Book Review: Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

Big MagicSo I have a confession to make. I didn’t want to like this book. Why you might ask? Because I associate author Elizabeth Gilbert with the Oprah empire and despite how much I respect Oprah as an individual, I generally rebel against being spoon fed book recommendations to the masses. There is just something about it that I find so plebeian and patronizing at the same time… and so typically when Oprah recommends a book I run the other way. Of course everybody by now is familiar with Gilbert’s literary success EAT PRAY LOVE. Did I read it? No. But I saw the movie. Does that count?

I am however really, really into podcasts when I paint in my studio, particularly those dealing with painting or creativity. I stumbled upon Gilbert’s Magic Lessons Podcast (which I think was meant to be an appetizer for the release of Big Magic) and was kinda intrigued. In one of the first podcasts I listened to, Gilbert advises listeners to create a contract with Creativity. To agree to show up everyday to work but to not agree to take all the responsibility for whether or not your work will turn into anything masterful. Because Creativity doesn’t care if you win some big award with your work, it just wants to EXIST in some particular form. It wants to come into being through you the Creator. “It just wants to play” as Gilbert says. My ears perked up at this unusual advice despite its Age of Aquarius vibe. Now that is one unique thought I had never entertained before so I ordered her book and found myself taking lots of notes on other things she recommended.

On Creativity

Gilbert believes that the Universe buries creative treasure deep within all of us and then stands back to see if we can find them. She calls the hunt for these creative gems, Big Magic. She advises keeping yourself open to inspiration. That often one thought or clue will lead to another and so on and so forth. That is when Big Magic happens.

On Getting Your Work Out There

Gilbert recommends that you consider rejections as part of a great big cosmic Ping Pong game. The universe lobs a rejection your way be it from a competition, a gallery, a publisher -whatever and it just means it is your turn to lob something back over the Ping Pong net. Send out another application immediately to a different competition, gallery, publisher etc. Whatever you do, don’t take it personally. I was happy to discover on another podcast I listened to, that this is exactly the same strategy Game of Thrones Author, George R R Martin used to build up his career. Cool huh? I will definitely be adding this strategy to my arsenal going forward.

Stuck In A Rut?

Get dressed to go to work. Like really dressed up as if you have an important meeting to attend because you do, you have a serious daily appointment with your work. I’ve heard similar things before like “dressing for the job you want, not the job you have” and it made perfect sense in an office environment but here in my home studio it seemed less appealing because I can wear pajamas to work if I wanted to. Hey- that is just one of the benefits of the job! However, Gilbert has something here. One particular day in the studio I was having difficulty focusing so I took her advice, took a shower put on my dressy jeans and a nice shirt. Even topped it off with a pair of earrings and perfume and magically I was transformed into a new person who gave a $&*! about my work and I got back to it and had no problem sustaining my interest for the rest of the day.

So despite my previous hesitations towards Gilbert, I am going to rate Big Magic a strong B + on my book recommendation list. And maybe now that she has melted my icy heart a little, I may even go pick up a copy of EAT PRAY LOVE.


Big Magic can be purchased from Amazon and qualifies for free Prime  2 day shipping.

Suggested Reading: “Summer in February”

Munnings Alfred - The Morning Ride
“The Morning Ride”. Sir Alfred Munnings. Oil on canvas.

A recent trip to San Francisco allowed me the luxury of doing something I seldom do anymore, start a novel and finish it within one week. But this book, “Summer in February” by Jonathan Smith, about a community of artists living and working on the coast of West Cornwall during the last throes of the Edwardian era, had me in its spell from the very first chapter. The brightest star among them was the boisterous and infamous equestrian and landscape painter, Sir Alfred Munnings. It is the story of his ascent into the art world, and of his marriage to the budding artist Florence Carter-Wood. But it is not their romance, which is based on true events, that you pine for at the end of the novel. There is another storyline woven in here, both haunting and heartbreaking that has stayed with me ever since I put the book down. It is no wonder that the novel has already been turned into a movie. You can watch the movie for free if you are an Amazon Prime subscriber.

“My Horse Is My Friend: The Artist’s Wife and Isaac”. Sir Alfred Munnings. Oil on canvas. C 1922.
“Rosie and Hazel Buxton meeting the Dunston”. Sir Alfred Munnings. Oil on canvas.

Art Library


My Art Library page contains an assortment of books and DVD videos on the topics of art, art making & creativity that I am currently reading or have read (or watched) and highly recommend. These are books and videos that have changed my thinking and my process and I hope you too will grow from them.

Mastering Work Flow: Jiro Dreams Of Sushi

A while back I came across this amazing documentary of Master Sushi Chef Jiro Ono, owner of Sukiyabashi Jiro, a Michelin three-star restaurant. I told anyone who would listen, especially artists, that they HAD to see this mind blowing film. You may be asking yourself now “what does a sushi master and an artist (or any other profession for that matter) have in common?” The answer is deceptively simple, mastery of one’s craft through a conscious and disciplined daily practice.

Right from start of the film, Jiro issues this edict: “Once you decide upon an occupation you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success and is the key to being regarded honorably.”

Jiro approaches his craft in the way of “Shokunin” (meaning artisan), the Shinto belief in executing everything perfectly, every single day, over an entire lifetime. Anything can be approached in the Shokunin way, no job is considered inferior or beneath oneself. The wisdom here is obvious and applicable to anyone’s life.

I kept having to stop the movie to take notes. Here is some more advice worth remembering:

“It really comes down to making an effort & repeating everyday”

“It has to be better than the last time. That is why I am always tasting during preparation”

“Each of our vendors are specialists in their field (i.e. surround yourself with excellence and use only the best materials)”

“All I want to do is make better sushi. I improve bit by bit, day after day and progress forward. But no one knows where the top is”

“In order to make delicious food you must eat delicious food (in other words, in order to make great paintings you must see great paintings)”

“Without good taste, you cannot make good food (educate your tastes)”

“If your taste is not better than your customers how will you impress them?”


Jiro Dreams of Sushi is available on DVD through Amazon and streaming via Netflix and ITunes.

Art Video Review: Donato Giancola’s “Joan of Arc”

Donato Giancola. “Joan of Arc”. Oil on panel.

This post is the first in a series of reviews of art videos I have in my personal collection.

Several months ago we made the decision to lose the extra cable box we had in our bedroom and use the bedroom TV to watch videos exclusively. Little did I know that this decision would lead to me being more productive & organized as I have taken to folding laundry while watching my many art DVDs. Before now, I never seemed to find the time to do either. Now it is something I dare say, I almost look forward to.

What sets Donato’s video apart from other art videos I have seen is that he shares his entire process from conceptualization (which includes thumbnail sketching), compositional design, historical research, photography of models and source materials to preparing a surface, underdrawing, underpainting and through all the stages of painting his large multi-figurative narrative piece, “Joan of Arc”. Joan of Arc by the way is one of my favorite saints because she is the patron saint of female bad assery. Donato is a much revered artist in the illustration and imaginative realism fields and has studied with some big names in the fine art world including Vincent Desiderio and Jerome Witkin. I think it is his unique perspective as an artist in these particularly deadline driven fields that has allowed him to create and hone such a strong working process which for me tends to be a bit of a moving target.

My favorite take aways are these:

-Use chroma shifts to help turn a form, not just value shifts. This was a timely nugget to absorb as I was able to use this technique a lot on my current portrait commission.
-Donato refers to his paint palette as his “mud pile” and will pre-mix all his colors along with all the chroma shifts possible prior to painting his subject.
-Keep a good book on anatomy handy as you model the form and constantly refer back to it for greater definition of the figure.
-Donato is constantly referencing a lot of Master painters and their paintings to help inform his painting such as Rubens, Van Dyck and Bouguereau which I found really inspiring.

To purchase Donato Giancola’s “Joan of Arc” click here. I highly recommend it.

Mastering Work Flow: Manage Your Day to Day

ImageDear Readers-

I have been selfishly keeping something from you. For a little while now I have been reading books and following blogs that are dedicated to improving schedules and harnessing creativity on demand: that is mastering the perfect daily work flow.

It began when I cam across Cal Newport’s awesome Study Hacks Blog. Then one day I stumbled upon the Accidental Creative podcasts. From there I discovered 99U and their book Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind (The 99U Book Series) which I would like to share with you today. What blew my mind about all the above is that there is a whole industry of academics and professionals whose sole focus in life is how to improve your creativity. This is clearly untapped material for all of us working in the creative on demand industries. Whether you are a fine artist, graphic designer or writer, the techniques are universal.

I highlighted almost every page from Manage Your Day to Day but here are some of my favorite quotes and suggestions:

  • “Specifically, it’s our routine (or lack thereof), our capacity to work proactively rather than re-actively, and our ability to systematically optimize our work habits over time that determine our ability to make ideas happen.”
  • “Creative work first, reactive work second. This means blocking off a large chunk of time every day for creative work on your own priorities, with the phone and email off”.
  • “Certain times of the day are especially conducive to focused creativity, thanks to circadian rhythms of arousal and mental alertness. Notice when you seem to have the most energy during the day, and dedicate those valuable periods to your most creative work.”
  • “Frequency makes starting easier: Getting started is always a challenge. It’s hard to start a project after a break. By working everyday, you keep your momentum going. You never have time to feel detached from the process.”

By utilizing the suggestions in this book I have improved my daily work flow and it has made all the difference. I now rise everyday at 6 AM, even on weekends when I get some valuable hours in the studio before my family is really up and moving. I have returned to painting every day, and I mean every single day and it has made things run more smoothly by allowing me to keep my head focused on my projects. And lastly one of the biggest take aways I took from this book was to leave my reactive tasks (those demands made on me by others such as text messages, emails and phone calls) to the afternoon after I had gotten my studio time–the most important proactive time–out of the way for the day.

So if you don’t hear from me immediately, you now know why. 😉