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.
If you’ve regularly been spending time making art and have made it a habit in your daily life, it can be frustrating when suddenly you don’t have the energy to make anything. It’s as if your creative energy lifeforce has been zapped out of you. This energy zap, or creative block, is a spanner in the works to your rhythm and creative flow. Being sick quickly can drain all energy, but sometimes it seems for no reason you feel drained. The block can creep up on you when you least expect it, especially if you’ve had a good run of being creative.
Is it okay to stop during these periods or should you press through making art regardless? There is no right answer because both options are okay. If you stop, be kind to yourself. Your self-judgment no doubt will rear up and tell you off for not being productive and pushing through. Sometimes though, in order to let the energy flow more easily in the future, we have to take a break to refuel and recharge. Given we are human beings and not robots, we cannot stay in doing-mode all of the time. Breaks are a necessary part of the process. And if you choose to continue making, set your bar of expectation for the art as low as possible. If you’re not feeling your best, your art may reflect that, or may be noticeably different than usual. It’s also important to you be kind to yourself here because self-judgement may have a field day with any art it deems not as good as usual. Let it be enough you made something. Making one tiny sketch/drawing/piece of art is your new bar of acceptable.
Whichever path you take when creative energy is low, it’s okay to feel stuck. Low energy and creative blocks don’t last forever so have faith that there will be a point in the future where your energy will start to tip in the other direction. In the meantime, let yourself and your judgment rest.
Self-critiquing allows reflection on current progress but it is also is a tool for your future self. Looking at thoughts about past art allows you to spot development over time. While visually the art may have improved or changed, it’s the insight into how you felt at the time—your inner world—that can provide valuable feedback. If when making some of the first drawing attempts, you wrote how unconfident you felt, today you may have forgotten how nervous you were back then. Comparing against the past self, you recognised today you don’t feel as nervous and so your inner world has changed. Many small steps of progress that can’t be measured visually can be overlooked or ignored, but they add up in big ways over time. It could be argued that this inner development is more important than the visual improvement of the art: when inner confidence is grown, effects other areas of life in a positive way.
Get into the practice of regularly writing a small critique for some of the art your make. If you’re drawing in a journal, consider writing a note next the the art, or if on paper, write it on the back. Otherwise write on a post-it note and stick that on the work. Or use a seperate journal/notebook but make sure to date art as you make it so it’s easy refer back to specific pieces when writing about them in your notebook. Dean Nimmer in Art From Intuition suggests “Your sketchbook can also be a good place to write down notes to yourself about any topics that relate to your art, or to your creative process. For example, writing down self-critiques about what you think of your own work.”
Self-critiquing: While every ‘mistake’ in an artwork can be glaring obvious, feedback only why something is ‘bad’ isn’t as useful (or kind) as constructive feedback. If a friend asks for feedback on a drawing, you wouldn’t list all things wrong with it. You’d want to encourage them by focusing on the positive aspects of the art. You should offer the same encouragment for yourself. A helpful comment might look like: “It was tricky deciding on the colours. I like the blue corner best because its bright and I enjoying making it. The red area looks messy. I felt better using colours but want to work on drawing smaller details. I enjoyed the sensation of drawing the curves.” Or a shorter version: “Fun to make, love the squiggles, enjoyed making while listing to x music. Want to do more like this.”
However you choose to critique yourself, remember to be kind and compassionate. Making art takes a great deal of courage as an adult so there’s no need for harsh judgements. We are all doing our creative best and that’s good enough.
What kind of art should you make for fun today? The answer is — for now and every time you ask — whatever you feel most curious, enthusiastic or excited about. You don’t have to finish an old project before starting something new. You’re not in school anymore so you don’t have to finish any homework before you get to play. You can choose play right now. So if an old project feels more like homework than fun, step away and focus on something that does feel fun.
There are many invisible reasons to step away from an old project. Perhaps a break is needed to come back refreshed with renewed energy and fresh ideas. Perhaps space needs to be made for something new that may help finish the old project later on. Or perhaps it’s time to completely let of it because it has served its purpose. If letting go is what you decide to do, have compassion for yourself. It’s not easy to walk away from something you believe you have to complete.
But you don’t have to be a completist if your heart’s not in it anymore. If in doubt, always choose fun over homework.
The sixth century B.C. ‘Fables of Aesop‘ tale of The Wind and the Sun speaks of a competition between gentleness and force:
“The North Wind and the Sun were disputing which was the stronger, when a traveler came along wrapped in a warm cloak. They agreed that the one who first succeeded in making the traveler take his cloak off should be considered stronger than the other. Then the North Wind blew as hard as he could, but the more he blew the more closely did the traveler fold his cloak around him; and at last the North Wind gave up the attempt. Then the Sun shined out warmly, and immediately the traveler took off his cloak. And so the North Wind was obliged to confess that the Sun was the stronger of the two.”
The moral of the tale being: “Gentleness and kind persuasion win where force and bluster fail.” How can this message apply to your art-making practice? How can you be more kind to yourself when negative whispers pop up and you judge your messy art harshly? Instead of forcing yourself to be ‘better,’ what if you took a more gentle approach and focused on the fun of making something? Aside from enjoying yourself, a benefit of regular consistent practice IS improvement in skill, and in confidence. So is it necessary to even worry about improving if it’s going to happen naturally, over time?
Try the sun’s warm and gentle approach to create a more compassionate space to make your art.