How I Got Out of My Comfort Zone and Improved My Art - Ellen Howard
Ellen Howard, “Between Storms,” oil, 12 x 24 in.

By plein air artist Ellen Howard

“Do the thing you fear, and the death of fear is certain.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

I had the pleasure of attending a workshop with Jim McVicker in Boca de Tomatlan, Mexico at Casa de los Artistas. It was an incredible experience, in terms of instruction, scenery, and camaraderie! Boca de Tomatlan is a lively and colorful place to say the least. In the beginning it took me a little effort to adjust. When you travel, you need to get out of your own way and comfort zone and be open to your place and environs. Once I did this, my experiences in my painting and interactions with new people were wonderful.

How I Got Out of My Comfort Zone and Improved My Art - Ellen Howard
Howard’s setup while plein air painting a river scene

I chose to go on this workshop for two main reasons. First, to take a class from Jim McVicker, whom I have known for years and whose work I greatly admire. Second, to challenge myself to paint new subject matter and scenery. The scenery was very lush with abundant trees, flowers, and bright colors.

Boca de Tomatlan is located on a river where it joins the ocean. There was lot of constant activity. The variety of boats and fishermen coming in and out, and the vibrancy of the colors of the buildings were fantastic. I believe that most artists are drawn to certain subject matter and locals. I tend to love to paint the marshes, ocean, and clouds, but here I pushed myself to paint boats, river banks, brightly lit buildings, and figures. I saw beautiful clouds each day but forced myself not to make the clouds my focal point as I do normally. I wanted to learn some new things on this trip.

How I Got Out of My Comfort Zone and Improved My Art - Ellen Howard
Howard’s finished plein air painting of Boca River

In addition to new subjects, I took advantage of the fact that Jim had two colors on his material list that I do not use very often: cerulean blue and naples yellow. Prior to this trip, I was having some trouble getting good greens in my landscapes. Using a new blue like cerulean helped me create some new colors and was especially helpful in finding the right vibrancy for the foliage in Mexico.

As a student it is important to bring the materials on an instructor’s list because it helps further your learning process and ability to try new things in your work.

Setting up my easel on the beach was also challenging; there were lots of dogs and curious children about. The children would carry over chairs and place them so close that they were touching my easel. Initially I was frustrated and could not concentrate very well, but I realized that I was the guest in their town and they also wanted to learn — I shifted my thinking and tried to teach and show them what I was doing. This enabled me to relax more and as a result my painting was better.

How I Got Out of My Comfort Zone and Improved My Art - Ellen Howard
Girls on beach watching Howard paint

Sometimes the fear of failing at something keeps us from moving forward and trying new things. Each of us wants to paint well and feel good about our work, but in order to get there, there are often a lot of failed attempts that we need to learn from and then build upon. I didn’t let the fear of trying something new hold me back. I think pushing the boundaries of what we are comfortable doing is an important way to find our true artistic voice, and to express it in a way that connects with the public. I believe we need to keep taking chances, and try new things to advance and still be relevant to our fellow artists and collectors.

How I Got Out of My Comfort Zone and Improved My Art - Ellen Howard
Ellen Howard, painting Boca

I also feel it is important to socialize with the group that you are with on a workshop. There is so much learning that can be had from the other fellow artists besides your instructor. Everyone has a story and it is always surprising to me how much in common most artists have with each other. In Boca de Tomatlan, I made lots of friends and have continued to share our mutual artistic journeys with several of them. Each of us came from very diverse backgrounds, yet we came together to make a fun, easy-going group. I’m very grateful I could attend and learn so much from Jim and the other attendees.

“Courage is only the accumulation of small steps.” ~ David & Tom Kelly, from the book Creative Confidence

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