My weekly life drawing sessions start again for the New Year soon and I have a real sense of anticipation about getting back to some serious and enjoyable drawing after doing nothing much over the Christmas holidays. This got me thinking about the act of creating and some of the risks that this entails. So, I’m going spend a bit of time making sure that you can spot these and then carry on creating.
Part of the anticipation is for the sheer pleasure of being there with my mates, who I have not seen in a while but part is an anticipation of being totally absorbed again in the process of drawing, which I find deeply satisfying and enjoyable. When I am drawing I can think about nothing else, so in a sense I haven’t a care in the world.
When we were kids we were able to create unselfconsciously. I remember ‘being’ a pirate in an upturned dining-room-table-ship and feeling a real terror about the sharks swimming beneath the carpet. Although I was clearly pretending and dressing up and basically just buggering about with my siblings on a wet Sunday afternoon, I was totally involved in what I was doing and significantly I was not competing with anyone. I might have wanted to be the captain rather than the second mate but it never occurred to me to think that my brother was in some way better at being a pirate than me. Creating myself as a pirate was absolutely not a competitive act and creating a painting is not a competitive act.
However after a few year of schooling virtually everything I did was measured and marked and ranked against someone else and I remember feeling a real sense of pride when I was awarded a gold star for getting all my numbers the right way round (I was very dyslexic) and this competitive, combative ethos runs deep in almost every school on the planet. Eventually competing becomes so embedded and internalised that it spills over into our entire lives until we are able to do almost nothing without actually competing. Not surprisingly this leaves scars on us. We have all been hurt at one time or another by not winning or worse still coming last at something or another; by having our pictures not put up on the wall and we carry that sadness and shame with us ever afterwards.
I remember vividly taking my first abstract painting (which took me countless hours to make) to my father and saying ‘look what I have painted dad’ and his reply was ‘what a load of pretentious codswallop’. Boy did that sting. The fact that he knew next to nothing about art generally made no difference. The damage had been done.
Because we all carry the hurt of our ‘failures’ around with us, showing our work to anybody becomes a very risky business.
For simplicity’s sake let’s call the two imagined protagonists the ‘painter’ and the ‘viewer’, though it’s always more complicated because all viewers are or were ‘painters’ at one time too.
It usually goes one of three ways…
The viewer sees the painting and thinks ‘blimey s/he’s only been painting for a few months and they are already better than me’ and this brings up all their hurt feelings from the past and reminds them of all their paintings that never made it to the ‘Picture of the Week Wall’ and so they feel crap and hurt and dump all this by giving a less than positive response.
Or, the viewer sees the painting and secretly thinks ‘ God s/he’s got a cheek, I could do better than that myself, in fact my four year old could do better than that’ and dumps that negativity on the painter.
Or, if the painter is lucky they might just find a viewer who is delighted to share their enthusiasm for painting. Likely as not the viewer will say something like ‘maybe the balance of the picture could be improved by toning down that green a bit’ and if the painter is new to ‘criticism’ they are likely to be thrown right back into that sad childhood place of not being good enough.
So, all in all showing your work can be very risky. In a better world than this, all creativity would be met with warm appreciation and new painters would be encouraged to carry on with their painting without getting caught up in whether it is good enough or better than any other painter’s work.
If you are at that stage in your work where you want constructive criticism it is best to find another painter who is happily producing work of their own and who has a degree of experience with the kind of painting you are interested in. With a bit of luck you will get support and encouragement as well as some useful hints and advice.
Whoever you show your work to, be aware that the very act of being creative brings up very old feelings that stretch back a long way. Remind yourself (if you need reminding) that creativity is not a competitive act and although we were all brought up with gold stars and prizes we can’t create and compete at the same time.
So dump the quest for gold stars and get back to being a pirate!