THOUGHTS ON CREATIVITY: SEEKING PLAYFULNESS NOT PERFECTIONISM

EXPECTATION IS THE THIEF OF JOY

For about ten years in my 20s I avoided drawing or painting because I always wanted the outcome to be perfect. The weight of my expectation was too heavy. It’s a sadness to me that I allowed fear of failure, fear of not being good enough to stop me even starting: that I allowed my high expectations to steal so much joy, so much experimentation, so much development.

Helen Wells Artist

NOTHING TO LOSE AND EVERYTHING TO GAIN

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Now that I’m in my 40s and working as a professional artist I want to share some wisdom with my younger self. I want to tell her that she has absolutely nothing to lose from starting and a whole wonderful world to gain.

DANCE WITH FEAR

I want her to know that the pain of not creating is so much more crippling than the pain of creating something she doesn’t like. That she needs to create despite the fear, that she must work with the fear and let it dance along beside her.

Helen Wells Artist

BE KIND TO YOUR CREATIVITY

I want to tell my younger self that mistakes are how you learn. That being kind and gentle with her self when she is creating helps her to develop and grow and be braver and bolder.

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PERFECTIONISM GETS YOU STUCK, PLAY GETS YOU UNSTUCK

I want her to know that pressured perfectionism gets her stuck and that half the fun is the journey to the end result not the end result itself. I want to tell her to be playful.

PLAY IS PART OF MY PROCESS

Play, experimentation and childlike curiosity is part of making things manifest, is part of creating art, an important part. So I thought I’d share some of the ways I play and incorporate it into my artistic practice.

LOOKING AND SEEKING

Helen Wells Artist

I frequently go wandering outside with my camera, looking for inspiration. I try and really look with fresh eyes and notice what makes me curious, what stands out. I look for patterns and shapes, colours and textures. I find that the more I actively seek on these meanders the more interesting things I find.

The shots in this blog post are from a wander in my local park just before sunset. It took me a little while to look up and see lots of striking silhouettes of trees and twigs, lines and patterns on the water, reflections and outlines.

USING PHOTOGRAPHS AS A SPRINGBOARD

I might then print out a few of the photographs and use then as a starting point, as a springboard, as reference material, as an entry point to something. As the start of something.

STARTING SMALL

Helen Wells Artist

I often like to cut up a large piece of thick heavy paper into many small pieces. I find that playing about on a small piece of paper is liberating, less daunting. I will paint and splash, daub or draw on more that one piece at a time. Just playing. Just experimenting. Just responding to what’s on the page. Just having fun.

I often might get out lots of different materials, watercolour, ink and experiment, see what works, what doesn’t. Because I might have a pile of 15 pieces of paper on the go at once, there is no preciousness, there is expansiveness and abundance.

These playful bursts often result in something interesting, a seed of an artwork, a happy accident, something that I will develop into a larger, more significant art work. I find this playful approach leads to a much better end result than trying to create something of significance from the get go, this exploration and experiment leads to discovery, that I can work through the mistakes to unearth something more valuable and beautiful.

Helen Wells Artist
Helen Wells Artist

WHY I MAKE STUFF + WHAT CREATIVITY MEANS IN MY LIFE

I’ve been reflecting recently on why I make stuff. Why I paint, why I draw and why I experiment in my sketchbook and I thought it may be useful to share some of these thoughts with you.

Perhaps my musings might help you to reflect on your own creativity and motivations. Perhaps they might act as an invitation for you to consider your own ‘why’ or perhaps these words might even be a tiny rallying call for you to start something, to take the smallest of steps or the biggest of leaps.

helen+wells

CREATIVITY IS INTERPRETING THE WORLD

When I was a kid I just loved drawing from life or playing about with colour and pattern. I was always drawing. Then I became an adult and some of that colour and pattern left me. I didn’t pursue art as a career. I put it away in a box marked ‘childish’ and did more studious things. I lost a lot of my playfulness. I tried to be serious and sensible. During my twenties I didn’t make anything at all, I just stopped. And in this stopping, I lost a lovely and important part of who I am and it took me nearly a decade to find it and reopen the box.

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I was 29 (I am now 43) and feeling a little bruised after a breakup with a boyfriend, not sure how to use my holiday as a single person, feeling a bit lost and lonely, a little uncertain and stuck. On a a whim I signed up for a two week painting course at the Slade Art School in London. It was the most magical fortnight. I felt alive and excited. Curious and contented. Playing with colour and paint all day, every day felt like a home-coming for me. I felt energised and alive. Like I was learning a new language. The act of drawing from life, literally meant that I had to look at things in a new way. See things in a new light, under a new microscope. I remember that one of the first small activities was drawing an office chair. I looked at that chair and I saw the beauty in its lines. I began to actually appreciate the curve of the arm rest and the shadows it made on the wall. That course re-ignited my love affair with drawing and painting and set me off on a path of re-discovery. Importantly for me, it also helped me to see the beauty in every day objects, to reconnect with the physical world with a child-like sense of wonder and awe.

helen wells artist

CREATIVITY IS MAKING MISTAKES

After those first tentative steps, there were some road blocks along the way. Looking back, most of the road blocks were entirely of my own making. I was hugely self critical of anything I created. I was the opposite of kind and nurturing to my newly found creative ember. I was mean and critical. I would stamp on it with wild abandon and large heavy boots. I hated everything I made. Everything I painted or drew was rubbish.

My internal radio was tuned to Critical Witch FM and the volume was turned up to the max. I nearly let this internal negative dialogue dictate my actions and stop me from creating, but I knew I had to carry on and nurture my curiosity. I knew I had to keep taking small steps, to keep on exploring, even if the radio was still on.

helen wells artist

I’m not sure if you can ever turn this radio station off, but I’ve certainly learned to turn it down, tune it out, to create and experiment even though it might be playing away in the background.

Now, I do not believe everything it broadcasts. And I no longer let it stop me, because I know that it is through creating, that I understand myself, feel energised and express myself.

helen wells artist

I also now know that I don’t have to love everything I’ve created. It is totally fine for some of my creations to be completely rubbish. By making stuff I don’t like, I might move to the next stage of making stuff I do love. I have realised that it is through making, good or bad, that I develop, learn and make better work. There is no such thing as perfection, there are things that have worked and things that haven’t.

helen wells artist

CREATIVITY IS CURIOSITY

Since attending that first art course as an adult 15 years ago, I have followed my curiosity and it has taken me on an amazing and circuitous journey. I had no idea how the film of my life was going to play out, no idea that attending that one class would be a turning point, an important moment, pivotal to my story.

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But what I do know is that in following the thread of my own curiosity, I have patched together a different kind of life and a different way of seeing the world. I now take more seriously the small things which fascinate me, interest me and enliven me, that pique my curiosity and I feel more ‘me’ as a result.








HOW TO NOT 'GET IN THE WAY' OF YOUR OWN CREATIVITY

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Creative people are curious, flexible, and independent with a tremendous spirit and a love of play
— HENRI MATISSE

You are a creative powerhouse! I know that sometimes it may not feel like it, but I believe we are all innately creative with a massive amount of creative potential.

Sometimes we get in our own way and in the way of this potential.  I certainly have.  

Here is what I have learnt along the way about the creative process, or “Seven ways to develop your creative courage”. I hope it may resonate with you and your experiences.

helen wells art

1. LOVE THE PROCESS.

Whether it’s creative writing, or drawing, or making music, a big, important part of the joy of creating is the process itself or the ‘doing’. 

We often get hung up on the result, without remembering that the 'process' that got us there is just as valuable. 

I used to be a crazed perfectionist when it came to my art. So much so, that I let my negative judgement get in the way of my enjoyment of the activity. 

For many years in my 20s I didn’t draw anything at all, because I was so critical of what I did draw. I stopped making art entirely because I always thought the end results were, quite frankly rubbish.  I found it easier to not do it at all. I let my own criticism get in the way of something which I just loved to do so much. 

So, now I try to not be so attached to the outcome. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that “life is a journey, not a destination” and perhaps this also applies to our creative endeavours. If we can love the 'doing' and learn from the process, then the outcome isn’t EVERYTHING, it is just part of the magical mix! 

helen wells creativity

2. BE KIND NOT CRITICAL.

Apparently, our beautiful brains create up to 50,000 thoughts a day (that's quite creative) but unfortunately up to 80% of them are negative. Not so helpful when we are trying to ignite our fledgling flickers of creativity. Negative self-talk or chatter is just part of being a human and we can’t stop it. We can’t eliminate the “critical radio” that is broadcasting constantly in our head. I don't think trying to replace negative thoughts with positive ones works. What we can do, is remember that our thoughts are just thoughts. They are not necessarily true. 

 If we keep playing the same thought on repeat, it can be helpful to unpack it. I find it helpful to ask:

•    Is it true? 
•    Is it helpful? 
•    Is it kind?

Sometimes when we probe our self-critism in this way it can take the sting out of its tail.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t assess or critique our creative output – but self criticism is only helpful when used as a positive tool, not a weapon.
 

Helen Wells abstract art

3. DON'T LET ANXIETY AND DOUBT STOP YOU CREATING.

Insecurity and anxiety about our abilty/skill level or artwork hinders our ability to create. I let it stop me in my tracks and it stopped me creating and drawing for years.  I’m sad that I let that happen, but I’m definitely making up for lost time now. 

creative courage HELEN WELLS

4. SPARE THE COMPARING.

Comparison is the thief of joy. Creativity is about being the glorious individual that you are, it’s about expressing yourself, it’s about allowing your song to be sung and embracing your own wonderful weirdness. 

Social media has made it so easy for us to compare ourselves, our lives, our creative output, our artwork with other people’s artwork. Or so we think… in my experience we tend to compare our very worst bits with someone else’s best bits. So don’t get side tracked by someone else’s journey, get focused on yours own.

creativity HELEN WELLS

 

5.  DEFINE YOUR OWN SUCCESS CRITERIA.

The wonderful thing is that we are all in charge of making up our own rules when it comes to defining our success criteria. Success is a personal thing and should be unique to us as individuals. For some, success may be being represented by a gallery and super 'rock and roll' famous, for others it may be showing a painting in a local cafe, for others it may be trying a new type or paint, or drawing in a sketchbook for the first time. Don't let other people dictate your success criteria, we are all different and have different motivations, so don't let someone else's definition of success be yours by default. 

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6. FEEL LIKE AN IMPOSTER AND DO IT ANYWAY.

Impostor syndrome is definitely a thing.  It is the feeling that you're a fraud or that any day now you'll be exposed. Apparently it is, in part, due to being unable to internalise success, or take credit for your own achievements. When I started out as an artist, I thought every success was a fluke, every achievement was a happy accident. I still sometimes feel like this. When it happens I label it as "oh you're feeling that imposter thing again', acknowledge that I'm feeling it, do a mental run down of all my successes to remind myself I'm not really a massive fat fraud and I carry on regardless...

helen wells work in progress

7. BE PLAYFUL AND BIN PERFECTIONISM.

I once heard that there is no such word for creativity in the Tibetan language and that the nearest translation was ‘natural’. I like that. I like the idea that creativity is a natural and innate way of being. When you look at young kids you have to agree. They can turn an empty box into an amazing adventure...I think that having a playful approach to our own creative endeavours can be so helpful. If you're playing, you're not obsessed with perfection. When you are playing  you are free to mess about a bit, try things out, it removes barriers and restrictions. When you are playing there are no rules, just experimentation and joy. When you are playing there is a lightness and an innate curiosity. Playing is fun, perfectionism is not.. 

helen wells art