Creating the Artist not the Art – Skinny Artist

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



About the Author

Drew is a writer, teacher, and head custodian of the Skinny Artist creative community. You can also find him online at where he writes about fitness, nutrition, and his continuing battle with father time.

One of the biggest battles I fight within myself is to stop planning and thinking and perfecting and start DOING. Once I start doing it, and just let my instincts run with it, I find that I get into the flow and I am far more creative. But there are so many distractions, outside obligations, and yes, that pesky inner critic that sneaks in and has his say. I guess what I mean is that my battle with myself is hard enough, having to battle the constraints of my life just make the whole process almost insurmountable at times. But thank you for the reminder that it’s not just about the art. It’s about MY process as well. In creating myself.

    I think you’re absolutely right Ginger, just getting started is often more than half the battle. It’s like the daily drama I go through every morning just to get out of bed and go run (or somedays just get out of bed) ;) There always seems to be plenty of reasons to stay in bed a few minutes longer, but not a single (convincing) reason that I should actually get up and lace up the ol’ running shoes. But more days than not, I manage to do it anyway because I have learned over the years that once I’m up and moving, I’m usually glad I did.

    I agree with you that It’s about stepping back and looking at the bigger picture sometimes. It’s going to be a long journey (hopefully!) and I know from past experience that somedays are going to be a creative goldmine and somedays are really going to suck, but unfortunately we don’t know in advance which one today is going to turn out to be. So we just have to get up, dive in, and then hope for the best. Here’s to the crazy ones…..

Alexander Reed

This is basically similar to a revelation I’ve had myself recently. Another good way of stating the principle of this, with a slightly different focus: “Mozart wrote 600 pieces of music so that years later we would remember 30 or 40 of them.”

    Hi Alexander, now that you mention it, I think I’ve heard that fact about Mozart somewhere before and it really makes sense. Even though no one may remember those other pieces, I would have to think that the other 30 to 40 wouldn’t have been possible without those other 560 attempts. It just goes to show you that you not only have to put in the work, but you also are never know when everything is going to suddenly come together, so you just have to have faith and do your best to build on what you have done before.

    If you’re interested, you can check out an earlier article we did on the success of Mozart and The Beatles and their prodigious work habits called “Are You Ready for the Big Time?”

    Thanks again for stopping by and sharing your thoughts with us!

I am songwriter, but I spend so much time arranging my demos into perfection. I wonder whether I am doing a right thing. Anybody can give opinion?

    I think you should release the demos, re-evaluate them at a later time, learn from it, and compose some more. And then release again. You’re sure to have at least a few people who enjoy it and give you feedback – there are so many various tastes in music, that even if you deliberately try to do your worst, somebody will like it! If you never release your work, you will never progress and be stuck in the same damn place.

    I’m struggling with the same issue – always thinking it’s “not good enough”. But whenever I release something (even something small), I get overwhelmingly positive feedback.

Very good, and thought provoking read! I wonder though if a “happy medium” might perhaps be the best option? :)

This is amazing. I love it.

Thank you for this. Just what I needed to “hear” today.

thank you for this reminder. Indeed, although I don’t like it , when I am given a deadline to work to and put under pressure, I find myself being more organised and dedicated to the task. more often than not, just like splitting the class into quantity versus quality, for me being put on the spot often results in my best work. :)

    I think you’re right Jacqui, nobody likes deadlines, but for whatever reason it just seems to be the way we are wired. We seem to need that extra motivation (or panic attack) to get us focused and moving forward sometimes :)

Wonderful, wonderful article! For me, getting started is generally the most difficult part. Once I get going though, it’s Grandma Moses time. I should hopefully be learning a lot because I’m certainly generating quite a large pile of “definitely not masterpieces”!

Thank you for this…I’ve been so focused on the theory of design and it’s principles lately that I’ve been struggling to produce quality work, or any kind of work for that matter; some like to call it paralysis by over-analysis. Now with this kind of knowledge, it’s easy to compare the practical from the theoretical. Great Article!

    Thanks Michael for your kind words, and believe me, I know what it’s like to get lost in the theoretical weeds. These days it seems there are often so many things that we are told we need to know that it’s easy to feel that we never have everything we need to actually get started. Sometimes you just have to sit down, do the work, and have faith that you’ll be able to figure it out as you go along.

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