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 getting creative, it’s important not to judge artwork during the actual process of making, and instead to focus on the action taking place. Evaluating artwork before it’s finished takes you from being present in the moment of creating, into a judgmental (often emotinally challenging) position of editor and critic. The added pressure of evaluating everything while in the creative mode could turn into second-guessing every mark made and force you to be cautious about getting anything ‘wrong’ at all. Artwork could be prematurely rejected before even finishing which could limit unexpected discoveries or the space to practice.
A constant judging-while-making-process doesn’t help you develop as an artist, encourage ‘bad’ art, messy mistakes or allow for the unexpected. The judgmental editor thinks it’s helping by critiquing the artwork but actually is limiting potential growth and improvement. Shut the editor down and focus on the making. It’s the way to improvement in the long run.
We all have biases and judgments about what we consider to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ art. When making art it’s important to question why you choose to label something as good or bad, especially because you may not even realise the real reason why. Alain de Botton and John Armstrong in Art as Therapy explain “Ideas about what is ‘good’ art are not formed by themselves. They are the result of complex systems of patronage, ideology, money and education, supported by university courses and museums, all of which guide our sense of what makes a work of art especially worthy of attention.”
Simply put, your beliefs around what art is ‘good’ are comprised by other people, institutes and industries beliefs. How could you not be influenced when viewing ‘successful’ art in a national gallery space, building a visual set of rules about what constitutes ‘good art?’ Just because someone else believe X artwork is brilliant, doesn’t mean their opinion is the hard and fast rule of good/bad. This is worth questioning because having the courage to make your own art may bring up black and white rules and discourage you from making more art if you don’t seem to measuring up to an invisible standard that’s been subconsciously bought into.
Make your own rules about the art you make and measure ‘good’ by the amount of enjoyment you feel when making the art. That’s a far more accurate (and kinder) measure of attention.
Do you believe every person has the potential to be creative through practice, or that you’re born naturally talented? The answer reveals whether you have a growth (there’s potential) or a fixed (born that way) mindset. Having a fixed mindset will limit your potential for growth and development because as Carol Dweck in Mindset suggests, “No matter what your ability is, effort is what ignites that ability and turns it into accomplishment.” Effort is key because talent only gets you so far in the beginning. Effort will take further in the long run, but only if you’re willing to persistently and consistently show up.
Shaun McNiff in Trust the Process notes when viewing children’s art we can see every child has the ability and permission to create. But through a schooling experience, “freedom is restricted for the majority of people as the identification of “talent” tends to overshadow universal participation.” We get disheartened if our art isn’t ‘good’ enough and believe we should stop if doesn’t showing visible signs of ‘talent.’ McNiff argues that a person’s license to create cannot ever be taken away, it’s “as natural as breathing and walking.” This can be a challenging notion to accept if you believe you’re not creative either by self-judgment or through the judgment of others. Is it is possible to move from not-being-creative to being-creative? Always. McNiff encourages “Training in creativity requires the ability to relax in periods of uncertainty and to trust that the creative intelligence will find its way” as well as “an inclination to step into the unknown as well as the ability to persist when there is no end in sight.”
If you can spend a few moments sitting with the uncertainty, (the uncomfortable feeling of not-knowing) not rushing the feeling away or stopping the art-making process, you will discover that the uncertainty will rise and fall if you allow it to just be. Whisper some encouraging words to yourself, take a breath and continue to make your art.
When making art, it can be hard to not judge work as failures. Thoughts around it not being good enough or not looking the way you think it aught to–or the hundreds of other judgments that pop up–can stop you from making anything else for fear of repeating the failure. The feeling of failure stings and this is something the mind wants us to avoid experiencing and therefore explains why you may feel like giving up so soon. Pema Chödrön in Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better speaks of the ‘Fine art of failing’ and how succeeding has a lot of emphasis and hype placed on it. But if you consider the definition of success as it working out that way you hoped, “failing by that definition is that it didn’t work out the way you wanted it to.”
Chödrön talks about hearing a quote from James Jocye’s Ulysses that described how failure leads to discovered, but instead of using ‘failure’ Joyce used the word ‘mistake.’ “Mistakes are the portal to creativity, to learning something new, to having a fresh look on things.” Reframing a ‘failure’ to a ‘mistake’ may mean you give yourself more space (and self-compassion) to not get things ‘right’ all of the time.
Failing better means seeing failure as part of the journey,”to see it as your connection with other human beings and as part of your humanness.” The idea that we should get everything right all of the time is an unrealistically high bar for ourselves and leaves no space of the unexpected, delightfully imperfect and spontaneous results that being creative allow us access to. “Failing better means when these things happen in your life, they become a source of growth, a source of forward.” Growth and forward is a bi-product of failure and making lots of mistakes, and is to be embraced instead of feared, when making our art.
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.
Allowing yourself to spontaneously create art—without judging as you make—can be a challenge. Ignoring the inner critics, resistance or distracting negative thoughts takes bravery and a commitment to continue making art regardless. Why should you allow yourself to make “bad” or embarrassing art in the face of self-judgement? Lewis Hyde in The Gift quotes Allen Ginsberg, who speaks of spontaneous writing: “Spontaneous writing could be embarrassing… The cure for that is to write things down which you will not publish and which you won’t show people. To write secretly… so you can actually be free to say anything you want.”
Being able to create, without the art needing to be shown to anyone, or it needing to be “good” gives you freedom to explore more fully, perhaps in places you wouldn’t venture if you knew others were watching. Ginsberg again: “… settling down in the muck of your own mind… You really have to make a resolution just to write for yourself…, in the sense of not writing to impress yourself, but just writing what yourself is saying.” While Ginsberg talks of writing, this is relevant for any art medium. You have to make a resolution to make art for yourself so you can explore what wishes to be created within you. The letting go of seeking approval or validation from other people allows you to create for the sake of creating—to make art because you enjoy it.
The muck of your mind may surprise you with what it comes up with. Allow yourself time and space to be curious and go explore in the mud.