity for me. I said “often” because it doesn’t always end happily. Just like most people I know, I can freeze at the glare of a blank page or despair when a finished piece fails to meet my expectations. Still, there was a time that making art rarely led to peace and joy, so the fact that it’s become more of a regular occurrence deserves a moment of celebration. I’d love to share with you what influenced the shift from constant despair to more-than-sometimes joy. Three different sources of influence showed up in my creative life around the same time and l’m going to dedicate a blog post to each source. 

In the long ago days of college arts classes or even the scrapbooking phase that spawned during the earlier parenting years, I would get an idea in my head but the finished work never resembled anything close to the original idea. During those years, attempting art almost always made me angry and disappointed. But the urge to create something from nothing wouldn’t go away. It kept at me like a persistent child begging a parent for something sweet. And deep inside I must have believed that answering that call to create would eventually yield a reward not unlike the child who finally gets her double-scoop waffle cone. At the time I thought the expected reward was making art that would rival the work of the great artists and potentially bring me glory. Eventually I discovered the treasure was actually found in the midst of the creative process and in the occasional satisfaction of producing something that reflected the beauty and joy in God’s creation.

“But the urge to create something from nothing wouldn’t go away. It kept at me like a persistent child begging her parent for something sweet.”

The picture book Ish by Peter H. Reynolds sparked a seismic shift in my goal of making art. In the book, a boy named Ramon loves painting. One day his older brother, Leon, guffaws at Ramon’s art and asks “What is that?” In that moment Ramon knows, without a doubt, that he has failed to produce an accurate painting of the vase of flowers in front of him. Leon’s laughter haunts Ramon and he tries hard to “make his drawings look ‘right’ but they never did”. Ramon is crushed and eventually stops making art all together until one day he discovers that his younger sister has created a gallery of his discarded art in her room. At first he’s angry, but Marisol is undeterred.

”’This is one of my favorites,’ Marisol says, pointing.

‘That was supposed to be a vase of flowers,’ Ramon said, ‘but it doesn’t look like one.’

‘Well, it looks vase-ISH!’ she exclaimed.”

Ramon looks at his other paintings through this new lens that an “ish” painting can still be a “right” painting.

“They do look…ish,” he said.

Ish-ful thinking releases him from his fears and he runs to get his sketchbook.

I can’t remember if I’d read this book before my then third grader came home from her art class with a page of ISH drawings or if her art assignment is the reason I found the book. Whether it was the chicken or the egg, the shift had begun.

My daughter’s assignment was this: Draw eight rectangular boxes. Underneath each box write what she was going to draw such as bus, bird, or house. Then add a dash and the word “ish” to each object: bus-ish, bird-ish, house-ish. And then she drew the labeled object in each box. All of this was done in sharpie so there would be no erasing. Ish-drawings don’t need to be erased since perfection is not the goal. Finally, she added watercolor to each drawing (one of the medium’s used in Reynold’s illustrations).

After that, we did a lot of Ish drawings as a family. It was liberating. Not every person can draw a bird like Audubon, but anybody can draw a Bird-ish. When I approached art with Ish-ful intentions rather than the idea of rendering perfectly the unreachable idea in my head, it was the beginning of freedom and freedom led to the beginning of joy.

I’ve shared this book with other people in my life and from my experience it’s had more impact on the adults than on the children. Up to a certain age, children create unabashedly and with panache. Once I sat with a group of adults at a painting studio. This was as close to a paint-by-number experience as you could get and yet we adults worked slowly, fingers and imaginations stiff with fear. In contrast, my (then) seven-year old, the one child present that day, exclaimed boldly,

“I’m a great artist, Mommy!”

Like many adults, I desperately needed the introduction of Ish-ful thinking into my creative endeavors. A shift had begun and the sweet reward of persisting in the call to create drew closer.  Thank you, Peter H. Reynolds, for letting Ramon and Marisol lead the way.



My friend Jennifer Trafton, author of Henry and the Chalk Dragon and The Rise and Fall and Mount Majestic and also an inspiring visual artist, has put together a FREE collection of self-paced art classes designed for families (or anyone) during the pandemic. It’s called The Brave Artist Club. Check it out!