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.” 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]
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
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 Introvert says “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.
In Abigail Thomas’s Thinking About Memoir she talks of how life isn’t a neat puzzle: “Life isn’t a puzzle that needs to fit together perfectly, every piece locking into place with every piece to form a perfect whole. Life is complicated. Stuff overlaps. Some stuff will never fit in one place.”
Making art is the same. It will never fit together perfectly, that’s why it’s art. We don’t need you to make something perfect. We need you to make something that’s real, that you felt inspired to make. Overlaps and mistakes included.
If the way to get more creative is to practice regularly, a small sketchbook for mark-making or notebook for writing and idea-collecting is invaluable. But when you’re just starting out, a new book can feel intimidating. The pristine white, untouched paper, the potential of what you could fill the pages with when everything is still perfect in your head makes the first page feel more important than it actually is. “This page sets the tone for the whole book so it better be good!” You want to get it right – to write or draw something that is worthy of gracing the front page. And so you wait. You wait until you have an important enough reason or idea to make marks in your new book.
But of course, nothing will ever be good enough as the unspoilt newness of the paper will always triumph over your scrawled marks. This way of looking at it will keep you from using your book and you’ll be robbing yourself of the opportunity to make friends with this invaluable creativity tool.
How to overcome this?
- To begin with only buy the cheapest books. The more money spent, the more precious it becomes because the ‘nicer’ the book, the less you’ll want to mess it up.
- Write a title for the first page e.g. “My messy imperfect book” and set an intention that your book WILL include MANY bad marks, misspellings and mistakes.
- Purposely make it the most messy, ugly or mistake-ridden page possible.
- Ignore the first page completely and start on page 2 or even further in.
Whatever gets you regularly using your book to jot down ideas, doodles, words or start making art, do it! Don’t treat your book as fine china, only to be used once or twice a year, on “special” occasions. As Regina Brett says, “Burn the candles, use the nice sheets, wear the fancy lingerie. Don’t save it for a special occasion. Today is special.” Your book needs to be broken in ASAP because the sooner you dive in, the quicker you’ll get over being so precious (you’ll make bad marks and survive from it!) and the more often you’ll use it.
“You’ll get “better” at it all by yourself. If it’s fun, you’ll do it more often. And if you do it more often, you’ll do it well.” – Felix Scheinberger, Dare to Sketch
The point of having a sketch or notebook is to use it regularly as a creative tool. It’s not made of fine china so don’t treat it like it is.