I laugh whenever I read that creative children often have “imaginary friends.” I certainly did, and I’m sure you did too. I laugh because even today, I still have imaginary friends. It’s something I’ve never outgrown.
Unfortunately, I’ve also conjured up an occasional “imaginary enemy”. Again, I’m sure many of you have done the same thing. We generally refer to these imaginary beings as an inner critic, or in the case of writers, the inner editor. I was fortunate in that I never really dealt with an inner critic — until I began pursuing art. Even then, my inner voice was quite friendly and encouraging at first. Gradually, though, as I learned more I felt I should be making more progress, that I should be doing better. And that’s when I first met Miss Crabapple.
We became well acquainted about three years ago. At first I simply referred to her as my cranky art teacher, and at some point I christened her Miss Crabapple. She’s a dour, sour-faced old lady who delights in picking people apart. Obviously she’s never been married because nobody would ever fall in love with such a cranky woman. She is, thus, an old maid, unloved, unwanted, and unhappy — and decidedly unfriendly.
Time after time, as I picked up my paints and headed to my easel, Miss Crabapple would step up to block my path and interrogate me. Just what did I think I was doing? How did I plan to approach my painting? Had I done preliminary sketches? Had I considered color harmony? And just look at those brushes! Yes, she fussed at me for not taking proper care of my brushes, my palette, my paints. No matter what I did, it was always wrong in the watchful eyes of Miss Crabapple.
For the last few years, I’ve put up with her as best I could. At first I nodded meekly when she began criticizing me. She was right, after all. I had no real idea what I was doing, and definitely I needed to be more considerate of my brushes and other materials. After a while, I found myself standing up to her a bit more, showing her that I actually did know a few things about art, and happily accepting her begrudging acknowledgement.
Within the last year, I’m proud to say that I came to a point where Miss Crabapple’s constant criticisms had little effect on me. I started talking back to her, ignoring her remarks, and just walking away whenever she started to fuss. Secretly, I think she was rather impressed by the confidence I was gaining. Finally we reached a point where maybe I could actually call her an imaginary friend.
And now, as I begin studying new art books and learning more about creating art, I’m here to report that dear Miss Crabapple has resigned. She will no longer be part of any imaginary art faculty in any of my imaginary art classes.
Her departure came about as I began exploring what drawing is really all about. It’s not just the marks we make with our hands. It’s more than coordination between our eyes and our hands. It’s actually a process that involves our mind, as well as our hands and eyes. And the most exciting thing I learned was that each of these aspects involve learned skills.
- We can learn to make more accurate marks on the page.
- We can learn to be more observant and to see as an artist.
- We can learn to use our mind as an effective tool in art.
Training our mind involves listening to all of that internal dialogue going on inside our head. If it’s negative, we can change it. We can also train ourselves to use “art-related words” that will help us focus on the work we’re doing.
The first step, of course, is to eliminate all the critical remarks we make to ourselves. It’s really not as difficult to do as you might think. Once we pay attention to what we’re saying, we can take steps to correct our self-talk so that it becomes constructive and encouraging. Here are a few tips I’ve learned:
- We should get rid of absolute words.
Here’s an example. As I worked on a recent drawing exercise, I sighed. “My drawings are always crooked,” I complained. Whoa. No. Stop there. I looked at the drawing and said, “Yes, that line is a bit crooked, so let me straighten it.”
Another example. In the past I’ve often made remarks such as “I can never draw facial features.” I’m changing that statement to “I’ll keep working on facial features and I’ll get better.”
- Use negative thoughts as a basis for positive action.
If I’m not happy with something I’m drawing, I don’t dwell on what’s wrong. Instead, I focus on how I can make corrections. Once I’ve identified the problem — too wide, too short, the wrong angle — I can erase and adjust the lines.
- We can often learn to “tune out” and “turn off” the inner voice.
Just as I’ve done with my “zen drawing time”, I can put myself into a peaceful place and quietly make marks, listening to the sound of nature around me, or simply enjoying the stillness. For me, these times usually come when I’m sitting outside with pencil and sketchbook. Sometimes we can encourage this quiet state of mind through meditation. Find what works for you and enjoy “zoning out”.
- We can create “art words” to focus our concentration.
This was a new idea for me, and I think it will be very helpful. A good way to avoid negative self-talk, you see, is to substitute helpful thoughts as we’re drawing. Look at the subject, and focus on shapes, and then turn that focus into a practical awareness. “I see a cube… those corners are rounded… I see angles… the bottle is tall and slender… ” Talking as we draw — either quietly or aloud — can help us stay positive and focused.
I never did take time to draw Miss Crabapple, but had I done so, she would probably have looked something like this “grumpy old lady clip art” file I found online.
She was never very happy and I dreaded “art class” whenever I started hearing her screeching voice inside my head. Funny thing, though… in some respects I think I’m going to miss her a bit now that she’s gone. Maybe someday I’ll have to conjure her back up again and invite her to my studio so I can show her how well organized I am, how careful I am with my brushes, how nicely I have my palette organized, and how much I’ve learned about being who I am as an artist.
I think she would be proud of me, don’t you?