Many times I’ve said that creativity is “making a mess” — but that’s only part of it. The rest of it is “cleaning it up”. For me, that’s the truest definition I’ve ever heard about the creative process.
I’ve always been good at making messes. Having been a clumsy, awkward, uncoordinated child, messes naturally accompanied me wherever I went. The worst messes where those I made whenever I attempted anything “artsy” or “craftsy”. And I’m not talking here just about the mess I made of art supplies. Yes, I was always dropping and breaking crayons, spilling pots of water, and getting paint all over me, my desk, and anything else in close proximity — and for what it’s worth, I still get paint all over me and my easel. But my messes went beyond my workspace. Whatever project I was working on was sure to be a disastrous mess as well. Usually my “art” works were so messy they were completely unrecognizable, or they were ruined beyond any hope of salvation. But that was just who I was as a child. I had my talents, to be sure, but they didn’t include visual arts or crafts, and I was reminded of that fact over and over again.
Has anything really changed over the years? In many ways, nothing has changed. I’m all grown up now, but I’m still clumsy, awkward, and uncoordinated, especially when it comes to arts and crafts, and yes, indeed, I still make a mighty mess whenever I draw or paint. In some respects, though, I’m seeing this in a new light. I’m recognizing that the messes I’m making today aren’t so much the result of my awkwardness — although that’s part of it — as they are the natural expression of my creative energies. And I see that as a definite sign of progress.
This last year has been an incredible year for me as an artist. I feel that I’ve learned more in the last twelve months than I had previously learned in the six preceding years since I decided to learn to draw. Some of my progress involves learning new techniques and new methods, but a lot of it comes from the new attitudes I’m developing in my art practice.
It began last summer when I picked up a book by Barrington Barber. Without looking, I couldn’t tell you the title. Barber has written a lot of books on art. Just visit Amazon and search his name as an author. You’ll find book after book after book. I was at a point where I wanted to push myself a little with my drawing — or so I thought. I felt I’d learned basic pencil skills, and I was ready to move forward — again, or so I thought.
But following along with Barber’s book – whichever one it was — didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped. After the first few exercises, which were all about scribbling and I can certainly scribble, I was expected to actually start drawing things! Seriously? You want me to jump from scribbling on a page of my sketchbook to drawing a woven basket?
Here I felt a huge sense of disappointment. Maybe I hadn’t really learned as much as I’d thought. Maybe I was still at the most basic beginner’s level. Maybe I needed to just start all over again at the very beginning and once more try to teach myself to draw.
I didn’t like that idea very much. When I’d first started learning to draw, you see, I was patient and persistent. Surprisingly so! I took each single illustration in Kate Berry’s Drawing Lessons for Beginner Artists and drew them over and over and over. I drew every image at least a dozen times. I had to in order to get it right. That’s what learning to draw was all about for me — seeing an image and drawing it time after time until I could get it right.
Last summer though, I didn’t have that same sort of patience. I didn’t want to keep drawing that woven basket — or anything else — over and over again. I decided not to do that. Instead, I approached Barber’s drawing book in what I deemed a fast and furious manner. I sat down each morning, quickly drew whatever the day’s “assignment” was, and moved to the next “assignment” the following day. Obviously I wasn’t getting it right, but I realized that getting it right wasn’t exactly what I needed to do. For me, the important thing last summer was just showing up and getting it done.
As a result, I filled an entire sketchbook with bad drawings. That’s what I called them. They definitely weren’t good drawings, but then again, they weren’t necessarily bad, either. It depends on where we’re coming from really, and suddenly I was coming from a very interesting place. I was amazed, actually, to look at all my bad drawings, and realize that when I first began learning to draw, I would have considered them very good.
From that point on, I had fun with my drawing. I just did the best I could. I acknowledged the progress I’d made, and I assured myself that I could continue learning and growing. Even as I was making bad drawings I was gaining experience, improving my techniques, and becoming a better artist.
Now, nearly a year later, I’ve come to see how much those bad drawings helped me. I don’t know that my drawing ability increased to any significant degree because of them, but I do know that my attitude changed a lot.
And I’m seeing something in my art these days that I’m finding interesting. Instead of making bad art, I’m making a lot of messy art. The drawings themselves are improving, but there’s a definite sense of messiness in much of the art I create.
A lot of messy art has shown up in my 100-Day Neurographic Project, like this page of colors.
You’ve already seen one of my messy pages from the floral studies I’ve been doing, but here it is again.
The blue vase of flowers is done in oil pastels, and oil pastels are naturally messy… right? Well, when I get my hands on them, they’re definitely very messy, indeed.
Here’s another recent oil pastel painting.
I did much of this with my new Sennelier oil pastels — oh, so soft and creamy! Oh, so messy! I had pastel all over me as well as all over this page in my sketchbook.
And I’m messy with my watercolors now, especially since I’ve been playing with loose watercolor techniques. Just take a look at this wonky, messy portrait I completed a few days ago.
Or take a look at this fanciful portrait done during Sketchbook Revival 2022 in a session conducted by Tamara LaPorte.
I see these — and many more drawings and paintings in the studio — not as particularly bad art, but most definitely as messy art. And I see this as a very positive thing.
In all of this messiness, I see fun, experimentation, freedom, color, excitement, and energy. I’m seeing those all-important qualities of honesty and authenticity that are becoming part of my art. I’m seeing my own growth and development as an artist, my willingness to take chances, to figuratively jump in with both feet, not knowing or caring exactly whether I’ll sink or swim.
Even in my oil painting, I’m making a few messes, like this “landscape gone wrong“.
And don’t forget my new-found love of fingerpainting! It can’t get any messier than that.
Even in drawing, I’m making messes, smudging graphite here, there, and everywhere, or inking over lines and not being precise, like in this playful drawing from Karen Abend’s closing session of Sketchbook Revival 2022.
Making messy art is a huge step forward for me. Now, with time, maybe I’ll learn how to complete the creative process by “cleaning up” my art a bit. But I’m not going to rush into that. Making messes is a lot of fun, and I think every mess I make gives me a little more confidence as an artist.
As a child, my messes were criticized. They were reminders that I couldn’t draw, couldn’t paint, couldn’t cut, glue, paste, or do anything related to visual arts or crafts. Those were shameful messes, messes that left me feeling hurt and inadequate.
Today’s messes are joyous ones, colorful testaments to my creative spirit and to the fact that I truly am an artist. I celebrate each and every mess I make. The bigger, the better!
Let’s all go make a few creative messes today, shall we?