Photo of charcoal drawing and latte at coffee shop

Drawing in the coffee shop offers a rich flow trigger environment.

Author: Sonia Reeder-Jones



Coffee Shop Drawing

Creating Autotelic Habits A.K.A. Habits You Look Forward To

Coffee Shop Drawing

I was making progress on my artistic goals. I'd freed up some time for art making. Things were going pretty well. My drawing and painting skills were improving. My sights were set on creating a new body of work.

Then my work schedule changed and required more and longer hours. I still had some designated studio time, but after putting in long days at my day job and taking care of my family, I found myself really short on energy. Honestly, I kept thinking I could plan and schedule my way through it by getting up earlier and working harder. I tried time and time again. When that failed, I really thought I had a self discipline problem. I kept wondering "How am I going to get out of my own way?".

I have a great little studio. It's small but has plenty of natural light. It's a cabin on our property, so I don't have to travel to get there. I just have to talk myself out there. Yet I failed to do exactly that time and time again. My goal of creating a new body of work stalled out. I was worn out and procrastinating. I had to literally force myself into the studio to make the first mark. I wasted time trying to think of ways to make art faster. I considered changing compositions, mediums, styles, you name it. I bought and gessoed smaller painting panels. I tried to plan simple compositions which failed to inspire me. I was pretty hard on myself assuming this was purely a lack of discipline. It never occurred to me that I wasn't enjoying it. Art making had just become more work and I already felt over worked.

One day, during a phone conversation, someone from the Flow Research Collective1 said I should try to develop autotelic habits. He said the key to developing great habits is creating habits that you truly enjoy. You should enjoy it so much you look forward to doing it. Looking forward to it is the drive you need for consistency and sticking with it. I was certainly missing that drive. I was trying to force myself to do something I really didn't want to do.

I started looking at my daily habits and the habits I enjoy most. Going to the coffee shop is a habit I really enjoy. I never have to force myself into the coffee shop. On the contrary, I do some of my best graphic design work in coffee shops.

I started thinking about drawing or painting in the coffee shop. I wondered if I could combine art making with one of my most enjoyable habits. At first, there seemed to be too many obstacles. I'm an artist who likes to draw and paint people. I like to work life size. The toned paper I like to work on comes in a tablet too large to discreetly slip into the coffee shop. In the studio, we can use messy mediums, solvents, etc. Coffee shops are food service industries, not an appropriate place for toxic art supplies. I wanted to get that same narrow focus I enjoy when working on my laptop in the coffee shop, therefore I wanted to be discreet and not draw attention.

Here's what I did to take art making to the coffee shop:

I looked at ordering a smaller tablet of toned drawing paper. It comes in a more compact size, but shipping was as much as the paper itself. I opted to use what I already had. I cut down several sheets of toned drawing paper. I clipped this stack of paper onto the cover of a watercolor pad I had in my studio. The watercolor pad serves as a drawing board and the stack of paper provides a cushioned drawing surface.

I ordered a box of Stabillo All Black Pencils, a box of Nitram Fusains assorted charcoal batons and a sample pack of R & F Pigment Sticks to experiment with. The Stabillo pencils were great for coffee shop drawing although not easy to erase. They are water soluble, however the drawing paper I'm working with doesn't handle water well. Nitram Fusains also work great and are my current medium of choice. I found the R & F Pigment Sticks to be too messy. I wanted to work with a non-toxic medium when drawing over coffee. It's not only safer for me, but seems a safer choice for drawing in any public space. When I reached out to Nitram Charcoal to ask if Fusains are non-toxic, they emailed me back and said "Don't eat them. They're for drawing." I found that to be a humorous response.

Benefits of coffee shop drawing:

There are many benefits to drawing in the coffee shop. Coffee shops can be a flow trigger rich environment. If you follow the work of the Flow Genome Project or the Flow Research Collective, you've probably seen a list of flow triggers. Author Steven Kotler describes flow as: "Flow is defined as an optimal state of consciousness, a state where you feel and perform your best." One such trigger is a rich environment. If you're trying to design a rich environment, you would aim for a design which activates one's senses. My favorite coffee shops activate my senses, often all 5 senses at the same time. You walk in to the scent of coffee, the taste of espresso and pastries, the sound of muffled conversations and background music. My favorite coffee shops have a visually rich atmosphere, with warm lighting, industrial design and the perfect array of live plants. My sense of touch is activated by the comforting warmth of the mug in my hands.

Activate all of your senses, then add a touch of risk to perform at your best. Drawing in the coffee shop can provide a bit of social consequence or risk. I do my best to fit in and not draw attention, but people occasionally pass your table. They may see what you're working on. Some may be curious and come over to take a closer look, stop and chat. This adds a tiny bit of pressure when you're aware that people may see your work in progress. You may find other members of your tribe as other artists approach you and strike up conversations. Since drawing in the coffee shop, I've found myself working alongside singers, songwriters, writers, illustrators and other visual artists.

Novelty is said to be another flow trigger. Once you've created a compact and efficient system for drawing in the coffee shop, you can travel around, visit new coffee shops. Add the novelty you need for inspiration. Drawing in the coffee shop has helped me overcome procrastination, put in valuable time working on technical skill and increase my output. What habits are you struggling to create? The key may be to make them more enjoyable. Create habits you look forward to.