Making art in the dark

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

If you ever feel like you’re making art in the metaphorical dark with no idea what comes next, know that this is a completely normal experience. In fact, in order to be creative we have to be comfortable with venturing into the unknown on a regular basis. Ted Solotaroff explains that “Writing a first draft is like groping one’s way into a dark room, or overhearing a faint conversation, or telling a joke whose punchline you’ve forgotten.” From the unknown, unplanned darkness can grow interesting ideas.

David Bayles and Ted Orland in Art and Fear suggest “Art is like beginning a sentence before you know its ending. The risks are obvious: you may never get to the end of the sentence at all – or having gotten there, you may not have said anything. This is probably not a good idea in public speaking, but it’s an excellent idea in making art.” The unexpected, unplanned and unanticipated is not something to be fearful of, it’s the perfect environment for making art. Carolyn Schlam in The Creative Path talks of darkness: “That’s what I’m offering you, a flashlight in the dark and mysterious world of creativity. And it’s a thrilling world, a labyrinth, if you will…. When I describe it this way, the path to art seems rather like the path of our lives, fascinating, mysterious, and yet wonderful.”

By standing in the darkness and facing it head on, you’re open to more creative possibilities compared to all the lights being on. You don’t need to know what the whole room looks like to make art, just gently feel around until you bump into something interesting.

“Sometimes you have to let yourself go into unchartered territory.” – Barbara Abercrombie, A Year of Writing Dangerously


How to make rearranged word poetry

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

A variation on the rearranged work poetry (cutout poems) and collage typography experiments, but one that is transportable as you can always play with ‘final’ rearrangements in a notebook on the go. It’s is the same process as magnetic poetry, that encourages word play around the fridge and similar to the game Boggle. Danielle Krysa in Collage talks how “transformation is one of the best things about collage: the artist gets to finish telling, in a completely new way, a story that was started by someone else.” And how starting with a blank slate isn’t always best: “For anyone who has ever looked at a blank page and found it too darn perfect and intimidating – collage is a blessing. Starting with something and building on to it is a chance to remake stories, to create art out of something rather than nothing, to embrace whimsy and humour and pastiche.”

You will need: Text to cut up. Scissors or scalpel to cut. Glue if you want to fix permanently in place.

  1. Cut out the words: try to find a quote or title in bigger font so that cutting it up is easier
  2. Rearrange the words into different phrases, either manually or write them down
  3. Optional: fix in place with glue
The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection
Left: original quote. Right: words cut up ready to be rearranged

You could try adding the finished phrases or poetry into other collages. You could mix and match different size fonts to give a different look. There are no rules about what you should make and you may find yourself drawn to certain words and combinations. Krysa explains “I think there is an element of my subconscious taking control while I work – only afterward will the subtle details and meaning within the work reveal themselves.”

I once did writing workshops in an elementary school, and it was the kindergartners and kids in the early grades who knew how to play with words. “A horn sounds red!” one write. “Mad is like touching the devil,” wrote another. “Mad is so bad it tastes like liver.” By the time they got to third grade, they were obsessing about whether to write their names in the upper left-hand or right-hand corner of the page. – Barbara Abercrombie, A Year of Writing Dangerously

Taking a break and switching into off mode

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

Do you ever feel your life switch is permanently fixed to ‘on’ mode? That you are constantly in a state of movement and ‘doing’? Taking regular breaks is not sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. Recognising you’re not a robot and your battery has a more complex recharging system is vital for maintaining your health and immediate future wellness. Scheduling in ‘off’ time in advance give you permission to fully embrace the state of ‘not-doing,’ and slow things right down.

It may look like you’re wasting time when you unplug from your gadgets and simply stare at the clouds or sit on a log, but gentle, effortless spells of reverie, or free-form musing and daydreaming, are crucial to your mind’s healthy functioning and your productivity. The bottom line is that without these rest periods, particularly in our fast-forward world, your brain can’t learn, remember, and integrate your thoughts and feelings properly. Restorative downtime allows you to drop your game face and sink into your innermost thoughts and feelings with no particular agenda. Your mind is liberated from the constraints – and gadgets – that tie you to the present. – Winifred Gallagher, New: Understanding Our Need for Novelty and Change. [emphasis added]

When making art, it may not feel like you’re working ‘hard’ or being productive – which is what we’ve been socially trained to output – but you are using your brain in a way that requires a different kind of ‘effort.’ This is especially so for beginners when navigating the tricky waters of your art not being good enough, fear of judgment and wading through the regular uncertainty (side note Daniel Gilbert in Stumbling on Happiness talks of “our relentless desire to explain everything that happens may well distinguish us from fruit flies, but it can also kill our buzz.”).

Breaks are just as important as time spent working on something. If you’re working intensely on one project, it may help to shift to a less energy-taxing, small art-making exercise. Barbara Abercrombie in A Year of Writing Dangerously explains shifting between two forms of art making: “Gaining perspective on your own work is like studying a painting with your nose pressed up against the canvas. Sometimes it helps to switch to another writing project and let things rest.” This idea of ‘turning your painting to the wall’ and letting things settle before returning with refreshed eyes can be as important as actively working on it.

Abercrombie encouraging stepping away from work as “Sometimes to write you need to do more than just appear at your desk – you need to take care of the part of you that dreams and imagines and creates. Reading can usually do this for writers, but sometimes you also need to watch films, listen to music, go to an art museum, or see a play. Or just sit outside and soak up the sky.” Try to regularly switch to your off mode not only to recharge, but also to see what your subconscious uncovers without any effort required from you.

Connect to yourself through the process of writing with morning pages

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Journaling has been around for centuries. The glimpse into what your past self was thinking allows insight into you change over the years. But it takes commitment and discipline to regularly write until a habit is formed and it becomes a part of your routine. But is it a productive use of your time and what is the benefit of doing it? Especially when you’ve a constant stream of distraction at your fingertips from your phone, with a delicious brain-hit of dopamine.

In The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, Morning Pages are a process where you write 3 pages of continual conscious thoughts by hand, every morning. By hand because typing them will censor you (the backspace key to erase mistakes is too tempting). 3 pages because it takes time to all the small niggling thoughts out the way. In the morning because your thoughts are still fresh and you haven’t got a full day of events to sift through. Julia Cameron says “I like to think of them as windshield wipers, swiping away anything that stands between you and a clear view of your day.” So what then do you write? “Three pages of whatever crosses your mind – that’s all there is to it. If you can’t think of anything to write, then write, ‘I can’t think of anything to write…’ Do this until you have filled three pages. Do anything until you have filled three pages.”

Once you’ve wiped clean, out pops the silent dreams and hidden ideas your subconscious holds. That’s when your gold is discovered. The process teaches your brain to stop overthinking and let your creative brain meander.

“Never skip or skimp on morning pages. Your mood doesn’t matter. The rotten thing your censor says doesn’t matter. We have this idea that we need to be in the mood to write. We don’t. Morning pages will teach you that your mood doesn’t really matter. Some of the best creative work gets done on the days when you feel that everything you’re doing is just plain junk. The morning pages will teach you to stop judging and just let yourself write.” – Julia Cameron

The morning pages process is a kind of active meditation – you get still, turn inward and practice doing the process on a regular basis. You can’t help but become more in tune to the silent whispers of your heart.

“It is impossible to write morning pages for any extended period of time without coming into contact with an unexpected inner power… the pages are a pathway to a strong and clear sense of self… It is very difficult to complain about a situation morning after morning, month after month, without being moved to constructive action. The pages lead us out of despair and into undreamed-solutions.” – Julia Cameron.

If you repeatedly write about a love of music, you may become more aware of a desire to have more music in your life. Perhaps you start by listening to more music. A few weeks later you impulsively buy a 2nd hand instrument and suddenly you’re learning to play some notes. But it’s not a sudden decision, it was there all along beneath the surface, you just needed a few nudges to unearth it. Morning pages allows you to uncover those hidden desires and bring them to the surface – if you’ll allow them.

If 3 pages every day feels too overwhelming, start smaller: Set a timer for 5 or 10 minutes (or however long you have space for). Sit with a pen and paper and write as quickly as possible without stopping until the timer goes off. Don’t think about what you’re writing, if it’s rubbish or not – just write! Get into the practice of doing this and build up to the 3 pages if you can.

“I give a lot of five-minute exercises when I teach, because I think writing for just five minutes forces you to get out of your own way and lets you off the hook for writing something brilliant. Five minutes – no pausing, no stopping… sometimes you need to let yourself go off into uncharted territory.” – Barbara Abercrombiein A Year of Writing Dangerously

The more resistant you are to morning pages, the more important it is for you try them. Ask yourself why you feel so resistant? What are you afraid of uncovering? Be open to the process so you can revealing some of your own hidden thoughts and gold.