Improvement happens tiny step by tiny step. Brick by brick.
Sometimes you’ll take a leap and it feels wonderful to make big steps forward. Such noticeable progress feels reassuring and can be a reminder that the thing you’re working on is worth your time and effort.
But most improvement results from a slow and steady approach. Our ego would love for things to move quicker because it stubbornly only wants instant gratification and success. But success isn’t a finish line in the distant future – success is building something brick by brick, even in the face of doubt, discomfort and adversity.
As the saying goes, life is a marathon, not a sprint. There is plenty of time so there’s no hurry to work it all out right now, in this moment. Place the next tiny brick and keep repeating until it’s time for a leap.
If a white piece of paper blinds you with too many possibilities, starting with another piece of art and editing that can get you straight into the art-making process. Creating instant restrictions creates less resistance to getting started because there’s less choice on offer. Austin Kleon in The Steal Like An Artist Journal encourages us “If we’re free from the burden of trying to be completely original, we can stop trying to make something out of nothing, and we can embrace influence instead of running away from it.” By mixing up existing art into something new, you’re creating your own art and experimenting with what you like visually.
You will need: Text (or images) to cut up. Pencil and ruler if you want to be really accurate. Scissors or scalpel to cut. Glue if you want to fix permanently in place.
Divide your chosen text into squares of equal sizes and cut out
Optional: Use pencil and ruler on the back if you don’t want to do it by eye
Seeing something arranged differently and changing your perspective will feed back into other areas of your life in a positive way. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Creativity says “Good scientists, like good artists, must let their minds roam playfully or they will not discover new facts, new patterns, new relationships.” By allowing yourself to playfully create new patterns using what exists around, you opens yourself up to other unknown possibilities.
Look what’s already laying around your home that you can cut up and rearrange and go have a play.
“…nothing is completely original. All creative work builds on what came before. Every new idea is just a remix or a mashup of one or two previous ideas.”– Austin Kleon, Steal Like An Artist
Roald Dahl explained in a 1985 interview how his first story got published. “I remember saying to myself, my goodness, it can’t be as easy as all this? … It’s terribly hard work [writing] but it’s easy the way that if you do work hard enough, then it appears that what I write is enjoyed or bought always.” Looking back now given Dahl’s success, it’s may be no surprise that he was able to become a writer without resistance from the outside world. Perhaps it was enviable that he was to become a prolific writer, or luck; being in the right place at the right time.
David Bowie said inBowie: The Man Who Changed the World, “I don’t have a problem writing. I do write a lot over the course of a year. It’s never really been hard for me to do that.” That’s not to say other elements of Bowie’s career weren’t hard or challenging, but the process of regularly writing was straightforward.
While hard work is often required to achieve your goals, there’s a difference between it being a struggle and getting down to work on something with focus, grit and determination. Satisfaction can come from “working hard” on something you’re interested in. But is there a link to needing to feel like you’ve you really struggled through something or overcome adversity in order for you feel good about reaching a goal? I’m only worthy of the win if I’ve had to fight to get it?
Tara Mohr in Playing Bigsays “…often our fears about playing bigger find cover under the conviction that we have to build something large and complex.” Perhaps building, making or trying something small and simple is just as rewarding, nourishing and beneficial for growth?
“The cake you baked is delicious!”Oh it’s from an old recipe I’ve been using for years, it’s nothing really.” It feels like nothing because you’ve done it so many times and don’t even have to look at the receipt to know the measurements. It’s easy to make that delicious cake so it’s not worthy of the praise because perhaps you didn’t really EARN it. You didn’t stay up all night working on it, it wasn’t effortless but it wasn’t burdened with effort. Don’t diminish your skills that come easily; they are your silent superpowers.
Danielle LaPorte asks us “Ever feel suspicious when something is all flown and easy and just comes together? Same. We should probably get over that.”
Easy can be as valuable as hard, if you acknowledge it.
The cut-outs by Henri Matisse are some of his most colourful and playful work, made simply with paper and scissors. He even created some art from bed as his health deteriorated. It’s inspiring that he continued to make art into his 80’s and right up to the very end and was still doing it with such passion and commitment.
“During the last decade of his life Henri Matisse deployed two simple materials—white paper and gouache—to create works of wide-ranging color and complexity. An unorthodox implement, a pair of scissors, was the tool Matisse used to transform paint and paper into a world of plants, animals, figures, and shapes… He described the process of making them as both “cutting directly into color” and “drawing with scissors.” – MoMA explaining Matisse’s process
In Matisse A Cut Above the Rest as part of BBC The Culture Show 2014, his work was referred to as “Simple, almost childish, blazing with colour,” and “He had the audacity of simplicity.”
The simplest of ideas is usually the best. We tend to over-complicate, wanting things to be more complex in order to be ‘good’. Danielle Krysa in Collage, reminds us “You don’t need any fancy equipment or a workshop full of tools – every household has a pair of scissors and some glue or adhesive tape. In the book she interviewed Anthony Zinonos, who spoke of a special relationship with his tools: “My scissors and glue have become my best friends, they never judge me.”
Spending time moving paper around with no final outcome in mind can be very meditative. It creates an intuitive, loose method working as nothing has to be fixed in place until you’ve settled on a final look. Even then you can take a photo of the arrangement and not commit to sticking it permanently which is perfect if you change your mind a lot!
Considering starting a creative project? “That sounds great,” you think. But time passes and nothing happens. You’ve been wondering about it though. Is it worth spending your time and energy on this thing that seemed small and easy at first, but now seems much bigger?
Advice? DO IT. Take action and THEN have a think.
Wondering if you’ll like it won’t give you the whole picture because you only know what you know (i.e if you haven’t tried, how can you really know?). And what if this little project is the beginning of something magic? Compare that to taking action and finding out exactly how you feel. That’s a lot more data to work with and more accurate than looking into your imaginary crystal ball.
“Don’t cross out. (That is editing as you write. Even if you write something you didn’t mean to write, leave it.) Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar. (Don’t even care about staying within the margins and lines on the page.)Lose control. Don’t think. Don’t get logical. Go for the jugular. (If something comes up in your writing that is scary or naked, dive right into it. It probably has lots of energy.)” [emphasis added]
Advice not just relevant for writers, but for any art-makers.
How to start? Jump in for 2 minutes: set a timer and start making. But only for 2 minutes so your ego doesn’t talk you out of it. Commit to repeating this daily for a week. Then see if you can do 2 weeks. Maybe you’ll start to feel 2 minutes isn’t long enough, maybe you get on a roll and surprise yourself. You’ll most likely feel different doing it on day 1 compared to day 7, gaining a dash of confidence along the way. If you can get over the scary hump of “I’m rubbish at this, what’s the point?” then magic is waiting for you (hint: the answer is to regularly show up in those 2 minutes).
If you feel terrified at the thought of making art, this is a perfect exercise for you to feel more in control. Danny Gregory in Art Before Breakfast says “Creativity is the act of shaping the mush of the world around us into something – of creating your own order.” You make your own rules. You don’t have to commit to any arrangement so no decision is made in stone. It’s about playing around and seeing what turns up. And because you’re rearranging shapes, you don’t need any creative skills to get started. You can dive right in.
You will need: paper in different colours, photographs, images and text from magazines, books or any paper source. Scissors or scalpel knife. Optional glue or sticky tape and a tray to put things on or work from.
Cut out shapes. Squares, triangles and circles are the easiest to start with.
Cut out images. Don’t overthink it, cut it out and add it to the pile.
From your pile of cut out elements, pick some and start arranging on a piece of paper. Play around with different combinations without thinking of a final look.
If you like a combination, take a photo or fix it in place with glue or tape.
Feeling overwhelmed with choice?
Pick one colour and only elements that match it
Only use coloured paper and shapes
Only use two colours or two shapes
Set a timer for 2 minutes to force quicker decision making so once the time is up, the work becomes finished by default
Have a jar/box/folder/somewhere to keep all the things you cut out in one place so you can revisit them quickly for future collages. It becomes your material for another day. Danielle Krysa in Collage says “Generally the actual making of a collage is a quick process – the groundwork of searching and collecting materials having already been put in place.” She encourages us to get collaging considering that “Collage is cheap and accessible to everyone.”
The more you make, the more you learn what you like and don’t like. Practice brings more decisiveness about knowing when your collage is finished.
“So how do you create with no map of where you are going?… Creating in this kind of ambiguous territory can present some definitive challenges, but opening yourself up to the unknown can also be invigorating and deeply revealing… It’s such a naturally human tendency to want to plan and plot. However, the more you flex your brave intuitive muscles, the easier letting go becomes.” – Flora Bowley, Creative Revolution.
Sometimes when getting creative, we get caught up in judging our art before we’ve even finished making it. Focused on wanting to make something ‘good,’ we limit our potential by having such a low tolerance for ‘mistakes’. There is so much potential in making strange and weird marks, allowing for spontaneity and happy accidents, that making bad art is a way to get better a making good art. Sam Anderson suggests blind drawing is “the fastest way to break them out of old bad habits, to make them unlearn lifeless conventions.” As well as being “Joyful and meditative…you can do it anywhere, anytime, with any subject. It will flip you, like a switch, from absence to presence.” It’s a kind of active meditation where you let go of the outcome and get very still while drawing.
You will need: paper and a pencil or pen. Optional board or book to fix the paper to, if you find the paper keeps slipping.
Fix your gaze on your chosen subject and without looking at your paper, slowly draw what you see
Take your time to finish your drawing without looking at your paper
Kimon Nicolaides reminds us that “a contour study is not a thing that can be ‘finished.’ It is having a particular type of experience, which can continue as long as you have the patience to look.”
A couple of variations you can try:
close your eyes and draw from your imagination
set a timer and draw until it goes off
Place the paper within your peripheral vision so that it’s still fuzzy but you can see where your pen is in relation to the paper. This creates a sort of 1/2 blind drawing, allowing more control
Use your non-dominant hand to draw and either choose to look at what you’re drawing, or not. Be prepared for some fun mark making!
Your first attempt is likely to make you laugh because it will be so strange and bad but that’s exactly the point. Art should be about having fun and letting go. Blind drawing is a wonderful exercise in letting go, embracing bad art and getting clumsy like Piasso. But with practice comes improvement, more speed and confident according to Felix Scheinberger. “As strange as it may seem, blind contour drawing will teach you to observe more closely and to draw more confidently.”
“Lately I’ve been experimenting a lot with “un-perfecting” as a way to loosen up, embrace the grit, and explore new kinds of energy in my paintings. While a highly refined painting can certainly be lovely, I find raw, messy, human expression and experience to be incredibly compelling – and refreshing… One way to achieve this kind of less controlled look is to explore using your nondominant hand.” – Flora Bowley, Creative Revolution.