While making art with no fixed rules or set objectives can be a freeing experience, sometimes you don’t know what to make next which can hold you back from starting anything at all. Setting yourself a project could help with getting unstuck because there’s a clear focus for making. When you know where you want to head, it makes it easier to make decisions along the way. And if the infinite possibilities of making anything feels too overwhelming, then a project approach to art making could be for you.
In the Art For All podcast, Danny Gregory and Ros Stendahl talk about the power of projects: “A project is a blueprint for your free time, a series of assignments that will add up to something grand when it’s done. But more important, will be really fun doing, getting there, making.” Stendahl explains “Whenever I do a project, I like to set parameters because I find that parameters not only focus you and make it more likely that you’ll achieve your goal of doing it every day, but they also help you discover more clearly what it is you’re looking for… you can create something substantial in a very brief time period.”
If you’re feeling even more adventurous, consider having multiple projects in the go at once. They could be similar and interlink or be vastly different and you rotate through working on them depending on your mood and interest each day. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Creativity describes how a E. O. Wilson “typically works on several projects at once, using different methods. This again is a common pattern among creative individuals; it keeps them from getting bored or stymied, and it produces unexpected cross-fertilization of ideas.”
One project or several, it doesn’t matter the number of projects so long as you find it a helpful approach to get you regularly making your art.
Is a painting that took weeks to complete any more important than a sketch that took five minutes? You could argue the painting demonstrates more skill and labour because of the extra time spent but when it comes to creativity, more time doesn’t necessarily mean more reward.
Carolyn Schlam in The Creative Path explains “A sketch that takes five minutes to make can be more complete, expressive, and satisfying than a painting worked and reworked over months. In five minutes you don’t have time to steer too far away from a single idea if you’re on, you can capture the essence in a few strokes, which will make your inspiration vibrantly manifest.”
Don’t underestimate the power of small and don’t assume you have to spend hours working on something for it to be labelled ‘good.’
Carrying a notebook wherever you go can change how you interact with the world. When you make notes or sketch anything that catches your eye, you start to pay closer attention to your surroundings. Your senses for spotting small unusual things become sharpened because you’re training yourself to take notice. This skill of mining your everyday life for inspiration feeds back into your art making practice and allows you ultimately think more creatively.
In 1903 the writer Jack London gave advice still is as relevant today “Keep a notebook. Travel with it, eat with it, sleep with it. Slap into it every stray thought that flutters up into your brain. Cheap paper is less perishable than gray matter, and lead pencil markings endure longer than memory.” Making a note on your phone isn’t the same as the experience of pencil on paper and won’t seal in the memory as strongly. In a digital world, the notebook is a safe space to collect all the weird and unexplainable interesting thoughts and things you encounter.
Rule one of a notebook: don’t judge the importance of what you write down. Who knows what it could spark in the future: ideas, poems, sketches, paintings, collages, songs or any other creative endeavour. Write it down.
Using a notebook allows you to get curious about your world, which is something London also encourages: “Find out about this earth, this universe; this force and matter, and the spirit that glimmers up through force and matter from the maggot to Godhead. And by all this I mean WORK for a philosophy of life. It does not hurt how wrong your philosophy of life may be, so long as you have one and have it well.”
“The one who follows the crowd will usually get no further than the crowd. The one who walks alone, is likely to find himself in places no one has ever been.” — Albert Einstein
Collage is easy and fun process to make art out of existing art. While this experiment focuses on using just images, you can also collage with paper and typography. By using preexisting images, you don’t have to worry about drawing anything from scratch. If you are a beginner and worry about your art being messy or imperfect (which are vital aspects of art-making), this might offer you the freedom you need to get started creatively. Rod Judkins in Figurative Painting with Collage quotes Nita Leland: “Collage is like a hall of mirrors. Every direction you look, you see something different and visually stimulating.”
You will need: photographs or images from magazines, books or any paper source. Scissors or scalpel knife. Optional glue or sticky tape and a tray to put things on or work from.
- Cut out images that catch you eye. Don’t overthink: cut out and create a pile.
- From your pile, pick images and start arranging. Play around with different combinations without thinking of a final look.
- If you like a combination, take a photo or fix it in place with glue or tape.
- Optional: Set a timer for 2 minutes to force quicker decision making so once the time is up, the work becomes finished by default.
Ideas for further experiments:
- Cut out words or letters to add to the images.
- Draw over or around images to add details.
- Take photos of selected images to create digital versions and play around with layouts on the computer.
Have a jar/box/folder/somewhere to keep all the images you cut out as anything unused can be used at a later date. Sometimes you might spend your time cutting images and other times you may spend your time arranging. Having an image bank to draw from allows you to get creating much quicker in the future.
The artist Max Ernst in Max Ernst believed “Collage is the noble conquest of the irrational, the coupling of two realities, irreconcilable in appearance, upon a plane which apparently does not suit them.” Collage quickly allows you to bring together unexpected images and arrange them however you like. The process is one of trial and error but also very ‘low-risk’ because you don’t have fix anything in place. Because there are so many strange and different possibilities with collage, you’re only limited by your imagination.
“The only way to be creative over time – to not be undone by our expertise – is to experiment with ignorance, to stare at things we don’t fully understand.” – Jonah Lehrer
Perfection is the enemy of your creative progress. It keeps you stuck, keeps you fearful of making ‘mistakes’ and freezes you into a ridged way of thinking. Fussing over the tiny details nobody but you can see won’t make you feel any better. Seth Godin suggests “Perfect lets you stall, ask more questions, do more reviews, dumb it down, safe it up and generally avoid doing anything that might fail (or anything important). You’re not in the perfect business. Stop pretending that’s what the world wants from you. Truly perfect is becoming friendly with your imperfections on the way to doing something remarkable.”
You don’t need your art to be perfect. Growth and progress is far more rich a reward than perfection. Jonathan Fields in How To Live a Good Life says “Remember, the thing you strive for isn’t perfection; it’s not the easy win or the avoidance of failure, it’s the gift of growth, the opportunity for evolution.”
Let your art be wonky and messy and human so you can get on with the fun of making something. Then move onto the next thing and then the next and the next, until one day in the distant future, you realise how much you’ve grown.