Setting up an art space work-place

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Finding a physical space to get creative in, is an important first step in the creative process. While some artists will have a dedicated studio to work from, any small, designated space can provide an ample environment for creating in. While creating on the move is just as good a way to make art, being able to settle into a carved out space may help nudge out creativity on a regular basis.

Shaun McNiff in Trust the Process offers that setting up a workplace is vital as “the environment has a significant impact on expression.” Having a space to create in is a “grounding influence and a partner through every phase of expression.” Viewing the creative space as a helpful partner may provide some comfort, especially when navigating the unknown—and often challenging—experience of making art. McNiff sees his artistic work-space as “a sanctuary, a place at home where creative expression is nourished and regenerated.”

And if space is limited, a temporary sanctuary can be created using a tray with art supplies. If you enjoying making art stood up, tape paper to a wall and use that as your canvas space. If you prefer sitting down, any chair or sofa setting with paper and pen on your lap (or placed on the tray) can become your workspace—a workspace that moves to suit your daily life. Follow McNiff’s advice and go set up your space to get creative process moving,

Effort is key and sitting with uncertainty

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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.

Relax and go with the flow

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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 FlowCsikszentmihalyi 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.






Harsh inner critics and runaway brains

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Self-judgement can quickly show up when you start making art. The small whispers of “you’re no good,” “don’t waste your time” or “you can’t improve.” Self-judgment, or the inner critic, can paralyse progress if you believe the stories it spins. It wants to minimise ‘danger’ because the mind feels threatened attempting anything new or unfamiliar and so seek safety in the known and predicatable (in this case not making any art). Shaun McNiff in Imagination in Action argues “The inhibition to act in unfamiliar or apparently strange ways combined with the harsh inner critic is the most essential one-two punch of repression, and for the most part it resides completely within the person, manifesting itself with great power even in situations unconditionally supporting creative expression.” But it’s not just beginner art-makers who suffer from the harsh inner critic’s feedback. “Even the most accomplished artists are stricken when approaching creative expression.”

So how do we overcome this? “Suspend judgement” McNiff suggests. “We all need egos to help in the making of decisions, and arguably artists require ego strength to persist in the face of obstacles, but during the process of insisting the formative forces of expression, ego (and its tendencies towards control) restricts the free and unplanned circulation of possibilities.”

Our brains really do have a mind of their own and that’s why you can’t believe every judgmental thought they tell you. Adyashanti on Oprah’s Supersoul podcast talks about a dream world where we live “primarily in our brains.” He asks us to question “What am I, before my thoughts, before my memories, before my ideas about myself, good and bad and indifferent?” After discovering a quiet space, “our minds do not know what do do with that. So they tend to run away, they go back to the mind.”

The mind is programmed to think a certain way and can run away from you so how do we quiet the mind to access our creative potential? Question judgemental thoughts. See them as a concerned but overdramatic and repressive voice that doesn’t know what’s best when it comes to your creativity. It’s not easy to do, but with practice comes confidence and freedom.

How to draw with a multiple pens

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection
Six felt tips used to create a swirl movement

A playful approach to let go of making ‘good’ art or help release perfectionist tendencies is to use unorthodox tools or methods to make art. Jayson Zaleski talks about play: “Within the process of play there is a freedom to try new things, to take risks, and the latitude to approach the generation of work with whimsy, potentially with humour, with a sense of playfulness. This approach may not produce the highest quality of work, but it does begin to break down self-imposed rules and boundaries.” This experiment gives you less control over the outcome because you’ll be focusing on the tools and keeping them together. It’s a positive distraction to help you get making marks quickly.

You will need: paper and pens, felt tips or coloured pencils. Optional rubber band or sticky tape to hold tools together

  1. Group together your pens/pencils in a bunch so that the tips are flush (none stick out more than others).
  2. Fix together if it makes it easier, otherwise hold them tightly in your hand.
  3. Imagine the bunch is one big tool and make marks as you would with one pen.
  4. Play around with the number of pens and try different colour combinations.
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Left: Nine felt tips created less control / Right: Felt tips used to create a dot effect

Finding it tricky?

  • Use less pens/pencils to start with and add more with practice
  • Move your hand slower
  • Don’t think, just make marks. Even ‘bad marks’ provide information for your next attempt.

Using ‘childhood’ art materials like pens and felt tips also allow less attachment to making ‘real’ art: art that’s been made with paints and more more expensive tools. Taking action and making marks is far more important than the quality of what you make. Shaun McNiff in Imagination in Action suggests “The discovery of new forms and significant changes in expression require risk and experimentation with unfamiliar situations, which reliably generate errors and setbacks.”

Trying an unconventional (and fun) approach to making marks offers you space to experiment without worrying about how good anything is. You can just get on making as many crazy and spontaneous patterns as you can.

“Creativity is intelligence having fun.” – Albert Einstein

A list of “shoulds”

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“Shoulds” are irrelevant when it comes to making art. The whispered judgments heard while making making art can derail future practice if too much attention is paid to them. Thoughts like “I should draw it like that other person”, “I should be better at this”, or “I should make it look more realistic,” can pop up while you’re creating. But Scott Mautz recommends to “Strike the word should from your vocabulary.” The list of “shoulds” is not helpful so we should ignore it as best we can.

Shaun McNiff in Imagination in Action encourages us to “Clear away expectations, “shoulds” of any kind, and everything but what you are doing. This is like the emptying of the mind’s thoughts and preoccupations as encouraged in contemplative practice. The clearing out of thoughts sharpens awareness in helping us see and feel what is happening indirectly, accidentally, as we provide more room for an open field of exchange where things can connect to each other in new ways.”

Letting go of the “shoulds” creates an openness for creativity to grown and for unexpected results as judging your art before you’ve had a chance to experiment limits creative possibilities. Elle Luna in The Crossroads of Should and Must argues “there is no map, no case study, and no right answer, and the only person who can decide what to do next is you.” And encourages us to “say yes to a journey without a road map or guarantees.”

Andi Cumbo-Floyd in Writing Day In and Day Out suggests “The “should” of life are always linked to guilt.” And Amber Khan advises “Don’t ‘should’ on yourself, instead, replace it with ‘could’ and add an alternative option.” The idea of using “I could” means you can create a new list of things to try which creates a much more gentle space for yourself to create in.

There’s no map, no rules, no “shoulds” – only choices.

“Should is a futile word. It’s about what didn’t happen. It belongs in a parallel universe. It belongs in another dimension of space.” — Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin

Savour being a beginner

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As you begin to make art as an adult, very quickly you can become focussed on producing ‘better’ art, which can take you away from out enjoying the experience of making. But being a beginner may actually allow you to be more creative.

Because you haven’t yet learnt ‘the rules’ of art — rules if you follow you believe are a surer way to create ‘good’ art — you are open to more possibilities and experiences. Shaun McNiff in Imagination in Action explains “Beginners, or experience artists engaging in new media, might even have certain advantages in terms of fresh responses not as constrained by habit and expectations. Where skill and experience play important roles in the total process of expression, they may have limiting features in relation to an overall scheme of creativity valuing new responses.”

Savour being a beginner. Make the most of being free of the rules and constraints that artists put on themselves. Embrace the uncertainty and newness of it all and go make your rule-free messy art!