The best art materials are always the ones around you right now. There’s no need to go out and buy new when first starting out because you don’t need much to start making marks and most likely you already have the necessary materials. Gregory Brown wrote How to Draw Trees in 1947 but the materials advice is still as relevant today. The following 4 items are recommended to get started:
2. Eraser: Though it is better not to rub out, it is sometimes necessary.
3. Pencils: A good pencil is never an extravagance.
4. Stool: … Don’t try to draw standing up as it is difficult to have proper control over your pencil.”
You can simply this list even further to just 2 items: paper and pencil. It really is that simple. Anything beyond that is just flourish when it comes to making marks.
In a productivity-focused society, one where every moment of the day can easily be packed full with work, intreractions and doing, the idea of non-doing can feel foreign. But what if the space of non-doing and being unproductive gives us a moment to recharge, refresh and approach the rest of our time from a less frantic perspective? While it could be argued that aimlessly browsing the internet, news feeds of social media channels is non-doing in that it may not be productive, your brain feels otherwise. Electronic devices stimulate the brain and do little to give us a break from an overload of constant and never ending information.
What if instead of spending so much time on electronic devices, we devoted some time to making art, allowing our brains a much-needed break from doing? You don’t have to have to start making art in order to improve in some way, you can choose to make art just for the sensation of making art. To experience the process or making something with your hands, instead of only consuming other people’s media. Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic talks of the fun found within the creative process: “Why should I go through all the trouble to make something if the outcome might be nothing?” The answer will usually come with a wicked trickster grin: “Because it’s fun, isn’t it?”
While fun is a worthy outcome of making art, the experience of regularly slowing down amidst the noise of every day life to do something that has no outcome has a significant and nourishing effect on the mind. Non-doing has more health benefits than constantly doing, but it’s hard for us to believe that not being productive has any value (given we’ve been socialised from a young age to constantly work on improving, striving and achieving). It takes a conscious decision to stop and try making art with no outcome. For those brave enough to try, a whole possibility of benefits opens up through the art-making process.
Perfectionism can be a creativity roadblock. It’s a behaviour that feels productive by endeavouring to improve artwork, but can subconsciously be a mechanism to protect against the fear of not being good enough. If we make it the best possible version, we avoid potential criticism and become worthy of praise. The problem is, there is no best possible version when the bar of expectation is so high you can’t even see it. If the bar is too high, you will never be able to reach it, therefore you’ll never be done perfecting. Danny Gregory in Art Before Breakfast explains the behaviour of fiddliness, a kind of perfectionism as “Constant reappraisal, erasing, tweaking, reconsidering… Never done, never good enough.”
Perfectionism doesn’t work well with creativity because it leaves no room for the unexpected, unanticipated and beauty held within mistakes, mess and failure. Gregory talks about the problems in trying to plan art in advance: “You think you can conceive the destination before you embark on the journey… and that nothing else can intrude and change the outcome you have conceived. But, first of all, the world doesn’t work that way: unless you are doing something extremely simple and banal… it will invariably intrude and change your will-laid plans. And, second, you should welcome that intrusion. The accidents, mistakes, serendipities, and ink spatters that the universe throws in your path make you work and your life more interesting. Perfection isn’t organic. It’s constipated, lifeless, and dull.” Is it your goal to make lifeless and dull work? That might actually be the result of any fiddliness and perfection-focused tendencies.
One antidote to perfectionism is setting a goal to make the biggest quantity of art in the time available and let go of all other expectations around quality or the visual outcome of the art—it doesn’t have to look good or be appealing to the eye. Make lots of art, make it quickly and move onto the next piece quickly. Don’t give your perfection behaviour space to reflect on the art—make it and move on.
“We have to learn to abandon our thoughts of how something should be and just experience is for what it is.” — Melinda Harper
Setting yourself a goal to ‘be more creative’ or ‘make more art’ might not have the impact you hope for. Large, vague and immeasurable goals may not help with motivation on a consistent or daily basis because if you can’t measure what ‘being more creative’ actually means, how do you know if you’re achieving it or not?
Mikael Krogerus and Roman Tschäppeler in The Decision Book ask if you are pursuing the right goal: “If you set yourself greats, you should distinguish between final goals and performance goals. A final goal might be ‘I want to run a marathon’; a performance goal helps you achieve this aim, for example ‘I will go jogging for thirty minutes every morning’.”
A specific creative performance goal might look like ‘I will draw something on A5 paper once a day’ or ‘I will spend 10 minutes every day making art.’ Because these goals are more tangible and easy to measure, you’ll be more likely to be motivated to continue and commit to making art on a regular basis. Let go of big unmeasurable and vague goals and instead, choose simpler and easier to achieve performance goals to allow your creativity to flow.
“Rotating and leaving fallow to grow.”
Before you start making any marks, it’s important to know that having preconceived expectations about what the art should look can create a feeling of dissatisfaction if reality doesn’t match them. Needing art to look a certain way before any marks are made is a sure way to frustration, and ultimately to giving up prematurely. But as most beginner art is going to be a big learning curve full of wonderful mistakes, mess and imperfections, it’s a shame if those imperfections aren’t seen as valuable steps and tools in the creativity process.
Susan Jeffers in Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway encourages us to “Throw away your picture… If you are focused on “the way it’s supposed to be,” you might miss the opportunity to enjoy the way it is or to have it be wonderful in a totally different way from what you imagined.”
Any preconceived expectations or picture held in your mind before making art could block you from seeing the magic in any unexpected and unknown outcomes. Try looking for the good in the way things are as opposed to wishing they were different and let your creativity unfold naturally, without judgment. Creativity doesn’t need judgment to flourish, it needs an open mind, patience and practice.
1. Pick up a pencil or pen
2. Find a piece of paper
3. Make marks of any kind—draw something in front of you, use your imagination or copy from another piece of art—it doesn’t matter what kind.
It really is that simple. No need for a trip to the art shop for materials, or permission from anyone else to get started. Step 3 will give you feedback to the kind of marks you enjoy making. By taking action you work out what to draw next. Just thinking about it could keep you from making anything at all (I’m not going to start if I don’t know what to draw) and as it doesn’t matter what you draw, you may as well pick ANYTHING and get started right now.
The process of making art as a beginner adult can be a hidden lesson in self-compassion. When trying to make something out of nothing, the mind can create a lot of resistance to the process if the fruits of your action are judged as inadequate. Being a beginner, the chances are your skills aren’t has honed as a master painter who has 30 years experience, whose artwork you may be comparing yourself against. Judgmental thoughts may arise such as “I’m no good at this, what’s the point” and “this is bad,” which offer no support while in the creating process. This self-criticism may ultimately lead to stopping making art altogether.
How can we defend against self-criticism to ensure future practice? Susan L. Smalley and Diana Winston in Fully Present suggests that the opposite of self-criticism is self-compassion. In order to be more self-compassionate and to deal with difficult thinking, they suggest through thinking itself: “You can use thoughts to soothe other thoughts and feelings. For example, if you are anxious because you are caught in traffic and late to an appointment, you may start talking to yourself: It’s okay, I don’t have control over the traffic, I’ll get there when I get there. This is quite a skillful response to the situation. Called “positive self-talk,” or self-soothing it’s a kind of thinking you use to counteract other kinds of thinking in order to soothe yourself, regulate your emotions, or generally bring some wisdom to the part of your mind that may seem out of control because you are scare, angry, or sad.”
Self-soothing when making art might sound like “I’m learning as I go and am focusing on how it feels to make art” when a judgmental thought around not being ‘good’ pops up. Just as you would reassure a loved-one that their efforts are completely useless, reassure yourself in the same way with soothing and compassionate words. Then get back to making your art and continue to greet each future criticism with kindness.
Uncertainty is a big part of making art, which can be a challenging force to dance with on a regular basis. Uncertainty is the act of making something out of nothing, of not knowing what marks will emerge before you start and being unsure a lot of the time about what you’re making. While this force can be a challenge, it can also be exhilarating to not know what’s round the next creative corner. When there are no rules in art, there are no wrong turns and only possibilities.
Kevin Gyoerkoe and Pamela Wiegartz in 10 Simple Solutions to Worry encourage that “It’s uncertainty—the thrill of not knowing—that allows us to get caught up in life and feel romance, excitement, joy, and wonder. When we give up the need to know, life becomes vibrant and yes, a little risky… A life without uncertainty would leave no possibility of pleasant surprises, and negative outcomes known in advance would eliminate the desire to take any risks.”
You can play it safe and try to avoid any uncertainty, or you can choose to lean into the unknown and trust that the perceived risk will pay off in unknown ways down the road.
“A little nonsense now and then, is relished by the wisest men.” — Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator
When you try connecting to making art again as an adult, it can be tempting to rush out and buy a whole array of art materials. Many general art books and guides present a list of suggested materials but sometimes the lists can be overwhelming and long. Included can be various types of pen, inks, charcoals, paints etc. but you don’t need any of that to get started. Ironically, buying a whole pile of art materials could keep you from making any art at all. Because a pile of pristine and precious (perhaps expensive) materials could mean an expectation to make the art pristine and precious, which may be too much pressure for your fledgling marks.
Instead, start where you are with what you already have. Scan your home and surroundings for materials already available- biros, pens, pencils and paper. If the paper has already been used (think post, envelopes and shopping lists) could makes you feel less worried about ‘spoiling’ the surface, which creates freedom to make messy and imperfectly bad art.
It’s natural to want to experiment with different materials, but don’t be in such a hurry to buy everything new. Many materials may only be used a few times and unless you find something that really resonates with you, it could be an expensive exercise. The wonderful thing about getting creative is that you don’t need fancy materials to make something out of nothing. The mind and body are the best tools you’ll ever need.
“I long for surprise and thrived on delights that make my heart patter.”
Deciding to stop an art project because it’s not “good enough” is not a good reason to stop making. If everybody judged their art on its perceived visual value and aimed for perfection, no art would EVER get made. No art is ever good enough if expectations are too high to begin with. Unwittingly setting perfection as the goal sets you up for disappointment because whatever gets made will instantly fall short. A far better expectation is simply finishing the project, giving it your full attention but letting go of the art needing to look a certain way.
Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic encourages “So if you can just complete something – merely complete it! – you’re already miles ahead of the pack, right there. You may want your work to be perfect, in other words; I just want mine to be finished.” Let go of perfection and embrace getting things finished. It’s a far kinder and gentle way to approach making art which may allow you permission to continue making imperfect art regularly.
If reality isn’t neat and tidy and fits together perfectly, why expect any art you make to be the same? Why is there such a focus on making things neat and colouring within the lines? Can we not have a title space in our lives to explore messy and imperfect, a space with no expectations and an abundance of freedom? It’s a choice we can choose before picking up a pen to make art, one that will help you kick your creativity up a notch.
Danny Gregory in Art Before Breakfast suggests that “Reality isn’t neat and tidy and compartmentalizable. It has infinite variations and details, and that’s what makes it beautiful. Making art slows us down enough to see the details, the wrinkles, the world within worlds.” We don’t always appreciate the wrinkles of life, but through studying our surroundings and daily life for inspiration, we can see beyond the obvious and known and find wrinkles to use in our art.
Curiosity is a secret tool in your creative journey but can fly under the radar due to the perceived importance of improvement in technical competency—making ‘better’ art. When you’ve been conditioned from a young age to always aim for the highest grades and seek praise via teachers and parents, it’s no wonder that output and ‘quality’ becomes the focus when making art. But becoming curious about a small thing and continuing to follow that curiosity can be of more importance and cmat lead to unexpected (and ultimately more creative) pathways. For example, by only focusing on improving technical drawing skills through drawing faces, a narrow range of exploration and definition of what art is created. You may not even enjoy the process because you’re only focusing what you think you should be. Following a narrow pathway from the start may never allow getting in touch with the curiosities that lie within.
Developing curiosity is something Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Flow suggests: “If one has failed to develop curiosity and interest in the early years, it is a good idea to acquire them now, before it is too late to improve the quality of life.” By focusing on small and normally hidden aspects of daily life, unlimited areas of interest are availble—curiosities grow with attention. Csikszentmihalyi offers: “There are literally millions of potentially interesting things in the world to see, to do, to learn about. But they don’t become actually interesting until we devote attention to them.”
Focusing attention can create a spark of curiosity that doesn’t have to be glaringly obvious at the start because once you look closer, hidden things begin to reveal themselves. Imagine watching an ant going about it’s business. Nothing unremarkable on first glance. But if you keep watching for a while, you may begin to notice things about the ant in the way it moves or interacts with other ants. Perhaps you start thinking about the ants life, its thoughts or why it does what it does. An unremarkable ant can become an interesting subject if attention is focused upon it.
Get curious by paying attention to something ‘hidden’ in your daily life and start noticing all the tiny hidden details. Within one of those details may lie an interesting art subject, a creative thread for you to follow.
If we only consider drawing to mean realistically or accurately depicting a subject, we miss out on a whole variety of different styles of drawing methods. No one style is better when it comes to art—the important thing is physically putting pen or pencil to paper and making marks. Whether those marks are messy or ‘inaccurate’ doesn’t matter because the goal is to get creative, not reproduce reality. Letting go of the idea that drawing has to look a certain way is an important first step in the creative process. It will be easier said than done as the mind is going to make a fuss if it doesn’t look perfect. But as nothing ever is perfect, having such high expectations sets you up for disappointment before you’ve made a single mark.
Gary Panter talked about the downside of trying to draw realistically: “You might want to draw more realistically or in perspective or so it looks slick — that’s is possible and there are tricks and procedures for drawing with more realism if you desire it. But drawing very realistically with great finesse can sometimes produce dead uninteresting drawings — relative, that is, to a drawing with heart and charm and effort but no great finesse.”
Heart and charm and effort—far more interesting (and a kinder approach) than slick and uninteresting.
“I’ve kind of come to peace with these unproductive kinds of days, seeing them as a bit of a balance to my normal, busy, routine filled days. I’ve reached a point now where I don’t feel any guilt about completely writing off any of my usual routines and just devolving into an amorphous, couch-laden blob for the day.” — Spencer Harrison
You’re already an artist. Perhaps you haven’t realise yet because it’s laid dormant within you for many years without any attention. But even without much experience, you are one. Our younger selves were enthusiastic, spontaneous and joyful creators of art (artists) and they are still part of us as adults. They just need a little encouragement, space and confidence to emerge again.
Even if you’re only just starting out, haven’t made built an art career or made a masterpiece, you are enough just as you are. Fred Gettings in You are an Artist prefaces the book with “To participate in this [art] search, on whatever level and with whatever ability, is to be an artist… Anyone who embarks on this spiritual odyssey bears the name of artist.”
If you choose to participate in the brave act of making art, you are an artist.
“Draw inspiration from a knowledge quest.”