Sketchbook Habit Series, Part Three: Expectations

9:56 AM

Part One of the Sketchbook Habit Series is here.
Part Two is here.

We ALL have certain expectations of ourselves. Things like getting up on time (when necessary) before dressing, grooming and feeding ourselves to acceptable standards. Perhaps you work or worked in an industry that required complex mathematics or the use of chemical components. You may be responsible for handling large amounts of money for other people or for stretching and teaching the minds of young have accomplished a great deal in your lifetime.

We reach a point in our lives where we have a number of obligations, responsibilities and relationships that we maintain. Each of these comes with a set of expectations...and we meet those expectations on a regular basis.

And because we have reach a certain level of accomplishment, we sometimes forget what it was like to learn something new. Do you ever remember putting your shoes on the wrong feet or the buttons not being lined up in the right hole? Did you ever burn a dish when you were learning to cook? Misspell a word during a spelling test?

We've paid our dues.

But, see, there is this thing called a learning curve that we seem to forget about or expect to avoid. When we move into a new area like art, we forget this and expect to have a certain level of accomplishment without the learning curve.

Is this reasonable? To think we're just going to pick up a pencil and whip up a "Picasso" the first time? Seriously?

Can you name the last time you learned something new without a learning curve? I can't.

Unreasonable and Unrealistic Expectations
This is what I call an unreasonable expectation and I think it gets started for two reasons:
  1. Fear that we are about to "show" the world how little we know (and it embarrasses us) so we start telling ourselves we "should" be able to do this with no problem;
  2. We see all these phenomenal pieces of art out on the internet without seeing all the failures behind the those few pieces that are shared. 
Since we've already discussed that no one was born with a pencil in one hand and brush in the other, logic would tell us that there was a pile of so-so pieces, some not so good pieces, some downright icky pieces before there were some decent pieces followed by a great piece now and again. 

Each and every time you put pen and brush to paper you are learning even if the end result is deemed unsuccessful. Each time you observe the learning process, you make little adjustments and tweaks that make the process flow better with the hopes of improving the outcome.

Let me suggest a huge adjustment:

Instead of judging the end result, evaluate the process. 

Getting in the habit of doing a postmortem/debrief on your sketching outings. Ask yourself what you learned, what you'll do differently next time and what areas you improved in. (Please note: I said nothing about addressing what went wrong or what could have been better. Save the comes in handy but much later.)

Unrealistic and unreasonable expectations still our enthusiasm and our joy. An occasional check-up can go a long way towards making sure we're not putting undue pressure on ourselves.

Our Hidden Expectations
Do you have a brand new journal sitting on the shelf waiting until you become a "good enough" artist before you start it? Does the white page paralyze you when you crack open a new journal?

Do you know why?

Because we have expectations of ruining the paper, of (gasp!) wasting materials. Because we have a FEAR we will not be good enough and it will show...but have you ever stopped to consider why you expect to fail rather than succeed?

No? Don't feel lonely. Most of us don't. Instead, we put the journal back on the shelf and wait for a better day to gather our courage so we might try again.

Here's the thing about hidden expectations...they are limiting us. They limit our creative process as well as our ability to learn and our ability to enjoy our efforts.

When we can't enjoy the process, we become frustrated, irritated and we stall. It may be temporarily, but we quit for a while.

Sketching is a learning process regardless of the paper you're using and it's necessary. Expectations have no place in this process with the possible exception that we expect to learn and grow through practice. Learning through mistakes is as inherent to living as breathing and yet, we all want a shortcut to avoid making mistakes.


My answer is fear. What's yours?

I invite you to take a close look at the answer to the question of why because this will begin to reveal some of those hidden expectations. I believe you'll begin to unearth some of the reasons why it's so hard to maintain a sketching habit.

This is only one example of hidden expectations...there are many and we all have them. When expectations work against us by cobbling our efforts, it's time to face them. The best way to learn what kind of expectations you're placing on yourself is to examine your self-thoughts closely and then drag those expectations out into the light and see if they're worth the added pressure.

Others' Expectations
When someone close to us has expectations of our work, it can be deadly to our efforts to grow as an artist if those expectations are never met and/or our results are found lacking. We loathe not measuring up to someone else's expectations even if that person has never drawn so much as a stick figure!

The best way I know of to avoid getting caught up in this type of expectation is to ask yourself who you are sketching for. Is it for yourself or is it for someone else's approval?

Be very, very clear in your answer because knowing who you create for will go a long, long way towards keeping you creating rather than getting bogged down in the quagmire of "I'm never going to be good enough, my artwork's never going to be any good so I might as well go to the garden and eat worms."

When you know that you are sketching to please yourself it becomes easier to refuse to accept or entertain anyone else's expectations.

Just remember you have a choice as to whether you want to accept someone else's expectation of your learning process.

So, Why Are We Talking About Expectations Rather Than Art?
Simply said, expectations carry weight and that weight builds pressure. It's like the old example of how much does this rock weight?

It all depends on how long you're going to hold it and carry it around with you.

If every expectation we put or take onto ourselves is a pebble, how long before those pebbles add up to a rock? A boulder? A mountain?

How long before they crush our desires to learn?

Not long.

Remember what I said about making it fun? (If not, see the link to Part Two above.)

It's kind of hard to have fun when we're being crushed by unreasonable, unhealthy expectations, whether they're our own or someone else's.

Would That I Could 
I wish there was a magic bullet and I could yell, "SHAZAM!" and make you into an artist with a fabulous sketching habit that you enjoy and engage in on a regular basis. In a perfect world, that's EXACTLY what I would do.

Since we don't live in a perfect world, it becomes necessary to dig out from under the weight of expectation and then kick that pressure we've heaped on ourselves to the curb before we can get to the good stuff.

Can we sketch without dealing with our expectations?

Yep. But how long before you stall out again?

Next up: Setting ourselves fail.

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2 Creative Thought(s)

  1. I’m thoroughly enjoying your sketchbook habit series. My hang up is time, I still haven’t gotten over the feeling that I have to have enough time to make it worthwhile. Of course I seldom find enough time, and I am seldom satisfied with 5 minutes of sketching. I try to challenge myself with short assignments like, how to depict something simple like my apple but I soon get bored.

  2. This is such a great post. I often get caught up in expectations when trying something new or during the learning process. I'm starting to finally "get" that first efforts are usually not that great, but that second, third, fourth (etc.), efforts almost always improve, and sometimes improve a whole lot. Stick with it--it gets better!


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