When do we learn?
When do you learn from from an artwork: when you complete a project or while you are working on it?
Focus on the Process
Separate from criticism and praise.
Too many feel driven (hi, that’s definitely me) by praise or criticism. Symptoms of being hooked to feedback include feeling sensitive to positive or negative criticism.
Example: last week I had my final illustration assignment to hand in. I worked hard on it, but also felt a bit stressed and short on time because I was taking a last minute, unplanned trip to the USA. I knew I wanted it done before I left Muscat. So, I handed it in, but my inner critic was not sure it was “enough” and I felt vulnerable. I framed my email with the assignment as an opportunity to ask for feedback from my professor. It allowed me to keep the door open that “it wasn’t finished” if he felt it needed more work. When I got an email from him that was super complimentary I was so happy and excited that I could barely focus on other tasks at hand.
When we are so tied to positive feedback it also means negative feedback can really hurt. It can hurt so much, we stop doing the work we are called to create. It’s a dangerous place to be as a creative. Instead, when we focus on the act of creation and enjoy being present during creation, we can find inner satisfaction and drive to continue the work, with or without praise or criticism.
Tara Mohr talks about this in her book Playing Big. She spent so much of her youth hearing how good she was that she was afraid to write because, “what if the next piece wasn’t any good?”
This is why researcher Carol Dweck emphasizes we focus on the effort people spend on a project rather than rewarding “talent.” Children who are told they are naturally good at something repeatedly are often much more hooked to criticism and praise. When we are rewarded or punished with praise or criticism because of talent, something we perceive as innate, it feels like a direct criticism or praise of who we are, NOT our work.
The more we realize that praise and criticism is information that a viewer provides about their own perspective, the easier it becomes to make art.
Refine skill through trial and error.
The only way we improve our skill is by creating. Let’s say that one more time. The ONLY way we get better at our art is by creating. I wish I could record this and have you hit play over and over again. So many of you feel discouraged that your skill isn’t where “it could be” if you had continued with art in school. Unfortunately, many of you did not. And some of you who did, stopped creating after. There will also be gaps of time where we haven’t created. It’s more likely than not your life had or will have a period of time where it’s difficult to make time to make art.
But guess what will help you continue to grow skill? Returning to your art! And practicing. We need to feel comfortable taking risks and trying new ideas that come to mind while we create. Maybe this means you dabble in lots of different materials. That’s OKAY. Who said you have to choose one?! It’s through those explorations and following your curiosity that you will find your voice and build your skill.
Practice makes progress. Perfect doesn’t exist, so let us get over that idea. What we can do is continuously refine our skill. Picasso did not stop making art once he could draw realistically (which was at a super young age), he pushed himself to learn, explore and thus, grow. If you want to make better products, you better focus on the process.
More risk-taking: more breakthroughs and big ideas.
When we focus on the end product, we are less likely to take risks in our art.
My recent artwork, entitled Frida Strong, is a great example of this. Usually I have a plan and can be pretty detailed about a vision for my work. This leads me down a road of “murdering my paintings.” (direct quote from professor in college). I get so tight that my marks lose their fresh nature and the quality of my work degrades. So in this painting I decided to try something new. I had an idea of where to start and that’s what I did. I got the painting started and then I’d ask my painting, “what do you want next?”
Yes, maybe this makes me certifiable, but I’m telling you, it works. I would sit with the painting and one step at a time, the next idea would pop into my mind and I’d go for it. I had no real idea of what the end product would look like. I did know how I wanted to feel looking at the work. And I let that feeling guide my decisions. Because of this, I added gold leaf into mandalas. I painted mandalas! I had not even thought about putting mandalas in the painting. My original sketch had nothing of the sort.
I’m taking more risk in my art because I’m less worried about the end product. I’m trusting I’ll get there and it will turn out well. Call it art faith.
When we focus on the success of the final product rather than the journey we can become fearful about the artistic decisions we make. This slows our creativity and process as you spend more time on “will this decision ruin it?” versus “what if…”
Working from a place of curiosity, as toted by Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic, encourages our skill because we try things we’d never try otherwise. It leads us down a path of creative discovery as we draw connections, spark new ideas, and grow.
When process loses its shine
Why do we downplay an enjoyable process full of challenge and insight when a product doesn’t meet our expectations or standards? What would happen if we noted three lessons we discover during the process at the end of creation? What that change our perspective?
How can we focus our energy and emotional experience on the process?
When is it about the product?
Maybe it’s because so many of us want to sell our art: a product of our product-oriented, consumer driven culture. But let’s think about this: what helps sell a painting?
The story behind the work. Viewers want to know what inspired you to create it, why you chose the colors you did, and how you decide to “finish” it.
People want to own a piece of the story, which is process. They want to be reminded of part of their story, also process.
Yes of course, many of us make art and then sell art, but that’s not why I make art. I’m pretty sure that isn’t why you make art, either. It’s a bonus when people share in the love of my art. It’s icing on the cake. And sales make it easier for me to make more purely because it can buy me more art supplies.
Too many artists are defining their work as a success if it sells, and if this is you, you are missing out on a cornucopia of knowledge, learning and discovery. Remember:
Be Creatively Courageous: Celebrate and focus on the process in your next work. What is ONE thing you can do to help separate from the success and praise of the finished product?
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