An ideal state to get in whilst making art is the flow state, popularised by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It describes the experience of being so absorbed in what you’re doing that you forget everything else, even time passing. and many different tasks can produce flow, from athletic to creative activities. Flow is important because it’s an important aspect of creativity, satisfaction and wellness.
In his book Flow, Csikszentmihalyi describes “The positive aspects of human experience – joy, creativity, the process of total involvement with life I call flow.” He uses a rock climbing experience example: “The purpose of the flow is to keep on flowing, not looking for a peak or utopia but staying in the flow. It is not a moving up but a continuous flowing; you move up to keep the flow going. There is no possible reason for climbing except the climbing itself; it is a self-communication.”
Alex Grey in The Mission of Art says “During an artist’s creative flow of concentration, he or she can be in a state of unity and integration with the subject and may also have breakthroughs of insight.” Being able to get into the flow state can create a fertile ground for the unexpected to emerge–a key creativity tool. Carolyn Schlam in The Creative Path describes how “It is action without thought. The mind is not getting in the way and confusing you. You are just expressing without even knowing what you are doing. You are the flow… This is the miracle of inspiration, of creating. Un-self-conscious acting… When we become conscious, it’s over…”
How do we get into the flow state when making art? Relax and focus your attention firmly upon the physical experience of making, not on the outcome. Ignore mental chatter and avoid self-judgement because they will make you conscious of every mark you make. Shaun McNiff in Imagination in Action suggests “Relaxation of control is a basis for inspired expression… Ironically, we are doing our best thinking when we are not consciously thinking about what we are doing. We become so completely engaged with sensing and feeling what is taking shape during the present moment that we are able to put everything we have into the process of expression.”
If our best thinking comes from not thinking, it’s time to relax and let go of the outcome and go with the flow to create from within.
Major improvements to creativity confidence and art-making skills cannot happen overnight. We intellectually understand this, that you don’t go from nervous amateur to confident master in the course of a making few drawings. But why then, immediately after making something, do you expect to see something “better,” more finessed and perhaps even worthy of being hung in a gallery? Why are we so disappointed when what we’ve made doesn’t match the imagined image in our minds? We can get disappointed after only a handful of art-making sessions because we’re essentially expecting to run before we can walk.
The only pathway to improvement is small, consistent steps over a period of time. Carolyn Schlam in The Creative Path explains “You wouldn’t try to run a marathon without running a little every day. Making art is the same. You’ve got to keep at it, keep trying to increase your strength, stretch your imagination, and practice the language. You’ve got to do it constantly…. remember that preparation is an invaluable part of any pursuit, and being physically conditioned and relaxed is a prerequisite to good work. Don’t deny yourself this opportunity.”
Are you allowing plenty of space and time for your inner artist to grow gently? Commit to making a small piece of art every day and let of the expectation to be “better” immediately.
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.
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.’
The point of art making is not to make perfected-everybody-loves-it products. It’s about getting immersed in a process that feels fun and giving yourself the permission continue to do it regularly. The product is just a thing that came out of the process which we attach imaginary significance to. We have to let go of creating ‘final’ polished things and instead focus on practicing if we want our creativity to fully flourish. One way to do this is to focus on the quantity of art you make (and not the quality).
Carolyn Schlam in The Creative Path talks of her own experience with quantity: “So you don’t get stuck spending a thousand hours doing one painting that isn’t very good, instead make a thousand paintings of one subject. I once painted a thousand ways of looking at the sky… You then get to select which is the most successful, and you can make this a departure point for signature work.”
Focusing on quantity allows you to take more risks and not get hung up on ‘mistakes’ or making ‘bad art.’ All of those creative failures create a richer soil for further departure points of investigation to grow. The process of trial and error will ultimately create more opportunities to make work you do like compared to only striving to make polished work. In reality you’ll be too nervous to make any mistakes which could mean you stop making art altogether. Now that would be a mistake.
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
“Think of your daily life as a hunt for art. Take note of what you notice and what you keep noticing. What interests you? It’s good to jot these things down as they come to you. Why not start an inspiration journal, with drawings, clippings, words, faces? Just keep adding and don’t censor. One rainy day when you’ve got nothing else to do, you can go through it all and see the connections. These connections are the gold mine of your inspiration. Use them.” — Carolyn Schlam