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.
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.
Have you ever been so immersed in a task that you lost track of time or your surroundings? You may have unknowingly been in a flow state, explained fully by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Flow: “The flow experience is typically described as involving a sense of control – or, more precisely, as lacking the sense of worry about loosing control that is typical in many situations of normal life.” In order for flow to take place, you need to be focused on a task that isn’t too hard you can’t ever achieve in, nor too easy that there’s no challenge. Effort has to take place in order for flow to occur. “Most enjoyable activities are not natural; they demand an effort that initially one is reluctant to make. But once the interaction starts to provide feedback to the person’s skills, it usually begins to be intrinsically rewarding.” If a task is too easy, long term it won’t provide you with enough stimulus to continue so the challenge becomes how can you increase the difficulty of a task as your confidence and skills improve?
But how can flow help with an art-making practice? Full immersion into a task quietens the mind’s chatter – negative thoughts or unhelpful comments – that can railroad you if you pay them too much attention. Szentmihalyi explains “In normal life, we keep interrupting what we do with doubts and questions. “Why am I doing this? Should I perhaps be doing something else?” Repeatedly we question the necessity of our actions, and evaluate critically the reasons for carrying them out. But in flow there is no need to reflect, because action carries us forward as if by magic.”
The feeling of being in flow is very rewarding and brings a sense of satisfaction about your work. If “The purpose of the flow is to keep on flowing”, then giving yourself the space and time to make art, you increase the chances of experiencing the benefits of flow.
Physically stepping away from your work when you feel stuck can help you find a solution more effectively compared to focusing all your attention on the project and grinding away to force an outcome. This is something Ed Catmull in Creativity Inc. talks about: “I’ve heard some people describe creativity as ‘unexpected connections between unrelated concepts or ideas!” If that’s at all true, you have to be in a certain mindset to make those connections. So when I sense we’re getting nowhere, I just shut things down. We all go off to something else. Later, once the mood has shifted, I’ll attack the problem again.”
It might look like you’ve stopped thinking about the project, but the break actually allows your subconscious to work on it without you getting in the way by force-thinking a solution. Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi in Creativity describes an incubation stage in the creative process “during which ideas churn around below the threshold of consciousness. It is during this time that unusual connections are likely to be made.”
Given that the subconscious – the unconscious mind – makes up 90% of your total brain function, it’s actually a richer and wiser resource to draw from. Russell L. Colling and Tony W. York explain “The unconscious mind contains knowledge accumulated in various ways throughout life. The vast storehouse contains past experiences… the reservoir of total memory and intuitive judgment.”
Csikzentmihalyi continues “When we intend to solve a problem consciously, we process information in a linear, logical fashion. But when ideas call to each other on their own, without our leading them down a straight and narrow path, unexpected combinations may come into being.”
A stepping back, incubation approach is actually a more effect way to work on a problem than a nose-to-the-grindstone hustle, so give your wise subconscious the chance to help you.
Slowing down for even 10 minutes to do nothing or to make art may seem like an indulgence if you don’t have space. Or it may seem like a waste of time when you could be being productive instead. But they are valuable ways you can recharge and reconnect to yourself which allows you to be more productive in the long run. Because the more rundown and busy you are, the less you have to give of yourself and the less productivity you inevitably become.
Courtney Carver from Be More With Less explains “Doing nothing, puttering around, and lingering were all things I considered a waste of time. Even though I’d indulge from time to time, I felt bad about it. As if because I wasn’t actually contributing, I was letting people down.” Shaun Niequist in Present over Perfect says “… the hustle will never make you feel the way you want to feel. In that way it’s a drug, and I fall for the initial rush every time: If I push enough, I will feel whole, I will feel proud, I will feel happy. What I feel though, is exhausted and resentful, but with well organized closets.”
Making art allows you to slow down and spend time with yourself in a way you can’t do when you’re engaging (distracted) with your phone or device. Pico Iyer in a podcast interview with Oprah Winfrey talks of the art of stillness: “In an age of speed I begin to think nothing could be more exhilarating than going slow. In an age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention. And in an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still.” Making art forces you pay attention; to the world outside and to your inner world.
Iyer continues “I think we’re more happy when we forget the time, when we’re completely absorbed in the conversation or movie or piece of music and what we really crave is intimacy… and kindness… If you don’t have time, you don’t have enough kindness in your life. You don’t have the chance to open yourself up.” Being completely absorbed in a task is what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes about in Flow: “The positive aspects of human experience – joy, creativity, the process of total involvement with life I call flow.”
Slowing down and making art is much more important than we realise, or have been taught. Allow yourself to ‘indulge’ in slowing down and reconnect to your creativity so you can come back refreshed and reenergised to your everyday life.
It’s easier to give up making art if you feel the results aren’t ‘good enough.’ It’s harder to continue to practice, especially if progress feels too slow. But doing doing the harder thing causes it to become easier over time. That’s if you allow yourself time to practice so your creativity muscle can strengthen.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Flow says “When people start believing that progress is inevitable and life easy, they may quickly lose courage and determination in the face of the first signs of adversity.”
At the first sign of things being hard, don’t sabotage your creativity by stopping. It’s okay that it’s hard so accept it’s going to be hard and make your art anyway. Time and practice is the antidote.
Do you currently schedule in regular downtime or time to quietly reflect? Taking a breather from work and “doing” may actually help you to be more creative compared with constant work and taking action – aka busyness. Spending time away from work, chores and responsibilities is not self-indulgent, it’s vital for our wellbeing.
Shonda Rhimes in Year of Yes talks about how important downtime has become “this downtime is helping to relight that little spark inside, it’s helping my creativity and in the long run helping me tell the stories my work needs me to tell. I give myself permission to view this downtime as essential.” When there always feels like there’s something you should be doing, giving yourself permission to have regular downtime can feel unobtainable. Rhimes admits that “It’s hard to feel like I deserve any time to replenish the well when I know everyone else is working hard too.” But in order to avoid burnout later down the track, downtime is, as she says, essential.
Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi in Creativity explains that “constant busyness” not good for your creativity. “It is important to schedule times in the day, the week, and the year just to take stock of your life and review what you have accomplished and remains to be done. These are times when you should not expect any task to be done, and decision to be reached. You should just indulge in the luxury of reflection for its own sake.” If you find it difficult to let go of your busyness because you believe you’ll be less efficient, Czikszentmihalyi argues that the opposite may occur for your creativity: “Whether you intend it or not, new ideas and conclusions will emerge in your consciousness anyway – and the less you try to direct the process the more creative they are likely to be.”
Your creativity will thank you for slowing down and having a rest.