Cultivating Creativity – Part I
Art making has been around longer than the art establishment. Mankind has been motivated to create art for 70,000 years. The first cave paintings were done by someone…unnamed. He or she did it because he had to. The designation of art as self-expression or fine art is a contemporary idea. Artists do not have a lot to shore them up in today’s world. At one time there was the church and patrons who kept art alive…today, the artist is essentially on his own to create and support the creating.
There is an assumption today that art is based on talent…something you either have or don’t have. This assumption is fatalistic and offers no useful encouragement to those who would make art. While talent, fate, luck, and tragedy all play into human destiny, they are not tools for advancing your own art on a day-to-day basis. The danger is in identifying yourself with your art so that if you create flawed art you are a flawed person. It is healthier to accept a path to successful art making and do it because you have to. It makes you whole. It makes you happy.
Making art is difficult. Often the work in our minds seems more real than the work we have actually done. So, the questions are: How does art get done? Why, often, does it not get done? And, what is the nature of the difficulties that stop so many who start? With this series of articles, I would like to share the wisdom of many people who have studied the processes of creativity. I will be giving techniques to help the artist (writer, painter, dancer, musician, actor) maintain the skills that allow the art to be created. Let’s start this discussion with some truths about creativity that place the power for your actions in your own hands.
These truths are:
v Art making involves skills that can be learned.
In large measure becoming an artist consists of learning to accept yourself, which makes your work personal, and in following your own voice, which makes your work distinctive. These qualities can and need to be nurtured by others. Talent is doing something easily, but talent is ephemeral. Art is made through perseverance and hard work. Even if creativity is based on intuition, the artist must have a vocabulary and experience to apply what he feels. He must be grounded in craft.
v Art is made by ordinary people.
People who are totally virtuous can hardly be imagined making art. Would the Virgin Mary paint landscapes? Would the Dali Lama throw pots? The perfect person doesn’t need to make art. Our flaws and our weaknesses, while often obstacles to our getting work done, are a source of strength as well.
v Making art and viewing art are different at their core.
To all viewers, what matters is the product: the finished work. To you, the artist, what matters is the process: the experience of creating the work. Virtually all artists spend much of their time creating work that no one else cares about. The function of the overwhelming majority of your artwork is to teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars. Even failed pieces are essential.
I believe that creativity is something that needs to be discussed and understood. I also believe that there are a number of exercises that can be used to increase the creative output of the individual. In the coming articles of this series, I will be sharing insights and activities that you can pursue to enhance your creativity. I invite you to join me in this adventure.
Cultivating Creativity – Part II
We live in a noisy world. There is the radio, the TV, the mowers and blowers, planes passing overhead, the dog down the street, cars whizzing by, the car alarms that seem to always be going off, the beeping of a truck as it backs up. The noise is not only outside of us…there are also noises in our heads. “I need to mail this letter, go to the store, pick up the kids, and did I remember to pay all the bills? What will I make for dinner, and when was that next doctor’s appointment?” The thoughts race through our minds at lightning speed. How can creativity be cultivated in such cacophony? It can’t. Creativity needs calm and silence to exist. Your first job, if you are to be creative, is to calm the noise. I will offer three ways to do that.
The first is as old as the first glimmer of religion in the history of man. It is called by many: Meditation. In order to start, you must find twenty minutes of time when no one bothers you and find a place that is quiet to outside noises. A good time is early in the morning before the phone begins to ring, maybe even before the alarm clock goes off. A soft cushion in a small space is the only prop needed. Meditation at its simplest is merely sitting quietly, usually with eyes closed, and paying attention to your breath. It sounds simple but is difficult to accomplish at first. The noise that runs through your head will continue to break in to the peace you are trying to establish. You will be tempted to think of things in the past or future. You need to recognize the thoughts as they appear and let them go and refocus on each breath as it goes in and out. Make your breathing slow and regular. With daily practice, you will become better at focusing and clearing your mind.
The second way to calm the noise is to write. This time the props needed are a spiral notebook and a pen. Again, you need about 20 minutes of quiet time to yourself. Your goal will to write three notebook pages a day. What to write? Whatever comes into your head. This time you can let the internal noise flow out of your head and onto the page. Do not worry about what you are writing…this is not the great American novel and you do not have to be a creative writer to do it. Do not reread what you have written. The goal is to free your creative self of all the flotsam and jetsam that fills your mind most of the time. You can complain about the clerk at the store who treated you badly, you can write about all the things you have to do today, you can worry about the financial issues that concern you, you can go on about the sorry state of the nation. Anything is OK to write in these three pages. This is a purging of the things that get in the way of your creativity.
The last way to create an island of calm in your life is to walk. A daily 20 minute brisk walk will work wonders in clearing the noisy chatter that fills your head. It is best to walk alone. You do not need a companion to fill the quiet with conversation. The one exception to walking alone would be a dog, if your dog is calm and will walk beside you and not pull or distract your focus. Walk, breathe in the cool air and notice the world around you as if all is at a distance. This daily walk should be the same route each time and should be at the same time of the day, every day.
Each of these calming techniques takes a mere twenty minutes of your day. You will find that the twenty minutes you lose will be gained in your increased focus and productivity during the rest of the day. You will reap the benefits in less than a month. The stage will be set for your adventure into a more creative and rewarding life. The path you take is the first baby step that you need to take to get started in a quest for creativity in any of the areas you want to pursue.
Cultivating Creativity – Part III
Creating art is a solitary journey. Writers sit alone at their laptops, painters stand alone in front of their easels, musicians practice scales and rehearse compositions alone. Even actors, who by necessity must personally share their work with the public, spend time alone…learning their lines, practicing their movements, and thinking about the meaning of the words they speak. My last article emphasized the need for silence and alone time to encourage creativity, but there is also a need for contact with others who have a desire to grow their creativity. The development of a creative community to support your efforts is as essential to the creative process as the need for isolation. We are social animals and need to associate with other like-minded individuals to bounce ideas and get feedback.
Where does one find this community? If you are new to the creative world, the easiest way to make a connection with other artists is to take a class. Adult education or community college classes are filled with people who aspire to learn and grow in a creative area. There are workshops and classes for writers, dancers, actors, painters, and musicians. You can find a class that fits your level of expertise or find a beginning class in any of these areas of artistic expression.
Art organizations at the local, state, and national levels are great places to learn about workshops, presentations, and showings. The Internet is a great source to find an organization in your area. Meetings are usually monthly and open the possibilities of introducing you to smaller groups that meet more often. My recommendation is to meet weekly with other artists to keep the momentum of creation going. I will give two examples from my own life of groups that are helpful.
One of the groups I have joined is a plein air painting group. The group is loosely organized, meeting at a prearranged location once a week to paint. All that is required to be a part of such a group is a willingness to go where the group decides and bring paints, canvas and a sack lunch. The alone time is honored, with each artist working independently in a chosen spot, and the camaraderie is accomplished in the after painting lunch and sharing of the work done. This is not meant to be a critique of the work. Each artist can informally show what he has done to supportive fellow artists. The joy and challenges of painting and being outdoors is shared by the group and gives the artists a boost to creativity for the rest of the week. Whether or not you paint outdoors the rest of the week does not matter. This experience can bring a freshness to the other work you do.
Another weekly group I belong to is a critique group. We meet at a local coffee place to talk about our work. The requirement for this group is to bring a current work in progress and be prepared to discuss it. I especially like this group because I am committed to working on something during the week in between meetings. It keeps me focused and on task so that I will have some progress to show at the meeting. While critiquing is essential to the artistic process, it is also the most difficult part of artistic work to deal with. For those doing the critiquing, it is far easier to come up with what is wrong with a painting than to emphasize what is good about it. One of the necessities of this type of group is for the members to be supportive and not overly critical. It is important to have an agreement among the members on how to approach the critiquing of the work.
I have friends who are writers and have joined writers’ groups to share their work. I also have musician friends who meet weekly with other musicians to “jam”. Weekly contact with fellow artists is essential to keeping your creativity alive and growing. These groups are different than classes in that they are informal and peer oriented. They are intended to encourage the process of the creative act not necessarily teach new skills. Creativity is like breathing-we do the process ourselves. However, we can use the support of others to develop our strength to do the work.
Cultivating Creativity – Part IV
In my last article, I emphasized the need for community. I am now going to return to the need for solitude. The solitude this time will take you out of your studio and into the world.
At the end of the nineteenth century, Parisian artists originated an activity called “Derive” which means “drifting”. At that time Paris was becoming a new city of modern (for the time) buildings and wide boulevards. The artists wanted to bring that newness into their art through absorbing the environment. Their approach was to “derive”: take a gentle walk, alone, through the city. The aim was to discover something new about the area, to get to know a place in a different way than they did before, and remember that difference. Through this discipline, they brought a freshness to their art that has come to us as the Impressionist Movement.
Walking is an exercise in heightened listening. As we walk, we awaken our neural pathways and make them more sensitive. Walking opens us up. If you are stuck in the midst of a creation, leaving the studio and going for a walk is often the best solution. John Muir said, “I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
I suggest that you take one “derive” each week. Each time find a different place to explore. It is important that you not have a preplanned route. If you live in the country, you may wish to go to the city and walk there. The idea is to stretch your territory. You are using this walk to fill your image trunk because art uses images to build on and grow. Let yourself drift and notice the world around you. Look out for graffiti, words on shop-signs and posters if you are in a city environment. Notice plants, rocks, or the sky like you have never seen them before if you are in a country setting. Talk to local people, take pictures, and absorb the surroundings. You will come back from these trips with a fresh outlook and possibly some new ideas for your artwork.
Another way to explore is to visit a museum, antique store, book store, or second hand store – alone. When you are alone, your thoughts and feelings will come to the surface and react to what you are looking at without the influence of another’s perception. You might find some small thing to purchase that inspires you to create in a new way. Or in a museum, you may see a familiar art piece in an entirely new way. I once went to a showing of Audubon’s bird lithographs and came away with inspiration for my “Goose with Her Golden Egg” mixed media painting that was hung and won an award at the International Acrylic Painters Exhibit. If I had not spent time alone at the exhibit, that painting would not exist. I often go to a local Dollar Store and come away with a variety of materials to use in my collages. Ideas come to mind as I see these common objects in a new way.
A creative life is grown through process. A common saying is “food for thought” but actually, an artist needs thought for food. Walking, observing, absorbing replenishes our over tapped creative well and gives us material to create.
Cultivating Creativity – Part V
Virginia Woolf wrote of needing “a room of one’s own”. This is a universal need of a creative artist, whether a painter, writer, dancer, or sculptor. Art takes space. An artist needs the space for solitude and for the execution of the work of art. Unfortunately, space is sometimes hard to come by. We must be creative in finding the space we need as artists. It is not acceptable to have a box in a closet that contains the art supplies needed to work with. If that is the case, the artist will not work as consistently as is necessary to grow. I will talk next time about how often you need to work; for now I will address the way to get the space you need.
Sometimes an artist’s focus needs to center on creating the right environment conducive to creating. The minimum space would be a corner of a room containing a desk or table, a chair, and access to water. This space needs to be set up and available to work at all the time. That is the bare minimum. It would be much better to have an entire room dedicated to your art. This room need not always be in a house. I have friends who have set up a shed on their property that becomes an art studio. This arrangement is especially good for those who work with clay or glass and have need of a kiln. An artist who lives in New Hampshire was one of my creativity clients. She had a shed that she used for a painting studio during the summer months. It was not heated, so she moved all of her art supplies to a rather dark basement during the winter months. Her creativity was hampered during this time. She was not happy with the work she produced in the winter months. Our coaching sessions began to center on how she could “winterize” her shed and continue working through the cold months. She installed double pane windows and a small space heater and no longer had to pack up for the winter. Her output of high quality work soared year round as a result of this small investment in her environment.
Ten years ago, I had a studio built on to my home. It was the best gift I ever gave myself! The space was large with a closet to hold framed paintings, plenty of storage space for supplies, an eight foot table to work on, an easel, and even a small refrigerator for my acrylic palette. Last year, my husband and I moved into a small apartment while we looked for a new home. I wasn’t about to give up my studio space. I moved my work table into a garage, brought in full spectrum lights and a space heater and continued to work. It was not an ideal studio, but sufficient to keep my creativity alive.
Some artists rent studio space away from their homes. Many communities have co-ops where artists share studio space for a small monthly rental fee. There is an advantage to this arrangement in that it allows for community with other artists and sometimes even a place to display and sell work.
I encourage you to think about where you can create a space to pursue your creativity. Get away from the box in the closet and set up “a room of your own”.
Cultivating Creativity – Part VI
I’ve covered all of the preparation needed to create. Now it’s time to get down to the work of actually doing the art work. It is important that you think of it as your work. When you are working for someone else, would you come to work late? Would you skip a day or two? Would you leave early? Probably not. You need to be as consistent in your art work as you would be at any job you were hired for.
Musicians and dancers know the importance of daily practice. I took piano lessons for five years and my teacher expected me to practice one hour every day-no days off for weekends or vacations. For some reason that level of consistency has not generally been accepted as a part of the process of visual artists. It should be.
One of the problems many artists face is that we need to work at a nonart job to pay the rent. I worked for thirty years at a job that took up much of my time for most of the year. I put off my artwork as a result. I would tell myself that even though I was not doing any artwork during the week, I would make up for it by spending all day Saturday painting. Saturday would come around and other things like laundry and shopping would fill the day and another week passed with no artwork done. Ten years before I retired, I became concerned that I would enter my retirement unprepared to create. I was justly afraid that I would be too rusty to produce a high quality of art. I decided that I would use the same commitment I brought to my piano playing and work every day. My problem was how to find the time. My job by that time was taking 50 hours or more a week. I also wanted to stay fit by spending several days a week at the gym. I also had responsibilities to my family. How could I squeeze in time to do artwork?
My solution was to get up out of bed 45 minutes early and go straight to my studio. I made a commitment to spend the 45 minutes painting every day. What I learned was that this was the perfect time to work. This is a time of day when no one pulls on our time. The phone doesn’t ring. The kids are in bed. No one really needs us at this time. In addition to the lack of outside interference, there is a freshness to our thinking when we first arise. Sometimes, dreams are still fresh in our consciousness and can add to the creative process. 45 minutes sounds like a short amount of time, but when repeated every day the end result is more art created than if you spend one entire day a week. After following this pattern for a year, I had enough artwork to have a one person show in the museum in my town. I was amazed at what I was able to produce. A bonus to this plan was that I was much calmer and happier for the rest of the day. I had already done what I wanted to do, so I could give myself freely to the needs of my job and other people.
I encourage you to set up your art space and commit to a short daily schedule of working on your art. It is important that you leave the space prepared for the next session so that you can work from the first minute each time. Can you find 45 minutes in your day to devote to your art? If you do, you will reap the benefits of the commitment you make.
Cultivating Creativity – Part VII
In my last article, I explained the need for a daily schedule of time devoted to your creative efforts. I want to emphasize the value of this kind of consistency and commitment to promoting creative growth. Three books I have read give evidence of the importance of maintaining a working and growing attitude toward your creative art.
The first is Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. This book introduced me to the “Ten Thousand Hours” concept. This concept holds that success depends on time spent on task and that time to become an expert is ten thousand hours. This is true for musicians, artists, athletes, actors, writers, chess players, yoga and meditation practitioners, and experts in many fields. Waiting for the muse to appear to inspire you just doesn’t do it. The secret to success is practice, practice, practice. Add to the time spent a hearty dose of passion for your art and you are on the way to being an expert!
Some people think that talent is innate…you either have it or you don’t. The second book I read, Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland, relays an example that defies that sort of thinking. A ceramics teacher divided his class in half and challenged one half to create one perfect pot during the coming semester. The other half had to produce a quantity of work. Fifty pounds of pots would result in an A for the semester. When grading time came the works of highest quality were produced by the students charged with producing a quantity of work. If excellence is innate wouldn’t you think the quality group would produce more excellent products? The quantity group probably produced many pots that were flawed or imperfect, but in their ongoing process of producing they worked through and learned from their mistakes. That kind of learning can only take place through spending time at your art or craft.
The third book, Mindset by Stanford professor Carol Dweck explains what plays a critical role in whether we succeed at what matters to us, or not. She describes two mindsets: the Fixed Mindset and the Growth Mindset. Those people with a Fixed Mindset believe that their intelligence, talents, and ability to create are not open to change. They tend not to develop new skills but stay instead with well-practiced strengths. The result is that they fail to achieve mastery in what matters to them. People who exhibit the Growth Mindset believe that their intelligence, talents, and ability to create can be developed through the application of passion, practice, and persistence. They risk failing because they know that growth and change are possible. By developing a growth mindset, you will be able to tap into your passion, through persistent practice.
According to Akido Master George Leonard, “Mastery is the mysterious process during which what is at first difficult becomes progressively easier and more pleasurable through practice.” If creating the success you long for will take ten thousand hours, can you think of a more pleasurable way to spend those hours than by doing what you love the most?
Cultivating Creativity – Part VIII
Creating art should be pleasurable…but sometimes it isn’t. As artists we sometimes avoid approaching the canvas or paper. We find hundreds of things to do instead of picking up the paintbrush or the pencil. The culprit is anxiety. Anxiety often stops the artist from producing and actually makes the process of creating more painful than pleasurable. Anxiety is a part of life. Accepting this fact and deciding to deal with it will lead you to be able to create in spite of the anxiety we all feel.
Anxiety can be controlled. The first step is to recognize that it is anxiety that is preventing you from creating. Anxiety can be caused by several internal thought processes. You could be questioning the meaning of your work, you could be afraid to show your work, you could have trouble deciding which creative project to tackle. Any of these worries will make it difficult to move on in your creativity. The next step is to develop and practice anxiety-reducing techniques to conquer your fears. I will share three techniques that have worked for many people. I encourage you to try them and assess whether they are helpful for you.
Anxiety is sometimes caused by seeing situations as more important, more dangerous, or more negative than they really are. When I was a high school counselor, I often had occasion to speak with my student’s parents about their fears and concerns for their child. A parent would come in and be beside herself because her daughter did not make the cheerleading squad. I wanted to put a scale on my wall that has at one end: “your child was killed in an auto accident” and at the other “your child is late for school”. I would then ask this parent to place their concern at the area that it belongs on that scale. I predict it would be closer to the “late for school” end of the scale. You can do the same for any situation you find yourself in. A rejection letter from a national art show is not life-threatening. Your anxiety about the situation will be reduced if you can put it in perspective. Make a scale with the worst thing that you can think of happening to you at one end and the most minor inconvenience at the other. Find out where your anxiety-producing event is on that scale.
How you manage anxiety can affect how much it disables you. So many things people do to manage anxiety actually increases its power. Drinking, smoking, and watching television or playing video games puts off the anxious feelings temporarily. However, these are unhealthy and time-wasting ways to manage anxiety. Develop healthful and uplifting methods such as taking a long walk in the fresh air, taking a ten minute shower, or simply sitting quietly and breathing deeply to handle your anxious feelings.
Negative self talk is one of the most harmful things one can do when facing anxiety. Take three steps to turn around the negative thoughts that increase your anxiety. First, notice what you are saying to yourself. Is it negative in nature? Does it look at the situation as if it were a half-empty glass? Does it predict the worst possible outcome to the situation? Second, dispute the self-talk that makes you anxious or does not serve you. Turn the half-empty glass to one that is half-full. Find something positive about the possible outcome. Third, substitute the more affirming or useful self-talk for what you were originally thinking. This process will change your anxiety into hopeful anticipation of a successful outcome.
Examine these techniques and learn what works for you. Practice them and make regular use of them when you are facing an anxious time.
Cultivating Creativity – Part IX
All it takes to be an artist is to start doing art. That sounds simple, but actually producing art is difficult. The hardest part is making yourself go to the canvas or paper and begin working. I’ve given ideas on how to create the time, and ways to deal with anxiety, but sometimes the anxiety is so overwhelming that the artist cannot even begin. One of my creativity clients was that most anxious of artists. She could not even pick up her brush even though she wanted more than anything to create a beautiful painting. There were reasons for her anxiety that I am sure a psychologist or psychiatrist would be happy to delve into, but, as her creativity coach, I took a different tact. I call it “Baby steps”.
We communicated via internet twice a week. I gave her a task at each session that was to be completed by the next session. The first task was to clear a small table of all table top clutter so that it is completely bare. Place the table in front of a window, so that even a lamp would not be needed on the table. That is all she had to do for the first session. The second session I asked her to go and buy a small palette, one that would hold six to eight different colors. Place the palette on the table. Notice it as you pass by the table during the next few days but do not touch it. The third task was to purchase three tubes of paint – red, yellow, and blue. Take them home and squeeze a small amount of each in three of the areas for paint on the palette. Notice the brilliant colors but do not touch them after applying them to the palette. The fourth task was to purchase a number 8 or 10 sable brush. Place it on the table next to the palette. Add a container of water. You may dip the brush in the water and notice the perfect point that is created in the wet brush hairs. The fifth task was to purchase a small pad of watercolor paper, no bigger than 8x10. Place it open next to the palette. The sixth task was to sit in a chair next to the table and look at the materials. Do not paint with them yet. Just notice the white surface of the paper as it contrasts with the brilliant colors of the paint. Think about which color appeals to you the most.
At this point, we have had three weeks of sessions during which I basically told the client that she was not to paint. The tasks I gave her were not anxiety-producing because she did not have to create any art. My hope was that her comfort level would increase during this preparation time. The seventh task was to dip the brush in the water and select one of the colors to add water to. This is to be done slowly and carefully. Notice the way the color changes as the water liquefies the surface. Run the brush through the paint until you have a load. Now run the brush across the paper, noticing the color soaking into the surface and coloring it. Notice the variation in the color as it gets thinner as you pull it across the surface. Notice how you feel after using the paint. Put only this one color on the paper. Clean the brush and return it to the table. Empty the container and refill it with fresh water. Anticipate coming back to this spot and adding another color next time.
I followed these steps by adding new colors consecutively, by blending the colors, and finally by creating a small painting.
My goal in taking my client through these baby steps was to reduce her anxiety and to remind her of the joy that she feels when engaged in painting. My hope is that she continues on the path we have started and is no longer frozen by anxiety that prevents her from expressing her creativity. If you find yourself similarly blocked, try taking “Baby steps” until you again feel comfortable enough to work at your normal pace.