Curiosity is a secret tool in your creative journey but can fly under the radar due to the perceived importance of improvement in technical competency—making ‘better’ art. When you’ve been conditioned from a young age to always aim for the highest grades and seek praise via teachers and parents, it’s no wonder that output and ‘quality’ becomes the focus when making art. But becoming curious about a small thing and continuing to follow that curiosity can be of more importance and cmat lead to unexpected (and ultimately more creative) pathways. For example, by only focusing on improving technical drawing skills through drawing faces, a narrow range of exploration and definition of what art is created. You may not even enjoy the process because you’re only focusing what you think you should be. Following a narrow pathway from the start may never allow getting in touch with the curiosities that lie within.
Developing curiosity is something Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Flow suggests: “If one has failed to develop curiosity and interest in the early years, it is a good idea to acquire them now, before it is too late to improve the quality of life.” By focusing on small and normally hidden aspects of daily life, unlimited areas of interest are availble—curiosities grow with attention. Csikszentmihalyi offers: “There are literally millions of potentially interesting things in the world to see, to do, to learn about. But they don’t become actually interesting until we devote attention to them.”
Focusing attention can create a spark of curiosity that doesn’t have to be glaringly obvious at the start because once you look closer, hidden things begin to reveal themselves. Imagine watching an ant going about it’s business. Nothing unremarkable on first glance. But if you keep watching for a while, you may begin to notice things about the ant in the way it moves or interacts with other ants. Perhaps you start thinking about the ants life, its thoughts or why it does what it does. An unremarkable ant can become an interesting subject if attention is focused upon it.
Get curious by paying attention to something ‘hidden’ in your daily life and start noticing all the tiny hidden details. Within one of those details may lie an interesting art subject, a creative thread for you to follow.
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.
Option A: set a goal to improve art-making skills. Focus only on the technical aspects and visual progress made. Consistently judge the art and push yourself to improve. If progress is deemed acceptable for the time spent, you’ll be encouraged to continue. If progress is not seen quick enough in polished ‘final pieces,’ question if time investment is worth it. Focus only on the external visual qualities of your art because the goal is improvement.
Option B: decide to make art because it seems like a fun thing to do. You want to feel more colourful, engaged or creative and making art can help you access those feelings. Let you curiosity and enthusiasm guide you and focus on the fun aspects of making something out of nothing. Get a mug of your favourite drink, find a quiet place to nestle into and make art just for the fun of it.
Option A is how we’ve been taught to think.
Option B is where the joy and real creativity lies.
While it feels great to gain competency though mastering a skill, the sensation of enthusiasm can feel even better. Instead of focusing on getting better, focus on how you feel when you’re really engaging with a project. When you loose track of time or eagerly anticipate the next opportunity to repeat the experience. Be consumed by your enthusiastic because the quality of what you make doesn’t matter. It’s about the joy you feel during the process.
The good thing about enthusiasm is it makes us want to make art more regularly, which leads to more practice, which ultimately creates improvement over time. Gretchen Rubin in The Happiness Project explains “Enthusiasm is more important to mastery than innate ability… because the single most important element in developing an expertise is your willingness to practice.”
Enthusiasm is something Eckhart Tolle in A New Earth discusses: “Sustained enthusiasm brings into existence a wave of creative energy, and all you have to do is ‘ride the wave.’ While riding the wave of enthusiasm feels good, Tolle warns that “enthusiasm cannot be in a continuous state.” It’s okay if you’re not feeling so inspired on certain days, it’s all part of cycle.
You can’t sustain a peak level of enthusiasm consistently for prolonged periods (our minds need to recharge in order to come back refreshed), but when you feel the wave approaching, get ready to ride it until it’s over.
What would showing more care around your art making practice look like?
- Allow yourself to make art for fun, with no other outcome necessary
- Let go of needing to be productive or make something ‘valuable’
- Schedule art making time in advance, an unmovable appointment with yourself
- See art making as kind of sacred, important or nurturing activity that must not be interrupted
- Switch your phone off or to aeroplane mode so that you have no notification distractions while making art
- Tell loved ones to give you space to create alone
- Invite loved ones to join you making art
- Allow yourself to make ‘bad art,’ let go of it needing to be ‘good’
- Stop comparing your art to other artists or art makers
- Ignore the voice of internal self-judgement and make art anyway
- Ignore the voice of negative criticism once you’ve made your art and make more art anyway
- Allow yourself to follow your creative curiosities
Pick anyone of the above to show yourself more care.
“Your own reasons to create are reason enough.” Advice from Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic, who believes following your curiosities will lead you in the right direction; if you can give yourself permission and time to follow them. “Merely by pursuing what you love, you may inadvertently end up helping us plenty… Do whatever brings you to life, then. Follow your own fascinations, obsessions, and compulsions. Trust them. Create whatever causes a revolution in your heart. The rest of it will take care of itself.”
While making art for fun is the reason, purpose and outcome of the process, we get caught up with needing to make something perfected and of value (i.e. it’s been worth the time invested to produce a physical thing). Instead of it being about how many valuable things you can make, what if if was about having fun creating? Gilbert explains “Why should I go through all the trouble to make something if the outcome might be nothing?” The answer will usually come with a wicked trickster grin: “Because it’s fun, isn’t it?”
Wanting to create a finished, perfected thing can halt the whole creative process. Instead of making something good, make something that’s done. Progress is always more beneficial than perfect: “if you can just complete something – merely complete it! – you’re already miles ahead of the pack, right there. You may want your work to be perfect, in other words; I just want mine to be finished.” Moving on quickly to make more art is a muscle that needs to be exercised regularly so that we become less precious about making mistakes, and allow our creativity to flow. “At some point, you really just have to finish your work and release it as is – if only so that you can go on to make other things with a glad and determined heard.”
You are your own biggest critic, the only one that notices all the imperfections and rough edges in your art. Nobody else is keeping score because they’re too busy focusing on their own imperfections. Gilbert encourages us to make imperfect work and agrees that nobody is paying any attention anyway: “Pursue whatever fascinates you and brings you to life. Create whatever you want to create – and let it be stupendously imperfect, because it’s exceedingly likely that nobody will even notice. And that’s awesome.” [emphasis added]
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.
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.