How can I be less self-conscious when creating art?

I’m very fascinated by outsider art. I don’t always enjoy it, but I like that I don’t always enjoy it. I like that there are still things in the world that feel completely alien to me.

I like to make art, especially collage, and this evening I tried my hand at ignoring convention and aesthetics, and just putting things on paper because they reflected my feelings, or made me laugh. Then I looked at the results. They were ugly, but they weren’t ugly in a raw, human way, they were ugly because they looked like I was trying too hard.

Is there a way to stop trying too hard, or is it too late for me now? I feel like I’ve always been a bit self-conscious as an artist and writer. At least, I was after (at age 6 or thereabouts) I gave up on insisting that horses did have round heads and looked exactly like I was drawing them. If only I had stopped while I was ahead*!

I know it’s a deep question, and probably difficult to answer, but if not for IMHO, where else would I ask?


Electric Warrior, I encourage you to find a supportive group of artists that can give a positive and useful critique of your work. I think the whole “trying to hard” thing is something that every artist experiences.

For every piece of art any of us see in a gallery, there are a gazilion false starts and questions.

Missed the edit window.

“trying too hard”

Moved IMHO --> Cafe Society.

When taking art classes at college, one of the hardest things for me was to become comfortable with the art I was making. It took about a year or two of doing artwork for hours (3 or more) everyday to finally become comfortable with and trust my work.

I think the artist group is a good idea. Remember to be open to ideas when critiquing. I remember other students being so defensive of their work that nobody would even comment on it. Those people don’t get anything out of critiques.

Also be patient. If you feel like you’re at a stopping point and out of ideas, take a break instead of forcing yourself to make art.

Anyway, I hope that helps answer your question. Keep going though, practice can’t make you any worse!

Also, if you feel like sharing, post some pics!

Smoke a joint. Play in the paint, smear it on the canvas and then try and bring pictures out of the mess. Don’t start with an idea in mind, just slop paint down. After you have gotten this through your system, then sit down with what you’ve learned about mixing techniques and how the colors work together to do something else. The same thing applies to any other artform.

Smoke a joint. Start making noise on your trumpet…

Smoke a joint. Make up a character, have him do something stupid, then try to get him out of it…

Experiment. Deliberately do things in a way that keeps you from thinking.

  • Set an alarm clock to five minutes. Provide yourself with weird materials (peanut butter, syrup, pieces of paper cut up randomly and glue, condoms). Make the piece.

  • Experiment with a different style. Drip-painting. Using heavy layers of paint like Van Gogh. Andy Warhol’s piss-painting style.

  • Exercise hard, then do some art.

  • Imagine yourself a particular type of character, ultra-religious or athiestic, male or female or somewhere in between, a alien visiting earth.

Most important of all, do this with the door closed, perhaps with a fire handy. Reassure youself that it will all be trashed and no one will ever see it and judge it. Stephen King wrote about writing the first draft with the door closed (metaphorically) and later drafts with it open. You want to bring up whatever’s inside you and in a way that encourages it to come out and not under the withering gaze of your mother / father / siblings / authority figure to sniff and say “You call THAT art? My kid can do that!”

Finally, set yourself time period in which to do this daily. For five days, say that you’ll devote one hour a day to this. Again, KEEP THE DOOR CLOSED. The point is that, over those five days, you may find yourself returning to themes that are important to you, and your body will learn how to do certain things. This is a solo journey, and since you know it will have an end point, you free yourself to see what happens.

And don’t be judgmental about any of this. Just do it. Give yourself the freedom to live.

This is really interesting, because I was thinking of starting a thread along similar lines, asking Dopers to talk about what they do to stimulate their creativity.

And what you describe is something I think all of us go through, regardless of which discipline we’re in.

Speaking personally, I try, as much as possible, to separate the functions of ‘editing’ and ‘creating’. Both aspects are extremely useful, but I have found that the ‘editor’ side of me interferes with the ‘creator’ side.

Before I get too longwinded here, let me mention a couple of books I have found useful -
Surrealist Games, compiled by Alastair Brotchie, published by Shambala Press
Writing Down the Bones by Nathalie Goldberg
Improvisation for the Theater by Viola Spolin

So, I’m not a visual artist, but I have used the visual arts as a tool in my other endeavours as a performer, composer and writer. Frequently, I’ll draw something as a way of accessing a character. I find things like automatic drawing with my eyes closed, line drawing, collage, sculpture, mask making incredibly useful.

I beg your pardon, I have to go decorate a Christmas tree. I will continue on later, if I may - I find the topic absolutely fascinating.

I’m going to encourage you to get involved in some sort of group which provides mostly positive feedback but also a lot of encouragement to finish things.

I’m thinking of a story I heard about a pottery class where half the class was to be graded on quality and half on quantity. The quality half stressed themselves into nonperformance, while the quantity half knowing that any failure didn’t matter, made vase after vase and started experimenting and coming up with marvelous things.

I’m also thinking about my own experiences. While I’m not an artist, I am a knitter, and recently posted pictures all over Ravelry ( a knitting and crochet online community) of a beautiful shawl which I had knit. Embarassed by the praise, I typed something self-deprecating about it being just the yarn (beautiful and somewhat price-y yarn). I was sternly reminded that it would be a pile of string (or a ball of string if you prefer) but for my choice to knit it.

And in one of the groups where I shared that shawl, someone else commented that everyone else’s work was lovely, but all she sees in hers is the flaws. A common failing among artisans or crafters. Regardless of medium.

So finding a group which will reward you when you do something which speaks to others has its virtues.

Huh. Nobody has suggested the psychological answer: Intentionally make something that is crap, and find out that it’s not so bad. And no cheating by telling people that you did it intentionally, either.

I think I’ve become a “Thing-a-Day” evangelist.

“Thing-a-Day” is a blog where, for the month of February, you sign up and commit to making a thing a day. The commitment is yours – you don’t get any nagging reminders if you miss a few days. The “thing” can be anything. You’re not supposed to spend more than an hour working on your thing for the day.

I’ve done it for the past two years. I can unequivocally state that some of my best stuff (best = resulting in art that sells) has been an outgrowth of ideas I diddled around with in Thing-a-Day.

Isn’t that art that could be by a mental patent, hillbilly, or chimpanzee?

Why not just enjoy the process of creating?

It seems as if you already do. Why not consider yourself finished before allowing the inner critic to butt in? The rewards seem worth it, no?

One of the things that I’ve seen visual artists do is to play games where you aren’t completely in control of the final image. For example, if you fold a sheet in half or thirds and one of you draws on the top sheet and extends the lines just over the fold, the other one has to continue the drawing from that point. The only question that the second artist is allowed is to define what is negative space (background) and what is positive space (subject). There are similar games starting with a squiggle, or a blob.

Drawing blindfolded, or drawing by holding the paper/pad and putting the pencil/charcoal/paintbrush in a grip of some sort can be very useful. The point here is that you aren’t using your eyes to judge what you are doing.

Lots of artists from many different periods have gone through this question. When we are children, we have no sense of judgement at all - it’s later that we become obsessed with ideas about getting it all right.

It was interesting for me this weekend - I was telling my ten year old daughter about the Poetry Sweatshops, and she didn’t get the point. To her, all poetry would be done in one sitting, and why would you take more than an hour to write one?

Anyway, I find that the more you can treat your creativity as part of a game, the easier it is (for me, at least) to get around self-editing and self-judgement. As with games, there are games of pure chance (Roulette, for instance.), games of mixed chance and strategy (Backgammon) and games of pure strategy (Go, Chess). But all games centre around the idea of a set of rules within which you make choices, and those choices you make are what make you the specific artist that you are. Even with pure chance, the choices you have made about how chance will determine outcome shape the work, a paradox that John Cage remained fascinated with throughout his creative life.

Hope some of this helps…

Some art, by its very nature, needs to be self-conscious. If that’s the kind of art you do, why not just accept it? It will set you apart from all the not-so-self-conscious artists.

IMHO, the self-conscious art often tends to be obvious and pseudo-something (pseudo-intellectual, like.) I applaud trying to make inner, REAL art rather than phony exterior self-conscious art.

I agree to find yourself a class or group that will be supportive but critical. That helps a lot.

I want to thank you profusely for linking to this book.

I’m currently writing a book about the aesthetics of play and I’m fast coming up on a chapter where I plan to discuss role-playing games, make-believe, and theatrical performance. After following your link I ordered Spolin’s book from Amazon and it arrived today. Just from reading the first few pages I can already tell that it dovetails perfectly with my own work and provide a really important bridge between my analysis of play in the context of board games, sports, and videogames in the first part of the book, and my analysis of play in literature, theater and music in the second part.

It’s difficult for me to convey just how serendipitous it was for me to learn about this particular book at this particular moment. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

You’re most welcome, The Hamster King. It was required reading when I took improv courses at 15 years ago, and I’ve been referring to it constantly ever since.

One of the courses was ‘screenwriting through improv’, and although I’m not a screenwriter at all, I fondly remember one of the sketches we came up with, which was about a nun polishing a statue of Jesus, which gave the statue an erection. Those were great courses.