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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Allowing yourself to spontaneously create art—without judging as you make—can be a challenge. Ignoring the inner critics, resistance or distracting negative thoughts takes bravery and a commitment to continue making art regardless. Why should you allow yourself to make “bad” or embarrassing art in the face of self-judgement? Lewis Hyde in The Gift quotes Allen Ginsberg, who speaks of spontaneous writing: “Spontaneous writing could be embarrassing… The cure for that is to write things down which you will not publish and which you won’t show people. To write secretly… so you can actually be free to say anything you want.”
Being able to create, without the art needing to be shown to anyone, or it needing to be “good” gives you freedom to explore more fully, perhaps in places you wouldn’t venture if you knew others were watching. Ginsberg again: “… settling down in the muck of your own mind… You really have to make a resolution just to write for yourself…, in the sense of not writing to impress yourself, but just writing what yourself is saying.” While Ginsberg talks of writing, this is relevant for any art medium. You have to make a resolution to make art for yourself so you can explore what wishes to be created within you. The letting go of seeking approval or validation from other people allows you to create for the sake of creating—to make art because you enjoy it.
The muck of your mind may surprise you with what it comes up with. Allow yourself time and space to be curious and go explore in the mud.
The untouched blank page can be a bigger hurdle than you’d expect to making art. Not wanting to ‘spoil’ the whiter than white, pristine surface, you may hold off making any marks until you’ve decided on an idea that’s ‘good’ enough. Waiting to think of a good (or perhaps even perfect) idea can keep you stuck from making anything at all. In that situation take the pressure to make something ‘good’ off the table. Instead, try making something bad, messy or ugly.
Kim Piper Werker in Make it Mighty Ugly shares “When I’m paralyzed by the pressure to make something mind-glowingly awesome, I make something ugly instead.” This process of focusing on making ugly art can free you from the creative killjoy of perfectionism. Werker again: “Making ugly things reminds me to pay attention to the process of making, rather than obsessing about the product. It reminds me I’ve made mistakes and failed and will make more mistakes and fail again, so I’d better just keep on making things.”
Decide to make some ugly marks and turn your white paper into ugly art. The more mistakes, the better. Your creativity doesn’t need to be beautiful or perfect on the page. It’s just as valuable (and much more fun) if it’s ugly.
“… ugly can make us mighty. All we have to do is pay attention to it. When we look at it, when we stare it right in the face, we take its power for our own. We grow to understand it. We learn from it. We defuse it. And we become free.” — Kim Piper Werker
While the mind speaks louder and more forcefully about what to do, the heart has a gentler, wiser perspective. When making art, the mind may bombard with negative talk about the quality and usefulness of everything. Talk like “I should be doing something more important” or “This is rubbish! Stop immediately!” The mind wants to be instantly good at everything it tries and will go into survival mode to keep you ‘safe’ from the perceived pain/danger of being ‘bad.’ Listen only to this overdramatic voice and you’ll never make art again.
The heart on the other hand, knows you’re safe and no real pain will come from making something messy or ‘bad.’ It’s interested in what feels good and lights you up. It loves when you do more fun things, when you stop listening to the negative mind voice and embrace the play of making art. When you listen the calm heart, you hear how good it feels to make marks for fun. How playful you feel colouring something in and how relaxed and refreshed you feel after doing it.
Paulo Coelho in The Alchemist encourages “Listen to your heart. It knows all things… Because where your heart is, that is where you’ll find your treasure. Keep listening to what it has to say.” When making your art, listen to your wise heart and let the mind take a mini vacation. Its opinion is not needed.
We’re taught to seek constant improvement, to work on our weaknesses and out-do our previous performances, because better is better… right?
Except it’s not better when making art is involved. How you feel making during the process IS the point. The fun of making something out of nothing, the sensory experience of using your hands and switching off your mind for a few precious moments in your day is worth gold. To reconnect to the part of you that enjoys making something just for fun, with no a hint of it needing to be productive or valuable far outweighs any incremental progress you’ll achieve.
You don’t NEED to get any better in order to continue making art. You have everything right now to make something from nothing and it’s even better if the art is messy and flawed. Why focus on impossible task of making everything perfectly if it doesn’t feel fun?
“There’s nothing to be done,
No way you need to prove.
Your art is already enough.
There’s nothing to improve.”
4 steps to becoming more creative:
1. Carry a small notebook/sketchbook and pen/pencil wherever you go
Write down your ideas, make notes of things you like as soon as you see them, practice making art on the go or in fringe time that normally gets swallowed up looking at your phone. Get curious about your daily surroundings, mine your life and record your discoveries. The scrappier and cheaper it is, the more likely perfectionists will actually use it instead of keeping it ‘unspoilt’ in its perfect original state!
2. Make something everyday
Make something, ANYTHING to practice exercising your creativity muscle. If you can find a spare two minutes, then you have enough time to make something. If you think “what’s the point of only spending two minutes?” It adds up to an hour after a month and creates a small pile of art. Spending two minutes is better than spending zero minutes (especially if the myth of having to spend hours making art feels overwhelming and is stopping you from making anything at all).
3. Focus on quantity not quality
When you make art for yourself, you can let go of it needed to look ‘good.’ You’re not in school trying to please the teacher anymore. You get to make bad, messy and imperfect art because you ENJOY it. That’s the only important reason you need. By focusing on quantity, it helps to shift focus from worrying if you’re not doing it ‘right’. And when making quantity can actually accelerate creativity, quality can be so overrated.
4. Start making art right now
Don’t wait for the start of the year/month/week to roll round. Start NOW. You’ve heard you only need two minutes so pick up a pencil and paper and make some marks immediately!
We need your bonkers ideas and your crazy art! Sometimes it’s the crazy ideas that fuels creativity more forcefully than the ‘normal’ safe ones. Crazy and bonkers might also inspire others a little bit louder and who knows where it could lead to.
“Change the world with your brilliant and bonkers ideas!” That’s what Little Inventors wants: helping kids by encouraging inventive thinking. It connects kid inventors to skilled grown ups who make their ideas work in real life: workable models of the brilliant and bonkers ideas. The founder of the project Dominic Wilcox says in this behind the scenes video “I think we’re all born creative but some people say “Oh I’m not creative.” But that’s not true, you were creative when you were a child, you’ve just lost it… by going through the education system and then the work as an adult. Your mind gets a little bit limited and restricted and you get a bit self-conscoius suddenly your creativity can be lost.”
If you feel your creativity is lost right now, know it’s never completely gone. You can always find your way back to it, whenever you’re ready. Start by picking up a pencil and paper and making some marks. Any marks – messy ones, bad unperfected ones, ones full of mistakes and rough ideas. Because making anything is always better than making nothing at all. And who knows where it could all lead to.
Ps. Dominic Wilcox has a Ted talk on his project called Turning children’s imagination into reality.
When you give yourself permission to make art, you slowly and silently give permission to others around you. You don’t have to physically show others what you make. It’s enough to talk about the creative experience and share how you feel while making art (it’s not always helpful to reveal your ‘messy’ art to potentially judgmental eyes). Sharing the experience could have a big impact on many others in more ways than you’ll ever know.
Victoria Moran encourages “The idea that everything is purposeful really changes the way you live. To think that everything that you do has a ripple effect, that every word that you speak, every action that you make affects other people and the planet.”
Perhaps you share with a friend how free you feel while making art and how excited you are to make more. Or even a stranger overhears and sees your enthusiasm. That enthusiasm could plant a seed of inspiration in other minds. It could be a gentle nudge of silent encouragement that they too could have a go. No need to tell people to copy you, instead honestly share your insights from being more creative. If that seed one day grows bigger and they decide to take action, you’ve helped them just by being yourself (it may never grow bigger for them and that’s okay too because the main thing is you’re growing your own seeds).
As we let our light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others. — Marianne Williamson, from the poem ‘Our Deepest Fear’ in Return to Love
How can you adopt a more playful attitude towards your art making practice and why would that be beneficial to you? Aside from experiencing the joy that being playful creates — which could be argued is the main purpose of life and therefore automatically a worthwhile trait — it allows you to be more creative and thus create (over time) more value to your work, life and the contribution to other peoples lives.
On a Freakonomics podcast on creativity, Mitch Resnick speaks about Lifelong Kindergarten, one of the M.I.T. Media labs research units: “We focus on four guiding principles that I call the four Ps of creative learning: projects, passion, peers, and play. So we feel that the best way to support kids developing as creative thinkers and developing their creative capacities is to engage them in working on projects based on their passions in collaboration with peers in a playful spirit… Often when people think about play they just think about fun and laughter. And I have nothing against fun and laughter but that’s not the essence what I’m talking about. I see play not just as an activity but a type of attitude and approach for engaging with the world. When someone has a playful approach, it means they’re constantly experimenting, trying new things, taking risks, testing the boundaries. And I think the most creative activities come about when we’re willing to experiment and take risks.” [emphasis added]
How can you introduce more experimentation into your practice? Do you regularly try new things such as working in a new medium, drawing with your non-dominant hand, seeking out different films, books or media you’d not normally watch or visit a different part of town to find something that sparks a new creative idea? Do you take risks by using colours combinations that don’t traditionally go together, try using trash to make something or draw outside the lines to purposely make messy or ‘bad’ art? Can you find a way to test your boundaries and go outside your comfort zone? It could be as simple as trying to draw on paper that’s double the size you’re used to or using a pen instead of a pencil you can erase to make permanent marks.
Try adopting a playful approach to making your art and focus on the fun of experimenting.
There’s no better time than the present moment to start making art. Here’s what you need to do:
- Get a pen and paper or whatever is lying around nearby – old receipts and envelopes work just as well as blank paper.
- Make some marks for 2 minutes. Increase time as you progress.
- Repeat daily. Voila, you’ve begun making art!
Stuck as to what to draw? What’s in front of you: food, pets, family, faces, plants, shoes or possessions. From your imagination: doodles, cartoons, dreams, patterns, shapes or words. Fun experiments: blind drawings, using your non-dominant hand, foot or mouth, dot to dot, use a stick or draw in the dark.
If you’re silently expecting to be as good as artists like Da Vinci or O’Keeffe right away, you’re going to be VERY disappointed. Your art will be messy, ‘bad’ and gloriously filled with wonderful mistakes (aka learning potential). Focus on the fun making something out of nothing and continue in the face of disappointment that you’re not a master artist immediately. It takes time and a lot of practice to move past the beginner artist stage, but this stage is the most exciting and messy because everything is new and you can make your own rules as you go. Embrace the fun of being a beginner!
“Success is the sum of small efforts repeated day in and day out.” — Robert Collier
All you need to get started making art is a pen and paper. But once you’ve built up some practice and courage (it takes a lot of courage to continue to make ‘messy’ art and beginner art), you can start to try different drawing materials. This adds a whole new fun level of experimentation but one that can be overwhelming with possibilities and choice. Before you rush out and buy all the colours in all the different art supplies, remind yourself of your objective – to have fun. To enjoy the process of making something out of nothing. It’s easy to feel disheartened when the art doesn’t match the expectations in the mind but it can become magnified when money has been spent buying tools to help make ‘great’ art.
Carolyn Schlam in The Creative Path says “I encourage you to try many different media and just soak up all the fun and complexity of art making. Play and experimentation are essential components of our profession, and taking on new toys puts us in a playful mood.” The focus is on play and experimentation. Different media could mean whatever you’ve already got in your cupboards. They don’t have to be specifically art supplies as there are plenty of foods and household supplies that can work just as well. Things like painting with food colouring, beetroot juice or coffee. Making collages out of old packaging, magazines and leaflets. Or make patterns using everyday objects to. There’s so much you can get started with without having to leave the house. Don’t get caught up on using fancy supplies, instead focus on having fun exploring unconventional media that you can start using today.
The biggest challenge you face when making art is yourself. This is something Paul Klein discusses in his talk How to Succeed as an Artist: “There are no obstacles,.. the only obstacles that exist are obstacles we put in front of ourselves.” Can you identify any self-imposed obstacles you’ve created? Obstacles like “I don’t have time” (time can always be made), “I’m not good enough” (too high expectations) to “I don’t have the right art materials” (all you need is pen and paper to make art).
How can you get out of your own way and break through them? By giving yourself permission to spend time making art and to make messy art, bad art, to play and have fun making. Give permission to spend some time being creative without needing it to be productive or ‘valuable’ (i.e making sell-able art). The value is the fun. Break through self-imposed obstacles and open up to the possibility of becoming more creative.
Believing you’re not creative is the only mistake you can make when it comes to making art. We tend to think of art ‘mistakes’ as making a mess, drawing inaccurately or failing to reproduce the image in your head. But those mistakes are learning curves, unexpected lines for further experiments and the potential for messy fun. But believing you’re not creative limits the chance to explore your creativity further.
While children embrace the art making process with no thoughts around if they’re good or not, many adults firmly believe they can’t draw. But Graham Shaw in his TEDxHull talk argues “When people say they can’t draw I think it’s more to do with beliefs rather than talent and ability. So I think when you say you can’t draw, that’s just an illusion.” He suggest that you only need two things to draw: “One is have an open mind… and two, just be prepared to have a go.”
If you allowed yourself to explore your creativity, who knows what beliefs you might change for the better.
“How many other beliefs and limiting thoughts do we all carry around with us everyday? Beliefs that we could perhaps potential challenge and think differently about. And if we did challenge those beliefs and think differently about them, apart from drawing, what else would be possible for us all.” — Graham Shaw
Sometimes you’ll make art you like and will want to keep it and other times you’ll instantly want to throw it in the bin. It’s okay to feel that way but before you do throw anything out, consider using the rejected art as a starting point for new art.
Having a pile of rejected bin can be a helpful source to mine from. Why not use the art as a background, cut it up, tear bits off. draw over or reassemble to make something new. You don’t have to start with something ‘good’ to make something interesting. The fact the binned art was initially rejected may help lower your expectations to make anything ‘good’ and instead make unexpected art for the fun of it.
It’s a challenge to let go of wanting to be good at something new and making art is no exception. It’s a very human trait to want to make only ‘good’ art. Our ego doesn’t like it when we make ‘bad’ work and so it’s not surprising if you feel like giving up right away. Invariably this robs you of the potential of improvement, but most importantly it robs the experience of having fun with your creativity.
One way to help you keep making art is to purposely make ‘bad’ art. Label it as your messy, unruly, unperfected bad art practice so you can focus on enjoying the process. The quality of your work is irrelevant because you’re seeking to make an arty mess! Your ego may still pop up to question what you’re up to but if it says your art is no good, you can reply “that’s exactly the point so I’m doing great!” You’ll be less likely to feel defeated if you give yourself freedom to make mistakes with enthusiasm.
Debbie Millman in a Creative mornings talk said “I’m not that good. I’m just really unwilling to give up.” Giving up is far more disappointing than making something bad because making bad art takes courage and choosing to continue the process allows your creativity to develop and grow in ways you haven’t yet imagined.
I do have to step back, take a breather, and realize that it is just a project and not the end of the world if it’s not perfect.” – Mary Kate McDevitt
Deciding to try to make art for fun as an adult is a big step and overcoming the multiple hurdles you face before picking up a pencil is a huge victory. The lack of time, material or space can be hard enough, but overcoming the fear of not being ‘good’ at art and the guilt of not spending time productively can halt all creative endeavours.
Continuing to make art regardless of the above is an act of bravery. It takes determination to face the white page and put pen to paper and create from the unknown. But once you decide to do it and you get into the flow of making, the rest will take care of itself. All you have to do is turn up at the paper and be willing to make some marks. That’s it. Don’t over complicate it by having to make something worthy of being in a gallery, that’s not what making art is about. Art making is about having fun and enjoying the process.
Just make something. ANYTHING. Nobody is watching and nobody cares if it’s ‘bad’. How will you know how creative you really are if you never give yourself permission to make any art?
“Don’t give into your fears… If you do, you won’t be able to talk to your heart.” – Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist