It’s Not What it Looks Like

image of a messy creative surface covered with paint tubes and paint blobs

Welcome to Good Enough Creative, a podcast for creative people.

Hello again, my friend. I’m your host, Marie Greene, and in today’s episode we’re talking about how creativity often happens in a series of layers – and why it’s important to know that what you see during the process doesn’t reflect the potential when it’s finished. In other words, creativity isn’t always what it looks like.

Case in point: I recently took up watercolor painting. First, I have exactly zero painting experience. I’ve never taken a class. I’ve never really attempted painting, except in middle school when my friend Sadia and I painted a mural of our art teacher on the wall of the art room (with permission). I can’t vouch for the quality of my contribution, but that one year in middle school art was the full extent of my painting background, which is to say – basically nothing.

And until recently, I had no interest in painting – I’m not even sure why I suddenly wanted to do it. But what I do know is that – once I started thinking about watercolor – I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Everywhere I looked were paintings that inspired me; photos I wished I could recreate with a brush.

So, I did what any reasonable creative person would do: I bought watercolor supplies. And I did so with the assumption that I was going to be very good at it.

Except… I was not instantly good at it. I wasn’t even good at it after a few weeks of spotty practice sessions.

What I envisioned in my mind did not seem to translate to paper. My brush didn’t cooperate. The paint didn’t do what I told it to do. (Or rather, I didn’t know how to tell it to do what I wanted it to do.)

It took practice to figure out the right amount of water. First it wasn’t enough, and then it was too much. And then the colors weren’t quite right. Is it the paper? Maybe it’s the paper.

And then, when I finally got the hang of how much water to use, and how to get the color I wanted, and which brushes and paper I liked best, I thought surely NOW I CAN PAINT PRETTY THINGS.

But no.  Because even after all the practice, when I put a layer of paint on paper, it still didn’t look like I thought it was supposed to.

Have you ever tried something new and you gave it your best effort and thought, Wow! I was not expecting it to look so… bad.

I mean, I think most of us know to be realistic and not expect a masterpiece out of the gate, but… this? This is just downright terrible.

Like many kinds of art, painting – especially watercolor – usually doesn’t happen in one go. You start in one place, and you make seemingly unrelated brushstrokes and dabs and whisps, and then you let the paper dry, all the while it looks like absolutely nothing. And then there’s another layer of seemingly unrelated brushstrokes and dabs and whisps, and – again, you step away and let the paint dry.

Did a toddler paint this? Because it sure looks like one did.

It’s only in the next go (or maybe the one after that) when the image starts to be revealed. The seemingly unrelated brush strokes finally start to make sense.  

What you see in the beginning is only part of the story.

Imagine driving by a construction site and looking at the slab of a foundation that’s been poured for a new house, and saying to yourself, “Wow! That is the worst house I’ve ever seen.” Except the house isn’t there yet.

But we do that to ourselves, don’t we? We judge the beginning with the same critical eye that we’d judge a regular finished piece. The foundation usually isn’t very pretty, but that’s not the point; it’s not there to be pretty. It’s there to do a job.

So what are our foundations when it comes to creativity? Where is our own judgement holding us back? And how can we reshape our perspective so we can give those early efforts a little more respect?

  1. When it comes to creativity, our foundation might look like years of practice. Practice is what we devote to a creative pursuit that allows us to grow and expand, to develop our own style, to learn different techniques, and to experiment without fear of failure.We have to allow practice to be part of our creative experience without holding it up next to the expectation of perfection. Practice isn’t what it looks like – it’s not a finished product. It’s a work in progress.
  2. The next one is what I like to call the “what are you making?” layer? This is the part of the process that starts off a little wonky. It might be a sweater on your knitting needles that doesn’t look like a sweater yet. A stranger walks by and says, “What are you making?” and you say, “Oh! It’s a sweater!” but you can tell by the look on their face that what they see doesn’t look like a sweater. Because, guess what? It’s not a sweater YET. But it will be. Right now it looks like a big wad of stitches crammed onto a needle – but it’s not what it looks like.

Last weekend I took my knitting to a social gathering, and I selected a relatively mindless project that I knew would be perfect for distracted knitting. What I’m knitting will eventually become a scarf, but in its current form, it’s just a geometric piece of a scarf, and it looks pretty weird. I don’t take knitting with me because I want or expect people to ask about it; I just have to keep my hands busy. I hadn’t expected so many people to ask to see what I’m making, and I found myself saying, “It’s not what it looks like; It’s going to look really cool when it’s finished. But right now it’s just a funky little piece.” I’m not sure they believed me, but they don’t have the vision that I have, all they can see is the first layer – they can’t see what’s ahead.

But I reminded myself that I didn’t bring that piece of knitting to impress anyone; I brought it to keep my hands busy. And I KNOW what the next steps will look like, and that’s what’s important. But it did make me think about how often I look my own work and judge the first little bit as if it’s the final result.

Creativity doesn’t happen in a straight line. Sometimes those layers come from our own progress; the early efforts are just the foundation, and as you stick to it and keep going, and practice, you’ll build something on top of that foundation that will look so much more like what you’re aiming for.

But many of our creative efforts happen in layers, and not all of them are pretty. It’s easy to be discouraged when the first or second “layer” of your project feels like a hot mess; it might seem like it now, but things aren’t always what they look like.

Imagine a writer working on their first draft. Have you ever written or read a first draft? It’s clunky! It’s like stream-of-consciousness meets an outline. And, as a writer, myself, I would be mortified if someone judged my book’s potential by the first draft. I recently saw a quote that said, “a first draft isn’t supposed to be perfect; it’s only job is to exist.” And I would offer to anyone who’s actively seeking a creative life to treat every first layer of your effort as just that – it just has to exist. Its job isn’t to be perfect.

The fear of imperfection can keep us from putting anything on the page. But what if the point of doing it wasn’t to make it perfect, but … just to have done it? Not everything we make has to be for someone else to see; it might just be for the joy of the process.

This is why many artists don’t feel comfortable showing their first sketches, first paint strokes, first typed words, first armature for a sculpture – because what someone on the outside will see is just a foundation in progress.

We also have to be careful that we’re not judging our own work that way – even if those early efforts don’t look great yet, it doesn’t mean the potential isn’t there.

As creatives, if we focus too much on what that first layer looks like, or worry about who we’ll have to show it to, then we might feel defeated before we even get the ball rolling. So here are three ideas to help you keep your eyes on the prize.

  1. The first layer isn’t the finished product; don’t judge it like it is.

I’ve been watching a lot of watercolor tutorials the last few months, and more often than not, the painter will have a sudden blop of paint or water, or a stroke that seems far too heavy or too light, and I think to myself “Oop! Well, I guess they’ll just have to find a way to make that work!” But as I keep watching, that random puddle or stroke turns into something very intentional. Maybe they meant to do it? Maybe it was all part of the plan. By watching other artists who are willing to share their process, I’ve learned to reserve judgment until the end; because what you see in the beginning is usually very different from what you see at the end.

And this awareness has also helped me be less critical of my own first steps; just because it looks messy and random in the beginning doesn’t mean it won’t eventually come together. Give yourself permission to let the process unfold in its own time. And I’m learning that the more experience we have with something, the easier it is to trust that it WILL come together.

  • You don’t have to be good at something to enjoy it. (In other words, maybe it IS what it looks like, but that’s okay, too.)

Sometimes that random blop of water on your paper IS a mistake. So what? That doesn’t mean you can’t turn it into a loose flower, or a perfectly dreamy cloud. What matters is that you’re doing the thing that your creative soul feels called to do, and THAT is the purpose. We’ve been led to believe that the point of art is to make a THING, but the point of art is to MAKE.

The “thing” is irrelevant. I mean, it’s lovely when you’ve been knitting for weeks or months and you end up with something warm and cozy to wear. But what if you’ve been knitting for weeks or months and… you realize it’s not going to fit or you don’t love it, or for whatever reason, you’re not going to finish it.

Was the whole exercise pointless, or did you still get to enjoy those hours of repetitive movement, with the yarn gliding through your fingers, and the fabric coming to life one precious stitch at a time?

  • Did you learn anything?
  • Did you feel joy in the process?
  • Did you use that time to ease your worried mind or to distract yourself from something troubling?

You don’t have to make something wonderful for the process to matter.

  • Remember that we’re always in a space of building on our creative foundation. Foundations don’t always look gorgeous, but they’re essential. And it’s okay to spend the time to build that foundation and get those skills under your belt, even if what the rest of the world sees right now doesn’t look like much. As we both know, when it comes to creativity, things aren’t always what they seem.

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Until next time, my friend. You’ve got this.

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