Creating the Artist not the Art

Tweak!  Tweak!  Tweak!

No that’s not the sound of some deranged bird, it’s a creative perfectionist who just doesn’t know when to stop.

Just one more…

How many times have you said something like this to yourself?

“Just one more edit.”

“Just one more color.”

“Just one more layer.”

“Just one more ______  and I’ll be finished.”

Except it will never be enough because, for whatever reason, we just can’t seem to let the work go.

Most of us creative types keep messing with our work because we are hoping to make it even better.  Of course what we don’t seem to realize, is that in the process we are often holding ourselves back.

This post is partly in response to our recent “Let It Go” piece that got me thinking about why it’s so difficult for us as creative artists to let things go and move on.  Why do we constantly get ourselves stuck? Why are we so afraid of moving forward? And why do we tend to put so much emphasis on the final product and not the act of creation itself.

Despite what we may tell ourselves, any type of revision implies judgment on the final product.

What often happens, is that when we come to a stopping point our critical conscious mind kicks into gear — “Maybe if I eliminated this…”  or “Maybe if I just added a little bit of that…”  This is our judgmental mind stepping in and telling us that what we have created is not quite good enough.  Our conscious mind doesn’t like to be left out of the creative process.  It wants to feel useful, so it naturally does it what it’s good at — evaluating, comparing, and endlessly judging our results.

Our conscious mind confuses the product with the process so it does its best to convince us that what we create is more important then the creative process itself.


Let it go and move on

The truth, as most of us already know, is that we will never be able to achieve our ultimate creative vision with any single project.  Instead it’s always a compromise between where we are and where we want to be. It’s that inevitable gap between our current level of ability and our ideal vision.

It’s difficult at times to look at, listen to, or read our finished work because there is always that nagging “What if?” voice inside our heads, which inevitably leads to the type of creative tweaking that delays our development as an artist.

When in doubt always go for quantity over quality

This may sound ridiculous at first, but it’s something that far too many creative artists overlook. Why would we possibly want to mass-produce mediocre stuff when, if we really try, we could possibly create something truly extraordinary. 

“You learn how to make your work by making your work–and lots of it!” ~David Bayles

That’s the trap.

Unfortunately, art (and life) just doesn’t work that way.  What usually happens is that we get so bogged down trying to improve a particular piece, that we end up in a state of creative paralysis.  We want to improve the work, but at the same time, we don’t want to completely screw it up either.  So we tweak, and fiddle, and erase our day away instead of just moving on to the next piece.


The real progress comes from the act of creating

There is a well-known story in the book “Art & Fear” that illustrates this point beautifully.

“The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the ‘quantity’ group: fifty pound of pots rated an ‘A’, forty pounds a ‘B’, and so on. Those being graded on ‘quality’, however, needed to produce only one pot –albeit a perfect one, to get an ‘A’.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the ‘quantity’ group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the ‘quality’ group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”

What we don’t seem to realize is that even our “failed” pieces have something to teach us — but only if we are willing to let them go.  As long as we consider it a work-in-progress, we can’t move on.  Until we take a step back, we can’t see the lesson it has to teach us.


We are creating the artist not the art

At some point we need to stop seeing ourselves as creating art, but realize that we are instead creating ourselves as an artist.

After all, why are we creating all of this art in the first place?

We are confusing the process with the product.  Our artwork is the by-product of the creative learning process, not the goal itself.  In the end, our creative work becomes our historical record and the physical evidence of our evolution as an artist, but it doesn’t really represent who we are as an artist, or what we might potentially become.


Do the work and don’t worry about the results

Somehow we need to figure out how to reward our work habits and savor the creative experience without getting too caught up in the results.

It’s kind of like becoming a better cook.

We learn how to cook by cooking, not by eating.  The more we cook, the better we will become.  We don’t sit there and endlessly contemplate our last meal, and we don’t beat ourselves up if something we try doesn’t work — we learn from the experience and move on.  We take notes and we keep trying.  We keep experimenting and eventually we become a better cook.

Occasionally we might stumble over something special, but most of the time, we just keep cooking. We keep producing day after day.  We put in the work and have faith in the process. 

 “You’ve got to learn your instrument.  Then, you practice, practice, practice.  And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.”  ~Charlie Parker

At first we find ourselves following the recipes closely because we don’t trust ourselves to improvise.  We imitate that which has worked for others, but eventually if we keep cooking we will begin to experiment.  After we gain some experience in the kitchen, we will start to place ourselves into the work and add what we like and remove what we don’t from the recipe — but this doesn’t happen overnight.

It’s about getting up every day and putting in the work.  We do this not to create a better piece of art, but to create a better artist.

Sure we would all like to create something truly extraordinary, and chances are we will at some point along the way, but first we have to make ourselves extraordinary by paying our dues.  In the end, becoming a successful creative artist is not about talent or inspiration, it’s about showing up and doing the work.  It’s about putting in all of those hours of practice that other people just aren’t willing to do.  This is ultimately what separates the good artists from the great.  Although it may be true that great art is created by great artists, we also have to remember that great artists are created from giant piles of not-so great art.

How big is your pile going to be?


Original source image courtesy of


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About the Author

Writer, teacher, and head custodian of the Skinny Artist community. His book "Getting Creative: Developing Creative Habits that Work" is all about finding the time (and energy) to live a more creative life.

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