How I got my groove back with a "deep work" retreat

SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) brings more than 3 million Americans, myself included, down into the emotional doldrums every winter. Even though I should be used to it by now, every January it moves in and sets up shop, and I feel blindsided. So last summer, when I felt off my game even under the North Carolina sun, I decided to take preventative action for the winter. I decided to do something drastic. I saved up some money and planned a month long solo “retreat” in Toronto, Canada.

You’re probably wondering why someone with SAD would even fathom going to a place as cold as Toronto, but here’s the thing: I don’t think it matters where you go to get away. The point is the getting away itself.

So what was I getting away from?

For a few months, I had been feeling like I was missing something. I had a new hobby of portrait drawing, but I was craving more hands-on education to improve my skills. I felt like I was treading water with my work. I felt stagnant and I was getting antsy and irritable, with a touch of wanderlust. Then, in November, we had to put down our beloved basset hound, Holly. She was my little avatar, always following me into my office to snooze the day away while I worked on projects. I took her loss hard.

During bouts of grief, I threw myself into the idea of a self care retreat. Cue intensive Googling, where I found the perfect art school and then Airbnb, where I found a cozy apartment within walking distance of the school. January 1st, I flew to the great white north, and enrolled in school. The Academy of Realist Art is a classical style atelier, where students are taught the drawing and painting techniques of the old masters. Think Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and Da Vinci. The beauty of this type of school is that it is totally flexible to the student’s schedule. Students range in age from middle schoolers to retired folks, and many students attend part time. I did a full time program for the month of January, and it was exactly what I needed.

First level students start out by copying the academic drawings of Charles Bargue, a 19th century draftsman who developed a formal method of drawing education based on classical sculpture. A typical day at the atelier involves hours of independent work, blading your pencil to a needle-sharp point, and carefully shading the planes of a classical Greek torso, arm, or hand.

Deep Work by Cal Newport

Almost immediately, I came to understand that if drawing isn’t your thing, this type of work would be hell. But if it is your thing, it is like nirvana. Working day after day on the same torso drawing, I felt more relaxed, yet inspired, than I have in quite awhile. I was reminded of a book I read last year called Deep Work, by Cal Newport. His thesis boils down to this: you will do your absolute best work when you are in a zone with no distractions, separate from where you live the rest of your life, optimized to provide a peaceful work retreat. It’s the same technique writers rely on, like JK Rowling, who famously checked herself into the London Savoy to crank out the last chapters of The Deathly Hallows in 2007.

They were happy tears, I promise.

This zen state didn’t end for me when I left the studio every night. I think that because I was out of my normal routine, in a new but comfortable apartment, I was able to more easily switch things up. Instead of mindlessly scrolling through Twitter when I got in bed, I decided to study each night for an Adobe Certification Exam, something that had been on my “someday, maybe” list for literal years. And that exam? I took it on January 31, my last day in Toronto, and yep, I aced it.

The month of January was a miracle for me. My drawing improved due to near constant practice, I added a certification to my resume, and my mental health was massaged to a place of amazing relaxation. Plus, being a freelance graphic designer, I was also able to do some client work while I was in Toronto. And even though it was such an incredible month, I was ready to come home. I missed my husband like crazy, and I was ready to get back to my “normal” routine. So what is my biggest takeaway from this retreat? I think that every once in a while, it’s important to get out of your comfort zone, into a new zone where you are set up to utilize your creative talents in a deep work kind of way.

Bargue drawing of the torso
My finished Bargue drawing