Generating new ideas can be an exciting stage in the creative process, when anything is still possible and optimism for success is at its highest. It can simultaneously be a disappointing stage, if no idea is deemed ‘good enough, to put into practice. When making art, the possibilities are endless as to what to make, which materials to use and the approach to take. With all that endless possibility, any small idea can be easily instantly dismissed if the belief is ideas should always be big, bold and impressive. The reality is nothing is original and everything has already been done before so no idea can be completely revolutionary. Small and simple ideas can even be more effective than big and bold ones. But that’s okay because now we can get on with making an unoriginal thing, lowering the bar of expectation to a workable height.
How can we free ourselves from unachievable levels of expectation on our art? Come up with a mountain of ideas. Spend time to write down as many ideas as possible. Set a time for 5 minutes and don’t overthink, just write. Linus Pauling, Nobel Prize winner said “The best way to have a good idea, is to have lots of ideas.” The pool of possibility is limited if you stop at 5 ideas because it’s more likely the mind will resort to more obvious ones first. With a goal of, say 100 ideas, that’s when things can get weird and wonderful. The large number forces you to think in divergent and unexpected ways. By idea 50 you’ve written done everything obvious and have begun ‘scrambling’ for more. Now things are getting interesting as the mind starts searching for unusual connections in an attempt to complete the idea-collation challenge.
Quantity of ideas is a better strategy compared to trying to come up with 1 or 2 ‘best’ ideas. That may keep you stuck because that bar or expectation will keep rising up in the face of ideas judged to be sub-par. As Albert Einstein suggests, “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.”
Feeling disheartened about the quality of your art could lead to you stopping making anything altogether. The inner critic asks “Why bother continuing to make ‘bad’ art?” But stopping practicing is the opposite thing to do because the solution to disheartenment is to make even more art.
Stephanie Peterson Jones in Drawing for Joy explains “…one of the hardest things to do is to let go of the outcome. There will always be times when you won’t like what you’ve done. Accepting your imperfections and drawing without inhibition can be liberating, and if you’re able, it will make your experience deeper and richer. The more you draw, the less the outcome will matter to you.” Letting go of the outcome gives yourself permission to continue to make art the inner critic doesn’t approve of. It’s not suprising it doesn’t approve if it’s comparing your art against art made by people who have years of experience or if the perfect image in your head doesn’t match the imperfect reality on the paper. You can’t win against perfect (perfect is boring and overrated anyway).
Peterson Jones again: “One of the most important lessons you’ll learn from doing art every day is that what you create becomes less precious to you, and the time spent creating art is just as important as what you make. And you will practice more tomorrow. Like life, some days work out fine, others, not so much. Courageously making art with acceptance of the outcome will free your soul and give you joy.”
If you commit to making something every day, the art you made 3 weeks ago won’t feel like such a big failure if you really don’t like it. You will have made a pile of other art since then and so will be less attached to past work. Through the process of consistent making, you begin to see how making something today is helping you make something tomorrow and therefore is a step in the process and doesn’t even need to be visually ‘good.’ It only has to get out onto the paper and exist.
“Is there something you do every day that builds an asset for you? Every single day? Something that creates another bit of intellectual property that belongs to you? Something that makes an asset you own more valuable? Something that you learn? Every single day is a lot of days. It’s easy to look at the long run and lull yourself into skipping a day now and then. But the long run is made up of short runs.” — Seth Godin
Should you keep every piece of art you make? If you’re not making much quantity, it may be beneficial to keep more of it to track progress over time: The physical evidence of improvement can help inspire you to continue practicing, if having fun during the process is not enough to validate the time spent on something ‘frivolous,’ (especially as adulthood seems to bring the concern to be productive all of the time).
If you’re focusing on quantity and start to accumulate piles of artwork, you may want to consider throwing some of it away. In the Atlantic.com article Throw Your Children’s Art Away, it argues “If it’s the act of making the art that’s useful and good for children, then let this part of the art live, and then let its results die. Like its aesthetic quality, the output of children’s artistic efforts is incomplete. Throwing it away actually does everyone a favor.” And “The correct answer is to make the art, bestow it upon someone to behold and admire for a while, and then toss it.”
Children make art for fun, with minimal focus on quality because the act of making something IS the result, not the main point of the exercise. Its’s through the process of making art that you gain feedback so it almost seems irrelevant if the art is any good or is kept. The art is the means to an end in order for you to be creative. Why as adults, do we pressure ourselves to make a thing that has enough value to be kept (and admired) forever? By adopting the childlike spirit of making art and throwing it away, we release ourselves of the burden to make ‘good’ art. We become less attached to the art needing to be perfect which ultimately helps us to be more creative individuals.