Getting Back to Art After a Long Absence

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Getting Back to Art

Before diving into art-making full time, I dabbled on and off. Mostly off. For decades. Getting back to art has been one hell of a journey.

In my early twenties, I painted and doodled, and kept art journals.  In Rockport, Massachusetts, while renting a converted chicken coop/cottage (below) for the summer with a friend, we filled journal pages and covered the ceiling with watercolors. We gushed out paintings with unfettered abandon, and tore pages from sketchbooks to tape them up, all around us.

In photos from that summer, art is pinned up everywhere around us. It’s all a bit garish, but we had a great summer just making things. We weren’t concerned with how the art came out. We were busy with the sheer delight of creative output, while surveying the opportunities and challenges of each new medium we played with.

A summer in Rockport, MA, circa 1980, in a converted chicken coop-cottage, working at a glass blowing shop, and making art every day.

Art Interrupted

Then, I stopped making art for a long time. I worked a variety of regular, non-art jobs, while wondering if one could really make a living in the arts. Everyone I consulted said no, there was no “real” job for artists, unless I wanted to be 1) a commercial illustrator, which required skills I didn’t believe I was blessed with, or 2) an elementary school teacher, where I might have time to paint a little during summer breaks.  

Eventually, I got a degree in Liberal Arts, with a minor in Education. Studio art classes were my favorite part of college, and making things with my hands again was a salve against the stress of finals & two jobs. (The encouragement I got from professors in the art department during those years was a grateful first, and it has stayed with me to this day.)

1980’s sketchbook fodder

Dust on the Art Supplies

I moved to California, and worked another non-art job for a little more than a decade. My art supplies festered in the garage. Work was consuming, rewarding and so very un-creative.

But I was surrounded by some of the very top of the visionary gene pool; painters, illustrators, designers and world-class thinkers. The proximity to that brain-trust was wonderful, and I didn’t realize it then, but I was on soak-cycle, watching, observing and taking subliminal notes.

Trying to become an artist: testing my plein air painting skills in Valencia, California (Photo: Nick Smirnoff)

Returning to Art

By the time I came back to art, with hopes to make a living with it, I was out of practice, and utterly unsure of myself. Which media should I focus on? Did I remember how to draw? How do artists manage the business end of fine art these days?

I had no idea where to start, and I was overwhelmed to be attempting an art career so late in life.

I researched in earnest, and attended art festivals and gallery exhibits. I subscribed to art trades, read books, joined art associations, wrote to my art professors for advise. I cold-called local artists to ask if I could buy them lunch and quiz them.

I took workshops and filled journals with notes. I printed business cards, started blogging and shadowed a seasoned art festival exhibitor as her “roadie” to observe the effort and supplies required to present like a pro.

There was so much to learn, and that was just the logistics; the marketing, venues, sales and business end of the art world. I still had to make the art.

Art Festival in Camarillo, California
Learning to talk to art patrons about my work at an early art festival (you can’t see it, but my knees were quaking) Gulp.

Once an Artist, Always an Artist

When it came to greasing the gears of my art-making brain, everyone told me – unanimously –  that the best thing to do was draw and paint, all the time.

So, when I finally picked up my drawing pencils and paint brushes – I was amazed – after just a week or two – at how much I had learned while I was away from art-making. I still had [have] a whole continent of practice to hike over, but once I started making again, I was floored. I could communicate, artistically, some of the accumulated observations I’d made over the previous decade.  Somehow, I got better with age, from simply observing.  

Is any of this familiar to you? Have you taken a big, long hiatus from art? Are you wondering how to get back in the art-making pond, to swim around a little?  Yes?  Oh good, because this rambling, convoluted story is for you. Yes you. Please keep reading…

Getting back to art: shoring myself up with instructional books, preliminary sketches, and photos of paintings I love (British watercolor artist Lucy Willis).

This Art Chat is for You

Even though you might not have touched a brush for a few dog years – it doesn’t matter. Trust me.

Your innate, Notice-the-Loveliness-Radar for dappled sunlight across a table, reflections of a cityscape in a puddle, or the softened edges in a veil of coastal fog – has been hard at work all this time. You are a Noticer. And you know, deep down, that this is the truth.

You’ve been observing, and stacking details about color and shape and nuance from the first day you opened your eyes. You’ve been taking notes and stashing them in your brain-attic, even though you haven’t made a thing (besides those post-it note doodles while talking on the phone). Once an artist’s eye, always an artist’s eye. You have a National Treasury of observations in your brain trust.

Productivity over Perfection

Artistic Conviction

Now, you simply have to let the observations you’ve collected out of the attic. Start slow, and small. Take a class, or just a weekend workshop. Sign up for a short art workshop online and put it on the calendar in ink so you’ll finish it. Follow artists on Instagram. Join art groups online so you’ll have company and advice on the first hike up the hill to return to your love of art.

Buy a book about the kind of art you want to make. Listen to a podcast about making art, and watch some youtube videos of artists doing demos to get your art game on.

Don’t delay any longer. It’s time to pick up a creative tool and make something. Your brain is fit to burst with all the imagery you’ve been collecting. Really, I’m not kidding. Stop reading this, and go get a sketch pad. Kick your inner critic to the curb, and just make something. And mostly, have a lot of fun. 🙂 I’m rooting for you, and I believe with my whole heart that You’ve Got This.

Thanks for your visit, and I’ll see you in the next post –


Art Quote

Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings. And once you have achieved a state of happiness, you must never become lax about maintaining it. You must make a mighty effort to keep swimming upward into that happiness forever, to stay afloat on top of it.

Elizabeth Gilbert
Entry Window 12 x 6 Watercolor (sold)
Petite ceramic watercolor rinse cup to beautify an art table

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27 thoughts on “Getting Back to Art After a Long Absence”

  1. Hi Belinda,
    I painted a little picture of my garden last year. I thought it came out alright, and decided to gift it to an acquaintance. I never heard back from her, not even a perfunctory “thank you for your thoughtful gift”.

    2023 is more than half over, and I haven’t even looked at my painting stuff, let alone got anything out to use. My dear friends are trying to encourage me, but to no avail (I’m not a plein air painter).

  2. Angela Ogden

    I have a degree in fine art (from he 80s as well). But like you, life and work got in the way. I haven’t painted anything other than walls for decades. I have been thinking about getting back into it (just for myself, not as a business) mainly because I want some original art in my home and I can’t afford what I like, lol. I’ve been so nervous about the material investments that I’ve been a little hesitant. Thank you for your encouragement and I needed to hear that quote: “Productivity over Perfection”

  3. What if you do not go back to art? What if you start thinking seriously of getting rid of your matetials/supplies? I took “hobbyist oil painter” off my FB bio.

    1. Hi Amy, Why make it a decision about forever? Leave the door open. There’s no way to predict the surge or decline of your creative inclinations in the future. If you’re feeling discouraged, call it “right now”, and try not to stain the future with a rule you may regret. You are still a hobbyist oil painter. You’re simply taking a break. Try not to use your lack of painting time as a reason to punish yourself.

  4. rebecca nelson

    Dear dear Belinda, you wrote this to me! Thank you so, so much! I have very similar events in my past as yours! I am now 60 and was asked to teach a couple of friends children. I was bewildered that anyone would want to pay me for that? My kids are grown but the most fun was making art and messes with them. She told a couple of friends and now I have 11 students! You are absolutely right about our artists eye, it’s been there through all these years. I am shocking myself with my abilities. I just can’t believe what I can draw and paint. And I am researching and building a business as fast as I can. Sorry for so many exclamation points…I am just so excited and inspired by you. I gotta go paint some realtors homes and give them as a gift to start advertising myself. How do I do the business license for Washington state, accounting software, receipts, framing????….so much to work on!

    1. Hi Rebecca,
      Thanks for this kind and enthused note! Congratulations on your return to making art, and double congrats on your teaching to children! I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself, and I hope your new endeavor brings you weeks and weeks of exclamation-point-worthy joy!
      You’ll find all the info you need for a business license at your local city hall. And for questions regarding business matters for working artists, start local as well, and join an art association, and then reach out to seasoned artists you know, and ask if you can buy them lunch and pick their brains for advise with a notepad in hand. That’ll get you started, and make some friends at the same time.
      Happy arting to you!

  5. Belinda,I’m so happy I ran across this post. I first took lessons in 1990 and all these years later, I get frustrated that I can’t get as good as I was then. I work long hours and recently began watercolor lessons again but had been thinking of quitting because the convenient evening class made my day too long. Yes, it made me tired, but I admit that frustration and lack of ability was a big part of wanting to quit. And yet, I don’t find the time between classes to work on my own.

    Your account kept me from cancelling today! And I love the idea of finding the time in small increments.

    I’d love to follow your blog.

    Debbie M.

    1. Hi Debbie, I can absolutely relate to what you’re describing, and I’m so glad you didn’t cancel the class. Have courage, and patience in equal measure, and pay close attention to every little victory. Those are your harbor-markers; they’ll keep your boat off the rocks. Welcome, and thanks for writing! 🙂

  6. Love your art and your blog posts.You express yourself so beautifully in words and paint.
    I came back to my art after being a cake decorator for 27 years (i guess also creative) Decided to do art that people couldn’t eat. Went back to school for BA and MA and had to decide to teach or sell and ended up doing both. Have done the outdoor art shows since 1992 and have gone from watercolor to oils and pastels. Hit a wall, so your blog post really resonated with me. I don’t sketch or write but love to do photography for my subject matter. Now I feel the need to get out there with my camera again. Thank you so much. p.s. Missed meeting you at Thousand Oaks Art Walk. Hope to remedy that next year if you r planning to be there.

    1. Judy, Ive been a huge fan of your work for *years*! And I had no idea you were a cake decorator! People ate your art! That is awesome! And here you are now, with enough ribbons and awards from decades of art shows to weave a stadium canopy. I’m sorry you’ve hit a wall, but there’s no harm with a bit of respite. They say even a fertile field needs a season’s worth of a break sometimes to produce quality flowers again, so perhaps this is your time to harvest images with your camera, and get ready for the next wave of painting urges. I’ll be rah-rahing you from the sidelines. And yes, I hope to meet you at an artfest soon. Thanks so much for the kind words.

  7. Brenda, what a wonderful post! I took that hiatus and went the route of the elementary art teacher. I loved my career! Watching the kids get that spark and just go with their art was so rewarding. My time was filled with preparing lessons, raising our own two children and maintaining our household.
    It was always nagging at me, though, to pick up a brush for myself. When I finally did, it was watercolors that claimed me. Never did I dream that I would be a working artist with an on-line shop selling around the world.

    Thanks for your inspiring and encouraging post. I’m sure it will speak to many who have “packed away the brushes”. I especially like your ending : “You’ve got this”!
    PS Just ordered that book

    1. Hi Carol, Thanks for stopping by, and sharing your story. Your watercolors are lovely, so I’m not surprised one bit that your “second career” took off like a rocket! Cheers to you for taking those first steps. I hope your story inspires others to do the same.

  8. A great post! I never stopped making art, but dwindled down to one or two pictures per year during a 30 year business career. Building up to a regular output again is intimidating, but I remember you telling me you would break painting into 10 or 15 minute increments while waiting for the veg to come to a boil on the stove. That told me that anyone can create, no matter what the circumstances. You just have to break it down to a manageable size.

    1. Hi Tina! Yes, little bite-sized art sessions is a great way to start, and then add to that some monthly “art-nights” with friends. Its a great way to have company & exchange ideas while getting familiar with *making* again, and before you know it, the cravings to get to your art supplies will crowd everything else out of your sights, especially things like folding laundry and emptying the dishwasher! 🙂

  9. What a wonderful post. Thank you.
    I want to add – your painting has an emotional quality which makes it stand out. Lots of artists are very good but not all of their art has heart. Yours does.

  10. Marilyn Thuss

    Oh Belinda…..I have found you just when I needed you! Thanks for this post. You have lightened and lifted me to a place I want to be! I have too many thoughts right now to even attempt getting them written out for you. But your generosity of spirit is so helpful and inspiring. I will focus and paint with renewed belief because of your post. Thank you, thank you! Your work is gorgeous of course!!

  11. I almost cried while reading this because it seems so familiar to me. Your honesty and friendliness shows through your words and they are so true. I guess I’m in the middle of a long hiatus. Just sold my studio easel ! But I’m confident I might go back to drawing and painting some time. And I’m currently playing violin and sewing a whole new fun wardrobe and this is artistic and creative 🙂 There was a time when I only painted abstract work and I was worried about my drawing skills. A seasoned painter told me I was still working on paint manipulation, composition, color knowledge, values… ans she was soooo right !

    1. Ghislaine – Good for you on the sale of your easel. A sketchpad on your lap is all you need, and if you decide to work big & vertical again, you can tack your suport to a sheet of fiber board leaned against a wall. There’s always a workaround. And you *are* still creating! I see no hiatus in your description of making music and sewing a wardrobe. Painting with sound and fabric. Bravo!

  12. Hi Belinda, I have just found this post via Celia Blanco’s blog. It is lovely to get an insight into the diligence and passion you employed to get your art happening again – very impressive! Your paintings are absolutely beautiful and you deserve your success!

  13. Wow Belinda….
    Your painting is stunning, but your words touched deeply my soul.
    I studied arts and I love to make things with my own hands, but I work as a doctor and the brushes stayed in the drawer. Now I work part-time in my office, and after reading your post I will pick up my art materials.
    The links you indicated are great!
    Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I admire you even more.

    1. Hi Cristiane – my brushes stayed in drawers too, and I’m happy to report that they still work fine, after years in the dark! Lucky us! I hope your brushes are moving, sloshing through pigments, and you find your way back to creating art again soon. Thanks for the nice compliments.

  14. This post really spoke to me. I’ve taken breaks from art, usually because life gets in the way, but sometimes just because I need a break from the pressure of trying to get out of my own way while trying to create something. Sometimes the breaks are just a month or two, sometimes it’s years, but when I’ve come back to art, it always seems like some skill really took hold during the time off. As I’ve noticed this pattern, I’ve eased up on the pressure I put on myself, the guilt about not painting or drawing, the thoughts that taking a break must mean I’m not a real artist. Now the breaks have become what I call a “productive hiatus”, and I come back to art refreshed and re-energized, and typically produce some of my best work. Go figure.

    What you wrote about not worrying about outcomes because you were too busy creating also really resonated with me. I remember as a teenager staying up to the wee hours of the morning doing all sorts of creative things, be it music, art, writing, theater, etc. Somewhere along the line, with all the responsibilities and confusion of adulthood I lost that endless creative energy, that “sheer delight of creative output” as you so aptly put it. I want it back! One of my goals, starting this month, is to add play back into my weekly routine and maybe eventually even my daily routine.

    My comment is running a little long, but thank you for this upbeat post which reaffirmed my thoughts and ideas. It’s good to know we aren’t alone trying to figure all this out.

    1. Hi Gabrielle – Thanks so much for writing, and please feel free to wax poetic and type to your heart’s content. Your articulate and simpatico comment put a big smile on my face. We’re having tea, and comparing fits and starts in art over the net, and it’s lovely to meet you. I will be rooting for you to get solid weekly or daily free-form output gushing shortly. Here’s to having fun, effusively, and tossing worry in the wind.

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