Starting an art practice can be daunting. Here are my best tips and ideas to help get you set up for a sustainable practice. Start where you are. This is first in my series on How to Create Your Art Practice.
I started my most recent creative journey in January 2013 when I set up a plastic folding table in my office space and dubbed it my art desk. Way back then I wanted to call myself an artist and I knew that I needed some completed work to back up my new self-bestowed title. I started with 20 minutes a day. In the allotted 20 minutes a day that first year, I made a lot of garbage. But I made something 303 days out of 365 in 2013. You can start where you are too! These are some ideas that worked best for me. I hope they will help you get started.
My Early Days
When I started, I didn’t know what to make or what to use. I knew from my college art days, I was more inclined to paint and collage than to draw things. I had pregnancy-induced carpal tunnel in both hands so holding a pencil wasn’t much of an option. Drawing was definitely out. I didn’t have many supplies so I was wide open to the possibilities there. A New Year’s resolution helped me make a plan and a Christmas gift card from my mom allowed me to start buying some needed supplies.
I decided to start with Artist Trading Cards because they were small (2.5 x 3.5 inches) and I could finish them quickly. I would add a bit of color and a couple of cut out images and I was done! 20 minutes completed! Working small was good because I didn’t have a lot of time to overthink it. The size meant there wasn’t much room to make too many “mistakes”.
I moved on from ATCs to postcards and some weirdly-sized art panels. Then I made a tiny shrine of Ganesh for a friend going through a hard time. Often I crocheted and played with color in yarn. I started and abandoned art journals because there was just so MUCH space, I didn’t know what to do with them! Mostly I played around that first year. I figured out what I liked and what I didn’t like. I also took photos of my work, put terrible grungy frames on them in Pixlr, and posted them to my family blog. Whew, I was a trip! But I kept at it.
Starting where you are sounds like an easy thing, right? You just pick up a pencil and go. And for some folks, it is that easy. If you are stuck on this step I have some tips and tricks for you.
Kick Perfectionism to the Curb
“If I can’t do it right after 3 tries then I’ll never get it, so why bother?”
“It never looks like the image I have in my head.”
“It looks so easy when other people do it. And I’ll never be that good at it.”
Perfectionism and your Inner Critic are a form of self-protection. It’s a way for your brain to keep your feelings from being hurt. It’s the self talk you may have running through your head unconsciously. And when it comes to your art practice, it’s just wrong. There is no wrong way to practice your art.
Here I’ll say it again in fancy quote form:
There is no wrong way to practice your art.Misty
This perfectionism that is keeping you from practicing your art is robbing you of experience. It is robbing you of joy. And it is robbing you of beauty. I don’t know about you but I’m not willing to keep giving up those things because I will likely make something ugly. Let me assure you, you will make some ugly shit. If there’s one thing I know for sure is that when I make art, messes happen and ugly art results on the regular, but sometimes…sometimes the universe conspires with me and I make something that seems beyond my capabilities. That’s the feeling I chase when I make art. For me, perfectionism doesn’t stand a chance against that possibility.
Thinking of this journey as practice is incredibly valuable to me. I listen to my kids playing their instruments (my oldest has been playing trombone for 6 years and my youngest plays clarinet (3 years), oboe (2 years), ukulele (3 years), and guitar (4 years) and I think to myself there is NO WAY I could ever do that. And while I don’t think I’ll ever play an instrument like they do, what we have in common is practice. They both regularly spend a minimum of 30 minutes a day (and sometimes much more if they are getting ready for a concert or a competition) on their instrument practice time. If I am spending time every day on my art practice, what could the results possibly be?
Perfectionism can’t stand up under the weight of practice either. Because while the results might be slower than I’d like, I do see changes in my abilities when I practice.
What Does ‘Start Where You Are’ Look Like for You?
I’m an over preparer. I like my lists and my research and my plans. I like to know where the pitfalls are and what others have done before me. And then I’m kinda likely to go off-roading once I feel like I have the lay of the land so to speak. These things are part of my process. I did it when I got started originally making but also I tend to redo this process with new projects. Sometimes even at the beginning of a new year, I’ll go through it once again to feel like I’m on the right track.
Start by making a list of what you like to do.
Do you like to draw? Do you like to sculpt? Maybe you like to imagine what creatures on other planets look like and you don’t know what to do with this idea so you have something concrete to look at? Do you love to knit socks and want to start making patterns? Whatever your thing is, even if you think it’s a little too out there, write it down. These ideas will be your seeds. Some of this list will get you started, some of this list will be projects for later, some of this you might read later and wonder who possessed your hand for that entry. Don’t judge the list, just get it down.
This might be an excellent time to crack the spine on that blank book you’ve been saving. Flip to the back page and start your list. (I find starting on a page other than the first page is much less intimidating when I have a new blank book.) I’m an avid list maker/bullet journaler. I love looking at my old lists and pondering why I wrote this weird thing down but sometimes rereading these old lists sparks something new creatively. You just never know…so write it down.
Assess your space.
Walk around your living space and be on the lookout for where you might set up for your creative time. Do you have a tiny corner somewhere you can set up your practice on a tv tray? Maybe the end of the cabinet in the kitchen, a folding table in your bedroom, the coffee table? If you have small people living with you, it’ll need to be out of reach. (Of course big people can be a hazard too. When I put Diamond Glaze on anything, my partner inevitably strolls by and sticks his finger in the goo and asks if it’s dry yet.) Ideally, your space will be ever so slightly off the beaten path in your living space to keep your housemates out of your work! But again, use what you have. Even a designated notebook and pencil are enough for this beginning work.
Do a bit of research.
Find the smallest unit you can start with for your work and finish in a tiny slice of time. I highly recommend ATCs and postcards if you want to try your hand at visual art. You won’t have much time or many supplies invested in these pieces so if they are terrible (and they will mostly be terrible) you can let them go easily. People love mail so even terrible postcards are useful for letting your grandma know you are thinking of her.
Are these some other things you deal with in NOT starting?
“I’m too tired!”
You work all day. Your brain power is all used up at the end of that day. You are maybe juggling kids or parents or studies or house management or 50 other things. You are desperate for 30 minutes on the couch with Netflix and a warm beverage and not one single person talking to you or asking for something. I get it.
I want to propose something though. If you spend 20 minutes a day doing the thing you love, it will energize you for all of those other things you need to do. Can you get up 30 minutes earlier? Or can you plan a once a week artist date with yourself or an artist friend? Can you get your kids to do the 20 minutes with you? Do you skip 30 minutes of Netflix a night? Can you pack a small supply bag and work during your lunch break?
“I bought these supplies and they are really special. I don’t want to use them up or mess them up.”
The potential in new supplies is magical. I feel this in a big way. One of my earliest memories is a bag of office supply notepads my dad brought me from his office. I remember specifically the feel of each small pad as I pulled it from the bag and the wonder and the wondering of what I could draw on each of them.
New supplies are absolutely loaded with potential! And the fear of “messing it up” is real. But what if you use those and what you make is even better because you used the things you loved? And wouldn’t it be better to make something with the beautiful thing you picked out so you could then start the process with some other magical supplies?
“There are too many things I want to try to choose from!”
This is what your list is for! You can try one thing today and one thing tomorrow. Or spend a week working with watercolors and then another with acrylics. I think once you start on something, your attention and imagination will be captured and you’ll be off and running on something. Truthfully, it matters less where you start, what matters is that you get started at all.
“I don’t know how to start!”
Grab the closest pen and post it notepad. Set a timer for 3 minutes and draw something on your desk or counter right now. Draw for the whole 3 minutes. Aim for using at least 5 sticky notes in your allotted time. Go fast. Go faster than is comfortable. At the end of your 3 minutes, you will have started. Now that that’s over, you can move on to something else!
I’m a list maker and box checker. I am often focused on working on my to-do list instead of making art. Often I find other things that HAVE to get done before I can focus, concentrate, and get into the art frame of mind. I deal with this constantly. Never more so than when I write. Giving yourself permission to do the thing you most want to do first is a muscle you might have to develop. Paying yourself first in this way can be awkward and hard at first but it will provide you with the courage to do it again next time.
Give yourself permission to fail at all of this.
Failing is part of learning. And this habit you are forming can take some assessment on your part to figure out the best way to make it stick. Ask yourself: what knocked you off track? How can you set yourself up for a better outcome next time? Do you need an accountability partner to check in by text every day? Or maybe you need a reminder on your phone? Do you need a pre-set up space? Looking at your failure to figure out what to do for the next time is a part of art making that you need to get comfortable with. There’s no better place to start than with your art making habit.
You are going to stop and start at the beginning of your practice, and heck, probably at the middle and end of it too. You are. That’s just how it works. But make a deal with yourself that you WILL start again. If you are starting a new habit, don’t expect to be perfect at it right now. You are going to miss some days because life happens. Don’t beat yourself up about it, just recommit and start fresh. Starting again is always an option you have. Sometimes the starting again is the best part because you get to decide what direction to go from so many possibilities.
I’m cheering you on! If you are longing for an art practice, you are not alone. Making soothes my soul in a way that’s hard to describe. If that’s what you are looking for, I GET IT. I think you are closer to the dream than you think you are. Check in with me if you need an encouraging word or if you want to tell me about your “start where you are” experience!