Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Abandoning the Preciousness

The most important thing about creating art is to create. If you want to be at ease with creativity, you have to immerse yourself in it, and do a little bit every day. Even if that little bit is only to take five minutes while waiting for the bus to come and do a gesture drawing of a man reading his book across the street from you. Or to take the moment to scribble down a thumbnail rough sketch of a concept that occurs to you. Do a little bit each day. Train your brain to think visually.

It can be difficult at first, accustoming yourself to make this small bit of time, because you’ll think:
“I don’t have enough time for it.”
“Art is hard!”
“I’m not good enough yet for that piece I’ve always wanted to do.”
“I’m stuck. Artist’ block.”

These are all excuses. Yes art IS hard. Yes, you might not be good enough yet to do that masterwork that you’ve been dreaming of, but let me let you in on a secret: No artist ever is. Sure, there is satisfaction that comes when the last detail is polished, and your signature scrawled across the bottom corner with its flourishing declaration of “Finis!” Every new painting is a milestone of achievement, hopefully with lessons learned and skills advanced. But if you let yourself rest too long on that satisfaction, then you’re not challenging and pushing yourself onward enough. I like to think that if I still feel a piece I did three years ago is among my best work, then I’m doing something wrong. The best is always going to be among the most recent few, with better ones on the horizon.

That masterwork that you just don’t think you have the skills for yet to tackle? You won’t gain those skills unless you try for it. Take it head on. Make the best attempt you can. Or tackle a small portion or element of it. Maybe it’s dramatic lighting. Maybe it’s multiple figures interacting. Maybe it’s something small like facial expression, or even just how to paint a tree. When you think you have mastered that, move onto the next item on the list, and the next, until you can face the behemoth. It might be you’ll like the result. If you don’t, then figure out what parts didn’t work for you. Don’t just condemn the entirety. Learn to isolate the individual aspects that could be worked on, and then make that your goal of improvement in the next piece.

Preciousness is the enemy of an artist who wants to grow.
1) Precious Time
2) Precious Artwork

To let the Muse work her magic, you have to let go of attachments to those two concepts. Even as a professional who has been drawing and painting every day for almost two decades, I had to learn this lesson recently. I'm not immune to these pitfalls any more than a beginning artist is. I had long ago gotten past the hump of just getting myself to do art every day. That part I took for granted. In fact, after so long, it becomes a necessity — you train yourself to have an artistic outlet, and then it becomes a part of you, as much as breathing and sleeping.

But due to the vagaries of the grand adventure of life, I found my art-time throttled back, and then I fell into the trap that (1) Time was precious.

Because I had little of it to dedicate to creating, it became a commodity, and every moment of it had to matter. Every second sitting at my desk with a pencil or paintbrush in hand had to be momentous because (2) Artwork was precious, and I couldn’t waste my time with non-essentials. There was only enough time for masterpieces.

When you fall into that mode of thinking, your brain and your creativity does the only thing it can: It shuts up completely. That kind of pressure is just too much to expect of yourself.

Every work can’t be a masterpiece. Sometimes, you have to just let your subconscious have its way, and let the creativity flow from whatever small outlet it feels inclined to at the moment. Great art doesn’t happen on a time line. And I’m not talking about an individual painting that you finish for a client’s deadline. I’m talking more about the overarching body of artwork, and self-imposed expectations and time limits.

Make time for the little stuff. For the gesture drawings at the bus stop. For the scribbled thumbnails in your pocket sketchbook when random inspiration strikes at inopportune moments. For the doodles on napkins at a cafe, or in the margins of meeting notes at your day job or class.

Sleep researchers speculate that REM sleep and dreams are necessary for the brain to process the events of a day, work out problems, and experiment. That’s what all the non-masterpiece artworks that you create are. They’re never a waste of time, no matter how small. They are the myriad visual dreams made of paint and ink and paper that make a safe space for your creativity to reach for greater heights.


  1. You are so right!

    Everyone wants to make masterpieces, but it's only through everyday plain sketching and trying new things that we can accomplish creating one later on. Unless you want to keep your masterpieces on the same level, of course ;)

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    1. You're welcome! Thanks for taking the time to stop by and read!

  2. THANK YOU for this text!

    I recognize that wrong way of thinking in me - I only have fifteen minutes, half an hour, no, no, that's not enough for this great masterpiece I have in my mind and so on... and then, when I would have time and sit at the desk with pen in my hand, I can't get anything started. Argh. People can be gifted in various things to some point but even they can't get better without going through that "boring" practise. That all I know, yet I still find myself aiming for this "greatest piece of my life" every time I start new work...

    This text gave me motivation to refresh my views, again. Someday I may really take it to heart and then really get better too.

    You and your artwork are a real source of inspiration to me, thanks for sharing your thoughts and works.

    1. Thanks! And nothing has to be boring. Find some little spark that interests you in the most mundane sketches, and that will help. If you're not interested in it as the person drawing, you won't be able to convey interest to your viewers too!

  3. Great truths, beautifully stated. I find that every tiny moment I dedicate to art is the best part of the me, gives me joy and teaches me something. Thank you for reminding me of this. Love your blog!

  4. Oh Stephanie, I needed to read this so badly. I used to draw when I was younger, but the older I got, the more it ended in fits and starts, because the spirit of adventure was dampened by what you call "preciousness" (such a perfect word to describe it!). I've been playing with my neglected art supplies and making marks on paper for the last two days -- and then your wonderful entry popped into my reader -- and I am now promising myself not to let myself stop again for anything! :D

    Thank you for this. <3

  5. Thank you very much for this topic. Yes, of course, Art is a hard work. It is not simply etudes, but some more information inside and quality. You are right, it needs in every day practice. But some pictures can be not so perfect for public show, may be :)

  6. Thank you very much for this excellent article. I've featured you here : http://monetoileinterieure.wordpress.com/2013/04/20/perseverer-prendre-le-temps/

  7. I am not a painter or artist, but I do create with thread (I was introduced to you artwork through HAED) and this article on creativity is making me think again about how I view my quilting attempts - especially those 'masterworks' I dream of but don't start. It will be a slow process, but thank you for another way of thinking.

  8. Wonderfully put. Thanks, Stephanie.