Practice over time and busywork

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

Making art can be confronting if you feel your work doesn’t live up to your high expectations. You may, especially as a beginner, find that because your expectations are so high you immediately feel you’re failing. It doesn’t help that we downplay the importance of consistent practice over time, expecting ourselves to get better too quickly. On the Hurry Slowly podcast, Tami Forman explains “We kind of collectively hate the answer that things take longer and that time is required to produce things.”

In the episode (titled What Gets Measured, Gets Managed), Forman talks about performance and how inefficient time can be to measure it: “It is extrodinarily difficult to measure performance, both quality of performance and quantity of output. And so a time clock it feels objective and again goes back to this idea of the factory floor where literally time equalled product. The amount of time you spent on the floor was the amount of product that you created. And we haven’t come up with something better.”

The idea of busywork can make us feel like we’re achieving something, we’re earning our badge for “I worked hard today,” but it may be that you’re not actually getting any important work done. It’s familiar for us to believe time equals output, “I think this is why we struggle so much with the time thing and why we all sort of gravitate to it because it feels very objective and measurable, how much time I spent in the office is how hard I worked. And it feel imposed upon us in a way that’s comfortable.”

While practice over time is an important key in improving your art performance, so is the power of playing, taking thing slower, pottering around, resting and letting your ideas slowly hatch.

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Letting yourself ponder

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

Sometimes it takes time for an idea to hatch. Forcing yourself to actively think of a solution or work out all the moving parts won’t necessarily get you to a conclusion any quicker. You may need the help of your unconscious to tap into the hidden wealth of knowledge that makes up 90% of your brain power. That’s where the deep wisdom lies and by not-thinking, you may find you can access more ideas, many of which will be less linear and therefore more creative.

In the One Thing A Day podcast with Michael Nobbs, (where gentle living and gentle creating is encouraged), he explains how he’s “Just waiting for the ideas to sort of fall into place. Let myself ponder, let myself put down the pondering, let myself just think of something else for a while then come back to it and just see if the ideas have matured. I think, I think I’m getting somewhere.”

Letting yourself ponder is a key part of the creative process. Skipping it in order to think harder isn’t necessarily the way to get where you want to get.

Anticipate, savour, express, recall

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

Is there a way you turn up the volume up your positive experiences? How about when it comes to your art making practice? Gretchen Rubin in The Happiness Project suggests “To eke out the most happiness from an experience, we must anticipate it, savor it as it unfolds, express happiness, and recall a happy memory.”

Applying this to an art making practice could look like the following:

Anticipe: scheduling ahead of time a space to make art and seeing it as a reward to look forwards to. Marking the date in your calendar so there’s a visual reminder leading up to it.

Savour: laying out our pens, paper, tools carefully. Sharpening your pencil slowly. Focusing on the feeling of making marks and what you experience in your body. Put on your favourite music, podcast or audio book if you enjoy having an audio backdrop when making art.

Express: writing down how it felt during the process. Bullet points, single words or a more lengthy explanation of how it felt. Telling someone else about your experience. Making another piece of art to express how you felt.

Recall: reviewing your art at a later date to recall the memory of making it. Rereading any notes you made about the experience.

Creativity is just about connecting things

“Creativity is just about connecting things. A whole lot of nonsense put together, and diluted with a creative passion can eventually make sense. Keep thinking. Exploring. Keep trying out new ways and methods of doing things and just when you least expect, you may stumble on that next great world-changing idea that will make all the difference.” ― Chinonye J. Chidolue

How to do a rubbing

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection
Rubbings taken from a deck: turning the paper to create lines in different directions

Rubbings or frottage is an old technique of printmaking where you take a rubbing from an uneven surface to create a textured piece of art. It’s a very quick method of mark making that has a bonus element of mystery because you can’t predict what surfaces will work best until you have a go. You become a kind of creative detective, hunting out patterns and testing them collect results.

Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire in Wired suggest that some common strands in creative fields are “the ability to extract order from chaos, independence, unconventionality, and a willingness to take risks.” Margaret A. Boden explains that exploratory creativity, one of the three types of creativity,  “can produce highly valued (beautiful, useful, interesting…) structures or ideas.” That this approach “can often offer surprises that are rather deeper than merely seeing the previously unseen.” Surprise marks may emerge with each movement of your hand so you don’t always know what you’ll end up with.

You will need: paper and a pencil. Optional to use crayons, charcoal or chalk.

  1. Find some textured surfaces or objects.
  2. Place paper over your chosen area.
  3. Use side of pencil to rub over the paper to reveal the hidden pattern.
  4. Repeat the process with a different surface.
The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection
Experimenting with different surfaces: some rubbings are more unsuccessful than others

Some of the rubbings in the image above hardly show the pattern beneath so weren’t as successful as the clearer pattern created by the decking. That feedback helped scout future rubbing subjects so no “failed” attempt was actually unsuccessful. This experiment is perfect to take with you on the go so if you ever spot an interesting wall texture you can quickly take a rubbing. The more you do, the more you build up your knowledge around what surfaces work better than others. Because it takes so little time, the focus becomes more on quantity and testing than perfecting which is a much freer (and fun) way to make art.

“The most expected thing you can expect is what’s unexpected.” – Dick Allen, Zen Master Poems

The flow experience of making art

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

Have you ever been so immersed in a task that you lost track of time or your surroundings? You may have unknowingly been in a flow state, explained fully by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Flow: “The flow experience is typically described as involving a sense of control – or, more precisely, as lacking the sense of worry about loosing control that is typical in many situations of normal life.” In order for flow to take place, you need to be focused on a task that isn’t too hard you can’t ever achieve in, nor too easy that there’s no challenge. Effort has to take place in order for flow to occur. “Most enjoyable activities are not natural; they demand an effort that initially one is reluctant to make. But once the interaction starts to provide feedback to the person’s skills, it usually begins to be intrinsically rewarding.” If a task is too easy, long term it won’t provide you with enough stimulus to continue so the challenge becomes how can you increase the difficulty of a task as your confidence and skills improve?

But how can flow help with an art-making practice? Full immersion into a task quietens the mind’s chatter – negative thoughts or unhelpful comments – that can railroad you if you pay them too much attention. Szentmihalyi explains “In normal life, we keep interrupting what we do with doubts and questions. “Why am I doing this? Should I perhaps be doing something else?” Repeatedly we question the necessity of our actions, and evaluate critically the reasons for carrying them out. But in flow there is no need to reflect, because action carries us forward as if by magic.”

The feeling of being in flow is very rewarding and brings a sense of satisfaction about your work. If “The purpose of the flow is to keep on flowing”, then giving yourself the space and time to make art, you increase the chances of experiencing the benefits of flow.