Uncertainty is a big part of making art, which can be a challenging force to dance with on a regular basis. Uncertainty is the act of making something out of nothing, of not knowing what marks will emerge before you start and being unsure a lot of the time about what you’re making. While this force can be a challenge, it can also be exhilarating to not know what’s round the next creative corner. When there are no rules in art, there are no wrong turns and only possibilities.
Kevin Gyoerkoe and Pamela Wiegartz in 10 Simple Solutions to Worry encourage that “It’s uncertainty—the thrill of not knowing—that allows us to get caught up in life and feel romance, excitement, joy, and wonder. When we give up the need to know, life becomes vibrant and yes, a little risky… A life without uncertainty would leave no possibility of pleasant surprises, and negative outcomes known in advance would eliminate the desire to take any risks.”
You can play it safe and try to avoid any uncertainty, or you can choose to lean into the unknown and trust that the perceived risk will pay off in unknown ways down the road.
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.
How do we gain (and keep hold of) confidence when practicing making art considering most of the time, we make everything up as we go? When creativity is so varied, fluid and intangible, it’s no wonder we can feel lost when making something new. But it’s normal to feel like your making everything up as you go as Steven Pressfield in The Artist’s Journey explains “No matter what a writer or artist may tell you, they have no clue what they’re doing before they do it—and, for the most part, while they’re doing it.”
How is it possible to gain confidence when navigating the unknown of your own creativity? What would that look like on a daily basis? Perhaps confidence isn’t feeling 100% sure of what you’re doing, but instead is knowing you’re actually trying something new. You’re taking action and that’s incredibly brave. Carol S. Dweck in Mindset encourages us “True self-confidence is “the courage to be open—to welcome change and new ideas regardless of their source.” Real self-confidence is not reflected in a title, an expensive suit, a fancy car, or a series of acquisitions. It is reflected in your mindset: your readiness to grow.”
Having confidence of steel about your art is something you may never gain. Even a master artist with decades of experience will have days when they question everything they make. Take comfort that if they still doubt their art, it’s okay that you do. Sustainable confidence is grown through small incremental steps over time, especially when trying something new. Making mistakes, failing and regularly practicing is all part of the mix, providing valuable data about your own creative tastes and to highlight areas for future growth and practice. Allow yourself to be open to change by making art and see how your confidence gently grows over time.
“In order to discover new lands, one must be willing to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.” — Andre Gide
Creating art can feel a lot like making something in the dark. Surround by complete darkness, you fumble and bump about, trying to get a feel for what you’re making and where you’re going. This is a normal part of the creative process. The more unknown things are, the greater potential for creativity, if we can learn to be brave in the darkness. With practice and hope – a belief you will work it out – comes bravery.
Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird encourages “Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work.” Hope still finds a way in the darkness, you don’t need to know everything before you begin.
Keep showing up to your art, keep fumbling about and you will be rewarded over time.
What would ‘letting go’ look like when making your art? Perhaps it looks like allowing yourself to follow a strange curiosity or interest in a subject. Allow yourself to spend time, to indulge in the process of making art (although it can be argued that the act of making art – reconnecting to yourself – is not an indulgence, but a necessity and worthwhile endeavour). Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic encourages us to “Pursue whatever fascinates you and brings you to life. Create whatever you want to create – and let it be stupendously imperfect, because it’s exceedingly likely that nobody will even notice. And that’s awesome.” It may mean choosing to ‘get it done’ or ‘good is good enough,’ and ignoring the illusive (and impossible) goal of perfection.
Letting go could mean making art in the face of your fears. Steven Pressfield in The Artist’s Journey suggests “The artist is afraid of the unknown. She’s afraid of letting go. Afraid of finding out what’s “in there.” Or “out there… This fear, I suspect, is more about finding we are greater than we think than discovering we’re lesser. What if, God help us, we actually have talent? What if we truly do possess a gift? What will we do then?”
What if we stepped out into the unknown to find out what lies beyond our reach? Discovering what lies ‘out there’ is worthy of your attention and time. For within the unknown, lies your power.
The belief “I’m not creative” is not a helpful belief if you want to start making art. In fact, it may block you from taking any action at all. The good news is you can change the belief by deciding to think something different instead. If you see the belief “I’m not creative” to be a story – a tale made up by your mind – then why not choose a story that encourages you? The black and white thinking of “I’m NOT creative” is unhelpful because it blocks potential creativity. Choosing to instead believe a kinder, more encouraging story allows you more freedom to create.
“I’m allowing more creativity into my life.”
“I love how making art makes me feel more creative.”
“I’m learning to be more creative.”
“I enjoy the feeling of making something.”
Another kind of story is a conspiracy theory, something Brené Brown in Rising Strong talks about: “Conspiracy thinking is all about fear-based self-protection and our intolerance for uncertainty.” If negative talk is the mind keeping us safe from the perceived danger of trying something new, then we can thank it for its concern and get back to making our art. Decide there’s no real danger and tell your mind to believe a new positive story, one that’s likely to be more accurate than the old negative belief.
There’s no arrival point, no end or finish line when it comes to your creativity. There will be no trumpet sound when a higher level of craftsmanship is reached and you’ll never get there – theplace where you’re happy with everything you make and feel completely comfortable all the time. Uncertainty allows creativity to flourish. If you know all the answers before you begin, how can you grow and develop as an artist?
Jeff Goins in Real Artists Don’t Starve encourages “We don’t make meaningful art through lateral moves but by constantly challenging ourselves to new heights. We cannot create great art without continuing to create ourselves. This work is a process of continuous reinvention. We don’t just do it once. It is a journey of becoming, one in which we never fully arrive.”
If it’s impossible to fully arrive, choose to ignore the imaginary finish line you’ve made up and stuck into the challenge of growing creatively.
Not knowing what step to take next is a something artists of all levels face on a regular basis. It’s okay if you feel lost when making art or about what the ‘right’ direction to head in is. Getting lost allows for more possibilities than having a concrete plan. The author Jay Woodman encourages “Life is a repeated cycle of getting lost and then finding yourself again. There are many smaller cycles within that cycle where you get lost to a smaller degree and then remember yourself on purpose, consciously or unconsciously. Every time you get lost it is so that you can learn something or experience something from a different perspective.” Creative potential is increased by not knowing what comes next. When the answers are unknown, the search deepens which can lead to stumbling upon unexpected (and ultimately more creative) outcomes.
Getting lost allows you to go beyond what you know as Rebecca Solnit in A Field Guide to Getting Lost explains “That thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you is usually what you need to find, and finding it is a matter of getting lost. The word ‘lost’ comes from the old Norse ‘los’ meaning the disbanding of an army…I worry now that people never disband their armies, never go beyond what they know.”
The act of getting lost, to fully allow yourself to sit in the dark and not see what’s ahead of you takes courage and practice. Staring at a blank page, not knowing what to do next and allowing the uncomfortable feeling of uncertainty to sit with you is a brave act. But as Solnit suggests “… to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery. And one does not get lost but loses oneself, with the implication that it is a conscious choice, a chosen surrender…” Surrender, go off the map, tear up the plans, get lost, switch off the lights, make art in the dark and let’s see what you stumble into.
“Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go.” — Rebecca Solnit
When faced with the uncertainty in artmaking, you may find yourself believing in the story that you’re not good enough. Jonathan Fields in How To Live a Good Life suggests “When we enter a place of uncertainty, we tend to start spinning stories that predict failure endlessly in our heads… consider a different story. One fuelled by possibility rather than defeat.” What if instead of believing you’re not creative, you chose the opposite story that you ARE creative? What if you took all the negative (and unhelpful) stories around your art and created opposite positive stories?
“My art is too messy, it’s bad” becomes “I love how free it feels to have a safe place be messy.”
“I can’t draw properly” becomes “I’m a beginner so it’s understandable I’m not an expert drawer yet: Practice over time builds confidence and skills.”
“I shouldn’t spend time on something that’s unproductive” becomes “I enjoy time spent making art so it is therefore valuable to me.”
You always have a choice about which version you pick. You also have the choice between uncertainty and certainty. David Bayles and Ted Orland in Art and Fear explain “In the end it all comes down to this: you have a choice (or more accurately a rolling tangle of choices) between giving your work your best shot and risking that it will not make you happy, or not giving it your best shot – and thereby guaranteeing that it will not make you happy. It becomes a choice between certainty and uncertainty. And curiously, uncertainty is the comforting choice.”
Choosing the uncertainty of art making is always a better option than the certainty of not making anything all.
This fun line drawing experiment is easy to get started and has endless creative outcomes. As an art-making beginner it can be hard to know where to even start. Setting rules and constraints gets you to go from being paralysed by choice, to taking clear action immediately. Making something is always a better than making nothing when it comes to your creativity.
Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire in Wired to Create explain “Because of our natural adversion to uncertainty, there are very few things in life that we enjoy more than a sure thing or a tidy solution! But in order to think differently, the fear of uncertainty has to go.” This experiment is great because it starts you off with a clear objective, which will keep your mind from being paralysed about what to do next. But once you start drawing lines, there’s no one solution so you start to tap into your creativity. In a way it’s a safe kind of uncertainty.
You will need: paper, pen or pencil. Optional: felt tip pens, crayons, coloured pencils and ruler.
Add dots randomly on your paper. Do this quickly, don’t overthink it.
Join the dots using a pen or pencil freehand.
Optional: use a ruler if you want a straighter line.
Ways you can approach experimenting:
Change the quantity of dots: make lots or a little to get a different starting point.
Change the quantity of lines: make lots of a little.
Change quantity of colours: use multiple colours to draw the lines.
Let your instincts guide you where you draw your next line. There is no ‘wrong’ line you can make, only 100’s of possibilities. In a speech on creativity, John Cleese suggested, “it’s also easier to do little things we know we can do than to start on big things that we’re not so sure about.” Start with little and as your confidence grows with practice, you can gently push yourself to create more ‘complex’ or unusual patterns if you wish. Or continue to keep things simple and enjoy the process of making patterns from the random dots.
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” — Steve Jobs
It seems counterintuitive to decide on a career when you leave school given your work/life experience is so minimal. Many factors come into deciding on what pathway to pursuit, a big one being fear. The fear of not succeeding or it being too difficult to get ahead or too intangible to measure future success (the arts being a classic example) drives many to choose a ‘safer’ plan B career. If the thing you really want to do doesn’t work out, you’ve something safe to fall back on is something Jim Carrey’s 2014 MUM graduation speech addresses:
“Fear is going to be a player in your life, but you get to decide how much. You can spend your whole life imagining ghosts, worrying about your pathway to the future, but all there will ever be is what’s happening here, and the decisions we make in this moment, which are based in either love or fear. So many of us choose our path out of fear disguised as practicality. What we really want seems impossibly out of reach and ridiculous to expect, so we never dare to ask the universe for it.”
Plan A gets sidelined but plan B isn’t necessarily a ‘safer option,’ as Carrey suggests:
“My father could have been a great comedian, but he didn’t believe that was possible for him, and so he made a conservative choice. Instead, he got a safe job as an accountant, and when I was 12 years old, he was let go from that safe job and our family had to do whatever we could to survive. I learned many great lessons from my father, not the least of which was that you can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love.”
Fear of failure and the unknown stops so many of us from even trying. If you believed the plan B pathway wasn’t actually safe, would you still pursue it?
Deciding to try to make art for fun as an adult is a big step and overcoming the multiple hurdles you face before picking up a pencil is a huge victory. The lack of time, material or space can be hard enough, but overcoming the fear of not being ‘good’ at art and the guilt of not spending time productively can halt all creative endeavours.
Continuing to make art regardless of the above is an act of bravery. It takes determination to face the white page and put pen to paper and create from the unknown. But once you decide to do it and you get into the flow of making, the rest will take care of itself. All you have to do is turn up at the paper and be willing to make some marks. That’s it. Don’t over complicate it by having to make something worthy of being in a gallery, that’s not what making art is about. Art making is about having fun and enjoying the process.
Just make something. ANYTHING. Nobody is watching and nobody cares if it’s ‘bad’. How will you know how creative you really are if you never give yourself permission to make any art?
Uncertainty is something you have to face regularly when making art, continually asking yourself “What should I make?” and questioning if what you’re doing is any good. But with uncertainty comes creativity and growth because working it out as you go is fertile ground for inner development. The not-knowing actually helps us be happier because if everything was laid out for us we’d be bored and unchallenged. There’d be no spontaneity or a-ha moments of exciting discoveries because only following a limited set of instructions wouldn’t require us to think creatively.
It seems counterintuitive that we crave certainty, even if it ultimately means sacrificing our growth and creativity. Daniel Gilbert in Stumbling on Happinessexplains “Uncertainty can preserve and prolong our happiness, thus we might expect people to cherish it. In fact, the opposite is generally the case.” Making art forces you to sit inside the uncertainty and feel around in the dark so it’s a worthwhile practice to get you used to those uncomfortable feelings of not-knowing what you’re doing.
Gilbert continues “The poet John Keats noted that whereas great authors are ‘capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’, the rest of us are ‘incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. Our relentless desire to explain everything that happens may well distinguish us from fruit flies, but it can also kill our buzz.”
Instead of trying to work everything out in advance, take a seat in uncertainty and get on with making your art. Make anything, it doesn’t matter! Because through your action comes clarity about your next step, but you won’t know what that second step is until you’ve taken your first.
If you ever feel like you’re making art in the metaphorical dark with no idea what comes next, know that this is a completely normal experience. In fact, in order to be creative we have to be comfortable with venturing into the unknown on a regular basis. Ted Solotaroff explains that “Writing a first draft is like groping one’s way into a dark room, or overhearing a faint conversation, or telling a joke whose punchline you’ve forgotten.” From the unknown, unplanned darkness can grow interesting ideas.
David Bayles and Ted Orland in Art and Fear suggest “Art is like beginning a sentence before you know its ending. The risks are obvious: you may never get to the end of the sentence at all – or having gotten there, you may not have said anything. This is probably not a good idea in public speaking, but it’s an excellent idea in making art.” The unexpected, unplanned and unanticipated is not something to be fearful of, it’s the perfect environment for making art. Carolyn Schlam in The Creative Path talks of darkness: “That’s what I’m offering you, a flashlight in the dark and mysterious world of creativity. And it’s a thrilling world, a labyrinth, if you will…. When I describe it this way, the path to art seems rather like the path of our lives, fascinating, mysterious, and yet wonderful.”
By standing in the darkness and facing it head on, you’re open to more creative possibilities compared to all the lights being on. You don’t need to know what the whole room looks like to make art, just gently feel around until you bump into something interesting.
It would be wonderful to wave a magic wand and instantly reach the goal you’ve set or secretly dream about. That would make your ego very happy (well, for a little while, until the next goal). But skipping ahead to the success, when you think it will feel good means you’d miss out on mining gold. The gold is in the journey of learning, making, failing, gaining insight and not in arriving at an imaginary future arbitrary goal. You didn’t know what you need to learn until you’ve learn it. You don’t know how a failure or making something bad will provide insight, knowledge or a valuable lesson. Having it all handed to you on a plate means you won’t have built up the resilience to keep you motivated and committed when things do go ‘wrong.’
The danger of wanting to fast forward and avoid failure and uncertainty is to avoid future potential growth. You learn much more from a failure than you do if everything is smooth sailing. These growth spurts lead to bigger insights, more knowledge and ultimately make you a stronger person.
If you feel lost as to what you ‘should’ be making/drawing/writing when getting creative, don’t worry. It’s a common hurdle for all creatives. When the hurdle feels too large and therefore overwhelming to overcome, it can lead to creative burnout. But the fact is there’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to art making and everyone – including professional artists – is making it up as they go. Michaela Chung in The Year of the Introvertsays “The truth is that no one knows what the hell they are doing. The problem is not the fact that you haven’t got it all figured out. It’s the fact that you feel like you should.”
You shouldn’t have worked it all out because nothing is ever finished – the journey of art making continues and you’re never ever done. Progress and growth is the ultimate goal and so when you’re feeling lost, make anything. Anything at all, there’s no need for it to to even be any good. Chung touches on progress: ” One of my personal mottos is “progress over perfection.” You’re not perfect, but you’re better that your were before, and that’s what really matters.”
Being creative is a series of steps where you only need to choose one tiny step at a time.
What does a tennis pro with 23 Grand Slam single titles have in common with an art-making beginner?
Fear of failure.
In Being Serena, Serena Williams talks about fear on the court: “People ask me have I ever been afraid on a tennis court? I laugh. Of course I’ve been afraid on the tennis court! When I was younger, going against big stars. When I was older and all the expectations that came with that. The fear of failing, it’s always there in one form or another.” The idea that success shields you from future fear of failure is an illusion because the fear remains within us at every single stage, from beginner to master.
At this years pre-Wimbledon news conference, Serena was asked if she’s used to her opponents upping their game because she’s the ‘one to beat’? She responded. “It’s what makes me great. I always play everyone at their greatest so I have to be greater… everyone comes out and they play me so hard and now my level’s so much higher because because of it, from years and years of being played like that… My level, if it wasn’t high, I wouldn’t be who I am so I had to raise my level to unknown because they’re playing me at a level that’s unknown. So now I’m used to it.” Serena embraced the unknown and used it as a strategy to improve her game.
Whether you’re making art or playing professional tennis at the highest level, the fear of failure never disappears. Walking alongside the unknown is an intrinsic part of life and is an important tool for growth. Try to embrace the unknown and see if you can implement it as a strategy and allow yourself space to get even a tiny bit more comfortable in the uncomfortableness of uncertainty!
We love to feel prepared before trying something new because it’s not easy putting ourselves in an unknown situation. It’s uncomfortable. When making art you may think you need to go out and buy lots of ‘good’ art supplies but what if you used what was already in your cupboards at home?
In The Runaway Species Anthony Brandt and David Eagleman talk about raw materials used for creativity “Human creativity does not emerge from a vacuum. We draw on our experience and the raw materials around us to refashion the world.” What if part of the fun was exploring everyday objects to see what marks they could make? In this experiment you do just that and because you don’t need to buy anything new, you can get started straight away.
You will need: paper, paint, a plate and household objects of your choice. Ideas to start you off: cutlery, rubber bands, corks, cardboard, sponges, string etc. The list is endless. Use one paint colour to keep things simple. If you don’t have any paint, use coffee. You can experiment with adding more or less water make it lighter or darker. Use a plate to mix your chosen paint and allow you space to dip your objects onto.
Take your chosen object, dip it in your paint
Experiment making marks!
Different objects with create completely different marks. The marks made above by a fork required it to be dipped more frequently into the paint so a slower mark-making approach was created. This experimental approach to making marks creates an intuitive way of working as you test making different sizes, shapes and how much paint to use. There is no right or wrong way to make marks, just make them and see what turns up. By using unorthodox painting tools, you lower your expectations around how ‘good’ the marks are. So if you use a fork to paint, you instantly have lower expectations compared to when using a paintbrush.
Flora Bowley inCreative Revolution talks about creating in a kind of “ambiguous territory,” when creating work without a firm plan of where you’re headed. That you will be rewarded for your bravery to “create with no map” and “opening yourself up to the unknown can also be invigorating and deeply revealing. By experimenting using tools where the markmaking results are unpredictable, it allows you to safely let go of outcomes so you can focus on the playful nature of exploring. As Bowley suggests, “the more you flex your brave intuitive muscles, the easier letting go becomes.” Have a look around your home and see what you could use to experiment making your own patterns and marks.
“Good scientists, like good artists, must let their minds roam playfully or they will not discover new facts, new patterns, new relationships.” By allowing yourself to playfully create new patterns using what exists around, you opens yourself up to other unknown possibilities.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention
Lecture and speeches are normally designed to be polished and perfected, reinforcing the idea that the lecturer is the expert and has it all figured out. The director/screenwriter Charlie Kaufman at a BAFTA screenwriters’ Lecture in 2011 began with him telling the audience that he didn’t know anything:
“So rather than being up here pretending I’m an expert in anything, or presenting myself in a way that will reinforce the odd, ritualised lecturer-lecturee model, I’m just telling you off the bat that I don’t know anything. And if there’s one thing that characterises my writing it’s that I always start from that realisation and I do what I can to keep reminding myself of that during the process. I think we try to be experts because we’re scared; we don’t want to feel foolish or worthless; we want power because power is a great disguise.”
To openly talk about not knowing and that you haven’t got all the answers is counter to what we’ve been taught. But with Imposter Syndrome being so universal – the doubt we’re not really as good as our accomplishments or experience and so could be found out as a ‘fraud – it’s refreshing to hear someone admit what we all feel deep down. This is especially true in the art-making journey where everything you make is susceptible to harsh judgment. What if you were to embrace the not-knowing aspect of where you’re headed and see being a beginner as more valuable than being an expert? (see beginners mindset as a tool for creativity)
“The world needs you. It doesn’t need you at a party having read a book about how to appear smart at parties – these books exist, and they’re tempting – but resist falling into that trap. The world needs you at the party starting real conversations, saying, ‘I don’t know,’ and being kind.”
Showing up exactly as you are, with all your un-knowing and uncertainty will take a great deal of courage. The desire to be an expert instantly is strong but we have to more to offer others by being honest. Perhaps just by being yourself you give permission to others that you don’t have to have it all figured out.
“Do you. It isn’t easy but it’s essential. It’s not easy because there’s a lot in the way. In many cases a major obstacle is your deeply seated belief that you are not interesting. And since convincing yourself that you are interesting is probably not going to happen, take it off the table. Think, ‘Perhaps I’m not interesting but I am the only thing I have to offer, and I want to offer something. And by offering myself in a true way I am doing a great service to the world, because it is rare and it will help.”