My biggest turning point in learning to be creative came about 3 years ago when I was struggling with the exercises in a book on colored pencils I had purchased. The exercise involved drawing a fish bowl with a colorful goldfish inside. I followed the instructions as best I could, but my fish bowl didn’t look anything like the one in the example.
I became frustrated.
Angry with myself for not being able to follow the seemingly simple instructions.
I actually remember saying out loud, rather roughly to myself “Does your picture look like THAT? NO!”
This was a pattern I had followed for years. I’d buy a book and get excited about all the possibilities. This book was going to be the ONE. I was finally going to learn how to draw or paint. And much like the situation I’d just described, I’d start with lesson 1, maybe progress to lesson 2 and then become frustrated with my own lack of results.
It got to the point where I stopped buying more books, embarrassed at the shelf of books I already had collecting dust. I just wasn’t good at this stuff, right?
Why did I keep torturing myself, trying to pretend I could learn something that was clearly beyond my capabilities?
But something my life coach said to me one day, finally clicked.
“Put the books away,” she said. “Just draw what you want to draw. No judgement. Just have fun.”
At first this suggestion seemed absurd. Clearly I didn’t know what I was doing. I needed instruction. Rules. Guidelines at the very least.
I’ve always been a person who took comfort in knowing how to do things the right way. In fact, I had the mantra my father instilled in me in my head on a non-stop loop. “If you can’t do it right, don’t bother doing it at all.”
I was brought up to believe that taking the time to do things the right way was incredibly important.
In hindsight, I believe my father’s message was more about not being lazy. Not skipping steps and doing a half-assed job. For him a job well done was it’s own reward. He didn’t take shortcuts to get things done faster. He took the time to do a good job. For him, that translated into doing it “right”.
Unfortunately, I took his mantra too literally and didn’t consider that the act of creativity is much different than simply completing a task from start to finish.
I thought that I needed to understand every rule. Know how to use every pencil, type of paint or marker before I even began.
I often got overwhelmed at the beginning of many art books because they would start out with a long list of materials, many of which I’d never heard of. I’d stress about what I should buy or where I could find it. I wouldn’t let myself start until I could do it right.
So the day my coach made her radical suggestion, I dismissed it out of hand.
“She just doesn’t get it,” I thought to myself. Then I got her feedback email after our session with a list of tasks for the week. One of them was to spend some time drawing without using a book. I was supposed to simply play and not worry about the outcome.
I’m a very conscientious, checklist-type person. So when I saw that instruction, I knew that I had to follow it. But the idea filled me with fear. I didn’t think I could do it.
After avoiding the assignment for more than a week, I finally got out my sketchbook and started doodling and messing around.
This was the result:
After that, I spent the morning sketching and playing and drew these:
Not stellar drawings to be sure, but they were better than anything I had ever tried to copy from a book.
After that, my world began to change. Everything I saw had the potential to be a drawing. I realized I didn’t need anyone’s permission to draw whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted.
And if I could let go of the need to make it come out “right”, I found I enjoyed the process a whole lot more. It was actually FUN!
Even better, I realized that I had retained some of the lessons I had learned from many of the books I’d been reading. The first two drawings above were inspired by the lessons I learned in The Art of Zentangle, my favorite book about Zentangle and doodling. The others were applications of drawing principles I had learned from You Can Draw in 30 Days – the only drawing book that made things simple enough for me to really start making progress.
I learned that just the act of DOING something, whether it came out right or not, was worth the effort. I’ve been happily learning and drawing ever since.
So what about you? Have you been trying too hard to do things right? Is the need to do it perfectly keeping you from starting at all?
I invite you to try something new. Put the books away, take out a sketchbook or a blank sheet of paper and just draw what you want to draw. You might be surprised how enjoyable the experience can be, even when it doesn’t come out “right”.