This isn’t to diss Bob Ross, because he’s a delight. But like everything in art, there is nuance and alternative meaning. When Bob talked about happy accidents, he was teaching his viewers not to break the flow of their work with thoughts about how they messed up. It’s a way of reframing the unforeseen.
Mistakes will happen. But whether your work is meticulously planned or completely spontaneous, it can be helpful to keep rhythm with them. It’s another Zen or Taoist concept applied to creation: it doesn’t matter if errors crop up, because they become part of the humanity of your work. It’s only more real for small flaws.
And sometimes they can take us in different directions we hadn’t thought of, or would never find in a perfect thing.
You’re making art. You get sucked in. You forget the universe outside the one you’re making.
It happens, and you don’t have to feel bad about it. Sometimes if you’ve fallen into the work, and there is no time—for a blissful, weird micro-infinite period—its the best moment you could hope for, and a good reason to keep trying to regain a foothold in that pocket universe of your own creation.
For the vast majority, dreaming is healthy and necessary to maintain good mental and even physical health. And sleep means dreaming at some point.
But the opposite isn’t always true. Dreaming doesn’t always require sleep. We do a different kind of dreaming as artists. And it’s a twofold phenomenon: we dream not only by envisioning new images, sounds, and words, but also as we work on bringing those visions to life. Making art entails a kind of dream state at times, which is so appealing it keeps us coming back to feel it again. That sense of flow during creation is like nothing else.
Along with the work, you need time to dream, and to avoid criticizing yourself when you do it. As long as it’s not taking the place of bringing a dream to reality, a healthy level of dreaming is necessary. For good art health.
It’s a simple equation, but not necessarily an easy one. You do your best work in any given situation—except when you exceed your expectations, or utterly fail to meet them.
What matters is that you dig dee enough to lose yourself in the creating. Flow will take care of both uncertainty and evaluating the past work. If you try to make something “great,” or similar superlatives, it’s a distraction. What you’re aiming for is to melt away judgment and doubt. That happens when you have a habit of falling into a piece and finding its soul, for lack of a more real term.
This takes time and practice. But it’s a common and easily understood phenomenon for creators of all types. You know when you’ve reached the point when you’re on the other side of it.
I’ve had friends and cow-orkers muse to me—in that way that makes it clear they’re probing for confirmation, but don’t want to seem obvious about it—that if you want to be an artist, you must be okay being alone with your work. I mean, yes and no.
There are obvious pursuits like writing, where you can, if you choose, work in a busy coffee shop or the park. There’s music where, except for one-human-band types who do everything themselves and never perform, you tend to work with others in a band or during production.
Visual art is made mostly on your own. But that doesn’t make it a lonely life. The part you’re already striving to get is the state of flow, or zen, or harmony, or whatever label you give to the sensation of losing your self, your awareness of time, and your self-doubt chatter while you do the work.
Without an idea of time, it doesn’t matter so much that you’re alone. Further, here’s a bonus: any creative work you do has access to this feeling. Aloneness without loneliness is your goal, not something to prevent.
Lots has been said about getting started in a creative habit, or a creative project. Plenty has been written about finishing what you start and what happens after you get something done. What about how you do the middle bits?
It seems trite to say you just keep going. That’s obvious but logical, only there’s more to it. There’s understanding that the feeling of being in the middle of a thing vacillates back and forth between flow and floundering.
Flow is the state of losing yourself in the work. It’s being “in the zone.” Stephen King, in Misery, calls it falling through “the hole in the paper.” What you’re after is to recognize that feeling and try to find it as often as you can. It’s a weird kind of addiction, but constructive, not destructive. It’s something that sustains us through the middle bit.
Floundering is the opposite feeling. It’s anxiety, overthinking, awareness of what you’re doing. It’s a state where you’re unsure and searching. It’s actually potentially useful, because it’s where you can take in the big picture and see where you’ve been and where you might want to go. Nothing is all or nothing where creative work is concerned. It’s constantly moving and changing.
I mean, deal with it. And enjoy this part, because it’s where you spend the most time. The journey isn’t just the reward, it’s the part of life where you’re living.
What stops us from our work, from making things, is often fear of the unknown. What if they don’t like it? What if I’m a fraud? What if it sucks?
But that’s our fear’s job. It’s a valuable evolutionary trait and we need it, but not where art is concerned.
When editing and refining, you can consider and revise and judge. Deliberation when you’re working only stops the flow. Trust your habit and your instincts with the blank page, The uncarved block, the white canvas. Gut instinct is just another term for getting out of your own way.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.