Creativity is about change – the real risk is getting stuck. So how do we stay in our creative flow, develop new work and flourish?
The Nurtured Artist is all about how we plant the seeds of new ideas and nourish our creativity to step into a sense of who we are as makers and artists. Finding and maintaining a flow state is what my mixed-media online art courses are about – I want you to find that elusive place where you are lost in the moment of your art making with no hindrance from what has gone before or what may be.
Of course, after a year of a global pandemic we are all having to adapt and embrace change, though within that chaos we can sometimes search for the safety and sanctity of what we know. But without change, nothing innovative will happen. With certainty, no growth can occur. There is by necessity a risk taking in artistic enquiry.
“To the artist, art is a verb”, or being a child of the seventies, a ‘doing’ word! It’s a process, not a product, and the joy comes from the making. There are highs and lows, battles and dilemnas. Once that process is boxed into a formula, there is little risk, and little pleasure, and the easy perfection of a well-honed, repeated outcome gives little reward.
With that knowledge, why are we so fearful of change? So fearful of getting it wrong?
I’m currently involved in two online art challenges – one as a participant and one as a tutor. This year’s #the100dayproject started on January 31st and I am just past the half-way point. The challenge invites you to participate in any way you wish, but to make/stitch/draw/collage for 100 days in a row (it’s quite forgiving with no pressure). The other challenge is Sketchbook Revival now in its 4th year, which was set up by illustrator Karen Abend and brings together over 20 tutors to give free lessons which are delivered over a two-week period (with extra access available). All the workshops are about using the Sketchbook to explore new processes and techniques with participants sharing their responses in a Facebook Group. I was invited by Karen to teach a session and settled on inspiration from the rhythms of nature to guide your creative flow. I wanted to write this blog post to share my experiences of both challenges.
To make art you have to be a maverick. There’s not much point just mimicking – the best outcomes come from questioning the source and following your own intuition. You have to get comfortable with breaking the rules and go in an independent direction. When you’re learning from other artists, I think it is as much about what you say no to as to what you want to take away from a shared process or ethos. Having a two-week platform of lessons from over 20 artists, Sketchbook Revival can feel like standing in the eye of the storm, buffeted one way and another. The trick is to decide what strand you are taking from each lesson, perhaps how you can integrate this with the thread from the last session, or with what you know of your own processes. What I have always loved about teaching is sharing a starting point and then seeing where students take the lesson. Those who end up going off on a tangent can often be apologetic, but I think that freedom is part of the maverick mindset and I love to see the innovation occur.
I was fortunate to be recommended the Seth Godin interview on the Design Matters podcast, hosted by Debbie Millman. In it, Seth talks about entering a practice without self- judgement. Don’t waste time on self-negotiation, show up, do the practice, share it. Do that for yourself and not for others. And don’t be swayed by the clicks and likes. Keep on keeping on. What the artistic process lacks is a measurable feedback system. What one person likes, another will detest, and innovation can be slated before being accepted. What is measurable and developable in the creative mindset, is resilience and persistence – and we can all work on those. So, turn up to make art, don’t self-judge, do set boundaries around who you listen to and why.
And my biggest take-away from the podcast – celebrate not being the same. We shouldn’t be aiming to replicate each other’s work but to sing with our own voice.
Getting started with art making can be fraught with overthinking. Imagined art is always perfect but the translation from fantasy to reality can be bumpy! As the idea topples into the cold light of day, it can present us with a sense of failure as it becomes something other than that which we intended. This is where we need our flow state – allow the image to find its own reality, turn off the inner critic, bring the idea forth without self-judgement. Let the art become.
Don’t judge yourself on a moment or the outcome of a 20-minute tutorial. Think beyond to what the lifetime value of your learning is. Even if it’s “I hate collage, I never want to do it again”, you know not to head down that route and can work harder at going deeper and not wider into your practice. Trust your intuition on whether to repeat the task, or switch it up with another more familiar process, or whether to walk away.
Process is the bit in the middle of art making. It’s not the initial idea, and it’s not the outcome. It’s that bit in between, the showing up for the ‘what if?’. It’s where techniques and accidents collide, and where magic can happen.
Having a creative practice is fraught with decisions. What should I do? What’s my project? What do I want out of this? But turning up daily, or regularly to do what you do, without self-judgement is how we build skill and discover our own voice. We hear of mindful meditation practice, the showing up to still our mind – sometimes only to hear the babble and chatter of our inner voice. Art making is the same – sometimes it’s blissful, other times fraught with misstarts and perceived failures.
"The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It's the people who do all of the work all the time who eventually catch on to things"
What do I take away from these online challenges, one as a participant and one as a tutor?
· A sense of community – support and connection. The power of finding an online community has been so validating in this pandemic year. Cut off from friends and family, connecting in cyberspace with other creatives has been invaluable.
· A commitment to share the journey, not just the ‘perfect’ or finished pieces.
· An impetus to keep going, spurred on by others.
· An understanding of my own creative self-doubt and questioning my creative direction
· A joy at embracing artistic change – experienced through the excitement of the new and abject fear too!
· Online art challenges are a great way of getting involved in a regular art practice, bolstered by the commitment of others and sharing their joy and pain in the process!
· Stumbling across fresh ideas. Working with multiple ideas is part of the maverick mindset, taking strands from different places and spaces and harnessing something new is where growth occurs.
· Feedback – where we often see lack, others see enviable colour, a freedom of mark or an accurate cutting technique. Offering our work up for feedback can be tremendously encouraging. But don’t over value it. You turned up for you and created. Having others feedback can help us see beyond our own frustrations.
Having a regular practice helps me understand the presence of my soul. Daily/regular intentional creative processing and experimenting, grounds me and connects me to myself. Whilst there I am in the moment, I may question my work later, but in the moment, I am a part of the process.
Creative flow is about the process, not the outcomes. It’s not about what you make, but how you react to what you make. Using your intuition, ask yourself, do you want to do more or tear it up? (Creation and destruction go hand in hand). Do you want to learn a technique or create your own? Within these reflective questions and their answers, there is an acceptance of who we are. We need to value our difference, our essential self.
Whilst in the process of art we enter a state of spaciousness, found through play and possibility. Don’t try to know what it will be, allow for mistakes, innovation, spontaneity. Much of my life is scheduled – I have my digital calendar and meal planning app, my watch that beeps to tell me what I should be doing and how many steps I need to take! This keeps a routine for me so that when I have studio-time I can harness spontaneity and intuitive process. It’s so important to keep showing up for your inner artist, even if you aren’t sure about what you are doing or where it’s going.
My own work is taking me on a new journey. I intellectualised my connection to landscape and have spent time reading books about our human connection to land and nature. Most recently Sharon Blackie’s ‘If Women Rose Rooted’ (highly recommended!). My journey with the 100 day project has built on this connection, taking my lockdown walks as a starting point and yet, as I have reached the midpoint of the challenge, the very real space of the Derbyshire landscape, is receding and an emotive force of connection to nature is coming through, represented with colour, shape and abstract form. I am loving the thrill of the new that has presented itself whilst also being equally terrified of not being able to join the dots to where I have been and where I am going. I have to take a leap of faith and trust the unfurling of the process.
My studio wall has become a shrine to colour. I have moved a comfy chair into an already overcrowded space with the motivation that, as the days get longer and warmer, I can bring some hand-stitch back into my process and connect to my textile roots.
As I spoke of in my talk, ‘The Nurtured Artist’, creating isn’t a linear process but more of a spiral – circling inwards and then back out again, revisiting previous projects and ideas, it needs us to flow with it, loop back around and scoop up additional elements to move forwards again, revisiting, collecting, nurturing ideas – a dance with colour and technique that allows for innovation.
The overwhelming majority of developing as an artist is using your intuition, making mistakes to decide what you are not, honing-in on what you are good at, and what you enjoy. You then put a rocket booster under that and shoot for the moon!
I was delighted to receive this feedback to my lesson on Sketchbook Revival:
"I think when something touches your heart and soul it is a truth you can feel in your bones. I got up early this morning to photograph the moon high in the sky as the sun began to rise in the east. The bird song was incredible and filled with joy and hope for the day that was unfolding. A miracle viewed from my doorstep on my little street, thousands of miles away from the UK. I noticed that because of you...because of what you said."
Kathleen Abley - Sketchbook Revival Workshop Participant
In ‘Art and Fear – Observations of the Perils and Rewards of Artmaking’ – David Bayles and Ted Orland talk of a Ceramics professor who with a new intake of students, set one half of the class the task of creating a quantity of work produced and the other half on the quality of work produced. The quantity group churned out piles of stuff and learnt from their mistakes, developing and honing their skills along the way. The quality group theorised and intellectualised and overthought their process, delivering little of merit at the end of the course.
Taking part in online challenges forces us into the quantity group. It forces us to be vulnerable and to share the process. And like with the ceramics group, over time, we see that we are responding to what we have made and evolving our process. We get to know ourselves better and remind ourselves of lost loves and make new innovations. We get to begin again, an even if we are established can discover a new world within.
When I see what others create in response to my online art workshops, I am always more fulfilled by seeing the work that ties in strands of something else, art that tries and fails, materials that might not be quite right – because they are the starting point for creative flow – and the inner conversation of ‘I like this, but I don’t like that, so now I will try x instead’.
By the process of regular art-practice we learn to ‘walk’, to ‘jog’, and then to ‘run’, building a portfolio of art as we go – some good some bad, some enjoyable, some riddled with frustration. By showing up for ourselves we get to call ourselves Artists.
References and links:
Seth Godin Design Matters - https://soundcloud.com/designmatters/design-matters-with-debbie-millman-seth-godin
Art & Fear – David Bayles and Ted Orland
If Women Rose Rooted – Sharon Blackie
Sketchbook Revival - https://www.karenabend.com/helen-hallows - access available until April 18th 2021
The 100 day project - https://the100dayproject.org/
The Nurtured Artist – mixed media courses and creative development https://www.thenurturedartist.com/
The Nurtured Artist Webinar - https://www.helenhallows.com/product-page/the-nurtured-artist-webinar-25th-february-2021
RSA Journal – The Maverick Mindset by Billie Carn - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UoR4sOIkVLA
My #100dayproject on instagram - https://www.instagram.com/explore/tags/100helenhallows2021/