‘All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.’
Believe it or not, we are all born creative. You, me, your neighbours, even your boss was born that way. Children are the most imaginative and intuitive creatures on earth: using their fantasy is just as natural for them as breathing. That’s how a desk becomes a floating fortress, a broom a laser sword, and the family-cat a saber-toothed tiger that can easily turn into a robot-dragon.
If this is how we all start off the question arises: where and when does creativity fade from our lives? Why do most people find their daily life dull and colourless? What happens to enthusiasm, spontaneity and the joy of creating things?
Yes, all these things vanish for most of us somewhere between our first day at school and graduation. In this system we learn quite fast that there is only one good answer to every question the teacher puts, that thinking independently is frowned upon, that if you don’t want to look stupid, you’d better not ask questions. It is from this monotonous, highly regulated world of school that, sooner or later, you will get into the realm of work that runs under basically the same rules.
Luckily it doesn’t mean that we can’t get creativity back into our lives if we want to. The little kid who we once were is still there — for some people just hiding under the surface, in others deeply buried under piles of ’serious grown-up stuff’ — who can’t wait to get invited back into our lives. When he or she is back we will be able to play, laugh and start to create again.
My child-self loves to draw and paint. Always did. Yet, there were six years in my life when I refused to do any of those things. This aversion towards fine arts started in the fourth grade of elementary school. We got a new arts teacher — let’s call him Mr John — who was determined to put a stop to fooling around with watercolors and turn the whole class into miniature Leonardo da Vincis. He told us in our very first class with him that we were not allowed to use paint or coloured pencils anymore, only lead. Then Mr John told us the only thing we were allowed to draw: cubes. To cheer up those kids who were looking longingly in the direction of the confiscated watercolors, he said that those who drew the cubes well enough would be allowed to draw cylinders. Mr John really didn’t know how to cheer up nine-year-olds.
Being a dutiful kid I quickly drew a cube the same way Mr John had shown us. When I was done with that I started to draw little animals and elves around my not-so-perfect-looking cube. Mr John was furious when he saw what I was doing. He grabbed my paper, showed it up in front of the whole class and counted all the flaws of my cube. Then he put the paper back onto my desk and told me to erase all the ’silliness’ and draw a proper cube.
This was when I rebelled for the very first time in my life. I refused to draw. Not in this class or the next one or at any time later. I felt like something was taken from me that I loved dearly. I felt I had been robbed. (I have no idea how I passed art class that year. I have some vague memory of taking an oral exam in art history.)
I did not draw again ’till I was about fifteen. It’s not like I felt bad about drawing or had nightmares with Mr John and cubes chasing me. I didn’t even think about drawing. It simply wasn’t part of my life anymore.
Then one day I was sitting in our kitchen and had one of those looong phone calls that only teenage girls are capable of, and without realizing what I was doing I picked up a pen from the table and started to draw on a piece of paper that happened to be lying there. It felt good, so when my friend and I finally hung up the phone I didn’t stop drawing. There was nothing at stake, no one was watching and I knew that I wouldn’t show my drawing to anyone. Not fearing the judgment of others the joy of creativity immediately came back into my life.
Next day I took my watercolors from the bottom of the drawer where I had kept them for six years. They were not in a good shape but I still had a lot of fun painting green cats and flying elephants. It was like I had found something in myself that seemed to be gone for good.
Not much later I felt like I should learn more about painting. I still had no fully articulated ambition regarding arts, I just wanted to learn some new techniques and get better at those I already knew. I enrolled in a casual painting course where everybody was allowed to draw or paint whatever they wanted (or could). Our teacher taught us things we actually asked for and experimenting with different techniques was encouraged. We were not pushed to create perfect pictures, it was absolutely okay to make mistakes and then try again if we felt like it. I absolutely adored it.
What have I learned from all this? Several things.
Firstly, that you don’t need to do something perfectly to enjoy it. Perfectionism and the fear that comes with it kills creativity.
Secondly, that it is okay to make mistakes. Mistakes are not failures but the means to improve. We can learn from them. If I can’t paint something the way I wanted to, it does not mean I can never paint it that way. It means that I’m trying — which is a great thing in itself — and that I need to try again and again until I’m finally happy with the outcome.
Thirdly, that intrinsic motivation is much, much stronger than the one forced on us by the expectations of others. If you enjoy doing something, sooner or later you will want to get better in it, will want to learn more about it, and maybe will even feel like you want to share your experiences and results with others.
Even though I’m not a good painter I’ve had a few exhibitions. Moreover, to my astonishment, I’ve sold some paintings.
Yet, I still cannot draw a regular cube.
(In the upcoming post I’m going to share some techniques that can help add more creativity to our lives.)