If you feel lost as to what you ‘should’ be making/drawing/writing when getting creative, don’t worry. It’s a common hurdle for all creatives. When the hurdle feels too large and therefore overwhelming to overcome, it can lead to creative burnout. But the fact is there’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to art making and everyone – including professional artists – is making it up as they go. Michaela Chung in The Year of the Introvertsays “The truth is that no one knows what the hell they are doing. The problem is not the fact that you haven’t got it all figured out. It’s the fact that you feel like you should.”
You shouldn’t have worked it all out because nothing is ever finished – the journey of art making continues and you’re never ever done. Progress and growth is the ultimate goal and so when you’re feeling lost, make anything. Anything at all, there’s no need for it to to even be any good. Chung touches on progress: ” One of my personal mottos is “progress over perfection.” You’re not perfect, but you’re better that your were before, and that’s what really matters.”
Being creative is a series of steps where you only need to choose one tiny step at a time.
What does a tennis pro with 23 Grand Slam single titles have in common with an art-making beginner?
Fear of failure.
In Being Serena, Serena Williams talks about fear on the court: “People ask me have I ever been afraid on a tennis court? I laugh. Of course I’ve been afraid on the tennis court! When I was younger, going against big stars. When I was older and all the expectations that came with that. The fear of failing, it’s always there in one form or another.” The idea that success shields you from future fear of failure is an illusion because the fear remains within us at every single stage, from beginner to master.
At this years pre-Wimbledon news conference, Serena was asked if she’s used to her opponents upping their game because she’s the ‘one to beat’? She responded. “It’s what makes me great. I always play everyone at their greatest so I have to be greater… everyone comes out and they play me so hard and now my level’s so much higher because because of it, from years and years of being played like that… My level, if it wasn’t high, I wouldn’t be who I am so I had to raise my level to unknown because they’re playing me at a level that’s unknown. So now I’m used to it.” Serena embraced the unknown and used it as a strategy to improve her game.
Whether you’re making art or playing professional tennis at the highest level, the fear of failure never disappears. Walking alongside the unknown is an intrinsic part of life and is an important tool for growth. Try to embrace the unknown and see if you can implement it as a strategy and allow yourself space to get even a tiny bit more comfortable in the uncomfortableness of uncertainty!
We love to feel prepared before trying something new because it’s not easy putting ourselves in an unknown situation. It’s uncomfortable. When making art you may think you need to go out and buy lots of ‘good’ art supplies but what if you used what was already in your cupboards at home?
In The Runaway Species Anthony Brandt and David Eagleman talk about raw materials used for creativity “Human creativity does not emerge from a vacuum. We draw on our experience and the raw materials around us to refashion the world.” What if part of the fun was exploring everyday objects to see what marks they could make? In this experiment you do just that and because you don’t need to buy anything new, you can get started straight away.
You will need: paper, paint, a plate and household objects of your choice. Ideas to start you off: cutlery, rubber bands, corks, cardboard, sponges, string etc. The list is endless. Use one paint colour to keep things simple. If you don’t have any paint, use coffee. You can experiment with adding more or less water make it lighter or darker. Use a plate to mix your chosen paint and allow you space to dip your objects onto.
Take your chosen object, dip it in your paint
Experiment making marks!
Different objects with create completely different marks. The marks made above by a fork required it to be dipped more frequently into the paint so a slower mark-making approach was created. This experimental approach to making marks creates an intuitive way of working as you test making different sizes, shapes and how much paint to use. There is no right or wrong way to make marks, just make them and see what turns up. By using unorthodox painting tools, you lower your expectations around how ‘good’ the marks are. So if you use a fork to paint, you instantly have lower expectations compared to when using a paintbrush.
Flora Bowley inCreative Revolution talks about creating in a kind of “ambiguous territory,” when creating work without a firm plan of where you’re headed. That you will be rewarded for your bravery to “create with no map” and “opening yourself up to the unknown can also be invigorating and deeply revealing. By experimenting using tools where the markmaking results are unpredictable, it allows you to safely let go of outcomes so you can focus on the playful nature of exploring. As Bowley suggests, “the more you flex your brave intuitive muscles, the easier letting go becomes.” Have a look around your home and see what you could use to experiment making your own patterns and marks.
“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.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention
Lecture and speeches are normally designed to be polished and perfected, reinforcing the idea that the lecturer is the expert and has it all figured out. The director/screenwriter Charlie Kaufman at a BAFTA screenwriters’ Lecture in 2011 began with him telling the audience that he didn’t know anything:
“So rather than being up here pretending I’m an expert in anything, or presenting myself in a way that will reinforce the odd, ritualised lecturer-lecturee model, I’m just telling you off the bat that I don’t know anything. And if there’s one thing that characterises my writing it’s that I always start from that realisation and I do what I can to keep reminding myself of that during the process. I think we try to be experts because we’re scared; we don’t want to feel foolish or worthless; we want power because power is a great disguise.”
To openly talk about not knowing and that you haven’t got all the answers is counter to what we’ve been taught. But with Imposter Syndrome being so universal – the doubt we’re not really as good as our accomplishments or experience and so could be found out as a ‘fraud – it’s refreshing to hear someone admit what we all feel deep down. This is especially true in the art-making journey where everything you make is susceptible to harsh judgment. What if you were to embrace the not-knowing aspect of where you’re headed and see being a beginner as more valuable than being an expert? (see beginners mindset as a tool for creativity)
“The world needs you. It doesn’t need you at a party having read a book about how to appear smart at parties – these books exist, and they’re tempting – but resist falling into that trap. The world needs you at the party starting real conversations, saying, ‘I don’t know,’ and being kind.”
Showing up exactly as you are, with all your un-knowing and uncertainty will take a great deal of courage. The desire to be an expert instantly is strong but we have to more to offer others by being honest. Perhaps just by being yourself you give permission to others that you don’t have to have it all figured out.
“Do you. It isn’t easy but it’s essential. It’s not easy because there’s a lot in the way. In many cases a major obstacle is your deeply seated belief that you are not interesting. And since convincing yourself that you are interesting is probably not going to happen, take it off the table. Think, ‘Perhaps I’m not interesting but I am the only thing I have to offer, and I want to offer something. And by offering myself in a true way I am doing a great service to the world, because it is rare and it will help.”