The sixth century B.C. ‘Fables of Aesop‘ tale of The Wind and the Sun speaks of a competition between gentleness and force:
“The North Wind and the Sun were disputing which was the stronger, when a traveler came along wrapped in a warm cloak. They agreed that the one who first succeeded in making the traveler take his cloak off should be considered stronger than the other. Then the North Wind blew as hard as he could, but the more he blew the more closely did the traveler fold his cloak around him; and at last the North Wind gave up the attempt. Then the Sun shined out warmly, and immediately the traveler took off his cloak. And so the North Wind was obliged to confess that the Sun was the stronger of the two.”
The moral of the tale being: “Gentleness and kind persuasion win where force and bluster fail.” How can this message apply to your art-making practice? How can you be more kind to yourself when negative whispers pop up and you judge your messy art harshly? Instead of forcing yourself to be ‘better,’ what if you took a more gentle approach and focused on the fun of making something? Aside from enjoying yourself, a benefit of regular consistent practice IS improvement in skill, and in confidence. So is it necessary to even worry about improving if it’s going to happen naturally, over time?
Try the sun’s warm and gentle approach to create a more compassionate space to make your art.
If you make some art and share it online, seeking approval from your peers or via social media can be seductive. The ding of acceptance and seeing rising numbers makes the ego/mind happy. The approval is shown in a physical, measurable way so if the numbers are high, you feel good. And higher numbers are better aren’t they??
“Fame in a world like this is worthless.” — Marcus Aurelius, 121-180 A.D
But those numbers are a distraction, empty of real meaning and approval. We chase the numbers because we believe they can evaluate our art and give us external validation – the permission to continue to make if the feedback is good. But if the numbers are small, or the feedback is not so good, does that mean you feel disheartened about your art? Do you judge your own enthusiasm, enjoyment and self-approval on the judgements of others? And if so, why does their opinion count more than your own?
Seth Godin argues “The narrative of social media grooming is a seductive one, but it’s as much of a dead end as spending an extra hour picking out which tie to wear before giving a speech.” Spending more time grooming an online image is time and energy consuming and can keep you from making the art. Creating art in secret may be a more nourishing way to tap into creativity by distancing yourself from seeking others approval or permission.
But if you do decide to share online, know that the numbers can never make you happy. They will never be big enough for your mind to be content and the joy comes from the physical act of making your art.
Making art again after a big gap in time will use up a lot of mental energy because the brain has to work harder at things it’s less familiar with. Add to the mix feeling you’re not ‘good’ at art and it won’t be long before your brain sabotages your efforts. Most people talk themselves out of continuing via listening to the negative voice in your head (the ego) that judges every mark you make. It gets louder if you pay it any attention and will never leave you completely, even if you become a prolific artist.
Winifred Gallagher in New: Understanding Our Need for Novelty and Change explains “The first step in stretching your experiential boundaries is to override your brains strong tendency to conserve energy by conducting business as usual. One of its favourite economies is to rely on familiar, sloppy but efficient categories and stereotypes: “I’m no good at sports/art/travel,” say, or “That kind of person/activity/place has nothing to offer me.”
As you can’t get rid of those sloppy negative stereotypes thoughts, the goal is to find a way to gently ignore them. Understand that the brains default is to be efficient by conserving energy and that shows up as the negative voice questioning what you’re doing. Thank the voice for it’s concern — “It’s okay I’m no good at art, because I’m having fun and I’m improving each time I try,” — and turn your attention back to making art. With time and practice the voice will soften and will loose its tight grip on your creative potential. Don’t trust that the judgemental voice knows what’s best for you, it’s just following autopilot intructions.
It’s very easy to be judgement about your own art, especially when you’re a beginner. Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way explains how judgement about your art is abuse: “Judging your early artistic efforts is artist abuse. This happens in any number of ways: beginning work is measured against the masterworks of other artists; beginning work is exposed to premature criticism, shown to overly critical friends. In short, the fledgling artist behaves with well practiced masochism.”
Allowing negative self-judgement to stop you making more art, you allow the ego to strengthen the identity of you being a person who is not good at art. The brain wants to be efficient and will rethink the same thought patterns in order to conserve energy. As it takes more energy to think new ideas and beliefs, the brain doesn’t distinguish between positive/helpful thoughts and negative/self-sabotaging thoughts. So if you’ve had repeated thoughts on a subject then it’s logically productive for the brain to continue to repeat the same thoughts in order to be efficient, even if they stop you from doing something valuable.
Brené Brown in Rising Strong explains “In the absence of data, we will always make up stories. It’s how we’re wired. In fact, the need to make up a story, especially when we are hurt, is part of our most primitive wiring. Meaning making is in our biology, and our default is often to come up with a story that makes sense, feels familiar, and offers us insight into how best to self-protect.” Brown talks of Robert Burton, a neurologist and novelist, who explains that “our brains reward us with dopamine when we recognise and complete patterns. Stories are patterns. The brain recognises the familiar beginning-middle-end structure of a story and rewards us for clearing up the ambiguity. Unfortunately, we don’t need to be accurate, just certain… we can earn a dopamine ‘reward’ every time it helps us understand something in our world – even if that explanation is incomplete or wrong.”
The way to overcome this judgement is to make art regardless, with the goal of quantity (as opposed to quality) as your focus. The more you make, the easier practice becomes and the quieter your judgemental voice will become. Decide to create a new art-maker identity for yourself – an “artist in progress” – and allow this new identity to grow stronger. With the more quantity made, that practice will cause your skills and confidence to naturally improve over time.
“… we must care for and nurture the stories we tell ourselves about our creativity and ability. Just because we didn’t measure up to some standard of achievement doesn’t mean that we don’t possess gifts and talents that only we can bring to the world.” – Brené Brown, Rising Strong