The process of making art as a beginner adult can be a hidden lesson in self-compassion. When trying to make something out of nothing, the mind can create a lot of resistance to the process if the fruits of your action are judged as inadequate. Being a beginner, the chances are your skills aren’t has honed as a master painter who has 30 years experience, whose artwork you may be comparing yourself against. Judgmental thoughts may arise such as “I’m no good at this, what’s the point” and “this is bad,” which offer no support while in the creating process. This self-criticism may ultimately lead to stopping making art altogether.
How can we defend against self-criticism to ensure future practice? Susan L. Smalley and Diana Winston in Fully Present suggests that the opposite of self-criticism is self-compassion. In order to be more self-compassionate and to deal with difficult thinking, they suggest through thinking itself: “You can use thoughts to soothe other thoughts and feelings. For example, if you are anxious because you are caught in traffic and late to an appointment, you may start talking to yourself: It’s okay, I don’t have control over the traffic, I’ll get there when I get there. This is quite a skillful response to the situation. Called “positive self-talk,” or self-soothing it’s a kind of thinking you use to counteract other kinds of thinking in order to soothe yourself, regulate your emotions, or generally bring some wisdom to the part of your mind that may seem out of control because you are scare, angry, or sad.”
Self-soothing when making art might sound like “I’m learning as I go and am focusing on how it feels to make art” when a judgmental thought around not being ‘good’ pops up. Just as you would reassure a loved-one that their efforts are completely useless, reassure yourself in the same way with soothing and compassionate words. Then get back to making your art and continue to greet each future criticism with kindness.
Can you cultivate mindfulness while making art? What is mindfulness and how do you go about being more mindful? Nhat Hanh Thich in The Art of Mindfulness explains “It is very simple and also very challenging. The practice of mindfulness requires only that whatever you do, you do with your whole being. You have to invest one hundred percent of yourself in doing even very simple things, like picking up a pen, opening a book, or lighting a stick of incense.”
He suggests pouring tea into a cup can become an act of meditation, if done with mindfulness: “Everyone knows how to pour tea… but not everyone pours mindfully and drinks tea mindfully. This is because we have a tendency to run away from the here and now.” If mindfulness can be applied to pouring tea, then it can be also applied to making art. What would giving 100% of yourself look like when being creative? Focusing attention on the physical action of making art is all it takes to be mindful. A simple concept that takes practice to get used to. Being able to repeat the process on a regular basis may be the hardest part of the practice.
When drawing or making art, snap judgments can be made about the quality or successful of the art. Labels such as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ can quickly be added to art, even while in the process of making it. It’s challenging to let go of the labels that pop up while creating, labels that make you feel disheartened and may even make you force you to question continuing. How can move through these moments of doubt in order to continue the joyful experience of making art?
Henepola Gunaratana in Mindfulness in Plain English suggests to see things as they really are: “… we do not mean seeing things superficially, with our regular eyes, but seeing things as they are in themselves, with wisdom.” Can we look at the art with deeper wisdom that is more forgiving that the judgemental voice in our minds? The wisdom that knows you’re not an expert and that the art doesn’t need to be a masterpiece. It knows the joy is found within the process and not in the visual outcome of the art.
Gunaratana encourages “Don’t cling to anything, and don’t reject anything. Let come what comes, and accommodate yourself to that, whatever it is. If good mental images arise, that is fine. If bad mental images arise, that is find, too. Look on all of it as equal, and make yourself comfortable with whatever happens. Don’t fight with what you experience, just observe it mindfully. Let the judgements sit with you, don’t hurry them away. Before long you may find they start to quieten and slip away as you get into the momentum of making.
When making or reviewing your art, have you noticed the amount of negative self talk pops into your mind? Judgmental comments or thoughts about the art not being good enough? This judgmental voice or self critic can derail our enthusiasm, confidence and future practice if we believe it’s telling the truth.
Psychologists Barbara Markway and Greg Markway explain in this article the 3 functions the self critic serves:
- As motivation: “If it cracks a whip, it will motivate us to do a desired behavior… we cling to the believe that by berating ourselves, we can achieve more.”
- To feel in control: “When we criticize ourselves, we reinforce the illusion of control.”
- To keep us safe: “Self-criticism taps into the brain’s threat/defense response. The system is designed to protect us and keep us safe. It’s hard-wired into our brain and worked great when the threat was a lion running after us. But when the threat is to our self-concept, self-criticism does not work well”
So if you view you or your art as a problem, the ‘reptilian brain’ as Markway & Markway describe, attacks in the form of self-critical self-talk. Understanding your brain is wired this way to react to perceived ‘threats’ allows self-compassion for moments when you find yourself being self-judgmental.
Mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn explains ‘Non-Judging:’ in this video: “My working definition of mindfulness is the awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. And the non-judgmentally is the real challenge because when you start to pay attention to what’s on your mind, you very rapidly discover that we have ideas and opinions about everything… So when we speak of mindfulness as being non-judgmental awareness, it doesn’t mean that there won’t be judgments. It means you will be aware of how judgmental we actually are and then not judge the judging…. Our judging is very often black and white. It’s either this or that… good or bad… and we get imprisoned by that kind of view.”
Noticing is the first step. Our poor reptilian brains do like to jump to judgmental conclusions often and quickly and that’s okay. Allow the thoughts to surface and greet them with compassion. And then get back to making your art.
Art hung in galleries is the result of years of practice, experimentation and failures but we don’t see that process when we look at the art. We only see the tip of the art-making iceberg. Comparing our messy behind the scenes failure-filled process to other artists final work not only is discouraging, but it makes it seem other artists take a smooth pathway from A (making that piece of art) to B (getting it hung in gallery). We must be mindful that art making isn’t a smooth A to B pathway. Instead, it’s a long process of meandering, challenging, uncertain steps taken over time and through a lot of practice—a process orientation focus.
Ellen J. Langer in Mindfulness explains “A true process orientation also means being aware that every outcome is preceded by a process… A process orientation not only sharpens our judgment, it makes us feel better about ourselves. A purely outcome orientation can take the joy out of life.” If we only focus on the outcome (orientation), we ignore the work that went into getting us to the outcome and so diminish the bulk of our efforts, growth and lessons learnt.
But what if you struggle to believe you can make any art at all? Langer encourages you to ask: “How do I do this?” instead of “Can I do this?” and thus directs attention toward defining the steps that are necessary on the way. This orientation can be categorized in terms of the guiding principle that there are no failures, only ineffective solutions.” We have a sensitivity towards failure. We can see it in black and white terms of being “bad” and therefore to be avoided at all costs. But the mindful approach is to view it as it actually is: an ineffective solution to what was trying to be achieved. You worked out one way not to do it and that is valuable data and a learning opportunity. What you do with that data, in the face of failure, is what counts. Use it to guide you to wither by repeating or trying a difference approach, instead of being limited by a narrow and stifling definition of failure.
“It seems obvious, but when did you last take time out of your busy day simply to sit and think?” Asks Greg McKeown in Essentialism. “I’m talking about deliberately setting aside distraction-free time in a distraction-free space to do absolutely nothing other than to think.”
With everyone walking around with a portable computer in their back pocket, constant distraction is at your finger tips every single second of the day. It now takes more willpower and intention NOT to touch your phone when you’re bored than it does to be fully immersed in your daily surroundings during ‘waiting’ periods. Distraction or entertainment – however you wish to frame it – allows you to soothing escape whenever you feel the pang of boredom. McKeown argues that people don’t enjoy being bored “But by abolishing any change of being bored we have also lost the time we used to have to think and process.”
Zooming out from our smart phones, the ‘busyness’ epidemic is currently rife via the rat race, multitasking and being available to everyone at all times, to name a few. Jonathan Fields in How to Live a Good Life explains “By the time we reach adulthood, we’re so distracted by the pull of speed, connectivity, expectations, and rules, we lose the ability to see and experience what’s right in front of us. We become 99 percent unaware, and in doing so we lose the ability to choose and to act rather than react.” Fields suggests mindfulness as a antidote to this lack of awareness. “Mindfulness is about slowing down, noticing and seeing what is really happening in front of you in this moment, without the anxiety of expectation or the haze of regret.”
Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi in Creativity echoes the idea of slowing down: “You should just indulge in the luxury of reflection for its own sake. Whether you intend it or not, new ideas and conclusions will emerge in your consciousness anyway – and the less you try to direct the process the more creative they are likely to be.”
Regularly taking pauses to stop and think will also long term allow you to avoid future burnout. When you get completely cooked you’re forced to take a giant break – one that makes up for all the times your subconscious asked for a break and you ignored it. Save yourself that cooked feeling and allow yourself to regularly slow down.