Failure is a vital part of creativity

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

Failure. It has multiple definitions but if we take “omission of occurrence,” then a failure is the lack of something happening. For example, you didn’t complete the art you intended. That doesn’t sound serious but we can make failure mean something much more heavy and dangerous – I am a failure. The mind complicate things by making it feel the stakes are higher than they actually are. The mind interprets failure as life-threatening and will try to avoid at all costs, which is why it feels so bad not to reach a goal. It’s trying to protect you from getting ‘hurt’ again. But picking up a pencil to draw is not life-threatening and ‘failing’ at making art is a vital tool in your art-making practice. How else are you going to improve as an artist and learn what you like visually?

Ken Robinson in Out of Our Minds talks about failure: “I asked the renowned chemist, Sir Harry Kroto, how many of his experiments fail. He said about 95 percent of them. Of course failure is not the right word, he said “You’re just finding out what doesn’t work,” Albert Einstein put the point sharply: “Anyone who has never made a mistake, has never tried anything new.” I don’t mean to say that being wrong is the same thing as being creative but if you’re not prepared to be wrong, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever come up with anything original.”

Expect to fail, expect to make mistakes, expect that there is no perfect way to make art and if there was is would be boring and predictable. The joy of making art comes from making messy mistakes, being open to spontaneity and colouring outside of the lines. Safe and perfect sounds far less fun. Robinson encourages us that “A good deal of creative work, especially in the early stages of a project, is about openly playing with ideas, riffing, doodling, improvising and exploring new possibilities.”

Failure is a vital part of creativity and not something we should try to avoid. So when your overdramatic brain whispers “You’re a failure,” know that you’re on the right pathway to letting more creativity into your life. Thank your brain for its concern and then go make more creative mistakes.

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.
The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection
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

The childlike spirit of making art and throwing it away

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

Should you keep every piece of art you make? If you’re not making much quantity, it may be beneficial to keep more of it to track progress over time: The physical evidence of improvement can help inspire you to continue practicing, if having fun during the process is not enough to validate the time spent on something ‘frivolous,’ (especially as adulthood seems to bring the concern to be productive all of the time).

If you’re focusing on quantity and start to accumulate piles of artwork, you may want to consider throwing some of it away. In the Atlantic.com article Throw Your Children’s Art Away, it argues “If it’s the act of making the art that’s useful and good for children, then let this part of the art live, and then let its results die. Like its aesthetic quality, the output of children’s artistic efforts is incomplete. Throwing it away actually does everyone a favor.” And “The correct answer is to make the art, bestow it upon someone to behold and admire for a while, and then toss it.”

Children make art for fun, with minimal focus on quality because the act of making something IS the result, not the main point of the exercise. Its’s through the process of making art that you gain feedback so it almost seems irrelevant if the art is any good or is kept. The art is the means to an end in order for you to be creative. Why as adults, do we pressure ourselves to make a thing that has enough value to be kept (and admired) forever? By adopting the childlike spirit of making art and throwing it away, we release ourselves of the burden to make ‘good’ art. We become less attached to the art needing to be perfect which ultimately helps us to be more creative individuals.

Say no to perfection

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

Perfectionist tendencys won’t get you far when you start making art. We can forget to simply enjoy making and to have fun because we want to make art that visually communicates the time and effort was worth it. Suddenly the little piece of art you make has a lot of expectations weaved into it: Be good. Show creative skill. Communicate creativity. But that’s setting your quality bar far too high, especially when you’re a beginner.

Making art is not about a perfected final piece, something that is so perfect that no one can criticise it. Brené Brown in The Gifts of Imperfection explains “Perfectionism is not the same thing has striving to be your best. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement, and shame. It’s a shield. It’s a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from flight.” This kind of perfectionist thinking freezes creativity in its tracks and will ultimately make you a more nervous artist because if you can’t make a mistake, you may stop making altogether. Brown goes as far to say “Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.”

Making ‘perfect’ art won’t make you a better artist or make you more creative. If you’re not allowed to make mistakes then you instantly limit your experimentation and creative potential. Experimentation requires freedom from quality and a willingness to get it wrong. The world needs ‘no perfection’ art because making something is better than never making anything.

Allow yourself to make ‘bad art’ because making no art at all is a far worse outcome.

“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.” — Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic

The case for being imperfect and making mistakes

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

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.

Your own reasons to create are reason enough

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

“Your own reasons to create are reason enough.” Advice from Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic, who believes following your curiosities will lead you in the right direction; if you can give yourself permission and time to follow them. “Merely by pursuing what you love, you may inadvertently end up helping us plenty… Do whatever brings you to life, then. Follow your own fascinations, obsessions, and compulsions. Trust them. Create whatever causes a revolution in your heart. The rest of it will take care of itself.”

While making art for fun is the reason, purpose and outcome of the process, we get caught up with needing to make something perfected and of value (i.e. it’s been worth the time invested to produce a physical thing). Instead of it being about how many valuable things you can make, what if if was about having fun creating? Gilbert explains “Why should I go through all the trouble to make something if the outcome might be nothing?” The answer will usually come with a wicked trickster grin: “Because it’s fun, isn’t it?”

Wanting to create a finished, perfected thing can halt the whole creative process. Instead of making something good, make something that’s done. Progress is always more beneficial than perfect: “if you can just complete something – merely complete it! – you’re already miles ahead of the pack, right there. You may want your work to be perfect, in other words; I just want mine to be finished.” Moving on quickly to make more art is a muscle that needs to be exercised regularly so that we become less precious about making mistakes, and allow our creativity to flow. “At some point, you really just have to finish your work and release it as is – if only so that you can go on to make other things with a glad and determined heard.”

You are your own biggest critic, the only one that notices all the imperfections and rough edges in your art. Nobody else is keeping score because they’re too busy focusing on their own imperfections. Gilbert encourages us to make imperfect work and agrees that nobody is paying any attention anyway: “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.” [emphasis added]

Fear and self-worth

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

The biggest obstacle to start making art? Yourself. We want to be good at everything instantly, even if we’ve had minimal practice. The fear that you might fail will keep you paralysed before you’ve even started. By comparing yourself to a prolific artist who has years of experience, work and failures under their belt, it’s no wonder you feel disappointed at the fledgling art marks you make. You want to make something worthy of the time spent on it (to be a constant human productivity machine) as well as seeking out approval from others. But Brené Brown in Daring Greatly suggests that if you attach your self-worth to your art then you’re handing over your self-worth to what other people think: “You’re officially a prisoner of ‘pleasing, performing, and perfecting’.”

Wanting everything to be perfect so you can avoid making ‘bad’ art will keep you stuck because the bar of expectation is immediately too high. Getting confident and making original art can take a lifetime and in the meantime decide to have fun. Get messy, make bad art on purpose, get into the flow of making something simply for the joy of making something. You are in control of how high your bar of expectation is, so you can lower it to “I will simply enjoy making art.” To experience satisfaction or even joy in creating something from nothing is a worthy goal.

In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown says “Overcoming self doubt is all about believing we’re enough and letting go of what the world says we’re supposed to be and supposed to call ourselves.” Let go of needing to be good art because it doesn’t matter if what you make is good, bad, ugly, masterful or simple. It’s not not about creating a perfected final physical thing, it’s about the process of self-discovery, joy and creativity by tapping into a part of you that normally lies hidden.

“Beneath our flaws, there are always two ingredients: fear and a desire for love.” – Alain de Botton, Status Anxiety