Using metaphors to combat art fear

In my early twenties I was terrified of my art. Absolutely terrified. I was afraid to look at it sideways in case it ran away.

Sad Mask
Kirsty Hall: Sad mask in Edinburgh, Feb 2010

Unsurprisingly, I didn’t make much work. It’s hard to make art when you’re scared that your inspiration will jump up and leave at any moment: muses don’t like clinginess.

In my thirties I went back to college after a break to care for my son. While at art college, I became obsessed with understanding my own process. I wrote about it endlessly, trying to understand the mystery. I mined my memories of childhood to find out where my art came from. I analysed what worked for me and what didn’t. I was searching for patterns.

To my surprise, instead of causing the mystery to evaporate, shining a light on my creativity made it even more magical.

Like a mature relationship, a more intimate familiarity with my own creative process bred endless joy. I had been afraid that understanding my process would kill it. Would take the spark away. Would result in my work becoming boring and mundane. Instead, it made me fall more deeply in love. My process became more accessible, understandable and controllable, yet ever more rich and fascinating to me.

And I learnt to trust it. I learnt to trust that the ‘post-exhibition blues’ would only last a few days. I began to recognise that research phases were different from ‘not working’. I started to understand the need for putting work aside to give time for my editor head to emerge.

The power of metaphors

If you’ve just started to explore your own creative process, here’s a simple technique that I found helpful: come up with metaphors for it. Although metaphors are not literally true, they are a powerful way to understand a process.

Here are three of the metaphors that I have for my own creative process:

Composting

Compost bin
Kirsty Hall: compost bin with slug trail drawings, Dec 2008

The composting metaphor speaks fondly to the deeply organic nature of my process. It also refers to the rather random nature of my ADD brain, which has a habit of tossing up the indigestible things to the top of the pile every now and then - like about once every five minutes!

As any gardener knows, composting doesn’t happen instantly. Similarly, I need to digest ideas: I cannot go from initial idea to finished product in a few weeks. The idea has to steep first, it has to rot down, it has to be invisibly worked on by all the little idea microbes in my head. Looking back over my sketchbooks, I invariably discover that what I think is a ‘new’ idea, will be lightly referred to years before – there will be a throwaway sentence that says something like, ‘there’s something compelling about aprons’ and three years later I'm sewing sequins on a apron.

Perhaps other artists can work on a fast time-scale but my process is glacially slow: by using the composting metaphor, I began to acknowledge and honour that.

Knitting

Knitting
Creative Commons License photo credit: elitatt

For years I beat myself up for picking up ideas and abandoning them before they were completely finished. That’s not to say that I didn’t make finished work: I did. However, I didn't make finished series of work - at least not in a linear and timely fashion.

Because working in series is very important to me, I felt this to be a wrongness within me. Then one day it occurred to me that perhaps my work was like a very complicated jumper and I just hadn’t done enough to be able to see the whole pattern yet. Maybe if I looked back at it, I would be able to see where the different threads had woven in and out, sometimes blue; sometimes complicated stitches of white on white; sometimes little flashes of red. Sometimes sequins; sometimes matches; sometimes pins.

I came to see that there was a method to the way my jittery brain worked. Certainly I'm easily distracted but perhaps I can find a strength in that if I trust to my obscured pattern. I began to accept that I was working in entirely the right way for me.

Now when I’m ready to return to an older series, I think about picking up stitches. Right now the pins are on a stitch marker while I complete the sequin apron but I know that I will return to pins. They are resting and when they are ready to return to my greater pattern, they will.

The Cooking Pot

Dog Stew in pot
Creative Commons License photo credit: avlxyz

Similar to the compost metaphor but a little more edible. Imagine a big gumbo: you throw in everything you’ve got, add lots of garlic and then you leave it to cook down. Mmm, delicious!

Time is the connecting thread in all three of my metaphors. Time changes our raw ingredients into something more mysterious than we could possibly have imagined. Time ensures that the whole can be greater than the sum of parts. Time is vitally important to any artistic process but particularly to mine, which is all about slow art so it's unsurprising that my metaphors revolve around it. By employing metaphors I was able to articulate that relationship.

Process

I've written before about the need to love your process. It needs to be something that you enjoy doing or you simply won’t do it: end of story. But of course, it’s not always that easy, otherwise we would all create perfectly day-in day-out and clearly we don’t.

However, having a metaphor that resonates with you can help strengthen your creative resolve. And when you’re stuck, you can console yourself that you’re just composting.

Resources

Normally I link to other blog posts but today, I'm going to recommend books. There are a ton of books about the creative process, these are my three favourites:

The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp
Art & Fear by David Bayles & Ted Orland
Everyday Sacred by Sue Bender

Please Comment

What metaphors do you use for your own creativity process? Let me know in the comments…

42 thoughts on “Using metaphors to combat art fear

  1. Great post -
    I don't think of my process in metaphors generally, but I really like the compost and the cooking pot - I tend to have ideas sit for a long time and then create in a burst of intense work.

    When I did my giant projection design for Holst's suite The Planets I turned it over and over and around and around in my head for months, and it kind of gelled - so when it was time to start actually creating the content to project it came easily.

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    Thanks Andy, this idea that we turn things over in our minds seems to be a common one - I definitely think it's part of the creative process.

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  2. Great post -
    I don't think of my process in metaphors generally, but I really like the compost and the cooking pot - I tend to have ideas sit for a long time and then create in a burst of intense work.

    When I did my giant projection design for Holst's suite The Planets I turned it over and over and around and around in my head for months, and it kind of gelled - so when it was time to start actually creating the content to project it came easily.

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    Thanks Andy, this idea that we turn things over in our minds seems to be a common one - I definitely think it's part of the creative process.

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  3. I always say that I like projects to percolate in my mind for a while before I act. In my case, I play around with phrases and words in my head until they are boiling over and read to hit paper.

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    I often think of my ideas as feeling a little too raw in the early stages. They need to ferment and mature. I like the idea of them boiling over in your mind, Gwen.

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  4. I always say that I like projects to percolate in my mind for a while before I act. In my case, I play around with phrases and words in my head until they are boiling over and read to hit paper.

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    I often think of my ideas as feeling a little too raw in the early stages. They need to ferment and mature. I like the idea of them boiling over in your mind, Gwen.

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  5. Very powerful article! I hadn't though of my process in metaphors before but it makes sense to do so from now on. Especially the compost metaphor is so close to the way I work.
    Thanks for writing this, it did help me a lot.

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    That's great, Maria, I'm so glad it helped. I think artists and creative people often struggle so much with our creative process than any little thing we can do to help is welcome.

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  6. Very powerful article! I hadn't though of my process in metaphors before but it makes sense to do so from now on. Especially the compost metaphor is so close to the way I work.
    Thanks for writing this, it did help me a lot.

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    That's great, Maria, I'm so glad it helped. I think artists and creative people often struggle so much with our creative process than any little thing we can do to help is welcome.

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  7. new phrases certainly help to take the pressure off.
    "I'm off to the studio to create art" only serves to rack the expectation up.
    I'm not comfortable with phrases such as 'art process' or 'art practice', they're a bit off-putting and cold too.

    for one exhib, I described myself as a picture maker rather than artist, but that's a bit coy too.

    love your Slugart.

    could work well in mixed exhib with Dogart pieces :o)

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    The slug art is great, isn't it. Who knew they were so creative? I feel OK with 'art practice' and 'art process' but everyone is different and I can see how you might find them off-putting. I quite like the term 'maker' myself but the craft community have annexed that one and despite my crafty outlook, I do still see myself as more in the fine art sphere. That said, I'm not sure the old 'art/craft' debate matters much any more.

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  8. new phrases certainly help to take the pressure off.
    "I'm off to the studio to create art" only serves to rack the expectation up.
    I'm not comfortable with phrases such as 'art process' or 'art practice', they're a bit off-putting and cold too.

    for one exhib, I described myself as a picture maker rather than artist, but that's a bit coy too.

    love your Slugart.

    could work well in mixed exhib with Dogart pieces :o)

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    The slug art is great, isn't it. Who knew they were so creative? I feel OK with 'art practice' and 'art process' but everyone is different and I can see how you might find them off-putting. I quite like the term 'maker' myself but the craft community have annexed that one and despite my crafty outlook, I do still see myself as more in the fine art sphere. That said, I'm not sure the old 'art/craft' debate matters much any more.

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  9. This makes me think of the back of a tapestry: makes no sense, looks muddled and strange until you turn it over.

    Thanks for the peek into your process! I love your metaphors and will use them to be a little easier on myself.

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    Ooh, the back of a tapestry - I like that one, Simone.

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  10. This makes me think of the back of a tapestry: makes no sense, looks muddled and strange until you turn it over.

    Thanks for the peek into your process! I love your metaphors and will use them to be a little easier on myself.

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    Ooh, the back of a tapestry - I like that one, Simone.

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  11. Kirsty, it is seriously creepy how often you write something similar to something I was just contemplating (and write it much better than I would have).

    A client of mine uses a lot of metaphors when expressing her feelings, and one day recently we were developing metaphors for starting a business, which, counterintuitively, is actually a very creative act.

    She compared it to flying an airplane. I compared it to birthing a baby. Neither can be rushed, and both can be uncomfortable. Both involve the feeling that going back is no longer an option.

    Blog post of my own coming...eventually...after these ideas simmer. :)

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    Sorry for being creepy, Sue. :) It's great that you're using metaphors with your client, they can be a hugely powerful way to understand what we're experiencing.

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  12. Kirsty, it is seriously creepy how often you write something similar to something I was just contemplating (and write it much better than I would have).

    A client of mine uses a lot of metaphors when expressing her feelings, and one day recently we were developing metaphors for starting a business, which, counterintuitively, is actually a very creative act.

    She compared it to flying an airplane. I compared it to birthing a baby. Neither can be rushed, and both can be uncomfortable. Both involve the feeling that going back is no longer an option.

    Blog post of my own coming...eventually...after these ideas simmer. :)

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    Sorry for being creepy, Sue. :) It's great that you're using metaphors with your client, they can be a hugely powerful way to understand what we're experiencing.

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  13. Very interesting - I think my writing is a bit like a pot of gumbo. I'm working on my first novel at the moment, and it took more than eight months of slow simmering for it all to become clear to me, and even now although I know the outline I also know that there will be at least one alchemical change before it's finished - something that I can't see know but when I look back I'll be able to trace its roots.

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  14. Very interesting - I think my writing is a bit like a pot of gumbo. I'm working on my first novel at the moment, and it took more than eight months of slow simmering for it all to become clear to me, and even now although I know the outline I also know that there will be at least one alchemical change before it's finished - something that I can't see know but when I look back I'll be able to trace its roots.

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  15. Kirsty, I also meant to mention how much I relate to your remark about looking back and seeing foreshadowing in your early work of ideas that would mature and rise to the surface over time.

    One of the greatest benefits of journaling or any other form of recording your thoughts is in reviewing it later and noticing those threads. I love feeling connected to my former self in that way, and it helps me understand what is enduring about me and what's just the thing du jour.

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  16. Kirsty, I also meant to mention how much I relate to your remark about looking back and seeing foreshadowing in your early work of ideas that would mature and rise to the surface over time.

    One of the greatest benefits of journaling or any other form of recording your thoughts is in reviewing it later and noticing those threads. I love feeling connected to my former self in that way, and it helps me understand what is enduring about me and what's just the thing du jour.

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  17. When I was at art college, we were allowed to request an artist visit for a crit, and I got my choice of artist. I was so pleased, and when he arrived, I showed him a display of work in different mediums. He scratched his head and looked bemused, and after a while he said he realised what my problem was. Apparently I was juggling with too many balls and it was confusing and disorienting for the viewer.
    I needed to stick to one thing, examine it from all perspectives, and display only work from that study.
    I was so upset! And to the day I've never managed it.
    After many years I reconciled my failings by finding metaphors that suited me and my work. I am both a butterfly, flitting from flower to flower; taking a little something, then moving on to the next gorgeous and seductive subject. I get bored easily, and move between disciplines and subjects. Sometimes I return, and sometimes the work is abandoned. And I'm a juggler. Always with too many balls in the air!

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  18. When I was at art college, we were allowed to request an artist visit for a crit, and I got my choice of artist. I was so pleased, and when he arrived, I showed him a display of work in different mediums. He scratched his head and looked bemused, and after a while he said he realised what my problem was. Apparently I was juggling with too many balls and it was confusing and disorienting for the viewer.
    I needed to stick to one thing, examine it from all perspectives, and display only work from that study.
    I was so upset! And to the day I've never managed it.
    After many years I reconciled my failings by finding metaphors that suited me and my work. I am both a butterfly, flitting from flower to flower; taking a little something, then moving on to the next gorgeous and seductive subject. I get bored easily, and move between disciplines and subjects. Sometimes I return, and sometimes the work is abandoned. And I'm a juggler. Always with too many balls in the air!

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  19. Reading these comments it seems that your metaphors could apply to many of us. Very good post!
    I think college does artists a disservice because it seems that many of us have had the experience that our college makings were somehow 'wrong.' But we know, now, as working artists that we can actually only make good work when we are absolutely true and authentic to our own way of working and producing.

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  20. Reading these comments it seems that your metaphors could apply to many of us. Very good post!
    I think college does artists a disservice because it seems that many of us have had the experience that our college makings were somehow 'wrong.' But we know, now, as working artists that we can actually only make good work when we are absolutely true and authentic to our own way of working and producing.

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  21. Oh Julie, what a horrible hurtful experience that must have been. Art college can be brutal sometimes. :(

    I had a similar experience when my tutor told me to 'do more with less' and I got so cross that I promptly went off and gilded actual lilies. If people are going to accuse me of doing that, well dammit, I WILL!

    I believe the only person who can be an expert on your creative process is you and we all have our ways of working and while it may be more 'efficient' to work in other ways, some of us just have a rather baroque, twisty process.

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