Before you start making any marks, it’s important to know that having preconceived expectations about what the art should look can create a feeling of dissatisfaction if reality doesn’t match them. Needing art to look a certain way before any marks are made is a sure way to frustration, and ultimately to giving up prematurely. But as most beginner art is going to be a big learning curve full of wonderful mistakes, mess and imperfections, it’s a shame if those imperfections aren’t seen as valuable steps and tools in the creativity process.
Susan Jeffers in Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway encourages us to “Throw away your picture… If you are focused on “the way it’s supposed to be,” you might miss the opportunity to enjoy the way it is or to have it be wonderful in a totally different way from what you imagined.”
Any preconceived expectations or picture held in your mind before making art could block you from seeing the magic in any unexpected and unknown outcomes. Try looking for the good in the way things are as opposed to wishing they were different and let your creativity unfold naturally, without judgment. Creativity doesn’t need judgment to flourish, it needs an open mind, patience and practice.
The process of making art as a beginner adult can be a hidden lesson in self-compassion. When trying to make something out of nothing, the mind can create a lot of resistance to the process if the fruits of your action are judged as inadequate. Being a beginner, the chances are your skills aren’t has honed as a master painter who has 30 years experience, whose artwork you may be comparing yourself against. Judgmental thoughts may arise such as “I’m no good at this, what’s the point” and “this is bad,” which offer no support while in the creating process. This self-criticism may ultimately lead to stopping making art altogether.
How can we defend against self-criticism to ensure future practice? Susan L. Smalley and Diana Winston in Fully Present suggests that the opposite of self-criticism is self-compassion. In order to be more self-compassionate and to deal with difficult thinking, they suggest through thinking itself: “You can use thoughts to soothe other thoughts and feelings. For example, if you are anxious because you are caught in traffic and late to an appointment, you may start talking to yourself: It’s okay, I don’t have control over the traffic, I’ll get there when I get there. This is quite a skillful response to the situation. Called “positive self-talk,” or self-soothing it’s a kind of thinking you use to counteract other kinds of thinking in order to soothe yourself, regulate your emotions, or generally bring some wisdom to the part of your mind that may seem out of control because you are scare, angry, or sad.”
Self-soothing when making art might sound like “I’m learning as I go and am focusing on how it feels to make art” when a judgmental thought around not being ‘good’ pops up. Just as you would reassure a loved-one that their efforts are completely useless, reassure yourself in the same way with soothing and compassionate words. Then get back to making your art and continue to greet each future criticism with kindness.
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.
When drawing or making art, snap judgments can be made about the quality or successful of the art. Labels such as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ can quickly be added to art, even while in the process of making it. It’s challenging to let go of the labels that pop up while creating, labels that make you feel disheartened and may even make you force you to question continuing. How can move through these moments of doubt in order to continue the joyful experience of making art?
Henepola Gunaratana in Mindfulness in Plain English suggests to see things as they really are: “… we do not mean seeing things superficially, with our regular eyes, but seeing things as they are in themselves, with wisdom.” Can we look at the art with deeper wisdom that is more forgiving that the judgemental voice in our minds? The wisdom that knows you’re not an expert and that the art doesn’t need to be a masterpiece. It knows the joy is found within the process and not in the visual outcome of the art.
Gunaratana encourages “Don’t cling to anything, and don’t reject anything. Let come what comes, and accommodate yourself to that, whatever it is. If good mental images arise, that is fine. If bad mental images arise, that is find, too. Look on all of it as equal, and make yourself comfortable with whatever happens. Don’t fight with what you experience, just observe it mindfully. Let the judgements sit with you, don’t hurry them away. Before long you may find they start to quieten and slip away as you get into the momentum of making.
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.
We all have biases and judgments about what we consider to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ art. When making art it’s important to question why you choose to label something as good or bad, especially because you may not even realise the real reason why. Alain de Botton and John Armstrong in Art as Therapy explain “Ideas about what is ‘good’ art are not formed by themselves. They are the result of complex systems of patronage, ideology, money and education, supported by university courses and museums, all of which guide our sense of what makes a work of art especially worthy of attention.”
Simply put, your beliefs around what art is ‘good’ are comprised by other people, institutes and industries beliefs. How could you not be influenced when viewing ‘successful’ art in a national gallery space, building a visual set of rules about what constitutes ‘good art?’ Just because someone else believe X artwork is brilliant, doesn’t mean their opinion is the hard and fast rule of good/bad. This is worth questioning because having the courage to make your own art may bring up black and white rules and discourage you from making more art if you don’t seem to measuring up to an invisible standard that’s been subconsciously bought into.
Make your own rules about the art you make and measure ‘good’ by the amount of enjoyment you feel when making the art. That’s a far more accurate (and kinder) measure of attention.
Do you believe every person has the potential to be creative through practice, or that you’re born naturally talented? The answer reveals whether you have a growth (there’s potential) or a fixed (born that way) mindset. Having a fixed mindset will limit your potential for growth and development because as Carol Dweck in Mindset suggests, “No matter what your ability is, effort is what ignites that ability and turns it into accomplishment.” Effort is key because talent only gets you so far in the beginning. Effort will take further in the long run, but only if you’re willing to persistently and consistently show up.
Shaun McNiff in Trust the Process notes when viewing children’s art we can see every child has the ability and permission to create. But through a schooling experience, “freedom is restricted for the majority of people as the identification of “talent” tends to overshadow universal participation.” We get disheartened if our art isn’t ‘good’ enough and believe we should stop if doesn’t showing visible signs of ‘talent.’ McNiff argues that a person’s license to create cannot ever be taken away, it’s “as natural as breathing and walking.” This can be a challenging notion to accept if you believe you’re not creative either by self-judgment or through the judgment of others. Is it is possible to move from not-being-creative to being-creative? Always. McNiff encourages “Training in creativity requires the ability to relax in periods of uncertainty and to trust that the creative intelligence will find its way” as well as “an inclination to step into the unknown as well as the ability to persist when there is no end in sight.”
If you can spend a few moments sitting with the uncertainty, (the uncomfortable feeling of not-knowing) not rushing the feeling away or stopping the art-making process, you will discover that the uncertainty will rise and fall if you allow it to just be. Whisper some encouraging words to yourself, take a breath and continue to make your art.