How should a person get started making art? A lot of the advice is to just sit down and do it. But then what? Once you’ve convinced yourself to sit down, what do you actually do?
I just spent my weekend doing what I love more than almost anything: creating a piece of art that inspired wonder and joy in the people who saw it. I worked with my friend, Kristi Gurski, to create an art installation on a lamppost as part of Kaleido Family Arts Festival's '24-Hour Deck Out a Lamppost Competition.' It was a lot of work but I was so happy with how it turned out and I would do it all again to see the way peoples' faces lit up when they caught sight of it.
Tomorrow a yearlong project comes to a close. Last September I started sending out weekly emails to a small group of people who agreed to join me in an experiment. I wanted to see if I could confront my inner critic and my fear of drawing and find a way to make drawing feel fun again. I've spent the last twelve months reading drawing books and blogs, obsessively searching for drawing quotes, writing about drawing, and, of course, drawing. It has been quite an adventure. This last year I've tried new materials, visited new places, and drawn subjects that I probably never would have otherwise. I've dealt with frustration, boredom, and disappointment and I've enjoyed wonder, delight, and a sense of flow.
Last week I finally finished the creative experiment that I started way back in November. I got the book Draw Paint Print Like the Great Artists, by Marion Deuchars, for my birthday last year and I decided that I would do every single exercise in the book, and document my progress on Instagram. I thought it would take me 4 months, but it ended up taking 6 1/2. I'm so happy to report that last week I finished the final exercise.
So. You want to work on being more creative everyday. You want to establish a creative practice, you want to jump in on those projects you've been dreaming about. But you have no idea where to start. Should you take a class? Should you start a 30-day challenge? Should you ask your friend for help? Should you just start messing around and see what happens? The choices spin around in your mind and, day after day, you do nothing. It's too hard.Starting is the hardest part of any project or practice. And when there is no clear starting point, it's even harder. Here are some ideas on identifying what exactly is making it so hard to get started, and what to do about it.
Yesterday I came across Lisa Congdon's Doodling Manifesto. In it she talks about the importance of making a mark just for its own sake, and how every creative thing we do - no matter how messy or imperfect - is important. It gets us closer to who we are and to who we want to be. This struck me as a really important point. To be creative, we must learn to be imperfect. And not just imperfect: we must learn to make awful, terrible, ugly work just for the sake of making something. The more we make, the better we get.
I have been asked by artist and fellow blogger Tara Leaver to take part in this artist blog hop and share a bit about my creative process. First of all, I couldn't be happier, since I would really like to connect with more artists online and this is a great first step toward that goal. Second of all, the whole point of this blog is to share my experiences with creativity so the topic is perfect.
"If I waited to be in the mood to write, I’d barely have a chapbook of material to my name. Who would ever be in the mood to write? Do marathon runners get in the mood to run? Do teachers wake up with the urge to lecture? I don’t know, but I doubt it. My guess is that it’s the very act that is generative. The doing of the thing that makes possible the desire for it. A runner suits up, stretches, begins to run. An inventor trudges down to his workroom, closing the door behind him. A writer sits in her writing space, setting aside the time to be alone with her work. Is she inspired doing it? Very possibly not. But this is her habit, her job, her discipline. Think of a ballet dancer at the barre. She is practising, because she knows there is no difference between practice and art. The practice is the art."
Dani Shapiro, Still Writing
Last year a friend gave me a Tarot deck for my birthday and I tried a reading for the first time. It was a time of upheaval and uncertainty so I asked the cards what was the next step I should take in my business. Many of the cards made a lot of sense but one that confused me a bit was the Hierophant card. Here's an interpretation: "The Hierophant Tarot card suggests that you may be wise to follow established social structures and traditions. You may be involved in some sort of ritual, ceremony, or the trappings of religion. There is also a need to honour some tradition in your life, or maybe start some traditions of your own if you have none."
After thinking about it for a bit it became clear what kind of "rituals" and "traditions" the card was asking me to try. Creative rituals.
"It’s vital to establish some rituals -- automatic but decisive patterns of behavior -- at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, or going the wrong way.
A ritual, the Oxford English Dictionary tells me, is a “prescribed order of performing religious or other devotional service.” All that applies to my morning ritual. Thinking of it as a ritual has a tranforming effect on the activity.
Turning something into a ritual eliminates the question, Why am I doing this? By the time I give the taxi driver directions, it’s too late to wonder why I’m going to the gym and not snoozing under the warm covers of my bed. The cab is moving. I’m committed. Like it or not, I’m going to the gym.
The ritual erases the question of whether or not I like it. It’s also a friendly reminder that I’m doing the right thing. (I’ve done it before. It was good. I’ll do it again.)"
Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit
In 2014, one of my 3 resolutions was to establish new habits of creative productivity. You can read about the goal-setting process here and my system for staying accountable to these resolutions here. The quick version is that every week I come up with a new mission to help me get closer to my goals. Since I've also been reading everything I can get my hands on about creativity, I've been paying close attention to what other creative people have written about habits and incorporating these ideas bit by bit into my weekly missions.
"It doesn't matter what the deal is that you strike with yourself, as long as you keep up your end of it, that you establish a working routine for yourself, a rhythm. I prefer to think of it as rhythm rather than discipline. Discipline calls to my mind a taskmaster, perhaps wielding a whip. Discipline has a whiff of punishment to it, or at least the need to cross something off a list, the way my son Jacob does with his homework. Rhythm, however, is a gentle aligning, a comforting pattern in our day that we know sets us up ideally for our work."
Some of the things I've tried to help establish rhythm in my own life include:
- Moving down from full time to part time work so I have two whole days to create
- Getting chores done on Sundays or evenings during the week to protect my creative days and keep them open
- Doing creative work first thing in the morning - writing when I'm at the office (I have a lot of free time at my job) and developing new projects at home. I always start with the hardest thing, the thing that I would rather avoid doing.
- Writing down a numbered list of projects for each day. Instead of scheduling blocks of time, I just number my to-do items in order of priority. This helps me fluidly move from one thing to the next at a comfortable pace. When it's time for the next thing on the list, I jump in and do it, whether I feel like it or not.
- Keeping track of time spent on all creative work and trying to increase the count each week
- Creating and keeping up with online creative challenges every other month (there's one coming up in October!)
- Working on projects just for me - not to sell - to experiment and develop my skills
"There’s a paradox in the notion that creativity should be a habit. We think of creativity as a way of keeping everything fresh and new, while habit implies routine and repetition. That paradox intrigues me because it occupies the place where creativity and skill rub up against each other."
If these things sound really organized, methodical, clinical - the opposite of creative - that's because they are. My goal is to make space for creativity by creating routines. If I don't have to wonder about what to do next, if I have fewer decisions to make then I have more juice, more creative energy left. I want to make creative production as seamless and easy as possible so that, rather than fighting with myself to sit down at the computer or the craft table, I end up there without even realizing how I did it. I'm not there yet - certain days are easier to program and my plans frequently go off the rails. But I have noticed my production increasing, my ideas increasing, my level of satisfaction increasing - which is why we do this after all, isn't it?
“I keep to this routine without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”
Will you join me in making creativity a part of your daily life? How can you set up routines, rituals, rhythms, habits to help you get there? Leave a comment below!
Some people love the Christmas season. Some can't wait for the Stanley Cup playoffs or the Olympics. For me, one of the best times of the year is the Fringe Festival, an annual smorgasbord of theatre that descends on our city every August. My parents used to take me when I was a kid and as soon as I got a car I spent the greater part of the 10 day festival volunteering, watching plays, and taking in the atmosphere. This year over 200 hundred plays opened their doors in over 50 venues across town. I saw 10 of them. Here are a few things these plays made me think about when it comes to creativity in general, and the process of creating work for an audience:
Start by playing. Some of these shows were clearly created by people who just started messing around with a bizarre character or an elaborate costume piece and let the story take them where it would. Many of my favourite plays start this way, without a script or a roadmap, just a sense of exploration and discovery. Things come out of this experimentation that could never have been dreamed up while sitting at a desk. This is an essential part of any creative process and something I'm actively trying to incorporate into my own routine on a regular basis (watch for an upcoming blog post about it!).
Put your heart into it. When someone really really cares about what they're doing, and really really cares about my experience of their work, it shows. Their joy and passion flow through every aspect, and I leave feeling satisfied. Yes, they have talent, but it's clear that they've worked for it. They mastered the skills, they put in the time and the hard work necessary to do the best that they could, and they inspire me to reach for my best work as well. If I can inspire that kind of dedication then I've done my job well.
Be specific. The more precise and perfectly choreographed a piece is, the more captivating it has the potential of being. In theatre, improv can be fun (and useful in the right contexts, as in the first point) but nothing beats the energy of something has been rehearsed and meticulously fine-tuned. I watched a show where the actors wore masks, so they had to use subtle gestures and movements to convey emotion and to move the story forward - if they had been sloppy and tried to wing it the audience would have been lost. In another the actors matched the rhythm of their movements to pre-recorded sound effects so effectively that I found myself mesmerized by an invisible typewriter. In my own work this means keeping an eye on the details that I often like to overlook to make sure that everything syncs up.
What's the take-home? Decide what you want your audience to take away from your work. I watched a show about the coming apocalypse and despite it being rather political and a bit heavy-handed, I wasn't entirely sure what they wanted me to get from it. Was I just supposed to laugh and then go on my way? Did they want me to take action and start trying to prevent the apocalypse, or start preparing for it? Or was it just a friendly warning that the apocalypse was on it's way, but everything is going to be just fine? Not every piece of art has a message of course, but everything does have a purpose. Be clear about that purpose - what do I want people to do with this piece?
Make a decision. This point is similar to the last in that you must be clear. One play billed itself as something and then turned out to be something quite different, which isn't always a bad thing. What didn't work is that they tried to be both and it just ended up feeling awkward. Just as it started to gain steam in one direction it would switch gears and lose me completely. Choose something and then stick to it. Don't try to be everything to everyone. This is advice I really need to pay attention to, since I have a hard time not trying to do everything.
Show, don't tell. This was one of the biggest lessons I learned in drama school and it's true in many art forms. In general the audience will be happier if they are drawn into something and can feel it in their hearts - rather than thinking about it intellectually. One play featured two vibrant, charismatic performers whose portrayal of a couple from the 1890s had me captivated immediately. After a few minutes, however, they broke character and started telling us the story of the characters rather than acting them out. This served its own purpose in the structure of the play, but I couldn't wait for them to jump back into character and continue showing me the story, since, to me, that was so much more compelling.
Know when to stop. One of the shows I saw was pure comedic gold. The characters, the absurd storyline, the use of audience participation - all of it was like nothing I had ever seen before. The scene wrapped up, I wiped my eyes (from laughing so hard I shed a few tears), and got ready to leave and tell all my friends about it. But it wasn't over. After a brief interlude, the actors reset and started over again. Same characters, different absurd storyline, different use of audience participation. This time wasn't as surprising, or even as much fun, and certainly wasn't as careful and precise as the first half. The message I took home from this show was to be careful about taking something too far or giving too much of something. If you're relying on novelty and surprise to keep people engaged, then make sure you're not overdoing it and wearing them out. From my own personal experience I knew that once people started walking by my booth at craft fairs (where I was selling postcards of my hometown) and saying - 'There's so much Edmonton-themed stuff here this time', and 'Oh, I love your postcards, I have 5 at home!' that it was time to move on to something new.
Sometimes, more is more. After you've made some decisions, gotten specific, decided what the purpose is, feel free to go full throttle. Pile it on, shock us, exceed all our expectations. I saw a dance show where the dancers spun and twirled amidst a mass of white pillows that kept growing and growing until they had a pile of over 300 and it was large enough to launch themselves into. It was the very definition of excess and it was wondrous and beautiful. They let the audience live vicariously through their grand exploits and we were very thankful to have been taken along for the ride.
Don't forget to have fun. In every show I saw, from the serious to the playful, when the actors let themselves go and gave in to the moment, they had me. I could tell they were enjoying themselves, and that is a beautiful thing to watch. I find that the projects that feel fun to me while I'm working on them always succeed better than those that don't. Find what makes you smile and do that - chances are your audience will be left smiling too.
What sort of creative events fill you up? What do you take home from them? Leave a comment below!