In my 25 years of teaching painting and drawing, I have noticed something striking about the majority of my first-time students. Whether my students are young, middle-aged, or mature, they tend to harbor an accumulation of critical judgments that inevitably emerge during their creative process. It might be a disparaging remark made by a past teacher, the harsh judgment of a parent years before, or a recent passing remark made by a friend: Whatever the source, critical remarks and observations have extraordinary staying power. They often stand in the way of new artists and block their personal road to progress.
Let me be clear: Of course we all need criticism to guide us, and a healthy creative process has to include a time to solicit, consider and absorb criticism. What I am going to suggest is that there is real value in banishing criticism -- including self-criticism -- as you establish your creative process. Your first creative efforts are like tender shoots, and the harsh wind of criticism can damage them before they grow the "roots" of experience and confidence.
The 10 steps below are meant for anyone who is relatively new to a creative endeavor, and they should work especially well to those who are getting started in painting or drawing.
- Set aside some unstructured time for your creativity.
- Limit potential distractions by turning off your phone and computer.
- If you live with others let them know that you need a bit of privacy and that they won't be asked to comment on what you are doing.
- Do what you can to put yourself in a good mood: enjoy a favorite meal and put on some music.
- Now, begin your creative process, consciously guarding your good mood.
- As you work, devote yourself to the process and materials, not to your thoughts.
- When a judgment of any kind comes up, ignore it.
- When you recall or remember a critical moment, a personal failing, or your sense of disappointment with a past creative project, just let it go.
- If you absolutely can't get a particular judgment, self-criticism, or insecurity out of your mind, stop for a moment and write it down. You will come back to it later.
- Make a point of observing and noting what is going well.
You may find the steps above difficult to follow, especially if you are highly insecure, or if you have been under stress. Just do the best you can: repeating the process should help. In a sense there is some "practice" involved in learning to ease up on yourself during the creative process. It is a bit like practicing or learning meditation.
When I studied meditation with a Tibetan teacher some years ago, someone in my class asked him "What do you do when your meditation is interrupted by a negative thought?" He told us "Turn the negative thought into a horse, but don't get on the horse and ride it out of the meditation." I love that advice, which I interpreted to mean that negative thoughts and criticisms are always going to be there, but you can control how you respond to them and what you do with them.
When you are ready to handle criticism -- from others or from yourself -- you have entered what I call the "cup of coffee" stage. Others call it the "glass of wine" stage: It just depends on what drink you relax with. Bring out your finished painting, drawing, poem, or whatever and allow the criticism to flow. If you wrote some notes during your process, bring them out.
Yes, now that your project is done, you can be tough on yourself. If you have people in your life who care about you and whose judgment you trust, invite them to offer comments on the finished product as well. Always temper your harshest criticisms with some positive observations. Be fair to yourself, even when you are being tough on yourself. You will achieve balance over time.
Here is the most important thing to remember: when you are starting out, criticism belongs after the creative process, not during the process.
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