A friend looked at my Facebook profile and posted a message: So you paint, too, Ted?
I do – painting and drawing are important practices for me these days. This does not mean that I paint or draw a lot, have done it for a long time, or do it especially well, but it is a big part of whom I am.
The roots of that practice grow out of the same motives that have led me to write this blog. I find within it important lessons for life’s best practices.
To See. The chief reason I began to draw, and later paint, is that when my young son became old enough to speak, I realized that he was seeing things in his surroundings that I was missing. I’d already categorized my space so often and so regularly over decades of living that I was not noticing many things that my toddler saw all around him. I was, I recognized, acting mindlessly, failing to actively recategorize and discern what was new in each setting, relying instead on presumptions and convenient groupings to get through my everyday experience.
I began investigating the best ways to learn to observe closely. I quickly found substantial support for the intuitively obvious notion that those who depict things tend to notice more about those things. Artists tend to see with more discernment, more categorization, and more precision than those untrained in the pictorial arts. I decided to learn to draw and paint pictures because I would have to train myself to look more closely at what I was depicting. This training would likely spill over even to those times when I did not have a pencil or paint brush at hand.
To Overcome Resistance. My first reaction to this tentative plan, of course, was to think it was absurd. I’m a grown man, I have lots of important things to do, I haven’t painted since about the third grade, and I wasn’t very good at it then.
Fortunately, I heard all of these self-criticisms and excuses against a backdrop of research into perfectionism and creativity. My research had persuaded me that although most people have substantial creativity within themselves, unleashing it requires overcoming barriers and judgments.
Artists and writers tend to call these negative voices “resistance.” Resistance tells you that someone has thought of your idea before, that the idea cannot be very important, that the laundry deserves priority right now, or that your idea (or your expression of it) is not very good. Resistance inhibits, second-guesses, undermines, slows, frustrates, and shames. Artists face resistance all the time. It’s not that those who achieve great expressions of creativity don’t hear the voices, nor that they ignore them. Rather, the successful artist, the professional (in this sense), finds ways to take the risks and create despite the voices of self-criticism and judgment.
I’d read a lot about resistance, and I had personally concluded that I was not taking enough personal and professional risks. I was not putting myself outside my comfort zone. So I serendipitously had stumbled upon something that would make me uncomfortable without risk to my personal health. I would learn to paint and draw. I’d take visible risks, and I’d make visible mistakes. And I’d get over it.
To Learn. As various entries in this blog illustrate (e.g., here), I strongly believe that one of life’s best practices is to learn, continuously. Since I knew essentially nothing about drawing or painting, I knew that pursuing this interest would force me to stretch my brain.
And boy, has it. I started with Betty Edwards’ fantastic Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, and then I stumbled upon the countless drawing books available online in PDF form – such as the books by Andrew Loomis available for free on Scribd. I also realized that the local library had entire aisles of books on these subjects — aisles I’d ignored for decades. Furthermore, by forcing myself to begin to look for and at drawing and painting references, I began quickly to branch out into color theory, art history, art criticism, and so forth. Picking up a pencil and paper for something other than writing, in other words, has opened a vast new landscape of ideas and experiences.
In my next post, I will touch upon some of the benefits that have come from the practice of taking myself out of my comfort zone by learning to push pigment around a canvas. In the meantime, here’s a question: what, if anything, you’ve found to overcome your resistance to creativity? Let me know in the comments section below.