Responding to the last thing you made can be a fast way to start building a chain of making. The easiest first step might be to copy another persons piece of art if you don’t know where to begin. Pick something you like visually and either loosely copy it or find smaller elements within the art to draw. Children’s art can be a fun starting point of inspiration. Once you’ve got something down on paper, don’t be afraid to cut it up and rearrange the pieces to create something new. Then copy the new reconfigured piece. Be inspired by your own-mark making and continue this process of coping and responding to your art.
Austin Kleon writes about a copy/transform/combine process: “It’s been most helpful to me personally when I think of copy/transform/combine as a more linear process in creating: copying is how you learn and assemble your artistic alphabet or vocabulary, combining is when you start to stick your influences together, and transforming is when you stick the right influences together and the seams of your Frankenstein monster disappear and you wind up with a whole new monster entirely.”
Through this process you start building a chain of art through each new art piece and where you end up may look very different compare to where you started. By cutting up the art there is space to create without the constraint of perfection, which allows you to let go of being precious about the artwork. Follow the copying chain to see what unexpected transformations surface through this process.
The untouched blank page can be a bigger hurdle than you’d expect to making art. Not wanting to ‘spoil’ the whiter than white, pristine surface, you may hold off making any marks until you’ve decided on an idea that’s ‘good’ enough. Waiting to think of a good (or perhaps even perfect) idea can keep you stuck from making anything at all. In that situation take the pressure to make something ‘good’ off the table. Instead, try making something bad, messy or ugly.
Kim Piper Werker in Make it Mighty Ugly shares “When I’m paralyzed by the pressure to make something mind-glowingly awesome, I make something ugly instead.” This process of focusing on making ugly art can free you from the creative killjoy of perfectionism. Werker again: “Making ugly things reminds me to pay attention to the process of making, rather than obsessing about the product. It reminds me I’ve made mistakes and failed and will make more mistakes and fail again, so I’d better just keep on making things.”
Decide to make some ugly marks and turn your white paper into ugly art. The more mistakes, the better. Your creativity doesn’t need to be beautiful or perfect on the page. It’s just as valuable (and much more fun) if it’s ugly.
“… ugly can make us mighty. All we have to do is pay attention to it. When we look at it, when we stare it right in the face, we take its power for our own. We grow to understand it. We learn from it. We defuse it. And we become free.” — Kim Piper Werker
We’re taught to seek constant improvement, to work on our weaknesses and out-do our previous performances, because better is better… right?
Except it’s not better when making art is involved. How you feel making during the process IS the point. The fun of making something out of nothing, the sensory experience of using your hands and switching off your mind for a few precious moments in your day is worth gold. To reconnect to the part of you that enjoys making something just for fun, with no a hint of it needing to be productive or valuable far outweighs any incremental progress you’ll achieve.
You don’t NEED to get any better in order to continue making art. You have everything right now to make something from nothing and it’s even better if the art is messy and flawed. Why focus on impossible task of making everything perfectly if it doesn’t feel fun?
1. Carry a small notebook/sketchbook and pen/pencil wherever you go
Write down your ideas, make notes of things you like as soon as you see them, practice making art on the go or in fringe time that normally gets swallowed up looking at your phone. Get curious about your daily surroundings, mine your life and record your discoveries. The scrappier and cheaper it is, the more likely perfectionists will actually use it instead of keeping it ‘unspoilt’ in its perfect original state!
2. Make something everyday
Make something, ANYTHING to practice exercising your creativity muscle. If you can find a spare two minutes, then you have enough time to make something. If you think “what’s the point of only spending two minutes?” It adds up to an hour after a month and creates a small pile of art. Spending two minutes is better than spending zero minutes (especially if the myth of having to spend hours making art feels overwhelming and is stopping you from making anything at all).
3. Focus on quantity not quality
When you make art for yourself, you can let go of it needed to look ‘good.’ You’re not in school trying to please the teacher anymore. You get to make bad, messy and imperfect art because you ENJOY it. That’s the only important reason you need. By focusing on quantity, it helps to shift focus from worrying if you’re not doing it ‘right’. And when making quantity can actually accelerate creativity, quality can be so overrated.
4. Start making art right now
Don’t wait for the start of the year/month/week to roll round. Start NOW. You’ve heard you only need two minutes so pick up a pencil and paper and make some marks immediately!
What would ‘letting go’ look like when making your art? Perhaps it looks like allowing yourself to follow a strange curiosity or interest in a subject. Allow yourself to spend time, to indulge in the process of making art (although it can be argued that the act of making art – reconnecting to yourself – is not an indulgence, but a necessity and worthwhile endeavour). Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic encourages us to “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.” It may mean choosing to ‘get it done’ or ‘good is good enough,’ and ignoring the illusive (and impossible) goal of perfection.
Letting go could mean making art in the face of your fears. Steven Pressfield in The Artist’s Journey suggests “The artist is afraid of the unknown. She’s afraid of letting go. Afraid of finding out what’s “in there.” Or “out there… This fear, I suspect, is more about finding we are greater than we think than discovering we’re lesser. What if, God help us, we actually have talent? What if we truly do possess a gift? What will we do then?”
What if we stepped out into the unknown to find out what lies beyond our reach? Discovering what lies ‘out there’ is worthy of your attention and time. For within the unknown, lies your power.
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.
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
Group together your pens/pencils in a bunch so that the tips are flush (none stick out more than others).
Fix together if it makes it easier, otherwise hold them tightly in your hand.
Imagine the bunch is one big tool and make marks as you would with one pen.
Play around with the number of pens and try different colour combinations.
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