Where Do I Start?
What are you drawn to? Is there a childhood hobby you'd like to pick up again? Or something you've always wanted to try?
Take a look at my Pinterest board for inspiration or have a stroll around an art shop, book store or garden centre – follow any little sparks of joy or excitement. Some activities you might be able to make a start on right away, some might need some preparation and a trip for supplies.
Start SMALL. Baby steps. Keep things simple.
Prepare your space. It’s good to choose a time when you know you won’t be interrupted. Having your supplies and your table protected will allow you to create without having to keep stopping to find things or worry about the mess.
Try as many things as you can. Even if your first thought is, ‘Ugh, no!’… sometimes the things we resist are the ones that surprise us the most.
My hope is that this blog starts you on a journey of your own exploration and discovery. Let your mind wander and inspiration will find you. With the internet at our fingertips, the world is our oyster creatively; sometimes falling down that YouTube rabbit-hole will amaze you with new ideas and techniques to try.
You never know where it will lead…
Just after I turned 30, seemingly overnight, my creativity ground to a halt. I don’t know what exactly triggered it; whether it was the big 3-0, having not long recovered from both a bout of depression and an operation, or if it was my youngest starting school, but suddenly the well was dry. I didn’t want to paint anymore, I couldn’t find the enthusiasm to write, I couldn’t be bothered to make anything.
I decided the only thing that was respectable and worthwhile was to get a ‘proper job’. So I started an accountancy course… the perfect antidote to art! I studied for a year and started working as a bookkeeper. It felt good to use my brain and have a solid goal to aim for, but I felt the creative frustration growing, much as I stubbornly tried to push it down and ignore it.
One day I was scrolling through YouTube, and amongst the cute kitten videos, I found myself watching something called ‘fluid art’. The artist was watering down beautiful, bright acrylic paints, pouring them all together in a cup, then tipping the whole lot on a canvas. The moment the rainbow explosion of paint started to spread, I gasped out loud… and promptly went to retrieve my art supplies from the attic. The creative drought was over.
What followed was three months of pouring jugs of paint, many terrible pieces of art and a ruined carpet. I had nothing but a mess to show for it, but my creative soul was alive again, I was excited about life and its possibilities!
I would finish work and race to the attic (my ‘studio’ at the time) to see how last night’s experiments had dried. I started seeing colour combinations and patterns when I closed my eyes at night! I gradually got better and started putting my art on Instagram. My confidence grew.
A year later I had over 20,000 followers and was making a small living from selling my art, alongside my bookkeeping job. I was featured by art curators, I sold art on four continents, had a magazine article published in the US and have made a wonderful community of friends along the way. I couldn’t have imagined the road that YouTube video would lead me down. My art style has changed and developed signaificantly from the fluid art work, but it was all part of the journey.
Give Yourself Permission
For a lot of us, creative pursuits seem to be bound up with guilt because it seems ‘frivolous’ or a luxury. Arts and crafts are never going to save a life or solve poverty, it’s true, but nor do most people’s work or hobbies. It does not mean that the arts are not extremely important to this world. As well as the personal mental and physical benefits I discussed earlier, the arts play a vital role in our world; without art, how much less would be understood about our own history? Art bridges the gap between social, cultural and political divides. Art, quite simply, makes our world a more beautiful place. Can you imagine going through the pandemic lockdowns without a good book, Netflix or podcasts?
I have lost count of the number of times depression has told me, ‘It’s just a painting, it’s worthless,’ only to receive an email from a customer telling me how delighted she is with her new piece of art that will hang on her wall for years to come. A homemade card, a hand-picked bunch of flowers, a home-baked cake all evoke joy in the making and the receiving – isn’t that what we need more of in the world?
If you can’t give yourself permission to spend your precious time creating something, here it is from me:
The best thing you can do is take care of yourself.
You are worthy and capable.
Creativity is important to the world.
Go and create!
What if it’s Rubbish?
I’ve always wanted to ‘make it’ as an artist. I have tried almost every medium and every craft in the book. If it didn’t have the potential to sell well, if it wasn’t going to be shown to others and admired, then what was the point?
It took a full mental breakdown, and several years after that, to let go of the need for my art to ‘achieve’ something. When creating became just that – the act of creating – rather than aiming for a good outcome, I began to play, I felt free, and my mental health improved with it. Creativity became my friend, rather than something I needed to conquer. First and foremost, my creative life is now for me. If I make something rubbish, which I do regularly, I have still taken the time to do something positive for my health… and probably learned something new along the way. I have learned to enjoy the process, rather than focus on the outcome.
Perfectionism and the Power of Destruction
“Don’t worry about failures, worry about the chances you miss when you don’t even try.” —Jack Canfield
Having talked to many artists, writers and crafters over the years, perfectionism is a trait that comes up time and time again. Perfectionism is also, in my opinion, a killer of creativity. Perfectionism induces a state of urgency and tension and ultimately expects something that is unachievable. What is the point of doing something you know is unachievable? So we either torture ourselves in a cycle of unrelenting standards, or we give up.
I would gently urge you to try and let go of the need for anything to ‘perfect’. It is an impossible standard that only brings disappointment. As humans, we are flawed. In creativity, every artist makes terrible paintings, every knitter drops stitches, every author writes things they look back on and think, ‘what on earth was I thinking?’
Only when we fail do we make progress.
One thing I have found helpful when I have ‘failed’ (and personally I think that is a very strong and unhelpful word) is destruction.
I have scribbled over drawings.
I have torn up paintings.
I have set fire to sculptures.
I have screwed up journal entries and stamped on them.
It sounds childish, doesn’t it? I promise I’m not normally one prone to fits of rage and tantrums! But oh my, destruction is cathartic. I would especially recommend it to someone experiencing grief or anger, anyone holding in emotions for fear of what they might look like. Sometimes intentionally making something ugly is exactly what you need to do to get that feeling out of your system.
Being aware of your perfectionism and learn to hush that voice in your head. This is not an all-or-nothing situation. A little bit of creativity here, a little bit of creativity there – it is not a race for results! Cut yourself some slack.
Following on from this, a common worry about embarking on a creative endeavour is waste. A waste of time, a waste of energy, a waste of money, a waste of materials.
The ‘a waste of time’ (or, alternatively, ‘I don’t have enough time’) thought is funny because, I don’t know about you, but whenever I tell myself that, I inevitably find myself watching half an hour of cat videos on social media later that same day. Nothing is a waste of time or energy if you gain benefit or enjoyment from it, no matter what anyone tells you. Equally, a ‘waste of money' can only be judged by the person spending it, however there are many thrifty ways to save money too.
‘A waste of materials’. This is a common guilt trip, especially given so many of us care about the planet and don’t want to see unnecessary rubbish go to landfill. A lot of creative activities use materials that can be reused or recycled. If you want to do something like painting or pottery, I will balance that argument with the idea that it is not a waste if you’re learning from the experience. I’ve seen many artists unable to ‘loosen up’ because they are being precious about their paint, brushes or expensive canvases – myself included. My advice would be – buy as cheap as you can in the early days: student-grade materials; paint on cardboard; turn old projects into new ones. Give yourself permission to play.
Procrastination & Resistance
According to writer Luke Wiese, 'Mozart is one of the most famous procrastinators of all time. He wrote the overture for his famous opera Don Giovanni the night before it premiered while he was probably hungover. During the premiere of the opera, the ink on the music sheet had still not dried and it was preformed without any rehearsal.'
It seems if you are a master procrasinator, like me, we are in good company. We put things off for all sorts of reasons: not enough time, too tired, no good ideas, I don't know how to do it, the lighting's not right, I'm not in the right in frame of mind, etc. etc. etc.
One of the best pieces of advice I had as a new artist was 'quantity over quality'. Yes, you read that right. Make or do something. Anything. Just do it. You're never going to feel the benefits if you don't start.
Don't go into a huge, involved project, expecting it to be a masterpiece; start small, choose a task without pressure, something to loosen you up. Then go from there. If it doesn't feel good, don't push it, come back to it later. Or choose to do what Julia Cameron call's an 'Artist Date' in her book 'The Artist's Way' - go to a gallery, or a public garden, or the theatre - feed on inspiration.
For me, resistance is a specific form of procrastination. If I'm resisting doing something, it is usually something more deep-rooted that I need to unpick. For example, when I last went through a patch of depression, I resisted painting at all. When I finally realised why, it was because I was scared of what would come out when I picked up a paintbrush. I was frightened of what may happen if all that anger and sadness was unleashed. In this case, I knew it was time to make an appointment to see my psychologist again. She helped me feel safe to let those emotions out, and though the images were not pretty, it was a fascinating and incredibly therapeutic process.
Do I have to Delve Deep?
Choosing which creative pursuit to follow is largely down to your own personal needs and preferences – some of which may change on a daily or even hourly basis! Activities like knitting, colouring or beading allow you to enter a kind of mindful and meditative state, staying present in the moment and enjoying the gentle repetition. It takes a certain level of concentration on the task, which makes it harder for the brain to ruminate or catastrophise.
Having a satisfying ‘result’ and a feeling of accomplishment that comes with it is also beneficial to our mental wellbeing. There doesn’t need to be soul-searching or exploration of difficult feelings to benefit from a creative activity like this. Indeed, it might be these very things you are trying to avoid by doing them!
On the other hand, as I mentioned above, using your creativity to dive deep into difficult feelings and emotions can be wonderfully cathartic for working through painful times. Using paint or clay, for example, you can really tap into sadness or release pent-up frustration. Some of the most beautiful and poignant works of all time were created in times of depression or despair. Some of my favourite artists: Frieda Kahlo, Vincent Van Gogh, Edvard Munch and Michelangelo all struggled with their mental health.
Purposefully making something ugly or destroying work can be amazingly therapeutic. Difficult times often throw up fundamental questions like, ‘Who am I?’ ‘What is my purpose?’ ‘What is the point?’
Mood boards, collage and photography can be brilliant activities to explore identity and start to build self-confidence. Journaling is a wonderful tool for getting to the root of personal problems, often presenting solutions or revelations that seem to come from nowhere. If you need outside support, please seek it; the deeper work is difficult and can take time, but it is worth it.
And if you’re happy making pretty things that make you smile, that’s all good too. Whatever works for you; be free of any self-imposed rules or expectations.
Finding Balance on the Harder Days
As difficult as it is, I believe the key to living a happy life is acceptance and self-compassion. I know, I know, so much easier said than done. It is easy to get stuck in a cycle of vicious thoughts. Is this familiar to you?
There is a fine balance between those days when you need a gentle push and those days when you need a free pass; only you can judge that. It can be exceedingly difficult to accept the days when you just need to lay on the sofa and watch Netflix but beating yourself up about it isn’t going to make things any better. I find two things helpful on days like these: Firstly, a positive sentence (affirmation) to repeat to yourself. Mine is “I am being kind to myself, I am listening to my body and my body needs to rest right now.” Secondly, I find it helps to set small goals. Teeny, tiny goals that you know you can achieve. That might be something like: I am going to put on my favourite song and sing/dance/enjoy for those three minutes. I am going to colour for ten minutes. I will knit six rows of my scarf. If you complete your goal and nothing more, awesome! You may be surprised that once you get going, you find you want to carry on – remember to pace yourself if you need to.
On days where staying in bed or on the sofa is unavoidable, there are still lots of activities you can do to still enjoy being creative. If you don’t have the energy to get into a physical task, I encourage you to find something ‘passively creative’ to do: daydream about a trip, a makeover, recipes you’d like to try; listen to music, an audiobook or inspiring podcast.
I appreciate that these days are rubbish and frustrating (I am writing this during one myself) – but a) accepting the situation, b) being kind to yourself and c) doing something that releases that dopamine we were talking about earlier will help keep you positive and looking forward to better days.
Exhaustion & Overwhelm
Having a chronic illness and a child who woke every 2-3 hours for her first three years, I understand tiredness and my heart goes out to you. That feeling of bone-aching exhaustion when everything feels too much and you're overwhelmed by life and work and kids and endless responsibilities is all too famililar. It is very easy to put your needs at the bottom of the pile, but that doesn't help anyone I'm afraid.
I need to remind myself daily that self-care is not selfish. It may seem impossible, but make time in your day just for you. Ten minutes if that's all you can manage. No added pressure, just a gentle promise to yourself. I find being excited by a project and looking forward to getting back to it gives me energy and makes everything seem a bit 'lighter'.
My friend Pippa has great advice when it comes to feeling overwhelmed...
"One thing I’ve only very recently learnt about overwhelm, or feeling stressed or fed up, is actually that it’s ok to feel like that. I used to try to fight it, to keep working and pushing through but, surprise surprise, the overwhelm just got more and more as I couldn’t really focus on getting anything done. A vicious cycle.
Recently I have started allowing myself time to feel overwhelm. Because, you know what? Life is stressful. It is full and busy and a big old juggling act, and it doesn’t all go smoothly all the time. By giving myself half an hour to have a little panic, a big old cry, a moan that I’m not good enough to do any of this, I let all those feelings out. That’s usually enough to realise just how silly most of those thoughts and worries were; I am absolutely good enough, and I start to talk to myself as if I were talking to a friend (honestly, sometimes saying these things out loud makes all the difference!) and I tell myself all the things that are going right.
With all those overwhelm thoughts cleared out, I find it much easier to focus and formulate a plan and be creative. So that’s my top tip, give yourself a set amount of time to cry, and then move on. Get creative and get back to doing the things you love with greater focus."
-Pippa Hicks, Artist
I hope this has inspired you to do something creative for yourself today. If you've enjoyed it, please share with anyone you think might appreciate it too!
See you in Part 4 where we'll look at community and inspiration, loads of creative ideas to try and meet some amazing people who use creativity for their own mental health and wellbeing.