The Inner Critic

Do you have a voice inside your head that tears down your work and tells you again and again that it is not good enough and why do you keep this up? Sometimes when we compare our work to that of others who have been drawing longer than we have it seems hopeless. “How could I ever make something that good?” When this voice grows, it can silence our work, make us put down the brush, and quit doing what we aspire to do.

There is a place for self-regulation and the voice of the critic but most often it just stands in the way of letting us draw and paint freely. Oddly it is by making lots of pictures that results in making beautiful ones. The only way to get there is to paint the next one, and then the next (see previous post Quantity, not quality).

Be gentle with yourself. Do not beat yourself up either because a drawing does not look good, or because you are having an inner critic moment. The act of creativity and making art are good in themselves. It takes courage to put brush or pencil to paper. By making yourself vulnerable like this, you make yourself a better person and make the world a more beautiful place. I draw to help me observe that which I would otherwise miss, to help me remember beauty that I would otherwise forget, and to help me wonder things that I would otherwise take for granted. This is the root of why I make art. Each drawing is not an end in itself but a stepping stone on a journey deeper into this beautiful world.

Here is a process you might try when you feel that voice inside saying that you are not good enough, to help you return to your work in peace.

  1.  Drop your shoulders, unclench your jaw, relax your hands, close your eyes, and bring your attention to your breath. Follow your breath with a relaxed smile on your lips for four or five cycles. When you feel ready, open your eyes.
  2. Remind yourself that each drawing is practice for the next. Find the best part of your drawing? What can you learn from it? How will you take that into the next drawing? Find the part of the drawing that was the most fun to do. Why?
  3. Notice what did not work on this drawing. Be as specific as possible. Don’t say, “this part looks terrible”, rather, “the shape of the eye gave me difficulty and I ended up overworking it so now it is really dark and still does not feel right”.
  4. You now have a specific lesson that you can work on. “I need to look at eyes more carefully and perhaps study the way others have handled this problem.” You have turned a general feeling of angst into a project.
  5. Remind yourself of the roots of why you draw. Stand up and stretch, make a cup of tea or fill the bird bath, and return to the practice when you feel ready.

Every failure can be reinvented as a lesson if we are willing to sit with it and listen. You are not alone in any of this. Everyone faces these feeling on a regular basis. Keep going. More important than any product or drawing we make is this process of creativity, observation, appreciation, and wonder.

How to Paint a Donkey
By Naomi Shihab Nye

She said the head was too large,
the hooves too small.

I could clean my paintbrush
but I couldn’t get rid of that voice.

While they watched,
I crumpled him,

let his blue body
stain my hand.

I cried when he hit the can.
She smiled. I could try again.

Maybe this is what I unfold in the dark,
deciding, for the rest of my life,

that donkey was just the right size.