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.
When making or reviewing your art, have you noticed the amount of negative self talk pops into your mind? Judgmental comments or thoughts about the art not being good enough? This judgmental voice or self critic can derail our enthusiasm, confidence and future practice if we believe it’s telling the truth.
Psychologists Barbara Markway and Greg Markway explain in this article the 3 functions the self critic serves:
- As motivation: “If it cracks a whip, it will motivate us to do a desired behavior… we cling to the believe that by berating ourselves, we can achieve more.”
- To feel in control: “When we criticize ourselves, we reinforce the illusion of control.”
- To keep us safe: “Self-criticism taps into the brain’s threat/defense response. The system is designed to protect us and keep us safe. It’s hard-wired into our brain and worked great when the threat was a lion running after us. But when the threat is to our self-concept, self-criticism does not work well”
So if you view you or your art as a problem, the ‘reptilian brain’ as Markway & Markway describe, attacks in the form of self-critical self-talk. Understanding your brain is wired this way to react to perceived ‘threats’ allows self-compassion for moments when you find yourself being self-judgmental.
Mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn explains ‘Non-Judging:’ in this video: “My working definition of mindfulness is the awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. And the non-judgmentally is the real challenge because when you start to pay attention to what’s on your mind, you very rapidly discover that we have ideas and opinions about everything… So when we speak of mindfulness as being non-judgmental awareness, it doesn’t mean that there won’t be judgments. It means you will be aware of how judgmental we actually are and then not judge the judging…. Our judging is very often black and white. It’s either this or that… good or bad… and we get imprisoned by that kind of view.”
Noticing is the first step. Our poor reptilian brains do like to jump to judgmental conclusions often and quickly and that’s okay. Allow the thoughts to surface and greet them with compassion. And then get back to making your art.
When making art, your prior expectations of the outcome—or perhaps your imagination—may well far exceed the reality of what you actually make. A cycle of disappointment could emerge from your practice, one which doesn’t allow for less than ideal outcomes. But what if whatever you make is good enough? That right now, given your skills, experience, mental frame of mind, available time and space, this IS the best thing you could make and therefore it IS good enough? It’s good enough for right now. It doesn’t mean you won’t improve with time and practice, if that’s what you’re hoping for. But the art is good enough for this present moment. It cannot be more that it is.
If your inner critic rears up and aims negative chatter towards the art you just made, it may be helpful to say (out loud to give it more power), “It’s good enough.” Then move on with you day or onto the next piece of art. You have a choice about the way you think about your art but it takes practice to see it as being enough. Similar to building muscle, it takes practice to build confidence or a new way of thinking. While you may never completely erase the disappointed thoughts, the goal is not to let them stop you from making more art. And being ‘good enough’ may get you a lot further in the long run than trying to be perfect.
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.
Feeling disheartened about the quality of your art could lead to you stopping making anything altogether. The inner critic asks “Why bother continuing to make ‘bad’ art?” But stopping practicing is the opposite thing to do because the solution to disheartenment is to make even more art.
Stephanie Peterson Jones in Drawing for Joy explains “…one of the hardest things to do is to let go of the outcome. There will always be times when you won’t like what you’ve done. Accepting your imperfections and drawing without inhibition can be liberating, and if you’re able, it will make your experience deeper and richer. The more you draw, the less the outcome will matter to you.” Letting go of the outcome gives yourself permission to continue to make art the inner critic doesn’t approve of. It’s not suprising it doesn’t approve if it’s comparing your art against art made by people who have years of experience or if the perfect image in your head doesn’t match the imperfect reality on the paper. You can’t win against perfect (perfect is boring and overrated anyway).
Peterson Jones again: “One of the most important lessons you’ll learn from doing art every day is that what you create becomes less precious to you, and the time spent creating art is just as important as what you make. And you will practice more tomorrow. Like life, some days work out fine, others, not so much. Courageously making art with acceptance of the outcome will free your soul and give you joy.”
If you commit to making something every day, the art you made 3 weeks ago won’t feel like such a big failure if you really don’t like it. You will have made a pile of other art since then and so will be less attached to past work. Through the process of consistent making, you begin to see how making something today is helping you make something tomorrow and therefore is a step in the process and doesn’t even need to be visually ‘good.’ It only has to get out onto the paper and exist.
Most answers to most of your creative problems are so simple, you may not believe them. Making art as an adult can be challenging if you’re out of practice. Why then, if children make their art with so much freedom, do adults find it difficult to create with that same freedom? Dan Roam in Draw to Win suggests that we find drawing difficult because of our own beliefs about our drawing abilities and the answer is “you mostly just need to get out of your own way.”
He identifies a list of things that make drawing hard: Impatience, wondering what to draw, worrying about what’s next, editing as you go, a blank sheet and “art.” Then he suggest things that make drawing easy (which are also all solutions to the above issues): Curiosity, starting with a circle, letting your hand go, drawing now and editing later, making marks on the page and “just do it.”
Do you think the suggestions for what makes drawing easy are too simple to be true?For example, if you feel paralysed by blank paper you should make marks? But the mind is your biggest obstacle and it will try to resist at every turn (via the inner critic). “Make marks?” It scoffs. “What’s the point in that if it’s not “‘proper’ drawing? This is a waste of time!” But making marks warms up your hard and starts the creative process. It puts you in a different frame of mind, one where negative chatter can falls away so you can get on with the fun of being creative.
Are you a creative person? If you instantly reply no, consider questioning the belief you’re not creative. If you define being creative as someone who makes masterpiece art and has built a career out of their work, then no wonder you can’t match up to such a high level of creativity. It doesn’t leave much room for most of us when you set the bar that high. What if being creative meant making something? No details about the quality, quantity, style, look, feel or outward popularity of what was made. You make something and therefore you are creative.
Ken Robinson in Out of Our Minds argues “Being creative involves doing something. It would be odd to describe as creative someone who never did anything. To call somebody creative suggests they are actively producing something in a deliberate way… Creativity involves putting your imagination to work.”
You are automatically creative through the act of making something. Don’t let yourself tell yourself otherwise and go get to work and make a thing today.