Tag Archives: art

Why Am I Obsessed with the Subject of Beautiful Colors?

Periodically, I get obsessed with subjects.  And nothing makes me happier than a new obsession! It’s energizing and exciting.

Sometimes, this obsession leads to a book — like The Happiness Project or Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill. Sometimes it stays a private obsession — like my obsession with beautiful scents.

Sometimes the subject is a big, obvious subject, like the subject of habits in Better Than Before, or sometimes it’s more obscure, like my long obsession with the question “Why do people destroy their own possessions?” which became the book Profane Waste.

It’s a wonderful, mysterious feeling to become wildly interested in something new. A new part of the world lights up for me, a previously ignored section of my beloved library becomes familiar, I have a new way to connect with people, and my bookshelves start to fill up (which is a mixed blessing).

Now, why am I so intrigued with the subject of color? No idea.

I know the minute my obsession started. On our podcast Happier, in episode 71, Elizabeth and I suggested the try-this-at-home of “Choose a signature color,” which sparked so much response that in episode 75, we did a deep dive into color. I got hooked.

However, despite my fascination with the subject of color — or perhaps because of it — I haven’t been able to choose a signature color (though I think if I did, it would be purple).

I love reading about color, taking notes on color, looking at color. It’s so much fun, it’s a great treat.

Oddly, it’s a treat that also feels like more work. I spend time doing research and taking notes, which is “fun” but is also a busman’s holiday. I also feel obligated to do my reading, so instead of picking up a novel I’m dying to read, say, I think “I really need to spend some time this afternoon reading about color.”

Of course this sense of obligation is completely self-imposed. As George Orwell wrote in the brilliant book The Road to Wigan Pier, “But what is work and what is not work?  Is it work to dig, to carpenter, to plant trees, to fell trees, to ride, to fish, to hunt, to feed chickens, to play the piano, to take photographs, to build a house, to cook, to sew, to trim hats, to mend motor bicycles?  All of these things are work to somebody, and all of them are play to somebody.  There are in fact very few activities which cannot be classed either as work or play according as you choose to regard them.”

Or as Tom Sawyer put it more succinctly, in Mark Twain’s novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and…Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”

But why is color my Play? I’m extremely un-visual, so perhaps part of my pleasure comes from tapping into an underused aspect of my existence –as I did with the sense of smell.

And the writing about it! Much of it is extremely dry, but some of it is beautiful and thought-provoking. In the end, no matter how tied something may be to the physical senses, I still can only appreciate things through reading.

“All my life I’ve pursued the perfect red. I can never get painters to mix it for me. It’s exactly as if I’d said, ‘I want rococo with a spot of Gothic in it and a bit of Buddhist temple’—they have no idea what I’m talking about. About the best red is to copy the color of a child’s cap in any Renaissance portrait.” — Diana Vreeland

“If you cover a surface in red; where is the surface now? Under the red? Over it? The red itself?” –Bernard Cohen

“Colors must have a mystical capacity for spiritual expression, without being tied to objects.” –Johannes Itten

“The fact is, that, of all God’s gifts to the sigh of man, colour is the holiest, the most divine, the most solemn…the purest and most thoughtful minds are those which love colour the most.”  –John Ruskin (a bit self-congratulatory on my part!)

“I knew a wise guy who used to make fun of my painting, but he didn’t like the Abstract Expressionists either. He said they would be good painters if they could only keep the paint as good as it is in the can. And that’s what I tried to do. I tried to keep the paint as good as it was in the can.” — Frank Stella

I’ve learned new words, like “ombre.”  I have a much greater appreciation for painting.  I’ve learned some odd history — like the existence of killer wallpaper. My love of color has given me an excuse to buy giant sets of fine colored markers and pencils. It has given me something new in common with a few of my friends whom I’ve discovered, to my surprise, are also color-obsessed.

I realize that just as a romance usually fades out or ends in marriage, probably my love of color will abruptly burn itself out or turn into a book (I already have a title picked out: “My Color Pilgrimage.”). Who knows? I’m just trying to enjoy this beautiful, beautiful obsession for as long as it lasts.

If you have any suggestions for books I should read, paintings I should look at, movies I should watch, websites to follow, articles to read, or anything else, I’d love to hear them. I’ve received so many great tips from readers.

Have you ever become intensely interested in a subject? Why? Have you stayed interested for a long time, or have you moved on to other subjects?

Ta-Da! Announcing…My Coloring Book of Great Quotes. Do You Love to Color?

I’m excited to announce that I’ve created — yes! — a coloring book. Check it out: The Happiness Project Mini Posters: A Coloring Book of 20 Hand-Lettered Quotes to Pull Out and Frame.

It was a particular delight to be creating a coloring book now, given my recent obsession with color, and accompanying obsession with beautiful markers and colored pencils.

Also, it’s a big trend across the United States. (Is coloring becoming a popular adult activity in other countries?) More and more adults are returning to the coloring books they loved as children.

Great idea! Coloring boosts happiness for many reasons.

1. Coloring is calming, even meditative.

The activity of coloring helps to focus the mind and rest the body in a constructive, creative way. In this book, you’re coloring various quotations, and II hope that the quotations, too, will inspire quiet reflection.

2. Coloring is very satisfying, because there’s a special pleasure in doing things with our hands.

Very often these days, we’re sitting behind screens and living in our heads. Like activities such as knitting or tying flies, coloring allows us to connect with the physical world, in the present moment. And there’s something about the repetitive, wordless nature of the work that boosts creativity and energy.

3. Coloring is a great activity to do with other people.

Research shows that a secret—probably the secret—to happiness is strong connections with other people. Coloring is fun to do with other people. It’s companionable, and allows for conversation, and at the same time, gives a sense of shared purpose.

With my sister Elizabeth Craft, I host a podcast, Happier with Gretchen Rubin. Many people have written to tell me that they like to color as they listen to the latest episode—the two activities are highly compatible.

How about you? Do you like to color? And if so: markers or pencils? Or both — I love both.

A Little Happier: Keep the Paint as Good as It Is in the Can.

I love koans, paradoxes, teaching stories, aphorisms, maxims, anything of that sort.

I discovered this personal “koan” from artist Frank Stella in Color Chart: Reinventing Color: 1950 to Today, by Ann Temkin. The book was published to accompany a big exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art here in New York City. My color obsession continues!

Stella says, “I knew a wise guy who used to make fun of my painting, but he didn’t like the Abstract Expressionists either. He said they would be good painters if they could only keep the paint as good as it is in the can. And that’s what I tried to do. I tried to keep the paint as good as it was in the can.”

The painting is Frank Stella’s Lac Laronge III. What do you think — is the paint as good as it is in the can? (Whatever that means.)

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Happier listening!

How Do You Become an Artist? Maybe You Don’t.

“You don’t become a painter, you just discover one day that you are one.”

–Yves Klein, quoted in Klein by Hannah Weitemeier

This reminds me of the answer I heard a comedy writer give, when she was asked, “How do you get a job writing comedy?” She replied, “You do what you love, and then your friends hire you.”

In both cases: that work finds you.

Agree, disagree?

“I Realized that My Calendar Was Full of Commitments to Other People, But Few Commitments to Myself.”

Happiness interview: Amy Whitaker.

Amy and I met many years ago. She has a fascinating background: she got both an MBA and an MFA in painting (not a combo you see every day), and she has spent many years thinking about the conjunction of her two interests.

She teaches business to artists and designers, and lectures widely on creativity in the workplace. She’s also an assistant professor of visual arts administration at New York University.

Amy has a new book that just hit the shelves: Art Thinking: How to Carve Out Creative Space in a World of Schedules, Budgets, and Bosses.

I know from talking to people over the years that one of the habits that people most want to form is the habit of doing creative work. We have so many claims on our time, energy, and money that it can be hard to fit in that element — even when we know it will make us happier.

So I was very eager to hear what Amy had to say.

Gretchen: What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?

Amy: The mind naturally goes to worrying about what could go wrong. While that’s evolutionarily helpful if you’re being chased by a cheetah, it can make it hard to soak up the joy that’s around you. I have learned some mental habits for when I worry that help me to separate out the facts, to notice any conclusions I’m jumping to, and to question what might or might not be true. You could call it the Habit of Injecting Skepticism.

What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

That you have to actually do them, over and over, until they become rituals that support you.

Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?

I just had a book come out, Art Thinking (Harper Business). In switching from writing it (a.k.a., long romantic getaways, just me and the Microsoft Word doc) to sharing it with people (social reentry and the dawning realization that a project is real), I noticed that I had a habit of acting like my life was happening on a five-second time delay, the way that live television has a lag for bleeping out swear words. Someone would make an offer to help with the book, and I would have to think, oh, this is happening right now. I had to remind myself to show up presently, as if we were all doing improv comedy.

Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)

I live on my own, so every morning I walk across the street, in New York, to get a cup of coffee, from people whose names I know and who know my standard order. It wakes me up and gives me a sense of community.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

I’m an Obliger, with a dash of Rebel and Questioner thrown in. I’d like to think that I’m less of a people pleaser than I was growing up, and that my “Obliger” nature comes from an old-fashioned belief that you are only as good as your word. If I tell someone I will do something, I have to do it, even if I have to put something on the back-burner to do it.

 Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)

I’m a social creature and a Southerner originally, so I hate for people to eat or drink alone. That means that if I have any habits related to food or drink, I need to go cold turkey. Otherwise, I think, well, I’ll have that one Manhattan / glass of red wine / cookie / entire chocolate cake because what is life without a shared sense of occasion?

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you changed a major habit very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

Several years ago, a friend looked at my calendar and said, “Wow, this doesn’t look at all like what you’re talking about!” I realized that I was putting down all the things that were commitments to other people (see Obliger, question #6) and few of the ones that were commitments to myself. So I started putting everything in my calendar. (Like a time-traveler, I still keep a long-hand calendar in a giant leather-bound book I buy every year.) It was a breakthrough in being able to see the whole landscape of my life—something I actually found myself writing about not long after.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

I think I resist habits—or that I work episodically and have different habits within different episodes of my life.

There’s a feeling as a writer that you should have habits, because people will ask you what your writing routine is. And you’re supposed to Ernest-Hemingway the question and explain how you write in the morning and drink with friends in the afternoon. Or that you make yourself get up and write from 5-8 am every day.

I was writing a book about how to carve out creative time in the midst of busy working life, while working full-time. So, I wrote a little on a regular basis time, and then took a deep dive periodically when I had school breaks or bracketed weekends.

When I am writing intensively like that, I have a habit of starting the day with coffee, going for a midday walk, even around the block, and then going for an evening run.

When I was working full-time, I used one of the tools from Art Thinking – the habit of “studio time.” I would decide how much time I had to devote to a creative project—whether a half hour or two hours—and then set it aside and commit to it.

I also used the studio time habit to learn something new—video editing, hip-hop dance—because it renewed my ability to take a risk on feeling (and looking) like an idiot, which I’d argue is an important part of creative process. Risë Wilson, the director of philanthropy for the artist Robert Rauschenberg’s foundation, once described being an artist as “the act of being vulnerable in public.” I use habits to force myself to do that on a regular basis.

Has another person ever had a big influence on your habits?

I made a new friend a few years ago who is one of the most remarkably punctual people I have ever met. She arrives fifteen minutes early. She reminded me of the importance of punctuality. I practice the habit of being on time, and it makes me happier when I do it.