Be Smart About Art

Paralysis for creators: Put too much pressure on yourself?

written by: Susan Mumford May 14, 2017 1) RECOMMENDED-> Susan Mumford + Chris King's Blog 2008 views

Paralysis for creators: Put too much pressure on yourself?

from our Sunday reading series - a weekly blog post (subscribe here

Imagine that every time you made a cup of coffee, it had to be a “perfect cup of coffee.”  Why? Because that’s what you promised (as in the above picture) or expected of yourself. This is exactly what many creative people do to themselves with their work.

A few days ago, I was conversing with the French-American painter Marcus McAllister about this mindset, ahead of a talk on ‘studio practice’ that he’ll be giving at Be Smart About Art in London (check out info). He told me about a Parisian artist he knows who is only able to get into her studio one day a week (because of work and family commitments), and puts a ton of pressure on herself. Every time she goes into the studio she expects to come out with a masterpiece (or at least one in progress), and as a result is paralysed. The result is that she gets nothing done at all, and then proceeds to beat herself up about it. The expectation intensifies over the weeks, and less and less is accomplished as time passes.

A similar phenomenon is experienced by writers. I recently encountered a group of authors who were talking about this. One reported that while some days she writes 5,000 words, on others she’ll write no more than 500. Her observation is that when she puts high expectations of number count, she gets less achieved. And yet, when she goes in with an open mind, the results blow her away.

What do these stories tell us? When your focus is a completed masterpiece or specific outcome by X time, then the pressure applied to yourself can greatly inhibit your creativity. While there’s certainly benefit to goal setting*, when it comes to creative endeavours, enjoying the journey and being open to taking unexpected directions can be vital to the end result.

Marcus talks about the importance of going into the studio not to do X, Y and Z, but to see what happens. Thinking time is as important as making time, as it’s part of the process. Any appreciator of a great cup of coffee, work of art or book knows that the end result comes from trial and tribulation, reflection, practice and more.

The next time you find that you’re giving yourself such a hard time that you’re getting nothing done at all, allow yourself to do whatever exploring is needed in order to move forward, however slowly or swiftly that might be. Progress is progress, and creating a masterpiece takes time. 

*This isn't to say that goal-setting doesn't have its place! Check out blog posts by Susan Mumford: 
Achieve your goals, step by step 
Dig away at your goals 

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Photographs © Chris King. 

Image taken at Orso Major's pop-up show during the Dulwich Festival 2017

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This is a topic I've been looking at both as a professional artist and as an amateur musician. The paralysis of expectation can be freed up by doing, and being focussed on the process not the outcome. The idea you have to repeatedly and purposefully do something to get good at it is an obvious one when you think of learning how to play an instrument but not one I necessarily thought to apply to my own art practice.
I've learnt so much about how I work as an artist by applying how I learn as a musician to my art practice. This blog post below was posted by the father of the artist who wrote it on a bassists forum I am a member of. It applies equally to learning an instrument or painting a picture. It gives you permission to make mistakes and view those mistakes as part of the necessary process of making your best work. As she says in the post " kittens will die because I made a bad painting"

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Yes - wise words from Marcus (really, I expected no less ;) I know a number of carers, and from my own experience as a carer and artist, I have learned that 'staring out the window time' is essential time in any process - that goes for making as well as coping with difficult situations, or just recovering from one situation before moving onto the next. Also being patient with yourself when you don't think you've used your time wisely enough means that next time you have the time, you are ready to move on without the guilt of the time before. But I feel for the woman mentioned above because I've been there - family commitments make 'not making' such a frustrating situation that it can colour everything in slow-moving pitch.