In 2017, my bouts with anxiety hit a major tipping point in my life. Something had to change, and so I looked at how I could improve my recreation time, among other areas of my life that included my adding to my spiritual practices and reducing my social media use.
As a writer and avid reader, my life had been wrapped up in words–reading them and writing them. I realized that while I have gardened in the past, I haven’t really “made” things very often.
Creating things offline especially appealed as a recreation alternative to the drag of social media that had a way of capturing my attention and then flooding my mind with thoughts that remained long after I’d put my phone down… although my phone was never very far away or left down for long back then.
My mind needed more free space and some kind of outlet that could engage it in a constructive way that didn’t require writing or even thinking deeply.
I could screw some boards together to make a raised bed, and I could strum chords on my guitar like any kid who grew up in the 1990’s, but there wasn’t anything I could make in my free time that was remotely close to being considered “art” or “creative.”
I had no idea where to begin, so I went cheap, picking up some charcoal pencils and a spiral bound drawing book. Sitting down at a local coffee shop, I stared at the blank page in a state of despair.
What do people draw?
The blank page had been a welcome space of opportunity for me as a writer. Now, it was more like a wall–a rather flat wall but a wall nonetheless.
I had brought Thomas Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander along in my newly relegated “art bag,” and turned to it for inspiration out of desperation.
Merton was a bit of an artist in whatever spare time he scraped together when he wasn’t writing books, writing letters, complaining that he only had time to write books and letters, and arranging scandalous outings with a nurse from Louisville. He had painted the image used on the cover , a school of fish swirling in a variety of directions.
I still have no idea what a bunch of wiggling fish has to do with a monk feeling guilty about all of the troubling stuff going on in a world that appeared to be on the brink of nuclear war and the dehumanizing shifts brought by technology, but I’ll give Merton a pass here. Regardless of the meaning of the fish, I doodled the fish with my charcoal pencils.
It wasn’t very good, but the fish were simple enough that a few appeared to be passable–maybe two or three out of sixteen or seventeen.
When I started sharpening the charcoal pencils, I promptly broke off the tips.
My Art Was Terrible at First
That was a pretty terrible start to my pursuit of art and creativity in general. I made some horrible drawings back then. Honestly, I’m still pretty below average when it comes to drawing or sketching or just moving a pencil in a straight line. I moved from the precision of pencils to the impressionistic palette of oil pastels.
My wife thought that I would enjoy trying out oil pastels, not realizing that I’d secretly been fascinated by them since my days working at an art center as the volunteer coordinator. The oil pastel landscapes of artist Penny Viscusi had always been my favorites during exhibitions.
It never occurred to me that I could try making them myself until my wife gave me a set of oil pastels for my birthday.
And gosh, those first few attempts at oil pastel landscapes were horrendous. They weren’t even close to being acceptable for an elementary school art contest.
But it still counted that I got started, even if I cringed over those splotchy, dreadful landscapes, just as I cringed over my charcoal fish a few years earlier.
Starting out terrible was really hard to accept. I couldn’t even relax at first. I thought that art was supposed to be this therapeutic activity, but I just cringed and gritted my teeth most days.
I know that a lot folks fear making horrible art or creative projects when they begin. That fear is real, but it’s something that you can bear, much like a first time author has to face an editor or agent’s rejection letter.
My terrible art work was even more terrible than I thought it would be.
Over time I watched instructional videos, learned to observe landscapes better, asked anyone I could for a critique, and kept practicing a little at a time.
I began to relax a little more, to observe the world around me a bit differently, and to establish oil pastels as one of my go-to recreation activities. It’s usually far more beneficial for my mental and spiritual well-being than anything I can do while doom scrolling social media or plopping in front of a show.
My Artwork Is Still Kind of Terrible
One of my latest oil pastel paintings has a lot of detail invested in some sand dunes. I really sweated over the tall grass in the dunes. When I reasoned that I could do nothing else to improve them, I was pretty sure they were garbage.
When my wife saw it, she thought the dunes looked pretty good. Then she pointed to the horizon line of the ocean.
In case this is news to you, the horizon is more or less a straight line. If there’s a curve to the horizon, you’re not going to see it while sitting on the beach. It’s going to be super duper straight in real life.
My horizon had a gentle but perceptible arch downward as it reached the edge of the page. You can see the painting at the top of this post.
I find mistakes like this all of the time in my paintings. These are not gallery worthy works even after a few years of practice with a bunch of YouTube tutorials under my belt.
Living with those mistakes is a lot easier these days because I can see that I’ve still made progress. Even with the terrible stuff at the beginning and the glaring mistakes I still make, it feels really good to make stuff.
I didn’t really know how good it would feel to create things with my hands. Taking a bit of paper and some color to replicate the look and feel of a scene in nature grounds me in the moment. It’s like I’m asking myself, “Are you REALLY paying attention right now?”
When I drive anywhere or sit in a new spot, I tend to look at trees, grass, or even a freshly plowed field and ponder how I’d paint it. How much brown and green would I use? Would I use a dark blue for the shadow? How would I blend in some shades of yellow to show highlights?
That sure feels a lot more constructive than other things I used to do in my free time. … Scroll … Scroll … Tap … Scroll … Scroll … Tap.
Everyone Pays the Same Price to Create
The price of growing in creativity seems to be making terrible stuff at first.
My early writing was terrible. My early art was terrible and has only gotten better in tiny increments.
In the moment, it is kind of humiliating. I remember wondering if it was even worth it, doubting myself and worrying that I was just making myself feel worse!
I’m glad I stuck with it. I kept experimenting and just settled on the kind of creative projects that drew me in and spoke to me.
Even if you won’t see my art in a gallery, I have a new creative practice where I feel somewhat at home. This is my space where I can safely make stuff, even if there surely are plenty of people in the world making better art.
Comparison is a creativity killer.
While painting on the beach with my family last week, a woman walked by with her family and noticed my work in progress. She suddenly exclaimed, “Oh, beautiful!”
I wasn’t super impressed with my work right at that moment, so her comment really jarred me. It mattered to her right then that I was capturing the scene in front of us, and that meant a lot to me.
Even more importantly, I heard her conversation as she walked away, “I’ve always wanted to learn how to paint.”
I thought about going over to her and saying, “You know, there are plenty of tutorials on YouTube. There’s no reason why you can’t start tomorrow.”
I didn’t want to be awkward and sound like some sage because I’m just a guy messing around with some oil pastels, so I stayed put.
But I can imagine what she would say because I’ve heard it plenty.
“Oh, if I tried that, my art would be terrible.”
I can also imagine myself replying, “Well yeah. My stuff was really terrible at first, but I did get better. And it got a lot more fun when I got better.”
Making terrible stuff is not a lot of fun, but I’m so grateful that I stuck with it.
I’m sure there are some people who can pick up artistic stuff faster than others. Yet, almost all of us are held back by the fear of making something terrible.
I made terrible stuff. It felt pretty bad. But then I learned some more, practiced, and now I really, really enjoy my creative work. On the other side of that day in the cafe with my charcoal pencils, the terrible stuff was well worth it.
And if you ever ask to see my terrible stuff, I guarantee you that I’ll just laugh awkwardly and ask what in the world you could be talking about.