“Does Not Follow Directions Well”

“Does not follow directions well…”

No parent wants to hear that report from a child’s teacher. Following directions is an important skill in life. For creative children, however, and for creative adults as well, following directions is not always an easy thing to do.

There are reasons for this, according to psychologists, but the research I’ve done on the topic suggests to me that there are different sorts of directions, and, therefore, different reasons for not following along as we should. Surprisingly — and sadly — the articles I’ve read have all overlooked the creative aspects involved in how well we do, or more likely don’t follow directions.

I’ve touched on this topic before — and you’ll be reading more about it in future posts as well. It is important that we’re able to follow directions. In some dire circumstances our lives might even depend on being able to listen clearly to instructions we’re given and carry them out.

Art, however, is not usually a matter of life-and-death, and as with any other creative endeavor, having directionsrules, or even guidelines can be seen as anathema to our process. Many times creative individuals speak of rules as stifling or limiting.

For the most part, I appreciate having guidelines and occasional rules to follow. Anyone with imagination can… well, imagine anything! But give that imagination a few parameters instead of a wide-open space, and rather than stifle the creative process, those parameters can challenge your thinking and give your imagination opportunities to stretch and grow.

Directions, however, are different. Now, I like directions. As a newcomer to the world of art, I need step-by-step guidance. Everything in drawing and painting is still so new to me, that it’s helpful to have someone knowledgeable who can say, all right, start here and do this first, and then, do this.

Yep, that’s good for me. Except, as often as not, I don’t follow the directions I’m given.

Why not? If having directions is so important for me, why don’t I follow them as I should?

That was the question on my mind this morning as I put together a “mini-concertina” as part of this year’s Sketchbook Revival event. This session was taught by UK artist, Karen Stamper, and I loved the idea of the project — a little folded “art book” with colorful illustrations.

Before we go on, let me show you my mini-concertina:

I do like this, and I will say that making a mini-concertina (essentially a folded sketchbook or journal) is a lot of fun. This one was made on regular copy paper which can be easily folded.

The process is quite simple. Fold a sheet of copy paper lengthwise. You then fold it in half again, in the opposite direction. Next, open it up lengthwise, and fold each end in to the center, creating a “gate fold”.

Goodness! No wonder following directions can be difficult. It’s not easy to explain even a simple folding method, and despite an online search, I haven’t been able to come up with simple illustrations.

Let me show you my concertina from another perspective:

Now, you can find a lot of online videos on paper-folding, and if you search for “concertina fold” you’ll find a few interesting variations, most with more than the few simple folds I’ve used. I understand, too, by the way, that our Australian friends often refer to books made this way as “zig-zag” books. The description fits.

I did have a lot of fun with this project, and I do like my little “zig-zag” book. To me, it has its own sort of imperfect charm. Truly, though, it’s quite a mess compared to what it was supposed to be, or, that is to say, compared to the project the workshop instructor showed.

I did so many things… wrong. Or if not wrong… well, just not exactly how I was supposed to do them. From the start, I recognized that I was off on a completely different track and that there was no way to really get back on, so I just went with it, did what I could, how I could, and with whatever materials I wanted.

The result is a mini-concertina that actually does reflect who I am, so I guess that’s a good thing. But it made me take a good look at this whole idea of following directions, when we should, why we should, and especially why we don’t.

Let’s look specifically at where I veered from the directions:

  • Cutting a vase stencil
  • Using charcoal for more realistic shading
  • Avoiding water-based materials
  • Following suggested techniques for tracing designs and patterns

The first was my big mistake — cutting the stencil. I failed completely on this part of the project, which, being the first step, was the most crucial. The instructions were to cut out a “vase shape” from the first fold. I questioned how I was supposed to do this, didn’t really understand what we were doing or why, and I cut my vase through both thicknesses of the folded paper. It should have gone only through one, creating a “window” effect, not a big vase-shaped hole. Oops! My bad.

I carried on with the project by grabbing a piece of collage paper to insert behind the “window” — never mind that the back side is a mess. Ideally, you see, I should have been able to turn the concertina over and do another “charming” design on the other side. Well, folks, that’s not going to happen with my concertina.

At the start of this project workshop, the artist listed a wide variety of materials we could use, charcoal among them. When she picked up her piece of charcoal, I looked for mine, didn’t see it, and grabbed a charcoal pencil instead. Not liking that, I shrugged and wandered off the path again, this time grabbing a distress crayon. Hey, it was on the materials list, so why not!

Once I started with the distress crayon, I needed a bit of water — it’s the blue heart, by the way — to smooth the color out a bit, so I grabbed water and a paintbrush, and by that point I was so far gone there was no way I could get back.

I had actually stopped watching, had given up any attempt at following along, and was happily painting with my gansai when she mentioned that we should only use dry media for this project. Sorry, Ms. Stamper. Too late.

On the plus side — and there is always a plus side if we look for it — I created a fun little concertina book with, here’s the word again — charming illustrations. I added a few embellishments of my own, made lots of watercolor dots here and there, and just let myself have fun with it.

But the question remains — Why didn’t I follow the directions?

The biggest factor was time. As usual, I was busy with a lot of different things going on, both in and out of the studio. I was “squeezing in” this workshop video. I should have set aside more time, watched the video through completely, and ensured that I understood everything I would be doing.

Another problem I often have with online tutorials is not fully understanding how a step should be performed. Again, of course, had I watched the video all the way through before trying it at home, I would have seen how to cut out the vase stencil with the resulting “window” on one page.

I think, too, that with this particular workshop video, the instructor could have slowed things down a bit. She was hurrying along, doing this, adding that, making dozens of different suggestions, and it was all happening too fast to keep up with. Once more, watching the complete video would have helped me prepare ahead of time. I could have stopped the video at different points, as well, but going back to my first “excuse” — not having enough time to really make the most of the project — I chose to rush right along with the instructor.

Essentially, after my first critical mistake in cutting the stencil/window incorrectly, I more or less “tuned-out” and just did my own thing. I had an approximate idea of what the finished project should look like — colorful vases, flowers, and doodles — so I had fun doing whatever I wanted.

Now, back to the point of this post. Yes, following directions is important in life. This is especially true if we’re learning something new. As I’ve discovered, though, there are directions and then there are directions. In other words, not all directions are the same.

Some directions may be critical. If instructions involve our physical health or well-being, it’s good to pay attention and follow the directions as closely as possible.

But with creative directions, just like getting navigational directions from Google, we can miss a turn or two, re-route, and still end up at our destination. Sometimes not following directions might lead to new creative discoveries.

All the same, though, that doesn’t mean we should ignore the directions we’re given. Following directions — at least for the first time — can save us time, resources, and frustration.

I “got by” with this project today. I came up with a cute little “mini” concertina. I guess I got lucky. As often as not, I end up ruining art projects when I don’t follow the directions. Of course, my end result isn’t as good as it might have been. Maybe I could have done better had I followed the directions.

There’s a fine line here, one I’m always teetering back and forth with. Yes, we should follow directions. No, we should find our own path and follow our creative instincts. Yes, we need guidance. No, art is personal and we have to trust ourselves.

So, should we follow directions? Yes. No. Maybe.

What’s your opinion?





  1. Directions for me are usually “do it YOUR way” the first time or until I learn the technique and then it’s MY way after that………..unless they are doing a part I already know how to do easier or better! So usually a combo of what I know and what I’m trying to learn, which keeps things creative for me while I’m learning.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is what I’m trying to do for myself. So often I watch a tutorial and think… well, what if I tried it this way…? I need to follow directions the first time. Another problem I have though is that sometimes the directions aren’t always clear. 😦


  2. Love your mini-concertina! πŸ‘πŸ‘πŸ‘
    Oh, directions! Yikes. Directions, instructions, procedures, steps – all meant to help us. But often they do the opposite. Part of the trouble is that we don’t all think/learn the same way.
    I run away screaming from videos. Written step-by-step things are marginally better. My best way of learning is to be given a goal or expectation and than leaving me alone to figure it out. If I need help, I’ll ask. And this is coming from a person whose early career included studying & analyzing processes in order to prepare detailed INSTRUCTIONS to new pharmaceutical employees, laboratory & manufacturing – so they could do their oh-so-complex and regulated jobs. Haaaaaaha!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Directions … a tricky topic, for sure. We need them at time, and it’s important that we learn to follow directions when we should. But there are so many times that we have to veer off-course a bit. I was really surprised though that all the articles I read totally ignored the creative reasons why we fail to follow directions.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Let’s not even talk about recipes.
    I started my BFA at age 53. First drawing class my prof said that to me, “I see you have a problem following instructions”. I think it is a great compliment.

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  4. Oh no, there are too many rules in life, I don’t want any rules, instructions, or directions when it comes to art! When I try, it doesn’t work out well. But I do admire your trying, at least you are trying lots of new things!

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    1. I have to have some structure, otherwise my imagination can’t function. It works best when I’m apply to apply it to a specific thing. Instead of saying “Come up with an idea…” my process words best when it has parameters, such as “Come up with an idea that is centered around family ties,” or “Come up with an idea that celebrates nature,” or anything else. I just need to know where to focus my creativity and imagination, otherwise it’s all over the place. And with learning new things, yes, I definitely need some guidelines to follow, especially when it comes to “what not to do!” πŸ™‚


  5. Ah, my opiniΓ³n…well in a nutshell only two things. If your goal is to learn a precise technique it behooves you to follow directions precisely. If your goal is self-expression you can do whatever you dang well please, including taking those precise things you may have learned earlier and bending them to your purpose.

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    1. I think that nutshell sums it up nicely. I’ve always heard that we have to “know the rules” before we can “break them”, and I do think it’s important to have a solid understanding of techniques — and then we can devise our own methods to using them. I think this happens naturally for most visual artists. For me, it’s not so natural. I have to “think” my way through it all… LOL.


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