The problem with thinking

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One of the advantages of going to art college is that it teaches you to think deeply about your work.

Unfortunately one of the downsides of going to art college is that it teaches you to think deeply about your work!

In art college you learn to be critical of what you make and you learn a language with which to talk about your work. These are valuable skills and I’m glad I was taught them. However, thinking deeply about my work can become a handicap on occasion. I’ve found it can inhibit me and prevent me from starting work or make me constantly question the worth of an idea when it’s in that delicate beginning stage. Six years out of college, I still hear the sceptical voice of my tutor rattling around inside my brain asking me if the work is really meaningful and well-considered.

Of course, it’s important to be able to think and talk about our work; being an artist today requires those skills. But it’s also important that analysing and talking about the work doesn’t impede the actual making of the work. Analysing and making are two very particular skill sets that require different sorts of vision and attention. I run into trouble when I get the order muddled up: letting the analytical side out too early to run riot through half-formed ideas can be fatal to my productivity. Right now I need to make art without second-guessing myself all the time, something I’ve been doing a lot lately.

This has been a hard year for me – I’ve been weighed down with illness, both my own and that of my son. Thankfully he is much better and is back at school now but the strain of caring for him during the first half of this year has left me drained and unwell. Consequently it’s been a pretty hopeless year for art and I am currently in the tricky position of emotionally needing to make art but having very little physical energy to do so.

This tension is expressing itself in a hypercritical over-awareness of what little I am making, constant worrying about what I’m not making, fretting over whether my art is any good and all the rest of the neurotic behaviour to which artists are prone. I consider myself to be fairly level-headed as artists go, yet I still fall prey to these fears and anxieties, most especially when I’m not making art at the pace and level that I need to. I don’t think of my art as therapy but let’s just say that my family have been known to beg me to go to my studio if I’ve gone too long without making!

But although I clearly need to work, I don’t have the energy to do so in any consistent way at the moment. So instead I’m concentrating on improving my health and consoling myself by making little drawings that don’t take too much time or energy. And when my inner art tutor starts muttering that the drawings ‘look a bit Foundation-y’, well, I just grit my teeth and try to ignore him. I’m also a) considering hiding the work from myself until I can look at it with a clearer and calmer eye and b) telling myself that it doesn’t have to be good anyway. Those inner critics can be persistent buggers – sometimes tricking them is the only way to get anything done!

I am an artist & purveyor of obsessive projects based in Hebden Bridge, England. My work involves the accretion of large numbers of small objects - pins in fabric, knots in string or hundreds of envelopes - to make sculptures that deal with fragility, loss, repetition, obsession and time.

17 thoughts on “The problem with thinking

  1. Sorry to hear you’re still not feeling up to snuff. I’d love to see some of your small drawings.

    I was certainly going to suggest that you did something that was creative but not at all related to the way you normally work. That way it’s like having time-out and giving your creative genes a work-out at the same time. But it sounds like you’ve already worked that one out…..?

    Sounds to me like you maybe need to to think about adopting the frog mantra to silence the inner art critic. You know the one – where every time you kiss a frog you announce you’re now one step nearer to finding your prince and you can’t get to the prince until you’ve kissed all those frogs!

    There’s nothing wrong with producing stuff which isn’t your best – after all you wouldn’t have ‘best’ if you could do it all the time!

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  2. Sorry to hear you’re still not feeling up to snuff. I’d love to see some of your small drawings.

    I was certainly going to suggest that you did something that was creative but not at all related to the way you normally work. That way it’s like having time-out and giving your creative genes a work-out at the same time. But it sounds like you’ve already worked that one out…..?

    Sounds to me like you maybe need to to think about adopting the frog mantra to silence the inner art critic. You know the one – where every time you kiss a frog you announce you’re now one step nearer to finding your prince and you can’t get to the prince until you’ve kissed all those frogs!

    There’s nothing wrong with producing stuff which isn’t your best – after all you wouldn’t have ‘best’ if you could do it all the time!

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  3. Hi Katherine, those are such wise words. I’m such a perfectionist that I’m ALWAYS having to remind myself that all artists do loads of shit before they get to the good stuff. And what I’m making at the moment isn’t even shitty, it’s just not what I think I SHOULD be doing. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the multitude of ways we find to tie ourselves up in mental knots.

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  4. Hi Katherine, those are such wise words. I’m such a perfectionist that I’m ALWAYS having to remind myself that all artists do loads of shit before they get to the good stuff. And what I’m making at the moment isn’t even shitty, it’s just not what I think I SHOULD be doing. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the multitude of ways we find to tie ourselves up in mental knots.

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  5. Kristy–
    I enjoy your blog very much and all the information in it. As a newbie blogger, I especially like all your information on blogging.

    Sorry you’re not yet up to par, but just remember you don’t have to be perfect every time you do something. Photographers are happy if they get one good shot from 30-40 images. The reason they have so many good images is because they shot hundreds. As an improvisational artist, I don’t have the worry of “will it turn out and be a good painting” because if it isn’t I repeat the process. Have fun in your art at all times.

    Merle
    merleplaggeart.com/blog/

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  6. Kristy–
    I enjoy your blog very much and all the information in it. As a newbie blogger, I especially like all your information on blogging.

    Sorry you’re not yet up to par, but just remember you don’t have to be perfect every time you do something. Photographers are happy if they get one good shot from 30-40 images. The reason they have so many good images is because they shot hundreds. As an improvisational artist, I don’t have the worry of “will it turn out and be a good painting” because if it isn’t I repeat the process. Have fun in your art at all times.

    Merle
    merleplaggeart.com/blog/

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  7. Hey Kirsty,
    I kinda guessed you were ill- i’ve been/am unwell too, which has meant that i’ve been a bit crap at arranging getting to see you anytime, but hopefully soon we can co-ordinate ourselves and drink tea and eat cake and talk art again soon.

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  8. Hey Kirsty,
    I kinda guessed you were ill- i’ve been/am unwell too, which has meant that i’ve been a bit crap at arranging getting to see you anytime, but hopefully soon we can co-ordinate ourselves and drink tea and eat cake and talk art again soon.

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  9. As a been there, done that mum, I can only say this too shall pass, sometimes when my kids were all little I was reduced to moving my furniture as a creative expression. Now I sometimes find I have the opposite problem, big empty blank spaces of time, and just when I had figured out how to work in little bursts! But the struggle to define my life through the art I make never goes away, nor do those annoying little monkey voices, now I find I mind them less… ans ignore them more often, which might mean my work is not so good, I don’t know.

    I just wanted to empathise with your opening thought though, as you probably know I am busy trying to write an artist statement that doesn’t sound like a dissertation and failing pretty miserably. GRRRR.

    Anyway, I hope you are kind to yourself and just let your energy fill back up slowly, and doodle away, sometimes the best thoughts come when we think we are just playing. Give your self permission to NOT be so serious, you have all the time you need, the universe only made you once, so it will wait for you to feel better….

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  10. As a been there, done that mum, I can only say this too shall pass, sometimes when my kids were all little I was reduced to moving my furniture as a creative expression. Now I sometimes find I have the opposite problem, big empty blank spaces of time, and just when I had figured out how to work in little bursts! But the struggle to define my life through the art I make never goes away, nor do those annoying little monkey voices, now I find I mind them less… ans ignore them more often, which might mean my work is not so good, I don’t know.

    I just wanted to empathise with your opening thought though, as you probably know I am busy trying to write an artist statement that doesn’t sound like a dissertation and failing pretty miserably. GRRRR.

    Anyway, I hope you are kind to yourself and just let your energy fill back up slowly, and doodle away, sometimes the best thoughts come when we think we are just playing. Give your self permission to NOT be so serious, you have all the time you need, the universe only made you once, so it will wait for you to feel better….

    [Reply]

  11. I didn’t even got to art college and I have that problem of being overcritical of everything I make/draw/photograph/create to the point where I’m frozen with self doubt and I just can’t do anything. I’m a total perfectionist which makes it hard to just let go and have fun being creative. I watched this video on TED Talks a few days ago about the links between creativity and play. He was talking from more of a design point of view than art but it applies to art too. I especially like the part where he says that as adults our desire to be original is a form of self editing of ideas before we even start. We just have to let go and have fun creating, editing comes at the end. Just like Merle was saying about photographers taking hundreds of images just to a have a few really good ones.

    The link to the video is – http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/tim_brown_on_creativity_and_play.html

    Also hope you feel a bit better soon! :)

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  12. I didn’t even got to art college and I have that problem of being overcritical of everything I make/draw/photograph/create to the point where I’m frozen with self doubt and I just can’t do anything. I’m a total perfectionist which makes it hard to just let go and have fun being creative. I watched this video on TED Talks a few days ago about the links between creativity and play. He was talking from more of a design point of view than art but it applies to art too. I especially like the part where he says that as adults our desire to be original is a form of self editing of ideas before we even start. We just have to let go and have fun creating, editing comes at the end. Just like Merle was saying about photographers taking hundreds of images just to a have a few really good ones.

    The link to the video is – http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/tim_brown_on_creativity_and_play.html

    Also hope you feel a bit better soon! :)

    [Reply]

  13. Kirsty, I hear ya. I am very sorry that things have slowed you down and impeded you. It’s so strange that often the strongest roadblock we have is often our own critic. I’ve had to face that as a writer and an artist. Recognizing it helps, but doesn’t solve it. It’s a behavioral thing and therefore often habitual. If we can just get through the really uncomfortable feeling of freedom to express ourself (the flight from freedom syndrome!), it can sometimes break a major stumbling block cycle. It’s easier said than done.

    I wish you an ease to this struggle. It’s real!

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  14. Kirsty, I hear ya. I am very sorry that things have slowed you down and impeded you. It’s so strange that often the strongest roadblock we have is often our own critic. I’ve had to face that as a writer and an artist. Recognizing it helps, but doesn’t solve it. It’s a behavioral thing and therefore often habitual. If we can just get through the really uncomfortable feeling of freedom to express ourself (the flight from freedom syndrome!), it can sometimes break a major stumbling block cycle. It’s easier said than done.

    I wish you an ease to this struggle. It’s real!

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  15. Kirsty, thanks for articulating so beautifully exactly how I feel! It gives me hope when I read other artists expressing similar struggles! It gives you a little extra strength to make those little moves forward knowing that you are not the only one rattling around with these issues and it’s ok to experience these things! It’s not a sign that I don’t have what it takes to enjoy the artful experience! Hope you are doing well & thank you again for sharing in both words and images.

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  16. Kirsty, thanks for articulating so beautifully exactly how I feel! It gives me hope when I read other artists expressing similar struggles! It gives you a little extra strength to make those little moves forward knowing that you are not the only one rattling around with these issues and it’s ok to experience these things! It’s not a sign that I don’t have what it takes to enjoy the artful experience! Hope you are doing well & thank you again for sharing in both words and images.

    [Reply]

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