The Power Of Making Bad Art

Society imposes ridiculously high criteria on art-making. Making bad art shakes those limits away and free a deeper, realer part of ourselves.

I have always loved to paint.

There is something magical about colour spreading across a surface. Of something emerging out of nothing. Pure delight swells inside of me as reds, pinks, blues and greens appear in front of me.

Whirling together. Maybe they turn brown but I love that sensation of paint under my fingers; moving, shaping, becoming, changing, emerging.

And yet, despite the joy it brings me, it is always tinged with sadness and maybe a little despair.

Because I am certain I am terrible at it.

A terrible painter. Not very creative. “Yes, you can do it for fun, but you don’t talk about it, and heaven forbid, show anybody.”

In high school, I took art as an elective in year 9 and 10. In  those middle school years no one expects perfection. You’re still allowed to make mistakes. You are still allowed to learn as if you are a child not a “serious adult.”

In art class, I noticed what I made never looked as good as my fellow students creations. Mine was never tidy, detailed or precise enough to be classically appealing, or just not weird or artistic or creative enough to be appreciated as “art.” So much judgment.

I just liked the process of making, I didn’t as much care about the outcome.

But everybody else did, so I thought I should to.

And when it came time to choose electives for Year 12, to prepare for our transition into serious adulthood, I choose history. Not art history, but history history. I didn’t feel anyone would appreciate my “art” enough to give it the marks I needed for accessing university.

I needed something with more objective marking criteria to have a chance of getting the grades to get into uni. (I also did English, Chemistry, Biology and Math. Dropping anything creative including drama.)

My body has always yearned to create.

To feel the enchantment of creating, of watching something emerge from nothing. A catalyst for something new. And yet in order to be valuable, I held all of that in and denied its presence. To find work that other’s judged worthy and helpful. Sensible and coherent. Explainable.

But every body (body = your physical body), every body eventually reaches a breaking point. Where it can deny its core truth no longer. Feelings and needs cannot be repressed forever. (Even though we humans do give it a solid try.)

Eventually I couldn’t take it anymore, I couldn’t keep this core part of myself locked up, hidden, denied. The rules I was trying to live by that were suffocating me. The rules had to change.

With the help of a coach, I gave myself permission to make bad art.

To paint like a child. To waste paint. To use my fingers. To enjoy the process without worrying about the outcome.

At first, I started with colour pencils, drawing swirly lines, which progressed into flowers and trees.

But I really built a practice of making bad art with my first round of the 100 days project. The global movement supports you had to make one “thing” per day for 100 days. Some people wrote poems, others sculpted or folded. The range of mediums were broad: photography, calligraphy, knitting, drawing. The ideas behind them equally diverse. At the exhibition I marvelled at all the different ways people see the world, and what they created.

(I didn’t exhibit, I believed my work was too messy, too incoherent, and not presentable. For me the exhibition both reinforced how wonderful creativity is, and how my work didn’t meet the mark 😬 So many awful complicated feelings.)

I loved doing the 100 days project. I picked paint. (Of course I did.) I decided to paint the word of the day on an A4 card each day.

And when I gave myself permission to just be in the process, to intuitively pick the colours, to use my fingers or a brush or whatever type of applicator I felt like. I discovered a new part of myself. Not only did I reconnect to my instincts and intuition, but I also created a safe space to process my many, many sidelined feelings.

And so my project became not so much the word of the day, but the feeling that needed to arise. That needed acknowledgement and healing.

And while I didn’t exhibit, that project changed my life. I started painting regularly, almost constantly for four years.

I allowed myself to take a painting class, and as I looked at my fellow participants creations I was able to say “of course their art is different, we are different people, we see the world differently.”

And instead of judging their work (or mine) I took inspiration from their differences. Trying techniques and materials I wouldn’t have on my own.

And eventually I held an exhibition. Yes, it was one night only, in a bar where I was simultaneously hosting my birthday party 🥳 so yes people had to come. Yes, I planned it that way 😝 But in its own way, it made it less scary. And I even sold one piece that night (which still gives me all sorts of angst, but it happened.)

Giving myself permission to make bad art unlocked a key piece of my creative expression. And while I may not see myself as an artist or a painter, I take so much joy from making bad art. As always, we are each our own work in progress.

Giving myself permission to make bad art changed not only my relationship with paint, but also with my feelings and ultimately with myself.

What do you need to give yourself permission to do badly today?