Show Up Every Day: How the 40 Days of Abstracts Project was My Most Successful Yet

When you show up every day for 40 days you set yourself up for success. Here’s how I prepared ahead of time, used a manageable scale, and turned failures into wins.

For the past few years, I have participated in Art Every Day Month. I think daily challenges are a great way to boost your creativity. When combined with social media, daily challenges can get your art seen by more people.

Background

I turned forty in December. So I decided that, in the 40 days leading up to my fortieth birthday, I would do a painting a day. I combined this with the Art Every Day Month challenge that I normally do, basically adding a few days before and after the month of November to make it work.

So I created 40 paintings in 40 days leading up to my 40th birthday. Oh, and the paintings are 4×4 inches and cost $40 each. Lots of fours. (I’m also a four on the Ennegram. Coincidence?)

This was probably the most successful challenge project I’ve worked on. I’ve never had this level of output. Also, these paintings sold well, and continue to sell well. (I’ve got a few left in stock if you’re interested.)

Why did this go so well?

I think there are a number of factors that made this project successful for me. Here’s how.

The theme was consistent.

Consistency is key to these kinds of challenges, whether it is theme, size, medium, style, whatever. The name of the project tells you what it’s going to be. “40 days of abstracts” lets you know what I’m going to stick to, yet broad enough for interpretation. What constitutes an abstract painting? Lots of things, actually. Turns out I lean toward abstract landscapes most of all. You won’t see me doing horses or architecture or anything like that for this series. Geometric abstracts just aren’t really my thing. I like looking at color field paintings but it doesn’t really seem to gel when I try it.

Abstract landscapes loosely based on iPhone photos taken while driving the kids to school is specific yet broad enough that I’m able to come up with a lot of ideas that have a similar flavor.

The scale was something I could manage.

A four-by-four-inch painting is just the right size for me to get across an abstract idea in one sitting. Due to the way I paint nowadays, I don’t get into fussy details, which is what bogged me down when I attempted to paint 365 paintings in a year, which ultimately led a creative injury that halted any painting efforts for a year-and-a-half. This size helped me keep it simple. If I got too detailed, I knew it was time to back off.

I prepared ahead of time.

I bought boxes of ten canvases, toned them all orange at the same time, and sketched on several all at once by blocking in the composition with dark areas. That made it easy to just apply color when it was time to paint. That’s the fun part, anyway.

I showed up at the same time every day.

For years I would set my alarm for 4 a.m. and get in the studio and paint. That’s hard since I’m not much of a morning person. I might get a little done that way. This time, I completely flipped the time around. After the kids went to bed, it was time to paint! Often, I didn’t get in the studio until 7:30 or 8 at night, and I’d wrap up around 9:30 or 10. And guess what? It was easier to show up in the studio every single night unless we were out late or something.

The expectation I set for myself became what my audience expected of me.

I think people began to notice that I posted a new small abstract landscape painting at about 9:30 or 10 every night. They could end their day with a little bit of delightful color and a story about what it means to me. That’s what creating a brand really is: setting and managing expectations.

I found a way to win instead of fail if I got behind.

When I missed a couple of days in a row due to circumstances out of my control, I combined paintings into small polyptychs. It forced me to be creative and not accept defeat. Jon Acuff talks about this in his book Finish. It’s easy to throw in the towel when you miss a day.

So, what’s next?

I’m not really sure. I recently bought about twenty 10×10 inch canvases. The 100 Day Project is coming up starting in April, so I might participate in that. I’m not entirely sure. But now I have ways to be more intentional in whatever long-term project I do next.

Have you done a daily challenge before? How did it go? Let me know in the comments!

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