I have a tumultuous relationship with the act of making art. Core to the struggles I face is me overthinking things – of getting in my own way – so my hope is that by capturing some of that here in a blog post I might free my mind of excess mental CPU these worryings drain.
Let me start by saying: creating for me is really damn hard. As hard as I’ve tried to correct it, I still have a lingering subliminal expectation that painting or drawing should be this euphoric, trance-like experience where one rises to a plane to commune with Degas and Mondrian in effortlessly originating a masterpiece. It’s a sexy notion of how things get made, but I’ve seldom found it to be true. Instead there’s fear that it’s going to turn out lame, the grind of placing yet another texture layer in an Illustrator file, mind-numbing boredom, fidgeting, and – this won’t come as a surprise to those of you who know me – insatiable hunger. Typically my craving is for chocolate chip cookies, which is why I don’t keep them in my apartment: were they available, I could eat infinite chocolate chip cookies...
It begs the question: why do it? I work a UX designer, so obviously there’s a strong incentive to keep showin’ up to do that, but why sketching or watercolor or lettering?
Enter: my overemphasis on what people think and the messiness that brings. As a kid, art was second nature. My wonderful parents equipped me with ample supplies and even my own dedicated 'art desk' where I could go to town anytime I wanted. And I was good at it. The compliments started pouring in: “You made this??” My Mom would embarrass me by showing off my paintings to guests who would inevitably ooh and ahh. I didn’t like all this very much, because it added pressure to something that prior to the praise was very organic. All of a sudden, I was the artistic kid, so I felt like I had an expectation to live up to. Instead of graciously accepting admiration, I resented it, because it put me in the mindset of playing it safe – sticking with what I knew people would think was 'good.'
Fast forward a decade or so, and circa senior year of college I found myself in a bit of a creative identity crisis. “What if the reason I’m doing this design thing is all rooted in my own insecurity and desire to impress?” “Do I like this enough that it qualifies as this ‘bliss’ I’m supposed to be following?” “What does it even mean to be passionate??” I started inquiring to other creatives about how much like enjoyed what they did, to see if everyone secretly wasn’t having as much fun as they were supposed to and and if I was in an acceptable range of ‘passion.’
What I started to gradually appreciate was the different types of enjoyment that can come from doing a thing. Part of the attraction to sitting down at the blank canvas is the simple hope that what it will end up as will look good. At Create Upstate this year, illustrator Dan Cassaro shared about how, as an 8-year-old, he had an epiphany of how cool art was when he accidentally ‘discovered’ perspective by adding a bottom jaw line to a dinosaur he was drawing. The room 'Mmmm'd and nodded in enthusiastic agreement, and I think this simple anecdote resonated with us so strongly because of those breakthrough moments we’ve all had where we finally nail a Sharpie stegosaurus or realistically blend a flower petal.
Faith in the end product isn’t enough though, because, well, failure is inevitable. A motivation instead related to the process is similar to the one I find in exercise: most of the time it’s not ‘fun’, but it is subtly satisfying. It seems to me my body was meant to be able to run and jump and climb, and similarly it seems like there’s a creative potential worth realizing to be inspired by the world and act on that through art.
As per my opening paragraph to this post and the present-tense use of ‘struggles’, this is still very much something I’m figuring out. Last summer I sat down with my parents and interviewed them about me – my childhood; my quirks; my likes and dislikes. One of the biggest takeaways my Mom’s response to my sharing some of the same insecurities mentioned above: “You always were an artist – you just were.” This, and her examples of how this played out in how I chose to spend my time as a kid were reassuring reminders that the start of all this was something innate. Now it’s about teasing out that innate innocence from its overlay with the shallow allure of Instagram likes. There’s a quality of creativity authentic to who I am, and I’m workin’ at embracing that. Hopefully this externalization exercise frees up some of cognitive overhead to now actually go make some stuff 😎