As an artist—whether amateur, hobbyist, professional or master—growth always follows practice. But when most of that growth cannot be seen, measured or quantified, it’s easy to feel discouraged if it feels like minimal growth has taken place. Choosing only to measure your growth by likes, comments, clicks or positive feedback and you miss out on internal markers of growth such as growing confidence, having more peace when making or increased enthusiasm to practice. These are harder to quantify, but will ultimately provide you with more nourishing feedback about your growth and progress. Feelings cannot be turned into data but are far more important than a metric number of likes. Growth IS constantly occurring, in tiny micro increments over time.
Steven Pressfield in The Artist’s Journey offers “the artist has a subject, a voice, a point of view, a medium of expression, and a style… How do we find our own? In my experience the process is neither rational nor logical. It cannot be commanded. It can’t be rushed.” The process is going to take time. In the same way you cannot rush the evolution of a tree, you cannot rush your own as an artist.
Pressfield references James Hillman’s analogy to an acorn in The Soul’s Code: “The totality of the full-grown oak is contained—every leaf and every branch—already within the acorn.” You have everything you need inside your. Practice making art and over time, more of your creative tree will be revealed. This is a slow evolution, but one that rewards along the journey.
Making art can be confronting if you feel your work doesn’t live up to your high expectations. You may, especially as a beginner, find that because your expectations are so high you immediately feel you’re failing. It doesn’t help that we downplay the importance of consistent practice over time, expecting ourselves to get better too quickly. On the Hurry Slowly podcast, Tami Forman explains “We kind of collectively hate the answer that things take longer and that time is required to produce things.”
In the episode (titled What Gets Measured, Gets Managed), Forman talks about performance and how inefficient time can be to measure it: “It is extrodinarily difficult to measure performance, both quality of performance and quantity of output. And so a time clock it feels objective and again goes back to this idea of the factory floor where literally time equalled product. The amount of time you spent on the floor was the amount of product that you created. And we haven’t come up with something better.”
The idea of busywork can make us feel like we’re achieving something, we’re earning our badge for “I worked hard today,” but it may be that you’re not actually getting any important work done. It’s familiar for us to believe time equals output, “I think this is why we struggle so much with the time thing and why we all sort of gravitate to it because it feels very objective and measurable, how much time I spent in the office is how hard I worked. And it feel imposed upon us in a way that’s comfortable.”
While practice over time is an important key in improving your art performance, so is the power of playing, taking thing slower, pottering around, resting and letting your ideas slowly hatch.
What if what we got done today or the art we made was exactly the right amount we were supposed to get done? Even if nothing got done, that was still the right amount?
What if there were no rules about what is enough, what the ‘right’ amount is? That what you did IS the right amount by default?
Less measuring against an invisible target and more acceptance of things as they are, with no judgment.
Things will get done when they’re supposed to. Art making will happen when it’s time. Of course the time to make art is always now, but it’s also okay if it’s not.
Wanting to instantly be good at art or anything new is part of our wiring. The expectations around your improvement progress can be so sky high, that it can stop you from trying again if you don’t match up to those invisible standards. Jeff Goins in Real Artists Don’t Starve suggests “More often than not, our creative dreams aren’t launched overnight. They are built gradually.” The idea that it’s going to take much much more than a few attempts is not ideal to our brains. We want to get the instant gratification of making something good and when we don’t, the feeling can be very uncomfortable. In this fast paced modern world, you may not have much time to spend on practicing and so the likelihood is that your improvement will be a slow process.
Life’s a marathon, not a sprint.” – Phillip C. McGraw, Life Code
Coons argues “When you are in a season of life when you can’t dedicate hours a day to your craft, it can feel like you’re standing still. But at those times, when the odds are overwhelming and the busyness is suffocating, you still have something to give.” Taking a brick by brick approach to making art, where small adds up is something that Coons agrees with: “The effort may seem small and insignificant, but the work adds up.”
Build things gradually because there’s no extra prize for improving quicker. The satisfaction comes from the journey of art-making – the practice of making art – and not from arriving at an imagined destination. If you have a desire to make art, MAKE ART and embrace your slow evolution. Don’t sabotage the journey before you’ve even got started.
In an interview with the contemporary visual artist George Condo, he remarked “I don’t see why it takes so long to make drawings.” He draws a large-scale drawing with oil stick on camera and the whole process take 16 minutes. It appears to be a very quick, dynamic and instinctive method of drawing. He explains “I kind of draw like you’re walking through the forest, y’know. You don’t really know where you’re going and you just start from some point and randomly travel through the paper until you get to a place where you finally reach your destination.”
The idea of making art quickly is echoed in an question on Seth Godin’s ‘Origin Stories’ podcast episode.: “What should teachers be focusing on to help young people write their best? Godin answered “… the problem is the word ‘better’, because when they seek to do ‘better’ writing, they’re focusing on… complying, on pleasing an anonymous reader or a teacher.” Instead, “… get kids to write. Get kids to do lousy writing, Get kids to do frequent writing, emotional writing, superfluous writing, useless writing, writing, writing, writing. That if they write often, then the fear of writing has to do away.”
Do more writing, do more drawings, make art quickly and often and don’t pay attention to the quality of what you make. Down the road, a bi-product of this practice will be ‘better’ technical skills. To focus on getting ‘better’ when you’re a beginner, is a way to stall yourself before you’ve had a change to get any momentum going.
Progress doesn’t happen overnight and there is no hack to becoming an overnight success at making art. Practice, consistency and commitment are the slow and steady route to growth. But that’s if you can stand it taking time to bridge the gap of where you are and where you want to be.
Practice making something every single day and you will improve over time. Seth Godin says “incremental daily progress (negative or positive) is what actually causes transformation. A figurative drip, drip, drip. Showing up, every single day, gaining in strength, organizing for the long haul, building connection, laying track—this subtle but difficult work is how culture changes.” The idea that any progress, even if you hate what you’ve made, will create future improvement is something to remind yourself of when you feel like giving up.
“Keep showing up. If it matters, keep showing up.” – Seth Godin
30 day or 100 day projects allow you a consistency framework to keep you accountable: Make something every day for X days and you can only stop once you’ve reached the final day. The great thing about this approach is a pile of work is created by taking a small creative action daily.
By focusing on the small, we let ourselves off the hook of only looking for big leaps in our progress. We don’t expect plants to instantly sprout from a planted seed, it takes time just to grow the roots. See your own daily project as an way to grow your invisible creative roots and focus solely instead on the enjoyment you get from making something.
Improvement happens tiny step by tiny step. Brick by brick.
Sometimes you’ll take a leap and it feels wonderful to make big steps forward. Such noticeable progress feels reassuring and can be a reminder that the thing you’re working on is worth your time and effort.
But most improvement results from a slow and steady approach. Our ego would love for things to move quicker because it stubbornly only wants instant gratification and success. But success isn’t a finish line in the distant future – success is building something brick by brick, even in the face of doubt, discomfort and adversity.
As the saying goes, life is a marathon, not a sprint. There is plenty of time so there’s no hurry to work it all out right now, in this moment. Place the next tiny brick and keep repeating until it’s time for a leap.