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.
It’s a challenge to let go of wanting to be good at something new and making art is no exception. It’s a very human trait to want to make only ‘good’ art. Our ego doesn’t like it when we make ‘bad’ work and so it’s not surprising if you feel like giving up right away. Invariably this robs you of the potential of improvement, but most importantly it robs the experience of having fun with your creativity.
One way to help you keep making art is to purposely make ‘bad’ art. Label it as your messy, unruly, unperfected bad art practice so you can focus on enjoying the process. The quality of your work is irrelevant because you’re seeking to make an arty mess! Your ego may still pop up to question what you’re up to but if it says your art is no good, you can reply “that’s exactly the point so I’m doing great!” You’ll be less likely to feel defeated if you give yourself freedom to make mistakes with enthusiasm.
Debbie Millman in a Creative mornings talk said “I’m not that good. I’m just really unwilling to give up.” Giving up is far more disappointing than making something bad because making bad art takes courage and choosing to continue the process allows your creativity to develop and grow in ways you haven’t yet imagined.
I do have to step back, take a breather, and realize that it is just a project and not the end of the world if it’s not perfect.” – Mary Kate McDevitt
The fragile process of beginning to make art again is hard for the ego, who wants to get everything perfect first time. Currently our culture encourages us to share our art with the world via social media. Why not share when you can get instant likes and feedback to encourage you to keep at it? But what if your audience isn’t enthusiastic? You feel proud you even finished making the thing but that feeling can feel squashed when someone says something even slightly critical.
You are your own worst critic and Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way discourages critiquing yourself too harshly because “Judging your early artistic efforts is artist abuse.” But it’s not just yourself you have to worry about when “beginning work is exposed to premature criticism, shown to overly critical friends.” A well-meant comment can feel like a pin to your enthusiasm balloon and questions about why you’re not spending your time on more ‘important’ things can feel confronting.
It may remind you of a past time when you received harsh criticism about your art and this might be enough to completely derail you from being creative. Your art is going to be unrefined in the beginning and you have to face that while you’re making it but do you really need less than supportive feedback from others? What if you chose to keep your art-making secret and made it just for you?
The idea of your art making being similar to a private diary or journal process is echoed in Felix Scheinberger’s book Dare to Sketch sketch-booking process: “My sketchbook is something very personal. I draw in it for me and not for others; I use it to describe my world and my life.” How making art for yourself is the goal and nobody else need be involved. “It’s your sketchbook and yours alone, and should matter to no one else. once you are aware of this, it becomes a lot easier to work on a sketchbook. You are not drawing for any presumed critics or admirers, but for yourself. You aren’t producing a presentation booklet, but a creative space that consciously allows for mistakes and experiments. Your sketchbook is not a public space. Protect it.”
Protecting it and keeping your art secret is a way to help your fledgling artist grow stronger and limiting anything that endangers that. Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic talks of having an affair with your art: “Let yourself fall in love with your creativity… and see what happens.” The idea of an affair being something that you undertake in secret, something you’d make sure was hidden from the world: “Sneak off and have an affair with your most creative self… Conceal it from your family and friends, whatever it is you’re up to.”
The idea of making art in the dark, away from any other eyes could be the freedom you need to unleash your creative spirit. By treating your sketchbooks and notebooks as a private journal, you allow your confidence and skills to grow stronger undisturbed.
“[Creative recovery] It is an awkward, tentative, even embarrassing process. There will be many times when we won’t look good – to ourselves or anyone else. We need to stop demanding that we do. It is impossible to get better and look good at the same time.” – Julia Cameron
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.
Sometimes when getting creative, we get caught up in judging our art before we’ve even finished making it. Focused on wanting to make something ‘good,’ we limit our potential by having such a low tolerance for ‘mistakes’. There is so much potential in making strange and weird marks, allowing for spontaneity and happy accidents, that making bad art is a way to get better a making good art. Sam Anderson suggests blind drawing is “the fastest way to break them out of old bad habits, to make them unlearn lifeless conventions.” As well as being “Joyful and meditative…you can do it anywhere, anytime, with any subject. It will flip you, like a switch, from absence to presence.” It’s a kind of active meditation where you let go of the outcome and get very still while drawing.
You will need: paper and a pencil or pen. Optional board or book to fix the paper to, if you find the paper keeps slipping.
Fix your gaze on your chosen subject and without looking at your paper, slowly draw what you see
Take your time to finish your drawing without looking at your paper
Kimon Nicolaides reminds us that “a contour study is not a thing that can be ‘finished.’ It is having a particular type of experience, which can continue as long as you have the patience to look.”
A couple of variations you can try:
close your eyes and draw from your imagination
set a timer and draw until it goes off
Place the paper within your peripheral vision so that it’s still fuzzy but you can see where your pen is in relation to the paper. This creates a sort of 1/2 blind drawing, allowing more control
Use your non-dominant hand to draw and either choose to look at what you’re drawing, or not. Be prepared for some fun mark making!
Your first attempt is likely to make you laugh because it will be so strange and bad but that’s exactly the point. Art should be about having fun and letting go. Blind drawing is a wonderful exercise in letting go, embracing bad art and getting clumsy like Piasso. But with practice comes improvement, more speed and confident according to Felix Scheinberger. “As strange as it may seem, blind contour drawing will teach you to observe more closely and to draw more confidently.”
“Lately I’ve been experimenting a lot with “un-perfecting” as a way to loosen up, embrace the grit, and explore new kinds of energy in my paintings. While a highly refined painting can certainly be lovely, I find raw, messy, human expression and experience to be incredibly compelling – and refreshing… One way to achieve this kind of less controlled look is to explore using your nondominant hand.” – Flora Bowley, Creative Revolution.