On the whole, we don’t like making mistakes. We may take them to mean we’ve failed or that we’re no good. When making art, thoughts like this can stop any future practice taking place altogether. This is a shame because mistakes are a valuable creative tool and a vital part of creativity. So what if we re-framed ‘mistakes’ to mean a twist or unexpected event? The illustrator Ralph Steadman was quoted talking about his art “People used to say, ‘Don’t you make a mistake?’ But there’s no such thing as a mistake, only an opportunity to do something else, change, adapt it as you go along.”
The artist Robert Motherwell encourages his mistakes “I begin a painting with a series of mistakes. The painting comes out of the correction of mistakes by feeling. I begin with shapes and colors which are not related internally nor to the external world; I work without images. Ultimate unifications come about through modulations of the surface by innumerable trials and efforts.”
What if you started off making art purposely making mistakes and see where it leads? Who knows what interesting things you may discover.
“The desire for everything to run smoothly is a false goal – it leads to measuring people by the mistakes they make rather than by their ability to solve problems.” – Ed Catmull, Creativity Inc
Physically stepping away from your work when you feel stuck can help you find a solution more effectively compared to focusing all your attention on the project and grinding away to force an outcome. This is something Ed Catmull in Creativity Inc. talks about: “I’ve heard some people describe creativity as ‘unexpected connections between unrelated concepts or ideas!” If that’s at all true, you have to be in a certain mindset to make those connections. So when I sense we’re getting nowhere, I just shut things down. We all go off to something else. Later, once the mood has shifted, I’ll attack the problem again.”
It might look like you’ve stopped thinking about the project, but the break actually allows your subconscious to work on it without you getting in the way by force-thinking a solution. Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi in Creativity describes an incubation stage in the creative process “during which ideas churn around below the threshold of consciousness. It is during this time that unusual connections are likely to be made.”
Given that the subconscious – the unconscious mind – makes up 90% of your total brain function, it’s actually a richer and wiser resource to draw from. Russell L. Colling and Tony W. York explain “The unconscious mind contains knowledge accumulated in various ways throughout life. The vast storehouse contains past experiences… the reservoir of total memory and intuitive judgment.”
Csikzentmihalyi continues “When we intend to solve a problem consciously, we process information in a linear, logical fashion. But when ideas call to each other on their own, without our leading them down a straight and narrow path, unexpected combinations may come into being.”
A stepping back, incubation approach is actually a more effect way to work on a problem than a nose-to-the-grindstone hustle, so give your wise subconscious the chance to help you.
A blank piece of paper can be seen with excited anticipation or complete terror. Making something out in air requires imagination, determination and bravery to make the first mark. No wonder if you feel lost before you’ve even started because being able to draw anything is overwhelming. You can become paralysed by choice and then the blank piece of paper remains untouched.
Ed Catmull in Creativity Inc says “There is a reason that writers talk about the terror of the blank page and painters shudder at the sight of an empty canvas. It’s extremely difficult to create something out of nothing, especially when you consider that much of what you’re trying to realize is hidden, at least at first.”
Making the first mark is simple but it’s hard to do. There’s a lot of expectation riding on it to be the start of something brilliant. But if you can see it as an opportunity to make a series of marks – one after the other – and nothing more than that, you open yourself up to creativity by letting go of your own difficult-to-meet expectations.
Sometimes you need to immerse yourself in a new environment in order to shake things up creatively. Ed Catmull in Creativity Inc. describes how important research trips are filmmaking. “Ultimately, what we’re after is authenticity. What feels daunting to the filmmakers… on such trips is that they don’t yet know what they are looking for, so they’re not sure what they will gain. But if you think about it: You’ll never stumble upon the unexpected if you stick only to the familiar.”
Being open to the unexpected allows your brain to create renew pathways of possibility so new ideas can be planted. Catmull continues “when people go out on research trips, they always come back changed… Research trips challenge our preconceived notions and keep clichés at bay. They fuel inspiration. They are, I believe, what keeps us creating rather than copying.
So how do you collect, reflect and develop these new creative thoughts? In ‘A Thousand Pictures a Day,’ a behind the scenes of the “Coco” Pixar crew on a Mexico research trip, many of the crew used small sketchbooks to jot down ideas and sketch images.
“Whenever I travel I love to bring out my sketchbook and just start sketching away. You’re drawing things that you don’t normally draw so if you’re sketching at the actual place it’ll stamp in your brain and when you’re back in Pixar, reading to pitch, you already have that memory in your brain and that’s what you’re sketching. So it’s so much more authentic… Whenever I look back on a sketch, it’s a stronger memory when I sketch it than when I take a picture of it.” – Manny Hernandez, Story Artist
The idea that a quick sketch can retain a memory stronger than a photograph by “stamping” is interesting. Writing down ideas requires you to synthesise and interpret and reflect on your surroundings so it’s no wonder if you have a stronger memory attached to a sketch. You’re focus is stronger and more concentrated when you made the marks compared to taking a quick snap with a camera.
“I want to try to remember as much of it as possible and so the best way for me to remember it is to try to draw as much as I can. And so not only will I be drawing but I’ll be writing bits of business. It’s certainly going to help me remember that moment, remember that kid and that character.” – Jason Katz, Story Supervisor
The fact that Pixar creatives are still using paper and pen as a valuable creative tool shows that digital isn’t necessarily the best tool for capturing ideas and memories, even in a technology-driven world.