Bringing a painting back to life

I’ve learnt A LOT in the last five years of making art, but the biggest thing is this: The greatest feelings of joy usually come after the biggest moments of despair.

This was definitely the case when it came to creating my abstract painting, Rain Down. The plan had been to create a retro-inspired piece, using some of my favourite colours – pink, green and yellow ochre. But things went in a very unexpected direction.

Because I’m very drawn to curves, I thought of all the different ways I could include this shape: leaves, loops, letters, circles, arches. I accidentally included the McDonalds M. Perhaps I was feeling hungry.

At this point I realised everything was very mid-tone. If you squint your eyes, most of the painting becomes one big block with just a couple of areas of white breaking it up. Action was needed!

Turning the canvas upside down, I added some dark areas. But in doing so, I lost the lightness that was keeping it fresh. Time to back pedal!

Out came the white paint to accentuate some of the curves. It helped but it just wasn’t speaking to me. It was muddy, muddled and didn’t feel like ‘me’. What would my next move be?

At this point, I kind of gave up. I could have waited for it to dry and painted over it, but something made me head to the kitchen sink. Because it was a canvas, I knew it would be fine if I put it under the tap.

As the water flowed over it, all the shapes and colours merged. I felt calmer. Rather than lots of areas fighting with each other, it had become one – a base for me to create more interest over.

Then something unexpected happened.

Flicking water onto a painting is one of my favourite things to do, so I thought why not give it a go? I let the water rest on the surface for a while, then I pressed down with some kitchen roll – and to my surprise, the paint completely lifted off, revealing the white canvas below.

Now I was getting excited! Was I ready for another bold move?

I’d bought some black spray paint a few weeks earlier and hadn’t been brave enough to use it yet. Was this the right moment to try it on a painting?

Putting it under the tap had worked unexpectedly well, so I figured why not?!

Because I’d never used spray paint before and wasn’t sure if I’d be able to wash it off in the same way as acrylic paint, I took a photo of the canvas and intuitively added some dark marks, digitally. I was happy with the first attempt and decided it was time to jump in with both feet and recreate the design for real.

But first I dripped and flicked more water onto the canvas. I’m not really sure what made me do that, but it created my favourite effect on the painting. Where there was water, the spray paint lifted off with kitchen roll revealing the pinks and greens below and creating organic shapes that I couldn’t have made in any other way.

And here it is – framed and named. I called it Rain Down (a line from Paranoid Android by Radiohead), inspired by all the drips of water that created my favourite parts of the painting.

So there you have it. At the start of the day, I’d never have predicted I’d end up with a painting like this. Things had to get REALLY BAD (in my eyes!) before I was forced to find a new direction, but what a great feeling it was when it worked out.

If this painting makes you happy too, it’s available to buy.

5 things being an Avon rep has taught me about business

Have you ever got a weird idea stuck in your head? A vision of the future that bears no resemblance to your current reality?

I used to get it while I nursed a Sunday hangover watching the London Marathon on TV. “That will be me one day,” a voice whispered, years before I eventually took up running. I’m now 44 and it still hasn’t happened, but I just KNOW it will.

The same goes for being an Avon rep. There was nothing to suggest this was on my path. I’d recently left my job to become a freelance writer. I’d never been one to take ages putting make-up on and my nails are a car crash. The only sales job I’d done was behind the bar at my local. But I’d always known.

So the only person who wasn’t surprised when I woke up one day and applied to be a rep was me. What did surprise me though was how much I’ve learnt about starting a small business in a few short months.

1 Friends will support you to the hilt

If your friends are the same demographic as your target market you’re onto a winner. They’ll be your sounding board, your guinea pig and, hopefully, your customer.

I test marketing messages with them, I seek feedback on my social media, and I’ve run Avon parties to find out what products they want to see in the flesh and buy in the moment.

And they’ve been amazing customers – beyond buying a token product or two to keep me quiet. There are plenty of places where you can buy kids’ shampoo, lipsticks, face cleanser… But they keep coming back, and it means the world to me.

2 Print is dead

My background is in print marketing, so my first instinct was to design a flyer to spread the word. The feedback from pals was positive, so I confidently ordered 1,000. Oh, make it 1,500 – why not?

It took hours and hours to put a small dent in the huge pile, but I kept going. I became familiar with every letterbox design in HP4. Guess how many enquiries I got. Zero. I still can’t quite believe it.

At one point, perplexed by the ‘No cold callers’ and ‘No junk mail’ signs on some doors, I’d posted in my town’s feisty Facebook group. How did they feel about unsolicited leaflets through their doors? The unanimous response was that social media and word of mouth was king. So far, this has been backed up 100% by my experience.

3 Print is not dead

But everyone goes bloomin’ mad for an Avon brochure! No matter how much I push customers towards the website and digital version, all I hear is that nothing beats a browse with a cuppa and biccie. Maybe a throwback to when we scoured the Argos catalogue as kids?

4 Buy low, sell low

With Avon, there’s always a deal to be had – whether it’s buy one, choose one for free, 50% off, five for £5 or a free gift. Everyone loves a bargain, right?

Although it’s tempting to pocket the biggest possible profit, I always do right by the customer and make sure they get the most for their money. If they know you’re on their side, hopefully they’ll keep coming back.

5 Make your customers feel awesome

With make-up and skincare products it’s easy to harp on about how they’ll make you look younger or more attractive. This concept makes me want to claw my face off.

For me it’s about making customers feel fun, funky and fabulous. It turns out that’s how my business makes me feel and I want to spread the love! And if they try something and don’t love it, they can wash it off and know they’ve only spent £4 (and I don’t feel bad).

I’m sure there are plenty more lessons ahead – every day’s a school day and all that. I’d love to hear the mantras you’ve picked up in and outside your day job.

To see what I’ve been up to, check out my Avon pages on Instagram and Facebook – and you can visit my shop.

The 5 Ps for creating a strategy narrative

In a smoke and beer-filled room in Freshers Week I had a revelation. Angels sang and the clouds parted. I’d discovered the meaning of life…

And it was communication.

I was about to start a communications degree, so you’d think I’d have held this belief for some time. But I’d been under no illusions, telling myself that I’d chosen a bit of a Mickey Mouse qualification. I envied the unspoken purposefulness of the medics, the architects, the IT dudes.

But hang on, I realised… How does a patient tell their GP what’s wrong with them without words of some form? How can a building be constructed without plans? How can an application be created without programming language?

In your face, geeks – it’s all about communication!

Good communication is crucial
Fast forward 25 years and you’ll still find me on my soap box. I strongly believe that good communication is crucial to any job. It enables us to understand the purpose of our role, what we ultimately need to achieve, how we’ll get there and whether we’ve got it right. Can you think of a job this doesn’t apply to in some way?

This is especially true at organisational level. When strategising, senior leaders often say “We’ll worry about communicating it later,” but the narrative is intrinsic to the thinking. It’s how leaders can ensure there’s shared understanding, focus and buy-in at every stage.

Here are the ‘Five Ps’ I believe need to be clearly articulated from the onset.

1. The problem
How do we know it’s a problem? Why’s it up to us to solve the it? Why does it matter whether we’re successful or not? What would the world look like if the problem went away? This needs to be set out unambiguously, so everyone’s agreed on the challenge.

2. The principles
These should reflect the organisation’s core values, and need to be agreed upfront. What level of change are we prepared to make? How much risk can we tolerate? What is the scale of the ambition? What money is available? All this needs to be set out before any potential strategies can be considered.

3. The players
While establishing the principles, we’ll have determined to what extent customer or beneficiary voice will shape the strategy. Is this a bottom-up process? Or top-down, informed by experts in the sector? Or a co-production, harnessing input from all stakeholders?

If others are to be involved, we’re already at the point where we need a compelling strategy vision, however rudimentary. The likelihood is that they’ve got other priorities, so why’s it important for them to engage with this mission?

4. The plan
What has already been done to address the problem? What are the limitations of and learnings from the current approaches? What could we – and the other stakeholders we’ve identified – do differently and how will we do it?

Can the problems and solutions be packaged into ‘chunks’ to make them more digestible and manageable? How do the ‘chunks’ relate and feed into each other?

Alzheimer’s Society, for example, divide their strategy into three parts: ‘New deal on support’‘New deal on society’ and ‘New deal on research’. The language is clear, consistent and inspiring, with ‘New deal’ evoking the ideas of change and commitment in three defined areas.

What will need to change, in terms of activities, roles and resourcing? What’s the cost, and how should spend be spread across the strategic period? This is where the details start to emerge – the strategic plan and budgets.

But a well-written synopsis is also crucial at this stage. It captures the essence of the strategy, enabling staff, board members, supporters and volunteers to process and describe the ambition and plans themselves – to understand the part they play and bring others with them.

5. The progress
How will we know whether we’ve been successful – whether we’ve delivered the impact we’re striving for? How will we track and share our progress? How will we celebrate?

Which brings me back to one drink too many in the campus bar. Little did I know that all these years later I’d be bending the ear of anyone who’ll listen – and a few who won’t – about communication being at the centre of everything.

OK, there can’t be a communications specialist in every discussion, but it’s so important for someone to champion that perspective – defining the problem, players, principles, plan and progress in a way that inspires action.

Does your organisation believe this and, if not, can you picture the difference it could make if it did?

This was originally written as a guest blog for Sarah Browning, of internal comms specialists Browning York.

Blue Christmas

Is it possible to be ‘over’ Christmas? Have the songs that have been your seasonal soundtrack since the 70s turned stale? Does the prospect of evening after evening of festivities leave a bad taste in your mouth? Has your tree lost its twinkle?

This was me about four years ago. After nearly 40 years of riding the Christmas wave of tinsel and tequila I was done.

In the beginning, December had been the most exciting month imaginable – the multicoloured lights, old-fashioned glass ornaments and plastic sacks at my Nan and Grandad’s embodying a truly magical time of year.

Later came the tradition of hitting the pub with school friends on Christmas Eve – still going to bed buzzing at the thought of what was waiting under the tree.

And then children of our own – a chance to pick the best bits of our own childhoods and try out new twists.

So why was I just not feeling it?

The music

Seriously, why are there no new good Christmas songs? Since Mariah’s glorious All I Want for Christmas in the 90s, the best of the modern offerings is Bob Dylan’s Must be Santa and Kelly Clarkson’s Underneath the Tree.

The solution: I propose that, next year, shops and radio stations are only allowed to play post-2010 tunes – a chance for songwriters and artists to create a classic! But if that doesn’t happen, try introducing a bit of jeopardy to the Big Day build-up by playing Whamageddon.

The food

We’ve jazzed it up with Jamie’s gravy and Nigella’s goose fat, but Christmas dinner is still fundamentally a Sunday roast with extra leftovers. The expense! The hassle! Is it worth it?

The solution: Ditch the bird. Yes, you heard me. Take a year off setting the alarm for 6am to prep the turkey and treat yourself to your very favourite food instead. Even if you’re vegetarian or vegan, the world is your Ottolenghi.

The pressure

Not only are there presents to buy and cards to write, we decorate our homes, have a Christmas jumper on standby, contribute to the teacher’s present collection, go to the office party and countless other nights out, and everything else. It’s a drain on our time, energy and pockets.

The solution: You can say you hate Christmas, and not engage with any of this, like Kyle recalls doing in his blog for the mental health charity Mind. But you might not need to throw the baby out with the bath water. Just saying no more and being honest about how some aspects of how Christmas make you feel can bring some of the joy back.

The reflection

The older we get, the more quickly the year rushes by. Christmas can be a reminder that we’ve nearly run out of time to follow through on our New Year’s resolutions. Have I ticked them all off? The answer is probably no.

The solution: Forget the plans you made at the start of the year – they’re old news. Think instead about what you’ve actually achieved instead. The new friends made, the things you’ve learnt through failure and success, the progress you’ve made towards filling your life with what’s important.

This Christmas, celebrate as little or as much as you like, and in your own way. Embrace the traditions or kick them into the fireplace. And if you don’t do Christmas at all, just enjoy the break if you’re getting one. 

But if it does get too much, there are lots of tools and people you can talk to, and hopefully it won’t be long before the springtime flowers are poking their way out of the ground.

In it to win it

I had a wobble this week. I’m in my second month of freelancing and imposter syndrome had set in. Who did I think I was believing I’d be lucky enough to find new clients, make a decent living, do something I love every day?

Then a chance trip to my local library for a half-term craft session with my kids led me to a book* that screamed “BORROW ME!”. I only had to read as far as the third page before I reached a line that restored my sanity. It read, “The harder you work, the luckier you get”.

I’ve had more than my fair share of luck over the years, the most significant piece being how I met my husband.

If I hadn’t been laying low in my friend’s room while she kissed a boy in the living area of our holiday apartment and picked up her book to read… If I hadn’t joined the ‘cult’ the book was about** and gone to their annual get-together, ‘Karmageddon’… If I hadn’t gone up to one of the real-life characters (after several gins) and told him I’d fallen in love with him when I read the book… If he’d run away… I wouldn’t now have a ring on my finger and two awesome daughters at football camp as I write.

Was it luck, or did it happen because I made and seized an opportunity? One thing I know is that we can’t shut ourselves in a room and expect amazing things to happen out of nowhere. That’s why “yes” is my default answer, whatever the proposition.

For the right numbers to come up, you have to throw the dice.

So will something exciting happen because I read a line in a book and it inspired me to write this blog? Time will tell!

*Find Your Extraordinary by Jessica Herrin
**Join Me by Danny Wallace

Photo by Jonathan Petersson on Unsplash