Back in 2011, in an attempt to get back to making art after over a decade of perfectionist paralysis, I set out quite intentionally to do the opposite of what I used to do.
Instead of aiming at perfection (or at least awesomeness), I embraced the motto, “Think process, not product.” And where before I would plan a piece out to an inch of its life, now I embraced randomness and spontaneity.
There was nothing inherently wrong with the meticulous, nitpicky style I’d always used. Working that way had resulted in countless pieces that I’m still proud of to this day.
But my working style had exacerbated my perfectionist tendencies, and I was determined to change that pattern. Now when I approached my art table, I made the conscious effort to be mindfully messy.
I’ve found this way of working exhilarating.
I allowed myself to play, to explore, to make messes and then find the order waiting inside them, rather than always trying to impose order in the hopeless attempt to match the perfect image in my head. I started using chaos as an intentional element in my work, rather than something I did my best to avoid.
Let me be quick to state that when I’m at my art table I still want to come out with something that pleases me — of course I do! And I still bump up against the internal critic, especially as I got further into a piece. But a good chunk of the time nowadays when I’m working at my art table, I’m in a pretty blissful state of freefall and discovery.
“Hmm…” I’ll think, “I wonder what would happen if I tried…”
This is absolutely my favorite part of the creative process!
I can feel my heart start to race, my skin tingle, my head feels almost as if I’m floating. It’s scary and thrilling and fun all at the same time — the biggest high ever!
Two Phases of Creativity
In his book, Uncertainty, Jonathan Fields talks about the creative process as having two distinct phases:
1) The insight, or dot-connecting phase, when the idea or vision comes to light.
2) The REP phase, which stands for refinement, expansion and production, when the creation is taken from an idea to concrete reality.
Whatever the creation — a painting, a book, a business — it has to go through both phases in order to come into existence. Most people feel more comfortable in one phase over the other, though as solo creators, we usually have to do both ourselves.
Me, I’m an insight/dot-connection gal. REP makes me want to pull out my fingernails. I can do it, but it’s often unpleasant, and I need all the help I can get.
Whichever phase you gravitate toward, the key to creative productivity is to set up support structures to help get you through the other one. That, or team up with other people with the opposite affinity and get them to do it!
My late book arts teacher did just that with grace. She made handmade artist’s books in editions of 300 or more, but she knew herself well enough to know that cranking out 300 identical copies would send her around the bend. So she wisely kept her role to developing and designing the prototypes, and hired binders to do the tedious work she had no interest in.
I designed my Little Star Book (below) in on of her classes, back in 1998, and in the process learned that edition binding was not for me. These tiny books sold well, but I never finished assembling the entire edition. BO-RING!
The Story of a Piece I Almost Killed
Lately I’ve been most interested in working on canvas, and usually I start a new piece with no agenda in mind, beyond what colors or medium I might like to use. As the piece evolves, it “tells me” what it whats to be.
Sometimes, though, I have a more fleshed-out vision for something I’d like to try, like a few weeks ago, when I got the idea to sew a small canvas onto a larger one, and then collage over the threads. I was curious to see what that would look like.
I also wanted to try incorporating typed text, from my vintage typewriter, and had recently discovered an old pad of airmail paper in a drawer, so decided to start using it up in my artwork!
I started typing:
Then tore the sheet into strips:
Then tore the strips into scraps:
Once I had a good-sized pile of scraps, I started collaging onto a 6×6 canvas using Golden Soft Gel (Gloss):
The finished 6×6 canvas:
I then collaged more blank airmail paper onto a 12×12 canvas (I love the way the paper wrinkles!), to act as the support for the smaller canvas:
Now, time to start the stitching!
In my original vision, the stitches would go in and out of the edges of the top canvas, but even with a curved needle this proved beyond my abilities. So I let go of that vision, and went with “second best” — having the stitches go in and out of the top canvas a couple of inches in from the edge.
Here’s how it looked with the stitching all done, and starting to collage the remaining scraps on top of the stitching:
Bored! Bored! Bored!
At about this point is where I stalled.
All I had to do to manifest my original vision (granted, with the stitching not where I’d originally planned it) was to keep collaging around the top canvas. The problem was, I was bored.
For me, the joy is in the discovery, and I could see exactly what this piece was going to look like already in my head.
I was now firmly in the REP phase of the creative process. If the end vision had been exciting enough, I would have trudged through the tedium to bring it to life. But that end vision bored me, and the thought of spending hours to collage more scraps onto thread in order to make a boring piece made me want to run screaming in the other direction.
I confess, I had a mini Dark Night of the Soul here. What do I do? The sewing I’d done so far on this piece had been so tedious, and now I was bored with the piece altogether. I wanted to move on to something else, but the piece clearly wasn’t finished, and I did not want to start a pattern of leaving UFOs* all over my studio.**
Then suddenly I had a thought: What if I don’t follow the original plan to the end? What if, instead, I were to treat the piece in its existing, partially done state, as a blank canvas?
This is, in fact, how I work with my ArtSparks and improvisational canvases: I make a mark, then respond to it. In effect, I treat whatever greets me from my art table as if it were a blank canvas. The only difference here was that instead of starting with no agenda, I dropped the agenda in the middle.
Guess what — it worked! Brilliantly.
For the rest of the time I worked on this piece, I was in discovery mode, improvising, asking, “What if..?”
What if I weave linen thread in irregular patterns into the stitches?
What if I weave paper strips through the stitches?
What if I type on the paper strips first?
I had a blast finishing this piece, and to add icing to the cake, it sold! Someone who saw all these process pics as I was making the piece fell in love with it and purchased it. 🙂
Here’s the finished art, titled “Positively Entwined,” after varnishing (thank you to Carrie Lee for offering the winning title suggestion over on Facebook):
Selling this piece so quickly was a wonderful bonus, of course, but perhaps the best part of this whole process is the discovery of a really simple way to get back to joy when I find myself bored with what I’m making:
Abandon the plan.
Let go of the vision in my head and treat what I have in front of me as a blank canvas.
It’s funny: I used to fear the blank canvas. “Ack! What do I do?!”
But when you’re a practicing imperfectionist, the blank canvas is not something to fear; instead of a scary wall, it becomes an invitation. On its own, it’s still overwhelming — nothing shuts us down like limitless possibility. But that’s easily solved: just make a mark!
Then react to that mark. Add to it. Cover it. It doesn’t matter what you do, because whatever it is, you can then react to that!
This is the essence of the Creative Sandbox mentality, where there is no wrong. Everything you do becomes something to build on, explore, and discover.
Now I’m off to do just that with my next canvas…
* UFO = UnFinished Object
** Correction: I already have countless UFOs, so it would be more accurate to say I didn’t want to perpetuate the pattern of leaving UFOs all over my studio.
PS — Pssst! Know someone who might benefit from seeing this today? Pass it on!