I recently spoke with an artist who said: “I want to paint in a freer, more abstract way but I end up feeling like I don’t know what I’m doing”.
I understand this feeling. I’ve felt it innumerable times. It can feel disconcerting.
Yet, I’ve come to realize that this is exactly where we need to be as artists- in the place of not knowing.
I’m fond of this quote by artist Michael Cutlip:
When I go into the studio, if I already know what’s going to happen, it’s all over.
Art is about stepping into the terra incognita, the unknown territory. It’s about expressing the ineffable, the inarticulable, the mysterious. It’s about exploration and experimentation.
When you allow yourself to not know what’s going to happen, you invite the deeper truths, the truths your body knows, to express themselves unfettered. This is how you keep evolving your work as one discovery leads to another.
Embracing an attitude of not knowing without feeling completely lost
In my writings, I exhort artists and other creatives to embrace an attitude of not knowing. But many people fear feeling lost when they do this. It sounds easier said than done.
Is there a methodology for going about embracing the unknown?
Well, it helps to dip your toe in the water by starting with the small and unassuming. This is less threatening. This is why creating many starts (exploratory studies) is your friend.
Do not try this for the first time expecting to create your magnum opus.
The other important inner shift is to commit to keep on keeping on, even when you don’t feel like it. It will take a while for you to feel comfortable in this place of ceded control. It’s kind of like the stock market. It goes up and down, but over time there are clear trends.
The Power of Habits
In my book, The Artist’s Journey: Creativity Reflection Journal, I talk about the power of habits.
Cultivated habits can change your life profoundly, but not immediately. An example of a habit that addresses the experience of not knowing is to do one thing each day in your creative practice that embodies not knowing.
You might even use crutches like coin tosses to help you in your decision process.
In my new book, we have a section on the power of habits and how they can help us step into the unknown. There’s a paradoxical relationship between structure and chaos…between the spontaneous and the considered…between an underlying tethering or constraint and the wild energy it contains and informs.
Note: When you purchase the new book you’re invited to pair it with our free companion Creativity Immersion Program which includes: Daily Creativity Prompts and Affirmations as well as a 5 part Creativity Immersion Program where we’ll explore 5 concepts that underpin creativity.
Get the book and jump in there and join us! We already have wonderful artists who are receiving Daily Creativity Prompts and Affirmations and loving it! This is a great way to build your creative muscle and be encouraged and inspired to create your most astonishing art.
Here’s an example of the Creativity Prompts and Affirmations in the Creativity Immersion Program, free with your purchase of my new book:
The Nature of Habits and the Power of Metaphor
Meanwhile, I want to share a story from my partner Dr. Bruce Sawhill. Bruce explores how small steps in the form of daily habits can lead to big changes in your life over time.
When I was first in a relationship with Nancy, I came up with the idea of building a bed. It would be unique, it wouldn’t be secondhand, it would have no previous life, not even on a showroom floor.
This bed would be built stout to withstand the vicissitudes of life, built like a ship of solid timbers to navigate the currents of life together, simple and robust.
The metaphor of a ship was not lost on me. Long a fan of Homer’s Odyssey, I remembered the tale of the bed of Odysseus and Penelope.
Odysseus and Penelope’s Bed
Their bed was built incorporating living trees, and I would have copied that if I had found any practical way of doing so.
The bed served a very critical purpose in the Odyssey. It allowed Penelope to determine whether the man who finally returned after twenty years of wandering was, in fact, her husband or some scheming impostor.
Upon their reuniting, Penelope casually mentioned that she had moved the bed. Odysseus knew this wasn’t possible, and questioned Penelope’s action.
This questioning constituted confirmation of their relationship
But since there weren’t any trees handy to our bedroom that wouldn’t require major structural modifications to the house, I had to settle with the offerings of the local lumberyard.
I procured several 2 x 8 boards at a local hardware store, much more substantial than the typical bed frame.
I drew up a simple design that would be strong but also dismantle-able and portable. I cut the boards to length and was prepared to put the bed together, but nature threw me a curve ball.
One of the boards, freed of some of its length and the complex tensions hidden within, warped in such an extreme way that it was going to be impossible to construct the bed.
Since I had already prepared the boards with staining and sanding, I was reticent about buying another board and starting over.
Could I un-warp this errant board- this board with a mind of its own?
More metaphors crowded in, this time the metaphor of fitting a bed together being like joining two peoples’ lives together.
I came up with a Rube Goldberg apparatus to fix the board. I attached the bed board flat to our deck with clamps, with the warped end protruding several feet off the side of the deck.
I clamped another board perpendicular to the bed board on top of the free end of it, so the whole thing looked like a capital “L” seen from above.
Since the bed board was so warped, the perpendicular board was not parallel to the ground, but rather stuck up at a crazy angle, maybe 30 degrees.
I slung a bucket over the end of the perpendicular board and filled it with water to torque the problematic board.
The whole thing looked like an art installation
The next day I went out to check on the progress.
I thought overnight might do it. I was wrong. No discernible progress.
But there was no harm in leaving it be, so I did. I pretty much forgot about it.
About two months later, I noticed that the crazy angle had been pressed flat!
I unclamped the whole apparatus and with jubilance put the bed together before the board could get any more ideas.
I thought how this almost imperceptibly slow process of the ironing out of the warped board was like the cultivation of a new habit.
A gentle and persistent force working in the background. So quiet and unobtrusive that one almost forgets about it.
Only later, when one has almost forgotten, comes the realization that things have changed profoundly.
Bruce’s story made me think about the way we shape our lives, quietly and almost invisibly, in our thoughts and actions day by day.
I believe the most powerful changes in life happen in this gradual manner, not suddenly and dramatically.
But rather under the surface, subtly and imperceptibly- much like how the hours of childhood disappear before our eyes but we can’t place our finger on the moment childhood left the room.
Subtle changes add up over time. Water wears away stone, and gently cultivated new habits can dissolve the stone blocks hindering our creativity.
With gratitude from my studio to yours,
P.S. Leave me a comment below and let me know your thoughts.
P.S.S. Get the Creativity Journal and get started cultivating the small daily habits that will make a world of difference in your art.