So it seemed a no-brainer, as I got older, to invest a little time in art classes, as part of my school curriculum. I'd always been decent with a pencil, and could work with reference photos easily enough, but looked forward to the opportunity to learn techniques, work with new mediums and stretch my creative wings.
Little did I know, 8th grade art class would start a downward spiral of negative experience with the "creative" side of the educational system. It begins with Mr. Stanley, whose bald head and pompous demeanor I still clearly envision and, if you can't tell, for whom I still hold a great deal of disdain.
We were learning to work with pastels. It was my first experience with the medium, and working from the still life of a fruit bowl (because those are always riveting, am I right?) and I was having a great time dusting all that chalky powder from my hands throughout the class. Mr. Stanley was making the rounds, looming over the shoulders of students, correcting perceived mistakes and pointing out bad technique. To 8th graders. Sigh.
I was proud of my work, and my fellow students were complimenting me. But, as the teacher rounded my table, he leaned in close and said "I'd like to enter this in the state school art fair, but these shadows need a LOT of work. Make them darker". I didn't think my shadows needed more dimension, but he was the teacher. He knew what he was talking about, right? So I worked those shadows, nervously, while he continued his circuit around the class. Eventually he made his way to me again and said (I kid you not) "That looks like shit. You ruined it." But he took it and shrugged and said he'd enter it anyway.
My junior high school art teacher just told an 8th grader their art looked like shit.
And you know what? My piece of shit won 3rd place. In the entire state. Out of hundreds of entries. I thought he was rude and pretentious and a snobby critic, but I brushed it off and brandished my winning ribbon proudly while he said "You could have won first place if you hadn't messed it up."
High school rolled around, and I figured I was done with art class and content to fill my sketchbooks in my own time and work with the medium that brings me joy. I was done with self-important, snobby art-critic teachers. Until I needed a class to fill my schedule and basic art was the only thing available. And you know, it was a good class. My teacher was impressed with me, she wanted to push me and didn't feel she had the tools in an introductory class to do so, so recommended to the school that I move on to the (already full) advanced class. They made room for me and I was chuffed with myself. But worried.
For good reason it seems, because I almost failed that class. I almost failed a class in which the content is 100% subjective. The techniques were ridiculous, the projects totally obscure (for instance, we had to make a place setting for a famous person, from the place mat to the silverware). Gone were the innocent days of using oil paints or acrylics or charcoal pencils, because apparently the classics had no place in modern curriculum. The final project was 40% of our total grade and absolutely ridiculous. We had to sketch our home. I lived in an apartment. Do you know how hard it is to sketch an entire apartment building without any prior knowledge or experience with DRAFTING? But I did it, and it looked good. Damn good.
But that wasn't all. We then had to add texture to our drawing. The door would have carpet on it, for instance, and the windows would have a sponge, and the siding would be popsicle sticks. We had to cut and paste textures to our drawing. Then we would paint the textures and print our homes on a clean sheet of paper. I was horrified. The idea of ruining my perfect, clean, crisp beautiful drawing was heartbreaking to me. And also hella difficult! Because my entire building was comprised of really complicated lines and stair cases and small details, that I now had to try to translate with texture.
Needless to say, my print was a muddy mess and I received a D on my final exam, and a C in the class as a whole. The only C I received in my entire high school experience.
Thinking there is a right way to be creative or "do" art. Have you ever been told you're doing it wrong? That your art isn't art because you didn't do it the way someone else has done it? Have you ever told yourself something similar? Let me be perfectly clear.... there is no wrong way to "do" art. The act of the art is the only thing that matters, because your story matters, and in every piece of art is a piece of our story. Who is that person to control how you tell your story or diminish its important because it doesn't fit inside the paradigm of their own perceptions. Art is, and always will be, subjective. It's an indefinable way to express our own creative spirit. The expression matters, not the methods or techniques used.
Not taking risks. Oh, comfort zone, how we love thee. This is perhaps my biggest creative sin. I do what I know and I enjoy a place of confidence in my competency and the idea of failing at something new really, honestly, terrifies me. But one of the biggest ways to stifle creative flow and growth is by refusing to take risks. This doesn't mean you need the newest tool or the best supplies. This means it's important to flex the creative muscles any way you can, even when utilizing the materials already at your disposal. What matters is trying something new and sharing it with others. Because it's through the sharing of it that we realize our fears are misplaced.
Self-criticizing before the process is complete. Don't get me wrong, it's an important part of the creative process to be honest with ourselves about our work and the ways in which we can improve. But one of the quickest ways to derail progress is criticizing our work before we've even finished it. How many times have you scrapped a project and started over? By doing this, we are teaching ourselves that our story (here I go with the "story" metaphor again) is somehow flawed and, excuse me, but you... are.... not.... flawed. So I challenge you with this: the next time you want to scrap a project, fight the urge and push through. Use that mistake and build from it. Because what is a story without the mistakes from which we learn? And you might be surprised by the magic of your mistakes.
Inconsistent creative times. If you've followed my blog for five minutes, you'll know I'm a huge advocate for organization, planning and order. And while many creatives may fight this ideology and cling to the cliche that artists are inherently chaotic, there is an important role of consistency and order in the creative process. By this, I mean it's important to create daily. Every single day. It doesn't have to be gallery-worthy. It doesn't have to be wearable. It doesn't even have to be particularly pleasing to look at. It just has to be made, however small, however functional, however utterly UN-artistic it may seem. Create something every day, be it a sketch, a poem, collage, a journal entry, a prayer, a photograph. Even 100 ear wires or 5 feet of viking knit chain. All of these activities stimulate the creative muscle and it's through this daily stimulation that our imagination and creativity become habitual.
Consuming more information or skills than we have time to process. I see this one a lot. I want to learn bezel setting. I want to learn soldering, or metal clay or electroforming or acrylic paint pouring, knitting, pottery, crotchet! This may be hard to hear..... this may even be totally counter-intuitive to your nature..... but it's important to limit our creative endeavors to what we have time to really invest in and process. Learn something new, yes, but then do that thing for months and months. Do it until you don't have to think about it any more because your body knows what's required of it to tell your story effectively in your art. Then learn something new, and do that thing for a year. But, by consuming an endless library of skills, techniques or information, you're more likely to overwhelm and short-circuit your creative muscle than you are to flex it.
Believing there is nothing new to learn. You know that saying "there's nothing new under the sun"? You should, because I've mentioned a time or two how much I hate it. The confusion here is that we sometimes believe learning is limited to technique, but art and creativity is more than that. Our voice and heart and spirit (however woo-woo that may sound) is part of the process, perhaps the most important part, and there are always new ways to express that spirit. I challenge you to spend thirty days.... one whole month.... working with only one medium, and make something totally different with that medium each time you pick it up. If wire is your medium of choice, make a pendant one day, a brooch the next, a sculpture, then a candle holder or a wall hanging or a picture frame. Teach yourself (through risk, as mentioned above) that there are endless ways to tell a story and you'll never know them all.
Toxic comparison as a form of self-sabotage. Oh boy. This is a big one and perhaps the most damaging of them all. Because there is no quicker way to dampen our creative flow than by comparing ourselves to others. And we've all done it, I hazard a guess, because we're socially wired to see ourselves as less than. Our bodies are less than those in the ads. Our paintings are less than those in the galleries. Our jewelry is less than those in the magazines. But that's doing ourselves an immense disservice, because comparing our work to others is diminishing the heart and soul of our creative flow. My challenge to you: go to Pinterest or Google and find that artist and his or her work who sparks you to say "I'll never be that good." Go on... do it. We all have that artist to whom we have compared ourselves and found ourselves lacking. And look at their art. Admire it for the beauty and talent and dedication it took to complete it. There is purpose and meaning in surrounding ourselves with the art of others and finding beauty and inspiration from it. But then look at your own art and note all the ways, even if you have to physically write them down, your work is amazing. Did you utilize a new technique in your latest piece? Did that wire flow in just the right way to lead into the next and the next and create a whole? Did the combination of materials spark joy in your when you put them together and planned your work? Be proud of your accomplishments. You made something! And the next time you make something it will be better.
So tell me, have you committed any of these creative sins? Are there sins you've created that I haven't mentioned here? I'd love to hear about them in the comments below!
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