Making Friends with the Unknown


Last week I wrote about the rigidity of the purist whose obsession with rules and technique are actually driven by a fear of self-expression.

This week I want to talk about another common avoidance based technique obsession–the always-acquiring, never-doing life of Technique Flitting.

Part 2: The Technique Hummingbird

If you’re anything like me, you love learning and experiencing new things. If you’re also like me, your eagerness to lap up all kinds of exciting art, design, or craft techniques can leave you constantly putting yourself in learning and accumulation mode–never exploring anything you learn deeply or with much integrity because you’re on to the next thing before the latest one has had time to sink in.

It’s kind of like reducing your passion for creativity to a technique shopping experience.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I enjoy shopping and love me a flea market–but creating isn’t shopping.

Creativity has a deeper role to play in your life than shopping, and if all you do hunt down cool bargains, buy them, and then go look for more stuff, it ends up minimizing your gift, your passion, and the role that art and creativity plays in a human life as a vehicle for transcendence, understanding, and true expression.

All critical pieces of a life well-lived.

And, just as the obsessive Technique Nazi from last week may hide behind her rules and purism about her craft in order to avoid figuring out what she wants to say, the Technique Hummingbird is masking that same anxiety in an onslaught of newness and temporary stimulation.

So both extremes are expressions of the same fears.


Part of this reliance on technique to avoid personal expression is because expressing yourself is uncharted water–it’s usually ambiguous, hazy and unclear–and ambiguity is usually uncomfortable.

Plus, it leaves all the decision making up to you because the question is no longer about HOW but about WHY.

And then, even when you DO have an idea, these questions continue throughout the creative process–are these the right marks? Are these stitches expressing what I want? Did I make good choices–am I expressing this idea or that observation about the world?

It’s all questions and very few answers.

Of course, this also feeds another fear: what if you try to head down the road of self-expression and then realize you’ve got nothing to say?


What to do…what to do…

Make Friends

The thing is, ambiguity is a fact of nature, and an important part of the creative process.

It is, therefore, your friend.

Rather than dreading ambiguity or feeling discomfort, consider that ambiguity makes room for everyone. There’s always more than one right answer–in fact, it’s not even about right answers.

Ambiguity is possibility—and nothing cheers me up more than possibility. It provides a rich playground to spend lots of time in–a lifetime even.

Ambiguity also implies impermanence–which doesn’t have to mean loss. Impermanence can be a good thing: I’m glad I’m not in the same place I was when I was 16. I also love the adventures I had in my twenties and now treasure the stability of being a happily married home owner in my forties.

Throughout all this time and myriad changes, I’ve created artwork. I’ve been drawn to lots of different materials (due to my own technique hummingbird tendencies) while simultaneously revisiting a handful of materials and techniques over and over. I’m never bored and it’s always an evolution.

Being an artist is living in the ambiguity. And there’s great joy and even solace in ambiguity and possibility.

So right now, if you feel like you don’t have any ideas, or that all your ideas suck, take heart. Not having ideas is a temporary situation.

If you’ve been focused solely on technique for ages or haven’t made anything in a while, it’s natural to draw a blank when you ask yourself “Why” instead of “How.”

Ideas will emerge, I guarantee it.
All you need to do is pay attention to yourself and your life–notice and wonder about it.

For instance, think about what’s happening in your life right now–same old, same old? Maybe you need to create work about boredom or anger–what does that look like? Or maybe it’s same old-same old in a lovely way–so how do you express tranquility and steadiness?

Or maybe you’re drawn to formal issues–shapes, colors, scale, light, etc. Immerse yourself in these things–go on an observation binge and you’ll see you’ve got something personal and unique to say on that topic.

Explore and Allow

Whatever you do, treat your forays into personal expression as an exploration not a test.

Allow yourself the ideas you have–don’t judge them. You don’t even have to understand them. You just have to shush your left brain need to control it all and let your right brain explore them.

Don’t decide they aren’t interesting enough or smart enough. For instance, I’m on some circle obsession with my collaging–going on for months now. Rather than decide that that is banal or silly or shallow, I just observe it and indulge it. Here I am with my circle thing, I think, as I punch out more circles and glue them down. I wonder what this is about?

It’s being on your own side and giving yourself the benefit of the doubt. You don’t have to justify what you’re doing or explain it to anyone–you’re just observing and experimenting.

Start treating your ideas like they matter, and they do.

And the more generous you are with yourself in this way, the more generous others are  about it too–because you own it.

When you start using technique to explore ideas, you’re striking a healthy balance between technique and expression–each informs the other.

It doesn’t mean you’ll get it right all the time, but that’s a given.

Because even though we all love to make great stuff and then stare at it like a star-crossed lover, it’s really all about the ride.

A rich, rewarding, courageous, meaningful, playful, aesthetic ride.

What do you think? Have you been hiding behind technique rules or lots of  learning and no doing? Please share your thoughts in the comments, I’d love to hear from you.

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  1. Terri Pike says:

    Wow, so on target as always, Sarah!

  2. Hi Sarah,
    Boy you have me pegged! I’m all this and more. I have so much stuff to make art, I keep buying and finding more stuff to make art, I want to make art, but I’m too busy, so I buy more stuff to make art! and my studio is a mess, so I can’t make art, and so on and on…
    So you are my inspiration. Just as soon as I get back from the dentist I will drag in yet another table and make some art. I will do it. I will…

  3. Sarah says:

    Thank you both! So glad it resonated…

  4. What a comprehensive look in to creativity. Your approach contains gentleness and authenticity. Really wonderful ideas.
    XO Suzi

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