We long for progress and improvement when making our art. The desire to fast-forward through being a ‘lost’ and shaky beginner is strong. The mind wants us to master things far quicker than what is actually physically possible. It’s going to take time and regular practice to make space for the grown to occur. You don’t plant a seed and then wonder why it hasn’t instantly grown into a fully-fledged flower. That would defy the laws of nature! You understand that some things take time to develop and your art-making practice is no different.
On the Take the Upgrade podcast, Leanne Peterson invites us to think about where we’re feeling we should be ahead of where we are and encourages “instead of getting mad at ourselves, we should be honouring the version of us that we are, that is going to enable us to grow into the version that we see ahead of us that we know we’re capable of.”
She uses the example of her son learning to walk: “I don’t get mad at my son right now because he can’t run. I’m excited that he’s taking little tiny baby steps to walk so that some day he can run. And I think a lot of us can almost picture ourselves running but we’re still in the baby step phase and then we’re mad at ourselves that we’re not running.”
Peterson’s advice on how to overcome the frustration of growing through tiny steps? give yourself “a) room to grow in, b) a direction to grow but c) grace while your growing in. Can I have grace for myself and my mistakes as I’m evolving into the version of me I see? Versus disqualifying myself because I’m not as good as the 10-year-from-now version which was built on the version I am today.”
Who you are today is the foundation for who you will be in the future. Similar to how Rome wasn’t built in a day – it took time – the same goes for your art evolution because it will be built on the foundations of 1000’s of little tiny steps.
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
That frustrated feeling when you’re in a hurry, sat in traffic or forever waiting at a red light – being stuck and unable to move – is the same when you get emotionally stuck. Art-making can be a vulnerable process, especially when faced with a blank sheet of paper and believing you don’t have the skills to get started. But making art for yourself doesn’t require any skills and being a beginner means you’re open to more possibilities, essentially making you more creative. The fear of making ‘bad’ art will stop you from taking any action, but paradoxically, action (making art) is the solution to overcoming your fears.
Eckhart Tolle in The Power of Now asks “Is fear preventing you from taking action? Acknowledge the fear, watch it, take your attention into it, be fully present with it. Doing so cuts the link between the fear and your thinking. Danielle LaPorte advises us to “Stand outside of the story. Every fearful expectation has a big “story” behind it.”
Are you metaphorically sat in a traffic jam with your art-making. Is fear keeping you from getting started or making more art? Watch and notice what negative thoughts (stories) come up when you’re feeling discomfort but then take action anyway. The little voice of fear cannot thrive when you ignore its advice to stop and you immerse yourself in the process of making and start to enjoy yourself.
Interesting insight into the writing process from author/musician/screenwriter Jeremy Dyson via an interview on The Comedian’s Comedian podcast. While he speaks from a writers perspective, it’s relevant to any creative field. ‘Not-working,’ incorporating play and being fascinated with what you’re doing are key themes.
Preparing the soil:
“So much of the work of writing happens when you are not doing it… you’re not actually doing the work, you’re preparing the soil and the work happens when you’re not thinking about it.”
Balancing work and play:
“…the creative process, it’s always a dance between both [work and play] and you’ve got to get them in the right amount. You can’t just have the hard work without the play because it’s deadly and you can’t just have the play without the discipline of a tangible date when the show’s going to be on… because you won’t do anything.”
Your best work:
“It’s about what have you got to offer, what’s particular to you that’s gong to be interesting to other people. And again it’s not mild interest, it’s passion, absolute fascination. What’s your obsession? And that’s where you do, I think, your best work, that’s where you’ve got to be.”
Creatives constantly sat at a desk ‘working hard’ is an outdated idea when it comes to producing good art. Engaging in conversations, thinking, dreaming and pottering around can allow your brain to think more divergently compared to actively thinking hard about what you should make next. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Creativity explains “This does not mean that creative persons are hyperactive, always “on”, constantly churning away… They consider the rhythm of activity followed by idleness or reflection very important for the success of their work… a strategy for achieving their goals.”
Also the interviewer and comedian Stuart Goldsmith made an interesting comment about the joy of discovery:
“The first half is very enjoyable, it’s a strong show. The second half… does occasionally make me think that I should just do work-in-progress for the rest of my life. I think it suits my energy. As soon as something becomes fixed I find myself going “Well that is fixed and I know how this works.” And it works, it really works, it’s great fun, but it doesn’t contain the same joy of discovery for me and I think maybe I’m a joy of discovery person.”
Can you learn to find joy in the journey of creating where learning and developing is the goal, instead of just focusing on the finished, final artwork? The process of discovery is a richer experience when you haven’t figured everything out.
Lecture and speeches are normally designed to be polished and perfected, reinforcing the idea that the lecturer is the expert and has it all figured out. The director/screenwriter Charlie Kaufman at a BAFTA screenwriters’ Lecture in 2011 began with him telling the audience that he didn’t know anything:
“So rather than being up here pretending I’m an expert in anything, or presenting myself in a way that will reinforce the odd, ritualised lecturer-lecturee model, I’m just telling you off the bat that I don’t know anything. And if there’s one thing that characterises my writing it’s that I always start from that realisation and I do what I can to keep reminding myself of that during the process. I think we try to be experts because we’re scared; we don’t want to feel foolish or worthless; we want power because power is a great disguise.”
To openly talk about not knowing and that you haven’t got all the answers is counter to what we’ve been taught. But with Imposter Syndrome being so universal – the doubt we’re not really as good as our accomplishments or experience and so could be found out as a ‘fraud – it’s refreshing to hear someone admit what we all feel deep down. This is especially true in the art-making journey where everything you make is susceptible to harsh judgment. What if you were to embrace the not-knowing aspect of where you’re headed and see being a beginner as more valuable than being an expert? (see beginners mindset as a tool for creativity)
“The world needs you. It doesn’t need you at a party having read a book about how to appear smart at parties – these books exist, and they’re tempting – but resist falling into that trap. The world needs you at the party starting real conversations, saying, ‘I don’t know,’ and being kind.”
Showing up exactly as you are, with all your un-knowing and uncertainty will take a great deal of courage. The desire to be an expert instantly is strong but we have to more to offer others by being honest. Perhaps just by being yourself you give permission to others that you don’t have to have it all figured out.
“Do you. It isn’t easy but it’s essential. It’s not easy because there’s a lot in the way. In many cases a major obstacle is your deeply seated belief that you are not interesting. And since convincing yourself that you are interesting is probably not going to happen, take it off the table. Think, ‘Perhaps I’m not interesting but I am the only thing I have to offer, and I want to offer something. And by offering myself in a true way I am doing a great service to the world, because it is rare and it will help.”
Becoming an expert can lead to playing it safe by repeating the same patterns of what’s previously worked. What if you fail once you’ve had a taste of success? Better stick to what you know because that’s what worked in the past…
But in Bowie: The Man Who Changed the World, David Bowie’s chameleon approached to making music was highlighted. “As far as style is concerned, I don’t really think that I want to have a style. Sort of ‘Oh yeah, that’s a David Bowie sound’ y’know? I’d much prefer to be sort of a free agent as my enthusiasms take me.” Bowie followed his curiosities, even if they were different to what what he’d been inspired by before. His enthusiasms were his pathway to the next project.
Cai Guo-Qiang in Skyladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang is asked is there is something he particularly likes about collaborating with untrained artists? He replied “Yes, a lot of artists do things that are too commercial. It lacks some compulsion and sincere emotions that should exist in all art.” Becoming commercial may mean following the same formula of creation which becomes more important than pursuing new avenues of creation.
‘Shoshin,’ a word from Zen Buddhism meaning ‘beginner’s mind,’ refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner would. In Shunryu Suzuki’ book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind “In beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”
Beginners mind allows you to experiment with more freedom and discover unexpected and divergent results. Ultimately this creates richer, more diverse work because you’ve cast your research net wider. We can become rigid when making art by sticking to ‘rules’ adopted in the past. We initially created those rules from the unknown through experiments, but they become fixed quickly. We can tightly cling to them as we try to create order out of chaos because perhaps then we feel (perceived) control in an uncontrollable world? Take inspiration from Bowie and Guo-Qiang and follow your curiosities, be open to new possibilities and don’t be so concerned with everything being in the same style. Adopting a beginner’s mindset allows us to be open to new, divergent and unexpected ideas, where magic could be revealed and explored further.
We can be in such a hurry to be better, faster, wiser right NOW that we don’t realise the full potential of a slow evolution process. In art-making the gap between where you are and where you want to be is even more obvious because you can compare side-by-side what you just made to an artist/designer/creator’s master work in seconds. Ira Glass explains this taste comparison; “Your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you… A lot of people never get past this phase. A lot of people at that point, they quit.”
In a word of instant gratification, entertainment constantly available at a moments notice, fast food and next day delivery, we are becoming increasingly more impatient. Can my next level of improvement arrive tomorrow please? What the artists’ work you admire so much doesn’t show, is the rich, diverse and challenging journey it took to arrive at that final piece. Their journey wasn’t straightforward or linear. It was full of failure, uncertainty and making bad art. They once stood where you’re standing and didn’t have all the skills they have now. They committed to consistent practice, showing up and making work that wasn’t perfect. It was a slow evolution of development and growth through practice, but you don’t see any evidence of that when you only look at the final work.
“You can’t rush your hatching. It’s dangerous. The results can be disastrous and take a long time to overcome. So savour the simplicity of your pre-dreams-come-true time. Love the egg you’re in. Because not too long from now – and right on time, you’ll be spreading your wings and life will never be the same again.” – Danielle LaPorte
There is no overnight success or hack to get better. It about making a LOT of stuff and then one day far from now, you realising how far you’ve come. Ira Glass encourages us that the phase of not making good enough work is “totally normal.”
“And the thing I would just like say to you with all my heart is that most everybody I know who does interesting creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste and they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be — they knew it fell short, it didn’t have the special thing that we wanted it to have.” – Ira Glass
The volume of making work is key. Even a tiny 2 minutes making something every day adds up to 12 hours a year, which becomes more significant in the future (you may currently spend 2 minutes each day unlocking your phone so it’s not a big investment). If you make work every day and compare what you made on January 1st to December 31st, there will be a noticeable difference.
Make work – make a lot of bad work and don’t rush your evolution because the gold lies in your journey.