Harsh inner critics and runaway brains

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

Self-judgement can quickly show up when you start making art. The small whispers of “you’re no good,” “don’t waste your time” or “you can’t improve.” Self-judgment, or the inner critic, can paralyse progress if you believe the stories it spins. It wants to minimise ‘danger’ because the mind feels threatened attempting anything new or unfamiliar and so seek safety in the known and predicatable (in this case not making any art). Shaun McNiff in Imagination in Action argues “The inhibition to act in unfamiliar or apparently strange ways combined with the harsh inner critic is the most essential one-two punch of repression, and for the most part it resides completely within the person, manifesting itself with great power even in situations unconditionally supporting creative expression.” But it’s not just beginner art-makers who suffer from the harsh inner critic’s feedback. “Even the most accomplished artists are stricken when approaching creative expression.”

So how do we overcome this? “Suspend judgement” McNiff suggests. “We all need egos to help in the making of decisions, and arguably artists require ego strength to persist in the face of obstacles, but during the process of insisting the formative forces of expression, ego (and its tendencies towards control) restricts the free and unplanned circulation of possibilities.”

Our brains really do have a mind of their own and that’s why you can’t believe every judgmental thought they tell you. Adyashanti on Oprah’s Supersoul podcast talks about a dream world where we live “primarily in our brains.” He asks us to question “What am I, before my thoughts, before my memories, before my ideas about myself, good and bad and indifferent?” After discovering a quiet space, “our minds do not know what do do with that. So they tend to run away, they go back to the mind.”

The mind is programmed to think a certain way and can run away from you so how do we quiet the mind to access our creative potential? Question judgemental thoughts. See them as a concerned but overdramatic and repressive voice that doesn’t know what’s best when it comes to your creativity. It’s not easy to do, but with practice comes confidence and freedom.

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

A list of “shoulds”

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

“Shoulds” are irrelevant when it comes to making art. The whispered judgments heard while making making art can derail future practice if too much attention is paid to them. Thoughts like “I should draw it like that other person”, “I should be better at this”, or “I should make it look more realistic,” can pop up while you’re creating. But Scott Mautz recommends to “Strike the word should from your vocabulary.” The list of “shoulds” is not helpful so we should ignore it as best we can.

Shaun McNiff in Imagination in Action encourages us to “Clear away expectations, “shoulds” of any kind, and everything but what you are doing. This is like the emptying of the mind’s thoughts and preoccupations as encouraged in contemplative practice. The clearing out of thoughts sharpens awareness in helping us see and feel what is happening indirectly, accidentally, as we provide more room for an open field of exchange where things can connect to each other in new ways.”

Letting go of the “shoulds” creates an openness for creativity to grown and for unexpected results as judging your art before you’ve had a chance to experiment limits creative possibilities. Elle Luna in The Crossroads of Should and Must argues “there is no map, no case study, and no right answer, and the only person who can decide what to do next is you.” And encourages us to “say yes to a journey without a road map or guarantees.”

Andi Cumbo-Floyd in Writing Day In and Day Out suggests “The “should” of life are always linked to guilt.” And Amber Khan advises “Don’t ‘should’ on yourself, instead, replace it with ‘could’ and add an alternative option.” The idea of using “I could” means you can create a new list of things to try which creates a much more gentle space for yourself to create in.

There’s no map, no rules, no “shoulds” – only choices.

“Should is a futile word. It’s about what didn’t happen. It belongs in a parallel universe. It belongs in another dimension of space.” — Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin

Savour being a beginner

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

As you begin to make art as an adult, very quickly you can become focussed on producing ‘better’ art, which can take you away from out enjoying the experience of making. But being a beginner may actually allow you to be more creative.

Because you haven’t yet learnt ‘the rules’ of art — rules if you follow you believe are a surer way to create ‘good’ art — you are open to more possibilities and experiences. Shaun McNiff in Imagination in Action explains “Beginners, or experience artists engaging in new media, might even have certain advantages in terms of fresh responses not as constrained by habit and expectations. Where skill and experience play important roles in the total process of expression, they may have limiting features in relation to an overall scheme of creativity valuing new responses.”

Savour being a beginner. Make the most of being free of the rules and constraints that artists put on themselves. Embrace the uncertainty and newness of it all and go make your rule-free messy art!