There’s a great episode of RadioLab where they set out to discover the secret of what goes on in a caterpillar’s cocoon while it’s transforming into a butterfly. Most of us assume that inside this chrysalis, there’s some half caterpillar, half butterfly hybrid mid-transformation, kind of like a tadpole turning into a frog.
But no. When they crack open the chrysalis? It just looks like sludge.
You’re probably reading this thinking 1: ew, and 2: what does this have anything to do with the creative process? I think more often than not, we view our own artistic process the same way we view the caterpillar-to-butterfly change. We expect this beautiful, perfectly sculpted 1-2-3 step miracle of nature and get frustrated when everything doesn’t come out fully formed right away. When in reality, the process is an evolution that dissolves into gooey chaos before sprouting wings and becoming something beautiful.
In other words, to make great art? You have to go through some artistic sludge (a much less tattoo-worthy way of saying, “it’s about the journey, not the destination.”)
It makes sense that the process is so frustrating. Because when you think about it, what we now view as “the process” started out as just plain and simple fun. We all start creating because we have fun with our craft. The “process” never seemed like a process at all; it was just us drawing on those paper tablecloths or on our notes in class as kids, or selling little art prints for fun to family and friends. I mean, look at the “Life is Good” t-shirt guys, or Johnny Cupcakes. Their now huge apparel companies started out as just fun creative experiments (read more about their stories here!)
But as we get older, a switch gets flipped. As people start to notice our art, as we start trying to turn it into a career, as we start trying to sell our work, the process of improving goes from drawing for fun without judging ourselves, to this (sometimes overwhelming) pressure to be better.
Suddenly, we start to see the process as a roadblock to the result rather than the road leading to the result.
The Isaac Bashevis Singer quote, “the wastebasket is a writer’s best friend” is one of my favorites, and beautifully simple yet accurate. It brings to mind that classic trope of a writer or artist sitting at their desk, surrounded by crumpled, balled up pieces of paper.
And in reality, that’s how it works. You’re gonna have a lot more balled up pieces of paper on the floor surrounding your desk than frame-worthy finished pieces. But as frustrating as those little crumpled “failures” are, they’re what get you closer to an awesome end result.
Not even Picasso was immune to this. PBS talked about Picasso’s process while creating his famous “Guernica” mural. What’s staggering about it is just how much back-and-forth frustration and scrapped early sketches went into the process.
“Many of the drawings are much more expressive than the final painting…” historian Tomas Llorens told PBS. “But in a sense, the energy, the emotional energy that comes from those experiments, is not lost. Picasso was always synthesizing in each image a lot of different possibilities.”
There’s an inherent impatience that comes with being a creative. We’re always working towards “where we want to be,” rarely satisfied with the current state of our abilities. Or worse, we get so tunnel-visioned on refining our skills that we keep ourselves from experimenting and letting ourselves make mistakes, because it seems like a “waste of time.” We forget what the process meant to us in the first place – a love of our craft.
It’s easy to get caught up in the frustration of the process; after all, it’s imperfect. But we lose sight of the fact that growing from “the process” used to mean putting a pencil to a page without judging every stroke. Just like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, the process is important, and shouldn’t be interrupted. Take time to embrace it, and try to accept that it’s ok not to be where you want to be skill-wise, or audience-wise, or with how well your designs are selling. The process is how you grow and get better and learn – don’t let frustration slow you down.
So go forth. Allow yourself to push through the creative sludge that is “the process.” Because if you wade through it long enough, you’ll make yourself strong enough to sprout some wings and make something beautiful.
Trying to sell your stuff but don’t want the trial and error of the process to leave you with unsold inventory? Sign up for a Threadless Artist Shop – we’ll take care of the printing, shipping, and returns for you. Learn more now!
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We’re an artist community built on the power of helping each other succeed — if you’re reading this and have tips of your own to share, please do so in the comments! Thank you!
Illustration done by the amazing Katie Lukes