Have you ever started making art but suddenly you feel like you’re doing it all wrong? Or your pen slips and makes a unexpected mark that you’re cross about? In those moments the urge to want to start over is almost impossible to ignore but ignore it you must. Your future creative progress depends on it.
The reason for not wanting to make any mistakes and why we seek perfection is something Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic talks about: “I think perfectionism is just a high-end, haute couture version of fear. I think perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant when actually it’s just terrified. Because underneath that shiny veneer, perfectionism is nothing more than a deep existential angst that saids, again and again, “I am not good enough and I will never be good enough.”
What if being imperfect and making mistakes makes you a better artist? What making mistakes now actually means if your future self can thrive? David Bayles and Ted Orland in Art and Fear explain “Such imperfections (or mistakes, if you’re feeling particularly depressed about them today) are your guides – valuable, reliable, objective, non-judgmental guides – to matters you need to reconsider or develop further. It is precisely this interaction between the ideal and the real that locks your art into the real world, and gives meaning to both.
When making art, the more mistakes the better! There is beauty in the imperfect – it’s human and real and that’s exactly what’s required when making 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 Happiness explains “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.
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.
“You could be a Picasso or you could be 90 years old and perhaps never having picked up a paintbrush. Art really penetrates deep into the heart and soul and gives people a sense of being alive and creates a very meaningful sense of connection. And that’s really what we all want in our life, we want to feel alive. We want to feel fulfilment. We want to feel connection.” – Rebecca Schweiger interview, Don’t Keep Your Day Job Podcast
Comparison can be a creativity killer if you focus too heavily on other people’s art. It can stop you from making your own art if you start asking questions like “What’s the point when it feels like someone else has done it much better?” or “It’ll take too long to get as good so should quit now.” Comparison can point out where you feel you’re lacking in your own abilities, which is helpful for progression. So can you turn your envy into fuel to continue to practice and not let it derail your progress?
David Heinemeier Hansson and Jason Fried in Rework talk of comparison in the business world, but it could just as easily be talking about comparison between artists or in general: “Focus on competitors too much and you wind up diluting your own vision. Your chances of coming up with something fresh go down when you keep feeding your brain other people’s ideas. You become reactionary instead of visionary.”
In order to find your own creative voice, you have to be making and not just looking at other people’s ideas and art. Use others art as a starting point for your inspiration, but go make something yourself and start experimenting.
“Take off and pass over the cloud. Climb fast and swift.”
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.
“Sometimes you have to let yourself go into unchartered territory.” – Barbara Abercrombie, A Year of Writing Dangerously