Nov 29, 2022

8 Strategies for Overcoming Creative Block

 I wrestle a lot with creative block. When I'm going through it, I feel like a failure. I procrastinate and am hyper-critical of what I paint. I am the queen of creative block, but there are a few things I do that help.

The hardest part can be just getting to the studio. Reserving the time to create is hard! Sometimes I just go to the studio and clean.

Draw every day. Draw on scraps of paper and old envelopes. Draw when you're waiting for an appointment or for a friend. Draw at church or at concerts or plays.

As a child, I couldn't leave the dinner table until I had eaten everything on my plate (which resulted in many late nights, eyeing a slab of cold liver). I sometimes harness the waste-not-want-not maxim by filling my palette with all sorts of colors and not leaving until the paint is all used up.

Put a microphone to the negative voices in your head. On a scrap of paper, write down the lies, the negative put-downs from people in the distant or recent past, the ragings of an internal monitor. Then next to the lies, write down the truths. My list might include, "My best work is all behind me," and my response: "God will guide my brush."

I need to remember that I am more than what I make; I am not earning my salvation here. I am a beloved child of God, and my work is as unique as my fingerprint. It helps to tell myself sometimes that what I'm creating right now is for my eyes only. I love this quote by Phoebe Waller-Bridge about writing: "Whenever I get stuck on something, I'm like, 'What would I do if I wasn't afraid? What would I write if I wasn't afraid? What would I say in this situation if I wasn't afraid?'"I think the same applies to the visual arts.

Be around creative people who make it seem normal. In 1985, I went to a Bruce Cockburn concert that changed the trajectory of my life. The music was great, yes, but more than that was seeing the performer on stage just being himself without apology, being creative in a unique way that only he could be. I felt the permission that night to find my own road, to let go of the pressures to conform and please others. 

Another tip for creative block: move your body. Crank up the music and dance in the studio. And then do crazy psychedelic base coats with big brushes and long strokes. And then paint over them, but let a little of their energy peek through.

Or paint pink.

Nov 20, 2022

Why Art?

 People who know me well know that I wrestle with this question--why, in this broken world, should people continue creating visual art and music and dance and poetry? I spend three mornings a week teaching children and young adults how to read; isn't that more important?

My answer is that the world needs both. The world needs radical acts of service, and the world also need art. Here are a few reasons why creative acts are so vital:

For beauty

One day years ago I was stuck in heavy traffic on Telegraph Ave. in Berkeley. It was a hot day, and my car window was down. Just then a street musician began playing a beautiful melody on the flute. I was transported. At that time I was working full-time as a teacher, but the beauty of that song made it possible for me to serve another day.

When I wake up in the morning, this painting is the first thing I see:

 It's like a prayer for me day, giving me the strength to go out and do what needs to be done.

For community  

Art draws people together. My roommate is struggling with chronic pain and a deadening job, but when she plays music with friends, she's transformed. Her laughter joins in with the melodies.

For the prophetic voice

This painting is hanging in an environmental law office. The person who bought it said it was to remind her staff of what they are fighting for.


A hospice patient looked at this painting and told me, "I always thought I'd go into darkness when I died, but when I look at this I realize that I'll go into light." 

Sometimes when I create a painting, I don't realize its full significance until it goes out into the world. 

For the joy of creating 

I bristle at the label of "consumer." 

I am the most completely myself when I am creating. Even if what we make is never seen or heard or read by the world, the act of creating makes the world a better place.

Do you have other reasons for creating?

Oct 2, 2022

Leaky Buckets

 I was recently in an art show at my church on climate change. I showed this painting which is titled "Leaky Buckets." Members of the congregation found it disturbing. At a home open studio a week later, a couple looked at it and said, "We need hope. This is too dark."

So be it. Sometimes art needs to give us hope, but sometimes we need to be disturbed.

Sep 24, 2022

Creating a Portal to the Heart--Amplification through Simplification

 When I paint a human figure in my paintings, I am attempting to create an entry point, a portal
where the viewer can become a part of the image.

By keeping the faces simple, as opposed to a realistic or photographic portrait, I'm applying Amplification through Simplification, a common graphic novel technigue that I first saw in Understanding Comics” by Scott McClud. McClud writes, "By stripping down an image to its essential meaning, and artist can amplify that meaning in a way that realistic art can't."


When someone looks at my paintings, the landscapes might be realistic, at least more so than the faces. But by keeping the faces simplified, the viewer can superimpose their own face into the painting. Often at a show or open studio, viewers will tell me, "That's me!" Sometimes they'll wipe their eyes a little and say, "I really don't understand why I'm crying..." I feel that I've used a secret back door, bypassing language, that gets to the heart of things, at least if a painting is successful.

Sep 21, 2022

Shipping Artwork

 I ship a lot of artwork. Many years, my shipping bill exceeds my material expenses. If someone purchases a painting that needs to be shipped, I usually contact Handle With Care on Piedmont Ave here in the East Bay, and they get me an estimate that I pass on the the buyer. They do a great job of packing and shipping. If I'm shipping a show to a gallery and have to foot the bill myself, I pack the work in computer boxes and ship it out via a friend who has a commercial UPS license. (Thanks, Doug!)

I recently had to pack up a 44"x45" diptych to be checked onto an international flight to Australia the next day. Handle with Care couldn't get to it in time, so I packed it up myself. Airlines have a reputation for being rough on oversized baggage, so I had to be careful. I documented the process that I've come up with over time. Many thanks to Rab Terry at The Studio Gallery in SF for talking me through this system years ago.

I first wrap the painting in soft old cotton sheets. That goes with my preference of using recycled materials whenever possible.

Then I create a box within a box, cutting heavy duty foam core to fit inside the cardboard box. 

I wedge scraps of styrofoam and cardboard inside to further protect the painting.

At the time of this filming, I was still using plastic tape, but recently I found a great paper tape online that's biodegradable and has been holding up very well.

Here's a photo of the friendly baggage handlers.

The painting arrived safe and sound! 

This painting was especially poignant, because I had painted it right after I had a bad run-in with altitude sickness that resulted in a grand mal seizure and a 24 hour coma. The person who now owns this painting is a physically impaired dancer who is working on new virtual reality that will allow disabled people to "dance" while wearing headsets and making slight movements with their bodies. This painting is so deepened by being out in the world!

Aug 29, 2022

Sanchez Art Center 50/50 Show, 2022

The Sanchez Art Center's 50/50 show is herre! The show dates are September 9 and 10, 2022. for the ticketed fundraiser with open to the public dates through October 9. The Sanchez Art Center is at 1220-B Linda Mar Blvd., Pacifica, Ca.

All of the paintings below are on 6"x6" masonite panels and are $125/each or $100/each for two or more, plus tax. I have included some but not all of my paintings in the show.

#39--"Connection Point #2"

#12--"Looking at You"



#11--"Eye to Eye"


#8--"Coming Home"


#44--"Connection Point #3"

#38--"Kiss #5"


#24--"Connection Point"

#38--"Kiss #4"

#13--"Look at Me"

#36--"Pink Embrace"


#5--"Comfort #2"

#2--"Kiss #1"

#48--"Tribe #2"



#19--"Contact #2"


Aug 23, 2022

Where do paintings come from?

I am constantly on the prowl for new ideas. One of my favorite spots is the dry dock yard at the Berkeley Marina. I'll sneak past the Do Not Trespass sign with my sketchbook in the evening and draw the beautiful sweeping lines of the boats. I also have small wooden boat models in my studio that I can refer to.

I might start with one image in mind, but I change or my feelings change, and soon the children in the boat are replaced by a tree...
I feel that giving myself permission to draw quietly for awhile is the best source for new work. Also, getting out in nature and grabbing photographs of anything that gives me pause helps a lot. And seeing other artists' work gives me courage to take risks, paint big, paint small, paint risky.


Aug 11, 2022

Being a Mom and Artist

Parenting is challenging and rewarding under any circumstances. Being a parent as an artist is doubly so.

People who don't understand the artist's life think you're a mom with a hobbie, and why can't you volunteer? Relatives tell you of the necessity of two income families in this era, not realizing that you earned more than your partner that year. There's no boss insisting that you work when the kids are sick, which is quite wonderful, but sometimes you wish there was a boss setting boundaries. 


It was so challenging to reserve those few hours of painting time when my kids were small, but then when I got out to the studio, all I could paint was them.

But all of these frustrations pale at the delight of having a tot perched on a stool by your palette, cooing, "More purple, Mommy, more yellow;" the thrill of chasing toddlers through an opening art reception, narrowly dodging neon sculptures; the comfort of having young adults come at the end of an open studio weekend and help load up the cars.

My daughter remembers riding into San Francisco with me when she was very small and I had to deliver a show in a storm. Paintings were hanging out the back of the open hatch of the Honda, and the torential rain was blowing in. I held the steering wheel with one hand and gripped a tarp over the canvases with the other while my daughter cried. Upon arriving at the gallery, she happily buzzed about as I did the paperwork.

I remember bringing my children with me when I hung a cafe show after the business had closed for the night. They helped me carry the paintings through the urban neighborhood, and while they did their homework at a table, the staff brought them chocolate.

They have posed for paintings along with their friends, helped with painting titles, shared their opinions on compositions even when in preschool, and guided me throught the perplexities of social media.

My grown daughter told me recently, "It wasn't until I got to college that I realized how unusual our home was. Growing up with artists, I just thought this was the way it was for everyone." It's so delightful now to watch then explore their own creative outlets.

Aug 6, 2022

My Canvas Family

 25 years ago I wrote an article for Radix Magazine, a journal on Christianity and culture. The article is an interesting look into my process so long ago when my children were small and I was wrestling with family of origin issues through my painting. It is also a very transparent look at my spirituality at the time. Many aspects of my process and my art as therapy have changed and evolved since then, but this is an interesting record of my early days as an artist. My apologies for the photos--they're scans of old slides.

My Canvas Family

As I paint in my studio behind my house, I can hear my children, ages two and four, inside with their father or their Russian babysitter. When they were tiny, I craved a chance to paint undisturbed, but in the studio all I could paint was them, their tiny hands, their snuggly bodies. Now my work had returned to more metaphorical and narrative themes.

Often ghosts from my own childhood appear on the canvases, uninvited. Often my mother’s face appears, twisted by mental illness. Often my paintings are prayers coming from a deeper place in my heart than the words can reside. I can put on a pretty good fa├žade in my daily life, but I can’t hide when I paint. Sometimes in these corners of honesty, God can confront and heal me as well.

The paintings that follow represent some of the surprises and transformations that sometimes occur in my work.


I wanted to paint a reunion with dear friends I missed. I remembered how, when I lived in the Sierras, the blue mist would rise from the valley beyond my back door, and I put a new canvas on the easel. I painted my friend, Nancy, on her porch, leaning toward me with her arms outstretched, her little girl clinging to her knees. I began painting myself running to her excitedly, but it was too effusive. Instead, I drop my suitcase and look up hesitantly with my hands open but my arms at my sides.

Some people see the figure looking down from the porch as a crucifixion. A few days after finishing the painting I recognize my mother’s face on the woman leaning on the porch about to totter off the step stairs and my own face in that determined child, gripping her knees and keeping her balance. I’m also the visitor, dreading her embrace but longing for it at the same time.

It’s a painting of yearning, longing, and reluctance. It’s a painting of Christ. It’s a painting of my mother. Aren’t they all intertwined as I cloak God in all the twisted definitions of who a loving parent is?


Usually before I paint, I spend a half hour in my studio writing in a prayer journal. My aim is to get to the heart of where I am in my journey with God and to be as honest as possible about my need for him. Those prayers and scriptures that follow often have a strong influence on my paintings.

In an attempt to share with God exactly where I was, I determined to create a painting firmly rooted in the present. There I am, pushing a stroller, silhouetted in blue against the window of a popular restaurant in my neighborhood. Some observers have commented on the whimsy and playfulness in the piece, but one family shuddered and confided to me that they thought it was of a child going to get her father out of a bar—an event that had happened repeatedly in their family.

It took me two months to recognize the faces of every member of my family of origin, both alive and dead, in that restaurant, and myself in three stages of life, passing outside. For 11 years I’ve tried to separate myself from the dance of my family—the entrenched life-scripts we interrelate with—and have felt relief in the distance, but loneliness as well.



I’ve created six paintings over the years of people gathered around a table. Most have started as sketches drawn on napkins when I’m surrounded by friends. In an attempt to prolong the experience of their companionship, I recreate the dinner parties in paint. I can cover canvases with friends, but invariably and involuntarily their faces swirl into the ugly family confrontations of my childhood. Any time I open a woman’s mouth, the others listen in surly, resentful silence.

Make the woman talk. Make the others listen. A woman can speak without being crazy. But the first woman I ever heard was my mother, spewing out rage and anguish. I scratch and claw my way through a painting of people in a restaurant. There I am, speaking calmly, telling a story. Some figures are detached and distracted, but one person leans forward to hear what I have to say. Can God be interested as well?



For months, even years, my mailbox flamed and smoked with furious letters from my mother, writhing in her mental illness. I felt creatively blocked by my own hyper-criticalness. I am on the verge of giving up painting. I’m always on the verge of giving up painting. Why pay a sitter to care for my children so I can go to a small room and be terrorized by a white canvas? I go for a walk, put laundry in the dyer, go into the house for a cup of tea. My children’s sitter, Mira, growls at me in her Muscovite accent, “Why am I here? Go out and paint!”

I begin a new canvas of a woman waving a cloth near burning books and letters. I think I am painting a self-portrait of me faming the flames of anything that represents my mother, the voracious reader. But the woman’s position is wrong. She’s too close. Is she trying to smother the fire she’s started? And what am I to do with my own rage?


Green Room

Three months ago, my mother had a medical crisis that catapulted me back into close contact with the family I’d tried to distance myself from for most of my adult life. Suddenly we were sitting together in emergency rooms, detox wards, and retirement homes.

My older brother arrives at 7:00 a.m., and we drive together to my mother’s green house in another part of the state. All the way, he talks about how multiple small strokes and medication have softened her, making her gentle and dependent. We spend the day at the house, cleaning and sifting through rooms of books and snapshots and angry letters. So much violence in that house. I was always so afraid. The ghosts are still there, and they cling to my clothes as we leave.

They’re still lingering when I go to the studio the next morning. How can I paint? Five unfinished canvases are waiting for me. Miserable failures all. The ghosts remind me, “You’re Carol Peterson, really, and Carol Peterson is not a painter.”

I put away four of the five canvases, saving a 5’x4’ surface. It’s faded green, the color of my mother’s house. Five birds fly around the ceiling. My mother swats at them with a towel, my brother grabs at her arm, my sister cries, and I watch from a crouched position in the corner. Thirty years later, our roles are still clearly established in painful detail.

I cover them with dull green paint. Instead, a lone girl reaches up her arms as if to imitate the trapped birds’ flight. The room is still green. It’s still my mother’s house. I’d live to leave it, but for now it’s where my heart is. I’ll just have to paint through the green. There’s a mystery about this painting, perhaps a feeling of hope within my mother’s compressed walls.



I painted another hide and seek game. But as I painted it, it became a game gone wrong. Some of those children are really scared. Is it a game at all? What are they hiding from? What thundering knock, what thundering voices are fueling their panic?

This painting was too dark for me. Then, as a seeming afterthought, I give the woman wings as she peers into the dark. OK. God is there, even when I’m terrified. I add a child crouching under the bed, ready to watch what will follow from a safe place. And I, too, am crouching in the safe place of my painting, sensing God’s protection as he illuminates for me those feelings I try to keep under cover, feelings of longing and reluctance and rage and loneliness and hope.