First, let’s dispel the myth that creativity is assigned at birth and is only for those who have talent. Creativity is inherent in every human and, like a muscle, requires regular workouts in order to grow stronger. John Cleese explains in a lecture that creativity “is not a talent, it is a way of operating” and that it’s “not an ability that you either have or do not have.” This black and white thinking about creativity is neither helpful or true and will ultimately keep you from making any art at all.
How then, do we nurture and grow the creativity muscle? Cleese suggests 5 things we need in order to get ourselves into the ‘open mode’ – the mode to welcome creativity:
- Space: find a quiet undisturbed physical space, a ‘space/time oasis’
- Time: a specific period time to start and stop that will not be interrupted.
- Time: give yourself as long as possible to ponder, don’t be in a hurry to ‘solve the problem’ is you have more time available.
- Confidence: be playful and let go of making mistakes. There is no “wrong” decision. Being playful creates an openness to explore.
- Humour: focusing on being serious closes you to being playful.
Use these 5 guidelines to allow a kinder, quieter mindset from which to create from. One where pondering and mistakes are welcome and being playful is key.
Getting into an open frame of mind is essential before embarking on drawing as an adult. With limited experience beyond art classes at school, it’s going to be a challenge to get through early attempts making marks on a black page. The challenge lies in subconscious expectations about what ‘good’ art looks like and if similar art that speaks of ‘good’ or demonstrates skill isn’t made instantly, the mind will have a field day judging every single mark made. The belief you’re either born with creative talent or not will limit any future potential and may even halt the art making process entirely. Talent can only get you so far and doesn’t always produce the most interesting art, while ‘mistakes‘ and messiness can have more expression and aliveness to them. With this in mind, it seems illogical to focus only on things being perfect and ordered so having an open mind to what is ‘good’ is essential moving forwards creatively.
In Drawing Portraits by Henry Carr, written in 1961, he suggests that for students who have a natural ability to draw beyond the average, it can be a danger to have such ease: “Not having to work so hard at drawing they tend to become superficial.” The really important aspect, is to have “overwhelming interest.” This interest will help you persevering in the face of failure and disappointment. Carr encourages that “Things that have to be acquired by great effort are sweeter than free gifts.”
Be intrigued by your chosen subject and use that interest to fuel the fire whenever you feel disheartened. You don’t have to be perfect to continue because ‘superficial drawings’ are not the goal—the process of drawing something from scratch is.
If you accepted the challenge to draw more often, what kind of marks do you visualise making and of what types of subjects or objects? The idea of what we should draw can keep us from making any marks at all – especially if a perfectly photo-realistic pencil portrait is what you consider drawing to be. The Oxford Complete Wordfinder defines ‘drawing’ as “a picture, depiction, representation, sketch, plan, outline, design, composition, monochrome, cartoon.” That definition covers a very wide range of possible marks and styles. With no mention about how realistic the drawing needs to be, how closely it reflects reality, you are free to pursue drawing without any refined technical skills.
David Maclagan in Line Let Loose suggests an endless range of drawing possibilities: “Drawings are records, observations, discoveries and inventions, sometimes all at once.” If you widen your definition for what drawing can be, a whole world of possibilities opens up. Possibilities may include ‘bad’, messy, childish, spontaneous, quick and colourful marks, plus any other marks that surface during the making process.
Can you cultivate mindfulness while making art? What is mindfulness and how do you go about being more mindful? Nhat Hanh Thich in The Art of Mindfulness explains “It is very simple and also very challenging. The practice of mindfulness requires only that whatever you do, you do with your whole being. You have to invest one hundred percent of yourself in doing even very simple things, like picking up a pen, opening a book, or lighting a stick of incense.”
He suggests pouring tea into a cup can become an act of meditation, if done with mindfulness: “Everyone knows how to pour tea… but not everyone pours mindfully and drinks tea mindfully. This is because we have a tendency to run away from the here and now.” If mindfulness can be applied to pouring tea, then it can be also applied to making art. What would giving 100% of yourself look like when being creative? Focusing attention on the physical action of making art is all it takes to be mindful. A simple concept that takes practice to get used to. Being able to repeat the process on a regular basis may be the hardest part of the practice.
“It is not simply the brightest who have the best ideas; it is those who are best at harvesting ideas from others. It is not only the most determined who drive change; it is those who most fully engage with like-minded people. And it is not wealth or prestige that best motivates people; it is respect and help from peers.” — Alex Pentland
Sometimes a small reframe of a word to can make a surprisingly big difference. Take for example when making art – creating. You may not have any objections to the word create, or it could be it has a negative connotation (perhaps even subconsciously). If someone once told us years ago we weren’t good at art, the belief of not being creative may still be with us unchecked today. Or perhaps the idea of creating something at all feels like too much pressure – the pressure of making something original or really good. It would be easier to make nothing at all in that case.
A reframe might be in order to get you from not making art, to making it with less pressure. If you have any hesitation around the word create, try using instead ‘curiously react.’ It essentially means the same thing except it may not have any of those negative thoughts attached to it. You’re getting curious about making marks and then reacting to those marks to make more ones in the future. The ego-mind can’t argue with that, but it will argue about whether you’re creative or not.
Reframe the action of creating and see if it helps you get curiously reactive.
“Chase and track down passion.”
When drawing or making art, snap judgments can be made about the quality or successful of the art. Labels such as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ can quickly be added to art, even while in the process of making it. It’s challenging to let go of the labels that pop up while creating, labels that make you feel disheartened and may even make you force you to question continuing. How can move through these moments of doubt in order to continue the joyful experience of making art?
Henepola Gunaratana in Mindfulness in Plain English suggests to see things as they really are: “… we do not mean seeing things superficially, with our regular eyes, but seeing things as they are in themselves, with wisdom.” Can we look at the art with deeper wisdom that is more forgiving that the judgemental voice in our minds? The wisdom that knows you’re not an expert and that the art doesn’t need to be a masterpiece. It knows the joy is found within the process and not in the visual outcome of the art.
Gunaratana encourages “Don’t cling to anything, and don’t reject anything. Let come what comes, and accommodate yourself to that, whatever it is. If good mental images arise, that is fine. If bad mental images arise, that is find, too. Look on all of it as equal, and make yourself comfortable with whatever happens. Don’t fight with what you experience, just observe it mindfully. Let the judgements sit with you, don’t hurry them away. Before long you may find they start to quieten and slip away as you get into the momentum of making.
Why does it feel uncomfortable to make a ‘bad’ drawing? Does it really matter if a drawing isn’t any ‘good,’ if lines are wonky or in the ‘wrong’ place? What if there’s magic in the ‘badness’ of the art and in order to progress you had to first make a huge pile of bad drawings?
Danny Gregory in Art Before Breakfast encourages “Bad drawings are the best teachers. Every drawing has one great part, maybe just a line or a curve, a record of a moment when we were fully engaged. But we are not looking for perfection; we are seeking mistakes. If you somehow did knock out a perfect, near-photographic drawing, then what? What would it teach you, that hole in one? Would the journey be over?”
A hole-in-one drawing might theoretically seem like the best outcome, but it doesn’t leave any space to wander, explore and experiment. It’s those adjectives that make the creative process so interesting and rewarding. Why not try embracing the idea of making lots of bad drawings and see where the journey takes you.
Finding a physical space to get creative in, is an important first step in the creative process. While some artists will have a dedicated studio to work from, any small, designated space can provide an ample environment for creating in. While creating on the move is just as good a way to make art, being able to settle into a carved out space may help nudge out creativity on a regular basis.
Shaun McNiff in Trust the Process offers that setting up a workplace is vital as “the environment has a significant impact on expression.” Having a space to create in is a “grounding influence and a partner through every phase of expression.” Viewing the creative space as a helpful partner may provide some comfort, especially when navigating the unknown—and often challenging—experience of making art. McNiff sees his artistic work-space as “a sanctuary, a place at home where creative expression is nourished and regenerated.”
And if space is limited, a temporary sanctuary can be created using a tray with art supplies. If you enjoying making art stood up, tape paper to a wall and use that as your canvas space. If you prefer sitting down, any chair or sofa setting with paper and pen on your lap (or placed on the tray) can become your workspace—a workspace that moves to suit your daily life. Follow McNiff’s advice and go set up your space to get creative process moving,
Generating new ideas can be an exciting stage in the creative process, when anything is still possible and optimism for success is at its highest. It can simultaneously be a disappointing stage, if no idea is deemed ‘good enough, to put into practice. When making art, the possibilities are endless as to what to make, which materials to use and the approach to take. With all that endless possibility, any small idea can be easily instantly dismissed if the belief is ideas should always be big, bold and impressive. The reality is nothing is original and everything has already been done before so no idea can be completely revolutionary. Small and simple ideas can even be more effective than big and bold ones. But that’s okay because now we can get on with making an unoriginal thing, lowering the bar of expectation to a workable height.
How can we free ourselves from unachievable levels of expectation on our art? Come up with a mountain of ideas. Spend time to write down as many ideas as possible. Set a time for 5 minutes and don’t overthink, just write. Linus Pauling, Nobel Prize winner said “The best way to have a good idea, is to have lots of ideas.” The pool of possibility is limited if you stop at 5 ideas because it’s more likely the mind will resort to more obvious ones first. With a goal of, say 100 ideas, that’s when things can get weird and wonderful. The large number forces you to think in divergent and unexpected ways. By idea 50 you’ve written done everything obvious and have begun ‘scrambling’ for more. Now things are getting interesting as the mind starts searching for unusual connections in an attempt to complete the idea-collation challenge.
Quantity of ideas is a better strategy compared to trying to come up with 1 or 2 ‘best’ ideas. That may keep you stuck because that bar or expectation will keep rising up in the face of ideas judged to be sub-par. As Albert Einstein suggests, “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.”
“Sometimes saying YES to rest and play IS the brave move.” — Brené Brown
When getting creative, it’s important not to judge artwork during the actual process of making, and instead to focus on the action taking place. Evaluating artwork before it’s finished takes you from being present in the moment of creating, into a judgmental (often emotinally challenging) position of editor and critic. The added pressure of evaluating everything while in the creative mode could turn into second-guessing every mark made and force you to be cautious about getting anything ‘wrong’ at all. Artwork could be prematurely rejected before even finishing which could limit unexpected discoveries or the space to practice.
A constant judging-while-making-process doesn’t help you develop as an artist, encourage ‘bad’ art, messy mistakes or allow for the unexpected. The judgmental editor thinks it’s helping by critiquing the artwork but actually is limiting potential growth and improvement. Shut the editor down and focus on the making. It’s the way to improvement in the long run.
“Stoke a passion for generosity to feel full with love.”
We all have biases and judgments about what we consider to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ art. When making art it’s important to question why you choose to label something as good or bad, especially because you may not even realise the real reason why. Alain de Botton and John Armstrong in Art as Therapy explain “Ideas about what is ‘good’ art are not formed by themselves. They are the result of complex systems of patronage, ideology, money and education, supported by university courses and museums, all of which guide our sense of what makes a work of art especially worthy of attention.”
Simply put, your beliefs around what art is ‘good’ are comprised by other people, institutes and industries beliefs. How could you not be influenced when viewing ‘successful’ art in a national gallery space, building a visual set of rules about what constitutes ‘good art?’ Just because someone else believe X artwork is brilliant, doesn’t mean their opinion is the hard and fast rule of good/bad. This is worth questioning because having the courage to make your own art may bring up black and white rules and discourage you from making more art if you don’t seem to measuring up to an invisible standard that’s been subconsciously bought into.
Make your own rules about the art you make and measure ‘good’ by the amount of enjoyment you feel when making the art. That’s a far more accurate (and kinder) measure of attention.
Do you believe every person has the potential to be creative through practice, or that you’re born naturally talented? The answer reveals whether you have a growth (there’s potential) or a fixed (born that way) mindset. Having a fixed mindset will limit your potential for growth and development because as Carol Dweck in Mindset suggests, “No matter what your ability is, effort is what ignites that ability and turns it into accomplishment.” Effort is key because talent only gets you so far in the beginning. Effort will take further in the long run, but only if you’re willing to persistently and consistently show up.
Shaun McNiff in Trust the Process notes when viewing children’s art we can see every child has the ability and permission to create. But through a schooling experience, “freedom is restricted for the majority of people as the identification of “talent” tends to overshadow universal participation.” We get disheartened if our art isn’t ‘good’ enough and believe we should stop if doesn’t showing visible signs of ‘talent.’ McNiff argues that a person’s license to create cannot ever be taken away, it’s “as natural as breathing and walking.” This can be a challenging notion to accept if you believe you’re not creative either by self-judgment or through the judgment of others. Is it is possible to move from not-being-creative to being-creative? Always. McNiff encourages “Training in creativity requires the ability to relax in periods of uncertainty and to trust that the creative intelligence will find its way” as well as “an inclination to step into the unknown as well as the ability to persist when there is no end in sight.”
If you can spend a few moments sitting with the uncertainty, (the uncomfortable feeling of not-knowing) not rushing the feeling away or stopping the art-making process, you will discover that the uncertainty will rise and fall if you allow it to just be. Whisper some encouraging words to yourself, take a breath and continue to make your art.
When making art, it can be hard to not judge work as failures. Thoughts around it not being good enough or not looking the way you think it aught to–or the hundreds of other judgments that pop up–can stop you from making anything else for fear of repeating the failure. The feeling of failure stings and this is something the mind wants us to avoid experiencing and therefore explains why you may feel like giving up so soon. Pema Chödrön in Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better speaks of the ‘Fine art of failing’ and how succeeding has a lot of emphasis and hype placed on it. But if you consider the definition of success as it working out that way you hoped, “failing by that definition is that it didn’t work out the way you wanted it to.”
Chödrön talks about hearing a quote from James Jocye’s Ulysses that described how failure leads to discovered, but instead of using ‘failure’ Joyce used the word ‘mistake.’ “Mistakes are the portal to creativity, to learning something new, to having a fresh look on things.” Reframing a ‘failure’ to a ‘mistake’ may mean you give yourself more space (and self-compassion) to not get things ‘right’ all of the time.
Failing better means seeing failure as part of the journey,”to see it as your connection with other human beings and as part of your humanness.” The idea that we should get everything right all of the time is an unrealistically high bar for ourselves and leaves no space of the unexpected, delightfully imperfect and spontaneous results that being creative allow us access to. “Failing better means when these things happen in your life, they become a source of growth, a source of forward.” Growth and forward is a bi-product of failure and making lots of mistakes, and is to be embraced instead of feared, when making our art.
With an endless supply of creative (and not so creative) content at our fingertips, it can be easy to only spend time consuming and not spend any making art. Perhaps it feels pointless to make art when so much exists already, or that your art won’t be as good as the next persons. But you may be underestimating the creative potential that’s buried within making something—the richness of experience that comes from making something out of nothing.
Drawing and sketching is one way to get create that require minimal art supplies to get started. Ben Crothers in Presto Sketching says “creating your own visuals with sketching means that you’re not just a consumer of others’ content and ideas, but a producer of content and ideas too… All you need is a pen and paper, and the will to make your mark.”
Why then, is the idea of making marks filled with nervousness and trepidation? Crothers offers this explanation: “By the time you hit the workforce or university, the world around you told you that the very act of picking up a pencil to draw was risky. If you weren’t on your way to being a successful artist, designer, or architect, anything to do with drawing was for your personal pleasure only. A hobby. Not the real world. You drew at your own risk and on your own dime.
Children see drawing as a fun and joyful activity. They don’t hesitate to make scribbles and scrappy marks. There’s no concern about the value of the art, or if they’re making the ‘right’ kind of marks. Children make art instinctually, for the pure enjoyment of the process. This laid-back, playful attitude is something we can reclaim as adults, if we choose to see the process as a fun activity. Decide to see getting creative as an opportunity to make scribbles, messy art and experiment. The riskiest thing you can do is not to try at all.
“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiratoin or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authentic is invaluable; originality is non-existent.” — Jim Jarmush
If you don’t feel you’re a creative person, you’re not alone. Many adults don’t believe they’re even the slightest bit creative. But just because you haven’t taken an art class or made art for years, it doesn’t mean you haven’t been creative in other ways. Seeing creativity in a black and white definition (i.e. paint on a canvas) limits the potential of what creativity can be. Ken Robinson in Out of Our Minds encourages, “Creativity is not a separate faculty that some people have and others don’t.” Even if you believe you’re not creative, it doesn’t mean it’s true. As Robinson argues, “Everyone has creative capabilities, but they often do not know what they are.”
Creativity can be found in many different areas, from the obvious (within the arts), to the sciences or in our daily lives (i.e. problem solving, organisation, connecting with others, cooking to name a few). With creativity being defined as “the use of imagination or original ideas to create something,” there’s no mention of it being limited to gallery art or being skilful at painting.
While this blog has a focus on making art, you have the capacity to be creative in a wide range of different ways. Whether you use pen and paper or not, dropping the story of not being creative and instead looking for all the ways you are creative may give you a different (and more truthful) perspective.